I somehow anticipated the shock in emo rocker Chris Carrabba’s voice after he crooned to a crowd of cheering Indonesians on Saturday night in Jakarta’s Stadion Senayan. “When you write a song on the piano in your own living room,” the songster shouted out, “and then see it means something to people half a world away, that’s a priceless feeling.”
It was at the behest of my otherwise metal- and punk- obsessed coworkers that I trekked to this Dashboard Confessional concert; for me, a blast to the past of emotional high school moments, for one coworker, memories of the tunes that helped her get through drug rehabilitation.
To our collective dismay, we had to cringe through a few sets of glittery pop acts, like Changcuter and Nidji (who did, to his credit, write a lovely song for one of my favorite Indonesian flicks, Laskar Pelangi) . But once Carrabba and company took the stage, our crew joined the throngs of fans in an joyous, nostalgic, hour-long sing-a-long session.
I must say I would be surprised too if I were Carrabba, to witness such an unexpected choir when English is by no means a first, or even second, language in this nation. A majority of 250 million Indonesians grow up speaking one of 700 local languages, the most popular of which – and all of which I’ve come across in my stay so far – are West Java’s Sundanese, Central Java’s Javanese, Sumatra’s Minangkabau, and Bali’s Balinese. After this, Indonesian’s with access to primary and secondary education go on to master Indonesian, the national language, though UNICEF surveys indicate high school attendance averages out between boys and girls at only 58%.
After Indonesian, only a small percentage go on to learn English. There are those who live in highly touristed areas, where conversational English is an economic survival skill. And then there are those who are privileged enough to attend University and learn, and I say privileged because students loans and need-based scholarship are not a concept here. Even University-level education is not a guarantee of learning English, as I know from being heckled on a weekly basis by university students jogging beside me on the local track with “Hello, Mister!”
However there is a different path to learning English in Indonesia, and I suspect in most of the rest of the developing world. Most of my very capable and intelligent co-workers have never attended University, and some never finished high school, yet when I started giving weekly English tutorials in January, I certainly was not starting from square one. They understand more than they are able to say to me with proper grammar, yet they are familiar with a variety of conversational phrases and terms.
And they have rockstars like Chris Carrabba to thank for that.
Be it American music or American films, it is my own nation’s artist influence in a globalized world that has brought English to the lips of those otherwise unable to access a higher education. Some fluent folks, like Rumah Cemara’s founder Ginan, developed their English entirely from this basis, working their way from small phrases to understanding greater grammatical concepts. Watch a film with subtitles over again enough, and you’re bound to commit certain sayings to memory.
Admittedly, some are really only memorizing phrases and singing lyrics they don’t understand (as I realized, being asked by a friend to explain the lyrics of “Vindicated”, after he belted out the entire song by heart). However I have met many Indonesians who were unable to learn English through expensive courses, and still have become reasonably proficient by listening to the tunes and watching the films pumped out by the thousands in my motherland.
Globalization is alive and well in Bandung, where music is readily available for free download to anyone with an internet connection, and trafficked DVDs of the latest flicks are available locally for less than the price of a plate of fried rice. However despite the “priceless” feeling that struck Carrabba on stage, there are certainly costs society pays for this influence.
America’s culture of individualism, liberalism, and materialism reflected in lyrics and plotlines– values at ragingly high levels compared to most other nations in the world – can be confusing and damaging to societies that rely on community relations, conservative behavior, and spiritualism in order to function.
For example, I remember my cheeks flushing with embarrassment when at the airport with my house mother on our way to Padang two weeks ago, as Britney Spears’ latest video “3” – about having a threesome, or sex with two people at once – flashed across the nearest TV screen as she sang out the repeat chorus, “Livin’ in sin is the new thing!”
In a country with the highest rate of cervical cancer in the world, because unmarried women have limited rights to sexual health services and information, this kind of message only exacerbates sexual imaginations, that end up in realities of painful or deadly STDs, including HIV, teenage or unwanted pregnancies, and sexual abuse.
Now I don’t want to be a hypocrite, as I promise you if I were in America right now I’d probably be dancing along to this catchy beat everytime it came on the radio. And I’m by no means a Britney hater, nor do I support prosecutors who try to pin individual action on an artist’s creation – like blaming Tupac for police killings, or Marilyn Manson for school shootings.
I believe that, especially in America, though we are surrounded by creative influences across a wide spectrum, we are also raised with a critical consciousness, and a culture of independent thought. Most people can listen to a song like Britney’s and laugh at her overt sexuality, and there’s certainly no shortage of Britney critics within America’s borders.
