Teaching American History in Indonesia
David M. Esposito, April 1998
What can you say about teaching U.S. history in a country that most Americans cannot find on a map, a country where "yes" means no, and the word for "water" is spelled "a-i-r"? You can say the Republic of Indonesia is the fourth largest country on earth, the largest Muslim community in the world, and has had, until recently, a rapidly developing economy. Its badminton team won Olympic gold in Atlanta. Its Catholic archbishop won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. One of its billionaires sent large donations to a U.S. presidential candidate. Riots, a volcanic eruption, and a gold-mine swindle all made international news. I was in the Republic of Indonesia from September 1996 to July 1997 as a senior Fulbright fellow. I taught American studies for the English department of the Fakultas Sastra (faculty of letters) at the Universitas Diponegoro (UNDIP) in Semarang on the island of Java. Primarily I taught American history, although I also taught political science and English language, among other things. As the only native speaker of American English on a campus of 15,000 students, faculty, and staff, I wore several hats. Looking back, I realize that I never had a job where I was so useful. It was quite humbling.
My assignment was fortuitous. On the one hand, Java is considerably more developed than most of Indonesia's 13,000 islands. Semarang is an industrial port city of two million people and possesses most of the requisite infrastructure: supermarkets, roads, electricity, phone service, and Internet access. On the other hand, Java is the most densely populated piece of real estate on this planet. Wherever I went, day or night, there were people out and about. Privacy is not the cherished virtue there that it is in the United States. Indeed, there is no equivalent word in bahasa Indonesia (the national language) for "privacy." There were so few expatriate foreigners there (200 in a city of 2 million) that locals gaped at us when we walked down the street. Despite its idiosyncrasies, Semarang was considerably less hectic, crowded, and polluted than Jakarta, the capital city.
The Universitas Diponegoro was a state university run by the central government. Most big colleges in Indonesia are state schools, although there are many smaller, private religious schools. The educational quality varies. The local teachers college had a superlative English program. It had two U.S.-trained PhDs and a Canadian missionary on staff; all were great teachers. The university had only three PhDs among its entire faculty, and none in the English department. Thus my doctorate made a much bigger impression abroad than it ever did at home. The sign over my office door read "Ruang Guru Besar," Office of the Big Teacher. I worked at UNDIP because it had the only American studies program open to undergraduates in Indonesia.
The biggest challenges for an American professor teaching in Indonesia are the unfamiliar nature of Javanese culture and Islam. It's hard to say which was predominant. Obviously they influenced each other over a cycle of centuries; disaggregating one from the other is a hopeless task. My colleagues were unfailingly polite. They were so agreeable in fact, that one or two made promises they could not possibly fulfill. For example, I asked my "co-op" (the local teacher who was my main contact and with whom I worked closely) if he could help translate for me in dealing with some local officials the next day. He cheerfully agreed. The next day, however, he was nowhere to be found. It turns out he had an appointment far out of town scheduled long in advance. He had not forgotten about it when talking to me, he just could not bring himself to say no when I asked him for a favor. In addition, Javanese smile at times westerners would consider wildly inappropriate, such as the time my good friend the dean introduced me, with a huge grin, to one of his colleagues and added, "His wife just died of cancer." The professor's smile was even larger than the dean's. Their smiles, of course, were not out of some secret mirth at the lady's demise, but rather the way Indonesians deal with grief, anger, and pain. It took some getting used to.
Perhaps the most remarkable cultural element was the national obsession with skin color. Their word for Caucasian is "bule" which means albino. People—including my colleagues—used it without rancor; it was not an insult. Many times people would touch my skin and say, "putih" (white). Then they would touch their own and say "hitam" (black). Because I never met an Indonesian who was really black, I politely corrected these individuals by touching them back and saying "coklat muda" (light brown), because that was much closer to the truth. As for all the touching, Indonesians tolerate a level of same-sex contact far beyond what Americans are used to. It was not at all unusual to see two men walking down the street with their arms around each other or women walking through the mall, hand in hand. However, public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon. In addition, Indonesian society is violently intolerant of homosexuality, which is illegal there. The only gay characters on TV are unglamorous transvestites who are the object of scorn and frequent physical abuse.
