Outside Looking In
Andrea Tejokusumo, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/25/2012 3:42 PM |
Studying abroad can help Indonesians rediscover their own identity.
When I was younger, I always dreamed of living overseas. This notion might have come straight out of my father’s photo albums, which displayed various sepia-hued pictures of him and his entourage strolling through Hyde Park or among West London’s rows of brick houses, made all the more romantic by the autumn leaves beneath their feet.
Originally from Surabaya, my father lived in London in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, and met my Jakarta-born mother – an architecture student living in Zurich at the time – in a church somewhere in suburban England in 1981.
Their almost surreal meeting got me thinking about how coincidental life could be. Simply leaving the house five minutes late, for instance, exposes us to an infinite set of altered possibilities from bumping into a future spouse to missing a fatal traffic accident to having a bird unknowingly shed its droppings onto our scalp.
If such is the case, surely living in another country, with its own distinct social and cultural dynamics, carries a far larger impact on one’s character and being?
Fajar Anugerah seems to think so. After graduating from Bandung’s Padjadjaran University in 2004, he became involved in a number of NGO and government initiatives focusing on the development and empowerment of communities across Indonesia.
Fajar recalls that, while coordinating psycho-social assessments for UNICEF in post-tsunami Aceh, he became intrigued by the concept of human rights and its implementation in Indonesia, so much so that he applied for a scholarship to do a master’s degree in human rights in the UK.
“It is natural for us to be looking inward, to continuously point out our wrongs and not be easily satisfied with the progress we’ve made so far,” he says. “But the truth is, the state of human rights in Indonesia is still better than in many other countries in the world.”
Yet Fajar is far from promoting complacency.
“When Indonesians speak of human rights, many of us only think about civil and political rights while the other category – that of economic, social and cultural rights – seems to always lag behind in its development, leaving us plenty of room for improvement,” he says.
Despite the shortcomings, Fajar believes Indonesians fare well compared with the rest of the world, especially after having been given the chance to see the differences up close during his experiences abroad.
Pride of Place
I second his opinion. I’ve never considered myself particularly patriotic, but, ironically, while living overseas I developed a sense of understanding of – or pride in, if you will – what it means to be Indonesian.
When my younger brother and I moved to Shanghai last year to study Mandarin, we found there were only a few Indonesians in our school. However, by the end of the term, most of us were at the top of our respective classes.
This not only improved our standing among other international students, but also boosted Indonesia’s reputation among students from such places as Japan, France, Mongolia, Finland and Kazakhstan. It felt great being able to convince our new friends that Indonesia is a richly diverse country well worth a visit on the next leg of their journey.
Living as strangers in a strange land means that, like it or not, we all end up becoming representatives for our country.
Take Jakarta-born entrepreneur Marvel Yan for example, who did his undergraduate degree in New Zealand before moving to Japan for his MBA and later Taiwan for work. He admitted he wasn’t always eager to broadcast to everyone that he was Indonesian.
“Indonesia may not have a particularly good rapport in the eyes of foreigners, but the more visionary ones know better,” says the 28-year-old. “When I was in Taiwan, business experts would widen their eyes whenever I told them I was Indonesian. They would start commenting about our rich land and resources, as well as the huge size of our domestic market.”
Marvel believes that his two years of working in Taipei and Kaohsiung encouraged him to become more competitive and not to be laid back even when returning home to Jakarta.
“I guess when a group of people live surrounded by economically advanced neighbors – not to mention limited resources and confronting ideologies – you have little choice but to keep moving in order not to lose out in the competition,” he says, pointing out the obvious differences in the pace of life between cultures in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, Marvel notes, those seeking to study abroad should seriously consider the kind of society they’re moving to: “You’re not just applying for a particular subject in a particular university. The place you want to go for your study also needs to resonate well with your aspirations.”
Those with a penchant for business, for example, might benefit more by heading straight to economic hubs of the world such as the United States, Singapore or China. Conversely, those wishing to delve into arts and design might consider moving to the creative hearts of Japan or South Korea.
As for me, I went to the UK in 2002 not only to follow in my father’s footsteps but also to gain the skills and credentials of a bilingual writer-journalist. My most vivid memory of studying there is of the weekly essays we wrote as part of my journalism course, discussing various philosophical, political and socioeconomic issues that most Indonesian youths have never been properly exposed to (communism and anarchy, anyone?).
Compare and Contrast
Ultimately, though, it was what happened out of class that gave me the chance to compare and contrast the realities out there to our own back home.
Andrias Soesilo, UK Education Manager at the British Council, said he learned a lot while doing his master’s degree at London’s Middlesex University.
“Most Indonesian students, myself included, are probably familiar with Sistem Kebut Semalam in which you cram everything the very last night before a big exam or a project is due,” he says. “However, since my marketing course involved analysis of case studies and critical thinking, it was just too complex to leave to the very last minute.”
Andrias says that as the only Indonesian in a class of about 30 students, he always took care to keep up appearances, especially in modules that required delivering presentations and working in groups.
“Principally I’m still the same person I was before studying abroad. But I’m glad I went abroad to see how different people tackled problems in different ways,” he says.
I once asked my brother Alvin if he would have been a different person if he hadn’t gone to Australia to study. He honestly said he didn’t know, because he didn’t have a benchmark with which to compare what was and could have been.
Yet I believe he would agree with me that if we hadn’t gone in the first place, we would never have known what we were missing.