My concern is that in countries where freedoms of expression and action are not so unlimited, those hearing the message may take it as a strong suggestion, or even a demand, rather than recognizing it merely as an artist’s expression (or in Britney’s case, manner of moneymaking).
My concern goes not only for sexually explicit content, but also for extremely barbaric films and video games, that promote destructive and violent behavior contrary to communal values of cooperation and respect. I am disturbed because the war and violence that American film- and game-makers create are in reality heartbreaking and horrific conditions they have likely never lived through, whereas their global audiences may be in the midst of such conditions, with easier access to weapons, and not understand that real life wars never function as cleanly as they do in the movies.
I take offense as well to the shameless pursuit of materialism, especially when there is no intention of sharing the wealth, a culture that ignores the necessity of a strong spiritual life in order to live healthfully and peacefully, and ignores the values of service and sharing that I find so abundantly in the materially poorest places I have traveled. It’s obnoxious, to say that least, that it has been so difficult to bring a model of student volunteerism to Bandung, when nearly every student I speak with sports a Blackberry, iPhone, or another latest piece of technology. Why do only some American influences make it so successfully this far overseas?
While I certainly lament the socially disruptive effects that such excessive sex, materialism, and violence has had on American culture as well, I suppose I feel even guiltier to know that these negative aspects of my culture are transported at light-speed on a daily basis to mostly young people around the world, who may lead their cultures in the same downhill direction if they cannot preserve their own culture while allowing another one to seep in.
But globalization’s not all bad, of course. Just last week we held our annual AIDS Candlelight Memorial night at Rumah Cemara, a vigil that began in 1983 among a group of gay men in San Francisco who had already lost hundreds of friends to what was then still a death sentence of a disease.
Thanks to globalizing forces of information sharing – be it participation at international AIDS conferences or the AIDS Candlelight Memorial website – Rumah Cemara has been celebrating this night of remembrance every year since their inception in 2003. This night is so precious because, in a line of work where death, sickness, psycho- and spiritual depressions are daily battles, community health workers are regularly forced to maintain high spirits, thinking positively about the present and hopefully about the future. The Memorial night gives the entire community a moment of relief to remember the past- to mourn friends and family lost, to remember challenges and obstacles, and to acknowledge fears and concerns.
While our memorial was made possible by the channels of globalization that can lift a model out of one town and ship it out 10,000 miles away for implementation, something about this evening felt much more comforting than the feeling of hearing an American song on the radio.
Perhaps the idea of an AIDS memorial began in San Francisco, and indeed Rumah Cemara shared a spirit of remembrance with the American men who sparked the AIDS movement, with every participant holding a small candle that, once amassed, lit up the dark night with a warm embrace. We saved time exclusively for sharing, when individuals with a story or message spoke softly into a crackly mic, blurring tears silently gathering in participants’ eyes as we each remembered our own loved ones taken by AIDS.
Yet the night was distinctly “Rumah Cemara” as well, and effortlessly, albeit respectably, took on its own air of humor that encompasses our office’s everyday activities. As is traditional Indonesian culture, and even more so because they are a high risk group for HIV infection, we invited a group of waria (transgenders) to perform skits and songs that would bring smiles to sad faces, and laughs to crack the tense, mourning atmosphere. To me this felt like a more ideal form of globalization, because a good idea was transported internationally, but on the unique implementation terms of local culture.
I maintain my qualms against the growing influence of technology that I feel tears apart the social fabric – namely when people living in the same city, or even the same room, talk more often on Facebook and Twitter than in person. In these instances, we are dangerously missing the point.
However I am at the same time in grateful awe of all that technology has made possible, an awe I felt quite distinctly as one of our newest clients, a young woman having just recently learned her HIV positive status, approached me after I gave a short testimony.
I spoke briefly in order to share with the audience, most of whom were new faces of our clients who I had not yet had an opportunity to meet, a bit about my experiences and relationships working with HIV/AIDS communities in America and Africa, and openly, if not a bit tearfully, remembered my own friends who have been victim to HIV/AIDS. I made a point to acknowledge the bravery of those still struggling, who keep working everyday to solve this public health problem across the sectoral spectrum.
This young woman – about my age, but born half a world away from me – came up to me without any words, just wet eyes and a trembling smile. She grabbed me and buried her face in my shoulder, and as I pulled my arms in tight to rub her back, she began weeping, shaking, holding tighter. I did not ask her any details of her life, I did not need to. I stayed locked in her embrace for at least five minutes, and as we then proceeded to extinguish our candles and walked towards the door in stride, I thought to myself, this is the point.