Life in Semarang for a visiting professor was very good. Money usually went a long way. I rented a house (four bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, garage, TV/dining room) for $200 dollars a month. I also hired a maid, since she came with the place, for $40 dollars a month. If this sounds like slavery—and it did to me—most domestics there got paid even less, especially by fellow Indonesians. Both lunch and dinner were catered, for $1.50 and $2.00 a day. One day I came upon three of my students having lunch at a small establishment across the street from school. I sat down and talked with them and when the check came, I picked it up. Lunch for three, with beverage, came to a little more than a dollar. At that rate, I could afford to be magnanimous. On the other hand, some things were very expensive. I could not, for example, afford a car, so I bought a motorcycle. International calls to family and friends were a major portion of my monthly budget.
The most pleasing educational experience was teaching English classes in my own neighborhood. From the day I moved in, I was something of a local celebrity. I was the only expat in my kampung (village). The neighborhood children, my "fan club," used to applaud every time I walked out the door. I returned the favor by securing access to the neighborhood schoolroom and teaching English to the local kids once a week. Classes petered out after a couple of months when the novelty wore off and the children realized it was work and stopped coming. But it was fun while it lasted. I especially enjoyed bringing my friend Kate to teach. She was a Canadian marine biologist doing aquatic research. Her assignment did not include teaching, and she jumped at the chance. The students had never met a foreign woman before, certainly not one who was an honest-to-God scientist. It really impressed them, and Kate enjoyed the experience thoroughly.
Teaching at the university presented several unique challenges. Before I arrived, I wanted to know what exactly the university wanted me to teach. I had written a proposal, of course, but "economic, social, and political aspects of American society" does not a syllabus make. Alas, my department did not have e-mail. They explained their needs in detail only after I arrived. Fortunately, before I got to Indonesia, the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars sent me a detailed booklet on teaching in Indonesia, as well as a stack of after-action reports written by previous Fulbrighters. These provided a wealth of detail about the academic environment in-country. I found their observations validated by experience.
On the first day in Semarang, I sat down with the "secretaries" of the various English subdepartments. I had no objection, because everybody knows who really runs academic departments in universities at home. It was hard to tell exactly who was who because everyone was in the same uniform. As a state university, all administrators, faculty, and staff were central government employees and thus had to wear the "safari suit." School children wore uniforms too: elementary school (red), middle school (blue), and high school (gray). College students did not wear uniforms but dressed nicely: shirts with collars, slacks, and dress shoes. Very few dressed in the "uniform" of the American college student: T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. It quickly became obvious that the "secretaries" were not staff assistants, but in fact department heads who reported directly to the dean. I figured this out without making a fool of myself, thank goodness. Then we defined my responsibilities: team-teaching classes in American studies and American literature, working with the D-3 diploma program (similar to an associate degree), helping graduating majors with their senior theses, and assisting the Service English Unit (SEU). The SEU was an independent entity that helped faculty and staff work on their English skills.
Although the faculty of letters included both the Indonesian language and history departments, I had limited contact with either department. I could add nothing to their knowledge of their own tongue, and the history faculty focused primarily on the region's nautical history. After one session with the historians, we realized our interests did not coincide. However, I did hold seminars for the departments of urban planning, architectural engineering, and political science. The political science students were particularly lively and asked many penetrating questions about current U.S. foreign policy. They were especially interested in America's support for Israel, hostility to Saddam Hussein, and criticism of Indonesia's human rights record. Before I replied, I noted that I was merely an American citizen, not an official representative of the U.S. government, and that I was giving them my personal opinion. My answers surprised them. Because of their limited contact with the outside world, they had never considered questions from any perspective but their own. American youth can be pretty parochial, but they are used to hearing a variety of viewpoints. Indonesians have considerably fewer sources of information and opinion.
Teaching was on a first-name basis. Students call their instructors "Ibu" (mother) or "Pak" (father). I was Pak David, certainly not something I would let my students call me at home. These titles were an insight into the legacy of Javanese patriarchy and feudalism that still dominates their language and society. Students are addressed by their first name, which sometimes had its lighter moments. My favorite student name was "Merry Christmastuti."
School facilities were usually good. One classroom I used had air-conditioning, the other did not. Class size was about 40 students. Classes ran for about two hours, considerably longer than at home. The schedule called for an early start (the first class was at 7:00 a.m.). There was a break during the heat of the day, and classes resumed at 3:00 p.m. There were classes on Saturday also. Many of my colleagues taught at several different schools or gave private lessons off campus to make ends meet. They had no time for research or professional activity. My friends were disappointed to hear that hiring part-timers for peanuts seems to be catching on with American schools.
