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Does an Indonesian who doesn't speak the language belong in the country?

Ezaridho Ibnutama
Ezaridho Ibnutama

Majors in chemistry, but also loves writing and reading

Jakarta  /  Thu, November 30, 2017  /  02:39 pm
Does an Indonesian who doesn't speak the language belong in the country?

But at a young age, I remember the English language being instilled more than Indonesian.  (Shutterstock/File)

The first memory I have was when I woke up in my crib, and from the nursery I went downstairs to my mother’s room. Although I don’t remember what I said, I remembered we spoke with each other mostly in English. My mother was not a foreigner nor were my grandparents. She was fully Indonesian.

But at a young age, I remember the English language being instilled more than Indonesian.

My family did not live in an English-speaking country nor did my family have a higher proficiency in English than Indonesian. Yet I was taught to learn English and was sent to English-speaking schools to cement English as my primary language.

I do not know why my parents chose to do this, whether the choice was based economically or educationally. But the deed was done, and now, I go to restaurants and to shops speaking in choppy Indonesian or hearing choppy English from the staff. The staff regularly look at me as an oddball. “Sombong [snob],” the staff whisper to themselves.

It does help that I look a bit foreign to prevent it from happening every time. But those who can see a true Indonesian a mile away raise their eyebrows whenever we open dialogue. I try to respond in my choppy Indonesian, but they giggle under their breath, which always makes me red from both embarrassment and frustration. I have adopted a foreign accent, many say.

Read also: Open-hearted confession from a 'former' Indonesian

The language barrier between my culture and me has also created a bubble of my own. I have always been interested in this country’s history – both recent and ancient. There is as much folklore as there are cultures, which can span to the hundreds or thousands.

But every book I have read about my culture has always been in English. And they are all written from outside perspectives. It is difficult to find locally translated books that discuss my country’s culture and my country’s history.

I sometimes feel extremely isolated whenever I come home to my country, because of this language barrier. And I feel that many Indonesians who live in the urban centers also feel this invisible wall that prevents clear communication.

My struggle to actually learn about my heritage is not because I follow nationalistic philosophies (far from it). I jump through the hoops of studying my heritage because of the increasing disinterest in the country’s culture among our young people. Our people, having little spending power, have become more and more consumerist. And with the importation of foreign entertainment and media, there are clear signs that point to our own traditions dying as a result of our future citizens becoming more akin to other cultures. Religion has also taken over (and somewhat obstructed) the country’s cultural evolution; this has been met with ambivalent responses.

I believe that cultural textbooks from local perspectives need to be more prevalently translated for the growing number of young people who are unable to connect and to understand their own country’s culture and language.

Surprisingly, there was recently an interview focusing on an Australian couple who are actors in a theatrical production of an Indonesian legend. The couple’s Indonesian was choppy as well. But the thing that shocked me was that they showed an interest in Indonesian culture and were willing to share a foreign culture with a large audience.

The conservation and dissemination of Indonesian culture was not done by locals but by foreigners who were genuinely passionate about the country’s history.  The sad truth is that I am more inclined to believe that the traditions of Indonesia will be mostly protected and performed by foreigners.

My attitude to Indonesian culture is neither one of disdain nor of embarrassment, but disdain and embarrassment are emotions that I feel about how locals have sidelined culture to make way for the shallow economic and scientific progress of our country. They are ignoring the important fact that culture can be capitalized to attract tourists and foreign investors to come to the country. But with Indonesian cultural buildings being replaced by giant luxury shopping malls, are other young people supporting this replacement or do they oppose it?

Although I have become a pariah in my own country because of my primary language, there is no reason for me to despise my own heritage – despite many others claiming that I do. And when I try to explain this to whomever I come across, they instantly raise their eyebrows because they do not understand my choppy Indonesian. (kes)


Ezaridho Ibnutama majors in chemistry, but also loves writing and reading. A book lover who counts Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' as a favorite, Ezar describes himself as a cinephile.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.