Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (9 of 14)

Waking from a Long Sleep

The 'go Mandarin' trend is permeating language courses and radio-and television-broadcasts all over Indonesia.

For 54 years, Sidharta Wirahadi Kusuma's world seems to have spun on the same axis: teaching Mandarin. He has known the language since he was in his mother's arms and practiced writing Chinese characters since he was little. The language led him to obtain a professorship from Huaqiao University in China. The same language made Sidharta decide to be a teacher, nothing else. For the entire 72 years of his life Sidharta has known Mandarin and for 54 years of his life he has taught the language to his students.

In his office in the Mandarin Section of ILP (International Language Program) in Pancoran, South Jakarta, Sidharta introduced a guest to TEMPO last week. The name of the 27-year-old guest was Wang Xin Xin. Coming from Shen Yang, northeastern China, Wang, who had only recently arrived in Indonesia, is a language teacher. Built like a model, Wang Xin Xin who is proficient in "high-level Mandarin" claimed she was ready to work as a volunteer to teach the students at the school. "Ni hao, how are you?" she greeted TEMPO in a melodious tone.

Wang's arrival must be credited to the openness which has been overwhelming Indonesia since reforms started in 1998. President Habibie woke up the dormant Mandarin language in 1999, asleep for three decades. His replacement, President Abdurrahman Wahid, was even more generous. He cast out all bans shackling Chinese customs, culture, and language. Want to perform barongsai, go ahead. Want to go to the temple every day, no one will stop you. Want to learn Mandarin until you're proficient, please do.

Consequently, within the past five years, the number of people interested in the language has mushroomed tremendously. In Sidharta's calculations-he is Deputy Head of the Guidance Council of the Coordinating Body in Mandarin Language Education in Jakarta-the number of Mandarin-language schools in Jakarta, which was countable before 1998, has soared to 145. "Before the reform era, people who learned Mandarin numbered in the 200,000s all over Indonesia. Today, there are at least more than 3 million," he explained.

In Bandung, there are even dozens of Mandarin schools-one of them is located in the Pusat Dakwah Islam near the Gedung Sate building. In Surabaya, the head of the Jawa Pos media group, Dahlan Iskan, is one of the pioneers in a similar school in Graha Sena. Don't misunderstand. Those who like learning this language are not merely retirees who are filling their time or employees who are required to by their companies. Why don't you come at least once to the Mandarin Section at ILP Pancoran?

In a 4x6-meter classroom, a group of teens came clattering in one afternoon. Of the 13 teens, only one looked amoy (like a typical Chinese girl). Even then, she looked half "neneng," in other words, a mix of Chinese and Sundanese. The rest was indigenous. They truly looked the "it" girls: hipster pants, tank tops, or tight jeans combined with loose jackets. There was a teenaged boy who had bleached his hair reddish blond and wore an earring-far from one's idea of a bookworm.

In one corner, a young girl wearing a jilbab was devoutly learning the Mandarin consonants which according to her were "incredibly difficult." Beside her, a very young girl was trying to pronounce "zh," "sh," and "s," whose sounds are different only in "degrees of hisses."

Meanwhile, at the front of the class, lao tse or Teacher Lydia had just started the pronunciation session. "Bian bie xialie yinjie (pay attention to the difference in syllables-Ed.). She then patiently guided the entire class: "Repeat it, see how lao tse does it. The teeth are closed to the edge, the tongue behind the teeth, and say zheeeeee." All students resolutely copied her. A female student shook her head, thumping her forehead in frustration. "My goodness, so difficult," she said dejectedly. Well, what's the point of learning if it only gives you a headache? "To be part of the 'in' crowd. You know, so that we're not too stupid," cheerfully said Melina, a female student, to this weekly's reporter.

Far more than merely for "social interaction," the language has rapidly mushroomed from the classroom to the mass media, opening opportunities for information and business-especially in service industries such as tourism and hotels. Every morning and night, Metro Xin Wen appears on Metro TV for half an hour. This is the first television broadcast using Mandarin in Indonesia. The editor in chief of Metro TV, Don Bosco Salamun, admitted that the program did not really have many ads, but it has a specific audience target: those who understand Mandarin-in Don's calculations, there are approximately 6.3 million people. True, not a huge number, "But, among them are influential people in this country," he said. Once again, it is about business, or to be more specific, business players.

Unlike TV programs which can only be found on Metro TV, the Mandarin menu seems more popular on the radio. In Surabaya, there is the Mahasiswa Turut Bekerja (MTB) radio, 102.7 FM, belonging to businessman Nasion Said Marcos. Since four years ago, the radio has been broadcasting for four hours a day. Around more than 200,000 people of Chinese descent can also listen to similar programs through Merdeka FM, El Viktor, and Global FM radio stations.

Now, let's go to Bandung. There those who enjoy Mandarin are even more spoiled. Bandung Suara Indah (BSI) radio also known as Mei Sheng radio, presents all its programs in Mandarin. On air for 18 hours a day with 42 announcers, they only air Indonesian-language material in advertisements.

Mei Sheng Director, Rizal Daja Sumardi, said that the radio started with the policy of President Abdurrahman Wahid who opened the tap to those of Chinese descent to express themselves.

"We then felt that we wanted to work in the market of listeners of Chinese descent," he said. At first, the Mei Sheng programs were condemned, especially by those of the same ethnic group. They reasoned that it would trigger riots. "If there's unrest in Bandung, it must be caused by BSI," Rizal mimicked his critics.

But instead of creating unrest, the natives of Bandung were very supportive. They asked for certain songs and often joined in off-air programs at Mei Sheng. The trend to 'go Mandarin,' according to Sidharta, can also create new opportunities in the services industry. Approximately 25 million Chinese tourists go abroad every year, 7 million of them stop by in Thailand. What about Indonesia? "A mere 50,000. They say they feel illiterate coming here," he said.

The "illiteracy" issue was also experienced by Sidharta's parents, who set foot in Indonesia a generation ago. Born 72 years ago, Sidharta was named Xu Jing Neng, which means "respecting smart people." And this is Sidharta's belief: "Smartness comes from knowledge, and language is the vocabulary from which various knowledge comes."

It was to avoid this "illiteracy and cultural illiteracy" that his parents put him through an educational system that was nationalistic since he was small, namely at Taman Madya, Perguruan Taman Siswa. In addition, he also went to Tiong Hwa Hwee Kwan (THHK), an educational institution using Chinese as the lingua franca. Consequently, he has been honing his Mandarin proficiency since he was a child. "And I started teaching when I was 18 years old," said Sidharta.

The alumni of the Xianman University who contributed to training 2,000 Mandarin teachers in Jakarta has witnessed the glory and gory days of the language in Nusantara. Including during the difficult period, when the language was banned from use in public after the ascension of the New Order. "I am absolutely certain that one day the Mandarin language will rise," said Sidharta. And, "I really want this language to be studied by as many Indonesians who are not ethnic Chinese."

So it was that in 1993, he and several of his colleagues started the Mandarin section at ILP in Jakarta. Originally there were only several students, today they have around 2,000 all over Indonesia.

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