Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Et tu, Indo?

The three of us who were removed from Magelang and Jogja last week headed out about 5 a.m. Wednesday for a breakneck, Jakarta sunrise cab ride to the handsome University of Indonesia campus on the city's south side. There we joined a line of ticket-holders that eventually grew to 6,000, according to local press reports. We waited and waited, up toward the front of that line, and then we moved a little and then waited some more.

Gates were supposed to open at 6:30 a.m. but nobody seriously thought that was going to happen. By 8 a.m., after the morning sun was up nice and hot and we were all feeling it, squeezed against one another and sweating through our shirts in a kind of human cattle chute, the Secret Service had erected their magnetometers and the Indonesian security guys finally began thinking how they'd manage to get us all to the metal detectors in an orderly fashion. Their solution? A line of young guys in navy BDUs stood at the very front of the mob with their backs to us ... holding hands. Nobody was allowed to break their arm chain, and they let about 15 people through at a time. Behind the arm chain, several thousand high school and college students pressed against the people in front of them, trying to get the line surged forward. The guy behind me at one point put both elbows into my upper back and just threw all his weight into it. I lurched forward and got my feet, then turned to say, Back off. As I spun around, he retreated. Oh, sorry, he said. Sure, Mas, that makes it totally OK.

We finally got waved through the arm-chain and then it was smooth sailing. The Secret Service guy who took my camera and wallet and gave them a serious looking-over grunted when I said, Good morning. Further inside an American guy in security-detail-garb asked where we were from. Chicago. (You're a long way from home!) Michigan. Maine. How about you? Los Angeles. Been here six years and wouldn't leave. A local rent-a-guard, I guess.

We squeezed up some polished tile stairs--honestly, almost any surface that could be tiled here has been--and made our way into an auditorium that may share an architect with the UIC Pavilion. Cement pillars, tile everything, a mix of wood- and fiberglass-backed seats. On the floor, more comfortable chairs for a higher class of spectator. As the crowd filed slowly into the upper level of the building--almost all of them students and teacher chaperones--a cheer went up from down on the floor. Former Indonesian President BJ Habibie had found his seat and as the crowd rose to cheer him, he popped up with a camcorder and began filming his admirers. This was the most exciting moment of the pre-speech scene. Several dozen air-conditioning units worked hard to keep the place only slightly uncomfortable, and David Axelrod could be observed walking the main floor and jawing with a couple reporters near their generously-sized pen. Indonesian pop music sounded quietly from the sound system, and we all waited for something to happen.

When Obama finally arrived on the stage it was with little warning. No openers, just an announcer saying, Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States ... . Obama was on the stage and approaching the podium before any serious cheer went up; it finally came in a shriek--high and piercing, but awfully short. No real standing-o, no sustained rock star welcome from the siswa and mahasiswa--students and college students--in the front rows or in the rafters. I was expecting more and prolonged noise--we'd all waited several hours in line for this, and Indonesia has waited through three earlier cancelations of Obama's visit--but this was a muted hero's welcome. Everyone was pretty quickly back in their seats and ready to listen as Obama recalled the story of his four years in Indonesia as a boy during the late 1960s.

Interestingly, the examples in his speech about the physical differences in Jakarta between that time and now, including the names of specific buildings he remembers from his childhood, were exactly the same as those mentioned in a New York Times story yesterday anticipating the speech. (The story also correctly forecast Obama's calls on Indonesia to help bridge the U.S./Muslim world divide.) Maybe all of the childhood memory stuff was lifted from Dreams of My Father--I don't honestly remember those details from the book--or maybe the Times's reporters are just clairvoyant. But having read the newspaper piece before hopping in the cab and then listening to Obama basically tell the Times's story from the stage, I felt decidedly like a bystander. Oh, this story's already been cycled out of the news today. We're hearing the speech in a kind of past-tense; the important stuff is already out there, and everyone in the room but us is already thinking about Korea. What's left is Obama pleasing a crowd that clearly isn't following his English by sprinkling in a few pinches of Indonesian. The kids especially liked it when he said how much he liked Indo satay and meatball soup. They cheered loudly when he said good morning, or selamat pagi. They laughed it up when he said that in visiting Jakarta he was coming home, pulang kampung nih! The only off note came when Obama invoked Indonesia's founding philosophy of democracy, unity and religious freedom: Pancasila. The "c" in that word, like all "c"s here, is pronounced as "ch": Pan-cha-si-la. Obama booted it, though, pronouncing it, "Pan-kah-si-la." This is how any normal American would do say it but Obama Spent Four Years in Jakarta, and many of the students in the stands with me spent the better part of a minute whispering about what they'd just heard.

From my seat, Obama gave a friendly, workmanlike speech that seemed a little flat and surprisingly detail-free in places, inside a room that was so quiet at times that I couldn't help but feel his star wattage dimmed. Maybe it was a language issue, or maybe it was a cultural thing. Clearly the response to his use of Indonesian words and phrases, and to giant and awkward gaps of near-silence following applause lines like the one about America removing 100,000 combat troops from Iraq, suggests that most people in the room weren't exactly following along. (Again, this was a very field-trip audience and I'm not knocking the kids for failing to speak Obama's kind of English.)

Several people told me after the speech that audience members were being polite and were keeping especially quiet to hear every last word of Obama's speech. Maybe that's true but I have to think that Obama '08 would have stirred the crowd a little more. Even Obama '09 would have sent more ripples through the audience. But as a high school physics teacher sitting near us told me, Indonesians got a little worn out with the earlier canceled visits and, you know, some of them even have their doubts about Obama's accomplishments thus far in forging stronger ties between the U.S. and his boyhood home. We had high expectations for him, and maybe he has not met them. Even here, the bloom feels tangibly off the rose.

Speech-wise, Obama offered up a few head-scratchers. He praised Indonesia for a tradition of religious tolerance and for serving as a potential leader on human rights, corruption-fighting, and environmental issues in the region. He left unaddressed recent violent attacks on minority religious groups in the country, including a very open campaign against a Jakarta-area Christian community, and he said not a whit about military abuses in Papua. The idea of Indonesia as an anti-corruption leader is one the papers are having a hard time with today (as the Globe points out, Indonesia ranks 110 of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index; one good-government expert suggested Obama was being sarcastic), and I'm not sure how a country where aggressive deforestation, exotic animal sales, and commercial fishing with cyanide and dynamite are well-established growth businesses can lead us into a greener future. And one other thing: What kind of export market does Indonesia really represent for the U.S. right now? Per capita income here is under $4,000. Obama said U.S. exports to Indonesia have grown 50 percent (he did not say since when) and that a growing Indonesian middle-class is a potential market for U.S.-made goods. Which ones? Surely not those produced in union shops. But, sure, Indonesia has come a long way from 1967, when Obama and his mom first stepped off a plane from Hawaii, and its democratic experiment is both established and promising.

Nitpicking aside, it was a fun time at the university and after Obama worked the front row a bit--shaking hands with students and adults, some of them women in headscarves, who clamored for a handshake or a quick photo--students lingered in the auditorium and posed for group pictures like the kind you take at the ballpark or a concert, the field or stage in the background. It was a happy if awfully shovy, crowding, and line-jumping scene, and when we all finally spilled out of the auditorium and onto the grounds of the university, the kids in their bright, primary-colored uniforms, it felt a little like graduation. Which is fine and fun but it's a long way from Springfield when he announced his candidacy, or Grant Park two years ago, or even Cairo last year.

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