Positive news - In-Country Indonesian Language Studies

[Originally written 20 February 2006 for GEMA KITA,
newsletter of the Australia-Indonesia Community of the Sunshine Coast.]

Indonesian language studies all over Australia at all levels have
suffered a decline in the last decade. So many reasons can be put forward:
the economic crisis of 1997, turmoil following the demise of Suharto, inter-
ethnic strife, the East Timor crisis (when Australia re-found its conscience
after 25 years), an Australian government which depicts many foreigners as
threatening "queue jumpers" or terrorists, anti-Muslim feeling because of
the two Bali Bombings, the compassion following the tsunami then marred so
soon by the Corby Case and other drug smuggling or possession cases. Even
the Bird Flu can cause unease between some Australians and some Indonesians.

At all Australian universities numbers of students wanting to take Indonesian
language studies has plummeted in the last decade. Some universities and
schools have chopped Indonesian altogether.

Well, I am happy to bring some positive news. As far as I am aware, the only
university in Australia that officially supported its students travelling to
and studying in Indonesia for a short intensive program this January -
February was the University of the Sunshine Coast. This was carefully
considered by senior staff at the university and every precaution taken to
ensure that a rapid evacuation would be possible in case of strife.

Strangely, when you are on the ground in Lombok, walking the streets,
sitting in cafes, talking with people so enthusiastic about meeting
foreigners, especially those who can speak Indonesian, Alexander Downer's
Travel Warnings just seem ridiculous. (But clearly, having been caught
napping by the 2002 bombings, governments of both countries must be on the alert).

My friends Ami (a Hindu uni student) and Nita (her best friend, a Muslim who
has started in a bank recently) called soon after I arrived. These two
independent little misses zipping around on their scooters always remind me
of a pair of the swallows you see swooping above rice fields. The swallows
don't care what name you give to God, either.

I see everywhere in Lombok signs of inter-faith harmony. On the morning of
Idul Adha (Day of Sacrifice), I was talking to a senior policeman standing
guard near the governor's palace where about 50000 devout Muslims were
gathered for communal prayer. I guessed by his name he was of Bali-Hindu
extraction. "We all are, all these police are Hindu or Christian. When we
have a big festival, the Muslims come and provide security," he said, and
invited me to his house some time.

Later that morning, a bunch of us were guests at a state high school (SMA1)
where goats were sacrificed and the meat distributed among the poor. We
spoke to one of the religious education teachers, a Muslim. He told us with
pride that every Friday when his students go to prayer and sermons in class
and then to the mosque at midday, the Hindus go out to temples and the
Christians have a pastor come in to give lessons. There was real pride in
the multiculturalism of the school.

One day, student Greg and I were wandering down a laneway as you do, not far
from the pearl selling shops, peering over Balinese walls. The lane came out
near some ricefields. Two elderly gents gave us a quizzical look and were
very relieved to find we spoke Indonesian. We had a great old chat with these
two best mates, one Hindu, one Muslim. The Hindu one explained in detail how you make red rice wine
(tuak) from the flower stem of the aren palm behind him. You have to beat it
to get the sap out and then ferment it. The Muslim man didn't drink alcohol,
probably, but his friend's delight in making palm-wine didn't disturb him.

We enjoyed six weeks of study at the Language Centre, going out many
afternoons or evenings to special performances, traditional markets or
exhibitions. The students visited the museum, they saw a modern drama,
learned dance and gamelan from a wonderfully talented Hindu family. They
surfed at Kuta in the south and travelled through monkey forests to the dry
far north to see cashew plantations and pumice stone quarrying and stunning
waterfalls. They had presentations from The Sasak Society Alliance who wish
to preserve traditional knowledge and manners despite the onslaught of
modern media and also a wonderful illustrated talk from the Dean of
Agriculture, Professor Parman. Most students stayed in homestays or student
boarding houses so as to speak Indonesian outside class as much as possible
and make friends.

Then, just as we were approaching the end of a highly successful program, the
protests about offensive Danish cartoons again got the world media in a
frenzy and again the Muslim world seemed to be set against the West. Richard
Curtis from Darwin took over as resident director after three weeks. He
reported that there was much overt anger in Java (Jakarta, Semarang and
Surabaya in particular) where his wife originates. Lombok stayed calm and public attitudes towards
westerners remained friendly as usual. However, Richard advised students to
be more cautious than usual, go ahead with the exams Saturday morning as
arranged and then go home to Australia.

Let's not whitewash the few negatives. A couple of girls got wallets
pinched. Some others had things stolen from their rooms by servants. One boy
got an allergic rash, cleared up in a day by the uni clinic doctor. A girl got a foot infection from
a fall at the waterfall. Hospital trip got her fixed. One middle aged man
had a three day flu and several got a touch of gastro in week 6. One girl -
who would not listen to advice to cover her womanly beauty - got a more
affectionate cuddle one day from a homeless man than she wanted.

Thankfully, all completed the course and came home safely to their loved
ones with magnificent memories and nothing worse than some healthy culture
shock to add to their CV.

Dr Phillip Mahnken
Coordinator of Languages
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of the Sunshine Coast

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