The opportunities for research were limited. The dean explained that any proposal, even mine, had to be formally reviewed by the Ministry of Education and Culture. I realized instantly why Indonesian universities were not hotbeds of political agitation and dissent. Between working several jobs, being national government employees, and having their work analyzed by bureaucrats, Indonesian scholars had little freedom for independent action. I wanted to research the impact of the Japanese occupation on central Java during World War II. To do so, I proposed hiring a bilingual graduate assistant to interview survivors of the period. I hit a brick wall. Alas, because of upcoming elections, no research would be permitted from January to May. I told the dean that my work had nothing to do with current politics. He agreed, but replied that the ministry would not approve it. I never understood what academic freedom meant until that moment. I decided to focus on teaching for the remainder of my stay.
Team-teaching in Indonesia is unique. On my first day of classes I reported to my classroom to find neither my co-op nor my students present. I checked my assignment. I was in the right room, correct day and time. After a few minutes, students began to drift in. Twenty minutes after class was scheduled to begin, my co-op arrived. This happened every day for the rest of the semester. The phenomenon is called "jam karet" which means "rubber time." As the dean explained one day when he made us two hours late getting to a colleague's wedding, "Indonesians are not ruled by time, Indonesians rule time." I kept my opinion on the virtue of punctuality to myself, but arrived on time for all scheduled classes and meetings.
My usual method of teaching is Socratic dialogue. I like to ask a lot of questions and let the students come up with their own answers. American students hate this method, and Indonesian students had difficulty cooperating. Of course, the language barrier was a serious problem. I spoke no bahasa Indonesia when I arrived, and never learned enough to teach comfortably. However, I was not required to learn the language and courses were supposed to be taught in English. I learned to speak very s-l-o-w-l-y and to avoid colorful idiomatic expressions. Even then, students were reluctant to respond, even to yes or no questions. Their society lauds consensus and disapproves independent thought. Moreover, their society views authority as coming from above. The teacher is expected to supply answers, not ask questions. Students were averse to demonstrate knowledge lest they be accused of showing off by their classmates. To their credit, they were very curious and asked a lot of good questions after a little encouragement. I modified my method to work with their strengths.
My colleague who taught American literature was a gem. Her English was the best among the faculty. She was always on time and was organized and enthusiastic. We worked well together. She taught the text to the class, and I put it in historical context. She met me before every class to discuss the next day's lesson. After class, we would get together again to review what had been accomplished and plan what we would do next time. Unlike some other teachers, she gave her students a detailed syllabus on the first day of class. Even though her students found it challenging, she always spoke to them in English. She reminded them that they were upper-division English majors and that she was teaching an English class. She would add that the rest of the world did not, alas, speak bahasa Indonesia, and that for better or worse right now the de facto international language was English. She refused to make it easy for them. I often wished all teachers at home and abroad were equally professional.
Most of my Indonesian colleagues were good teachers, and some were great; a few were just punching the clock. This is probably true in any department, anywhere in the world. I recall one time when I was interviewing for a position with the chair of a famous liberal arts college and wanted to gauge the size of the department. I asked him how many professors worked there. He replied, with an impish grin, "About half."
I also enjoyed working one-on-one with the seniors who were writing their theses. I liked helping students put their work into historical context and explaining the subtleties of American society. They almost always had superlative English skills and were working on interesting projects. It gave me a chance to read various classics I had wanted to read, but had usually managed to avoid, as an undergraduate. I became intimately familiar with the works of Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I returned from Christmas vacation in the States, I brought an entire suitcase of paperback books, graciously donated by the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Women, to augment the limited resources of the university library. The shipment included the works of contemporary authors such as Alice Walker, Anne Rice, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton. It was not all great literature, but the students appreciated getting their hands on works that were otherwise not available in Indonesia. In a country where the per capita income averages $1,000 a year, $10 for a paperback is exorbitant.
