Thursday, 20 December 2012

Faith Amidst Chaos

Sarah MacDonald
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure

In January 2011, I made first ever trip to India.  The trip itself wasn’t all that memorable.  I was struggling to overcome a cold.  Moreover, I was part of the President’s delegation, and so it was difficult to find time in between meetings to enjoy the sights of India.  And to top it off, we were visiting just New Delhi, supposedly not one of the most colorful places in the country.

Nevertheless, it was a highlight in my life.  Having read so many novels by Indian or Indian-descent authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, V.S. Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, Hari Kunzru, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, and others, I’ve always imagined about what life is in this exciting part of the world.  In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of life in India as full of colors, decorated by the extremes of existence: sadness and happiness, suffering and joy, poverty and wealth, the moderate and exuberant.

There was this one time, when I woke up from bed on a chilly morning in Beijing, and remembered the dream I had had the night before.  In it, I was walking around an unfamiliar city, lost and looking for direction.  I seemed to know everybody, but no one noticed me, let alone knew who I was.  I couldn’t communicate with any of them, for all of them were speaking some form of Indian accent or another.  Crazy, but it’s true.

The New Delhi I visited in 2011 was not like the city in that funky dream of mine.  It was clean, and the people spoke some English.  Yes, there were some bajaj drivers who didn’t understand us when haggling for the fare to and from Connaught Place, at the heart of the city.  But, all in all, I felt quite comfortable there.  And just as I was getting comfortable, we had to fly the next day to Davos, Switzerland. Ow well..

It was in an old bookstore at Connaught Place that I bought Sarah Macdonald’s “Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure”.  Books are a bargain in India.  But because Sarah’s book was not published in India, it carried a heftier price tag.  Yet, I’ve heard so much good reviews about it that I just couldn’t miss buying it.  But just like most of the books I bought, “Holy Cow” ended up on my shelf and was left unread for more than a year.  Then, one day, while I was cleaning my shelf, I felt Shiva (on the cover of the book) winking at me, asking me to give the book a reading chance.

And boy, was it worth the time!  Holy Cow turned out to live up very much to its expectations (at least mine).  The book chronicles of Sarah’s adventure in a land of chaos and contradiction.  Set in a land so diverse in religious, cultural, and social diversity, the book tells stories of Sarah’s encounters with Hindus, Muslims, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis, Jews and Christians.  You need to understand just the premise of the book to see its potential of causing stomach cramps (because of laughter).

Sarah’s narrative is so easy to digest, inserted with honest comedy.  She talked about the idiosyncrasies in life, which to most Indians, were the most basic, normal things around.  She described the many stories, hypocrisies and oddities that surrounded her strive to find faith in India.  In all of this, Sarah doesn’t mock the people she wrote about, but merely showed them for the readers’ own interpretation.  And my interpretation was comedic, because I keep on drawing parallels with life in Indonesia.

Sarah succeeded in taking me on roller coaster trip across India.  She introduced me to the Indian people and the Indian way of life.  And her perspective, as a foreigner, somehow was a source of comfort for me, because I shared many of her worries and questions.  Indeed, Sarah’s account gave me a new perspective different from those provided by the many Indian writers whose stories I’ve read before.

As a confused person, Sarah’s search for religious enlightenment is something of interest to me.  Sarah’s journey through the Indian religious cornucopia was (undoubtedly) filled with skepticism.  Yet, at the same time, she also found pockets of faith in some of the strangest places, and through some of the most unlikely characters.   One of these was her encounter with a group of Israeli Jews, who made India as their new “promised land”.  A place, which is not like what Moses had promised, but capable of bringing them closer to God.

Indeed, the lesson is that there is something beautiful from all the religions out there.  We may choose to choose one over the other.  But in the end, what works is what makes us feel the most at peace.  And that could be a combination of all, or even none at all.  I love Sarah’s ending of the book:

“From Buddhism the power to begin to manage my mind, from Jainism the desire to make peace in all aspects of life, while Islam has taught me to desire goodness and to let go of that which cannot be controlled.  I thank Judaism for teaching me the power of transcendence in rituals and the Sufis for affirming my ability to find answers within and reconnecting me to the power of music.  Here’s to the Parsis for teaching me that nature must be touched lightly, and the Sikhs for the importance of spiritual strength… And most of all, I thank Hinduism for showing me that there are million paths to the divine.”

Monday, 24 September 2012

Campus Outreaching

Pada tanggal 16 Februari 2012, saya mendapatkan kehormatan untuk memberikan paparan mengenai polugri RI di bawah Pemerintahan Presiden SBY di kampus Universitas Paramadina, Jakarta.

