Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jokowi's Medok Java-English vs. My American English

In the 2014 APEC meeting, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, the newly appointed Indonesian president, pitched Indonesia as an attractive site for future investment in English. Jokowi paced himself; referred to a simple, yet informative PowerPoint presentation; and took things one step at a time. He appealed to his audience, who were not native English speaker. He appealed to the primary school students who were learning English. And he appealed to Indonesians. Personally, he appealed to a part of me that feels conflicted about being fluent in English.

Though he received a standing ovation from the CEOs and heads of states which were present at the session, viewers on YouTube, many of whom are Indonesians, ridiculed his English. Some have dubbed his style as Java-English, which entails a medok* pronunciation style common amongst "Javanese" people.

A glimpse of Jakarta

A debate ensued over social media and in the wider net. The debate was two-folds: 1) Jokowi's accent and 2) Jokowi's broken English.

Written in London on November 25, 2014 at 9:34 AM, this article may seem outdated, especially in an era of constant publishing. However, let's backtrack for a sec. For the past two weeks, I've been trying to dig up this well of thoughts and debates on Jokowi's speech. When the recording first aired on YouTube, friends and family bombarded Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) with it. Major Indonesian online publications, detik.com and beritasatu.com produced short snippets on the milestone, as well as people's responses. Instead of discussing the content of his presentation, everyone raved over his fluency or lack thereof in the English language.

After receiving numerous reminders (and running out of other YouTube videos), I watched the recording. To say that the thirteen minute clip felt like an emotional roller coaster ride is an understatement. First came anxiety, then laughter, followed by pride, confusion and a whole mix of other responses. I felt like a parent, a team mate, and a child at the same time. His promises did not sound empty, nor did it cause unnecessary euphoria to invest in my own country more heavily that I had.

Moments later, I snapped out of the trance and placed the video into the emerging framework on his linguistic performance. Like one-half of viewers, I laughed at his medok-ness and accent. Like the other half, I was proud to see him successfully go through the entire ordeal without a script in hand.

I guess, both parts of the debate did not occupy as much of my attention as it did others. What bothered me was the difference between Jokowi and I. Ego dominated my perspective of the debate. Ego made me question whether his broken English or my near native American English bore more benefits.

What makes one an Indonesian?

What is in an accent? And what does it mean to be "accentless"? 
Yesterday, in a class on Human Resources, students were paired randomly to conduct a negotiation simulation. When the teacher motioned to the Chinese girl in front of me that she and I would be a pair, my new partner looked surprised. Her expression could be interpreted as either disgust or intimidation, none of which comforted me. Minutes later she would confess that her mouth dropped because she was afraid to negotiate with me due to my ability to speak English. She was scared that she would not be able to keep up.

To be honest, the incident catapulted me to write a culmination of weeks worth of thoughts in this article.

While Jokowi was ridiculed for his pronunciation, he embodied most Indonesians who struggled with English. He was more similar to the rest of the nation than I was. Grossly speaking, in terms of the (in)ability to speak English, he was more Indonesian than I was.

Sitting in a class full of people from different parts of the world with different accents and living in London demonstrated how accents indicated ones origin. Hence, many a times, people have mistaken me as American.

Of course, there were several possible explanations: 1) the American accent is much more noticeable than an Indonesian accent; yet 2)instead of one accent, we have multiple depending on geographic origin, kinship, and time spent in one particular area; but then again 3) these accents were not very recognizable.

Accents are assets in an ever globalized world. As we move further and further away from our roots, we rely on basic characteristics to find our place in the larger schema. When communicating, however, we walk a thin line of being understandable and authentic. Certain accents are more clear than others, depending on the audience. For instance, in primary school, most of my friends preferred American English teachers than Brits.

Find your roots

Can Indonesians be fluent in English?
One could also argue that an individual's accent is often what is left after he/she conquers the grammar, structure and rules of another language. Here's where the broken English debate comes in. During the presentation, Jokowi made minor mistakes, much less than expected from a man who never studied or lived abroad and was speaking without text. At the very least, Jokowi is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, the country's national language, as well as in Javanese, the native language of Surakarta where he grew up and subsequently became governor.

The debate on English vs. Bahasa Indonesia has been a hot topic for the past few years. In 2012, the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture seized English as a mandatory class in the national curriculum for primary schools, in order to make room for more classes on religion and civics. On the other hand, many upper-class Indonesian students are unable to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia, let alone Bahasa Indonesia Baku or proper Bahasa Indonesia.

An in-betweener from primary school to high school, I achieved average test scores in Bahasa Indonesia and excelled in English. Unlike most of my cousins, I am able to speak, read, write, and listen in Bahasa Indonesia. However, there is no denying that I find writing in English much easier than in my own native tongue.

My fluency in English has helped me achieve various accolades, from writing and newscasting competitions to graduating from a writing-intensive school in the U.S. and being an editor in several online publications. It has allowed me to create relationships with people from different parts of the world freely, without feeling insecure about my English-speaking abilities. Being a fluent English speaker has also given me opportunities that only made me appreciate and want to contribute to Indonesia even more. At the same time it has somewhat distanced me from my own country. Whenever I try to contribute, be it by speaking to high school students or working with local theatre organizations, I feel condescending, I feel like (what I would imagine) foreigners do to Indonesians, I feel like an outsider.

Unlike Jokowi, a man who is building a home for the people he represents politically and characteristically, I doubt that I represent the people who I am reaching my hands to. The very ability that equipped me with the necessary tools to join in on the movement to renew Indonesia has shunned me from it. And that is an internal conflict that begs to be entertained regularly. Sometimes I even wonder if Soekarno, who spoke several European languages in addition to Bahasa Indonesia, felt the same way.

Fortunately, similar to other large nations, Indonesians are not easy to represent due to its diverse language, culture and characteristics. Perhaps this is the loophole that Indonesia's founding fathers, men who communicated in Dutch and were educated in Hogere Burgerschool (HBS), used when they created Republik Indonesia.

As you can see, much can be dug up from a thirteen-minute clip. As Jokowi presented Indonesia as an attractive investment site, he represented the Indonesian potential. In Indonesia nothing is truly set in stone. Nothing is universally and definitively right or wrong. Indonesia's diversity allows for different perspectives and experiences. Much of which are left undocumented and unheard. Right now, I just feel relieved that I did not think of this question sooner in the month: if Jokowi represented Indonesians with his medok Java-English and I have an American English accent, is he representing me and my peers? Hmm... now, that's something to think about!

*Medok means that one's local accent is very noticeable.

All photos were supplied by the author.

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