To accommodate the undergraduates, I gave take-home examinations. This proved to be a disaster. What Americans call plagiarism, Indonesian students view as standard operating procedure. In one class of 40, every student answered the essay question by opening the textbook and quoting long passages verbatim without citation. Some of my colleagues actually encouraged this practice. Knowing this beforehand, I had explained in detail what I expected of them. I handed back the exams without grades and told them they had to rewrite their answers in their own words, citing only brief quotations from the text. The language barrier was never more apparent than when students thought in their national tongue and translated it into English. English tends to be very direct: subject, verb, object. Indonesian tends to be discursive, abstruse, self-referential, indirect, and subtle. Because language determines not only expression, but also the way people think, it was often challenging to follow their line of reasoning. My problem was that their logic was not Western and linear. Their redone exams were painful to read, but I appreciated the effort they made. Paradoxically, the worse the prose, the more likely it was original work, and thus the better the grade. One wrote, for example, "There are many kinds of prejudice and discrimination depending on the base of them" or "despite of their painstakingly effort to diminish the strong refusal of the white people to see them objectively." This is awkward English, but works very well in Indonesian. I had to transcend my own mental habits to appreciate their characteristic expression. At the same time, I realized why they often viewed foreigners as uncouth. We said what was on our minds much too directly.
In April 1997 Indonesia held national elections. Students were very interested to hear my ideas about their political system. By then, I had many firm opinions on the subject, but my replies were positively Javanese. I explained that I was a visitor and had no right or interest in telling them how to run their country. My expertise was American history, society, and culture. Naturally I wanted to learn more, so I asked them to tell me about what was going on. The furthest I ever went into political matters was to explain the U.S. political system and ask them to identify the contrasts. I especially enjoyed discussing the Bill of Rights in terms of freedoms of the press, speech, and assembly. They noted that Indonesia did not have those freedoms. They were particularly aghast when I mentioned that I disagreed with President Clinton on various policy issues. In Indonesia anything that might be construed as criticism of their president could result in jail time. Challenging the national ideology of Pancasila can bring the death penalty. I assured my listeners that I would never consider doing either, but as an American it was my right to criticize my government and its leaders whether anybody liked it or not. I enjoyed being mildly subversive, but I really was afraid that if I got my students too worked up they might go out and get killed. I considered it a personal victory that none of my students died in the so-called festival of democracy.
The greatest satisfaction of teaching American history abroad is explaining the unique nature of American society and culture to those who have never experienced it. The students' knowledge of our popular culture was encyclopedic, but their understanding of movements, trends, and changes over time was quite limited. In a way, they were like U.S. students who come to college with a superficial understanding of their heritage. American kids come to school thinking they know it all, whereas the Indonesians were aware that most of this was new to them. "What is an American?" is a question I have often asked my students. Identifying those characteristics was just as challenging at home as abroad. Of course, growing up inside the culture, American students imbibe a lot of images and have a context that foreign students do not. On the other hand, as outsiders, the Indonesians saw things from a unique perspective. They were disturbed by our social pathologies: crime, alcohol and drug use, illegitimacy, and the breakdown of the family, even as they envied and admired our progress and prosperity. I did what I could to explain why things are the way they are in the United States, without necessarily justifying them. What they admired most was not our wealth and power, but the hard-won personal freedoms that most Americans take for granted. Those rights never meant as much to me as they did working in a country that has not yet fully achieved them.
If it sounds as if I am critical of Indonesia, I am, in a friendly sort of way. If I appear more comfortable with my own society and its idiosyncrasies, it is true; I know what I am used to. Fortunately, I was aware of my biases from the beginning, and tried to compensate for them. Indonesia is an ancient civilization and a new country. It has only been independent for about 50 years and its people suffer from a kind of national inferiority complex. Their enthusiasm for everything Western—from baseball caps and blue jeans to MTV, Michael Jordan, and Madonna—was unbounded. There is more to admire about their society than most Indonesians realize. Indonesia is a beautiful country. The best thing about it is its people, who are sweet and unfailingly kind to foreigners. I was a stranger in a strange land, 10,000 miles from home, and they treated me like family.
In my 10 months overseas I learned a lot about Indonesia, its people, economy, government, and society. Quite unexpectedly, I also learned important things about my country and myself. The Fulbright program was initiated over 50 years ago to promote world peace by teaching citizens of other countries about the United States, and by learning more about the world beyond our borders. The benefits of such a program are remote, subtle, and indirect. I would like to believe that the students I worked with gained a deeper comprehension of American society and culture. Some of them may go on to hold significant positions in Indonesian society, economy, or government. If their under standing of our society has been enhanced, as mine was, and that of my students will be regarding Indonesia, then it was time and money well spent. I think of it as an investment in our future living together on this shrinking planet. Given a chance, I would go back again.
—David M. Esposito teaches history at Penn State University at Altoona. He specializes in 20th-century U.S. poltiical and diplomatic history. His publications include The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson (1996) and Leadership in Engineering (1998).