Dulu waktu baru masuk Kemlu saya sering berkunjung ke Universitas Paramadina.  Tapi bukan untuk kuliah atau mengajar, melainkan untuk menjemput adikku tersayang, Sandra Ayu, yang dulu kuliah di jurusan komunikasi Universitas Paramadina.

Program Campus Outreach yang dilakukan Kantor Staf Khusus Presiden Bidang Hubungan Internasional ini cukup reguler.  Kita sering berkunjung ke universitas-universitas di berbagai daerah, termasuk juga yang di Jakarta.  Tujuannya adalah untuk menyampaikan informasi mengenai capaian-capaian RI di dunia diplomasi selama ini, agar teman-teman di kampus mendapatkan informasi mereka tidak hanya dari tv, yang cenderung menganggap remeh kapasitas dan capaian diplomasi kita. 

Selain itu, program ini kami gunakan untuk mendapatkan umpan balik menegnai isu-isu internasional dan polugri RI, utamanya dalam bentuk survei yang diisi para hadirin peserta kuliah umum.

Anyways, sewaktu iseng-iseng lagi berselancar di dunia maya, dengan tidak sengaja ketemu tulisan seorang blogger, Anggraeni D. Widhias, mengenai kuliah umumku sewaktu di Universitas Paramadina bulan Februari lalu itu.  Kalau ada yang ingin membaca tulisannya, linknya ini:

Terima kasih, Anggraeni. It's good to know that someone was paying attention when I talked about the complexities of today's diplomacy.  Cheers.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

On the Way of the Panda

Other than tigers, I would say that pandas are my favorite animals.  The choice of tigers is an obvious one; born in the Chinese year of the tiger, I am always awed at the grandness, strength, and noble-like features of these giant felines.  And pandas, oh well, who doesn’t like them?

While on a trip to Chengdu in 2007, I had the chance to visit the Panda Research Base.  It was here that I first encountered these beautiful bears.  I can’t even describe the feeling of joy when watching one, two, three, and more of them rolling around in their enclosures, biting bamboo shoots, and generally not paying attention to the human visitors.  Up on the trees, a few of them have gone into some serious siestas.  And yes, there were panda cubs too.  It was definitely one of the highlights of my travels in China.

Po, my hero
Pandas have to be some of the most celebrated, most popular animals in the world.  Hollywood has immortalized Po, the Kung Fu Panda, in a movie thoroughly enjoyed by audiences of many ages.  Pandas are also the face of the World Wildlife Fund, which is one of the most well-known NGO on the preservation of animals (particularly species facing extinction).  And pandas (not dragons) have been given the status as “national treasures” by the Chinese Government.  I don’t think even kangaroos, which are so associated with Australia, enjoy such an elevated status.  Or kiwis in New Zealand, for that matter.

But did you know that Pandas were actually not known outside of China until 1869?  Did you know that it was a French priest who first marveled at the magical beauty of these black and white furballs?  Did you know that it wasn’t until the good part of the Cold War that pandas become such a global hit?  And did you know that despite having a panda as its logo, the WWF (established in 1961) actually didn’t start to work on pandas until the early 1980s?

Don’t worry, I didn’t know any of this either.  Not until I read Henry Nicholls’ The Way of the Panda: The CuriousHistory of China’s Political Animal.

Book Cover
In what I felt to be a well-written book, Nicholls tracks the history of pandas’ rise to fame.  From the times when westerners raced against one another to have the chance to hunt one down, to our conditions now, in which no one in their right mind would even think about hurting a panda, let alone shoot one to death.  The book explains the science of pandas, explaining the many efforts to classify pandas; is it a bear, or is it more of a raccoon?  The answer was that pandas are bears, but a species rather different from the black, brown, and polar bears that we see in places outside of China.

It was in Nicholls’ book that I discovered that the first panda ever “exported” abroad alive was named Su-Lin.  And it was in this book as well that I learned so much about Chi-Chi, the first post WWII panda ever to make it to the West. 

Indeed, the story of Chi-Chi occupies a significant portion of the book.  A review in The Guardian calls her story one with “celebrity, satire, television crews, and copious political intrigue.” Chi-Chi was the panda whose drawing became the basis of WWF’s logo.  And it was through studying her that humans learned about the “sexual problems” pandas have, thus contributing to their low numbers on earth.  Chi-Chi also became the symbol of the East-West divide when her failed mating with An-An (a panda given by the Chinese to the Soviets) mirrored the many failures at détente between the two Cold War foes.

I guess, this is what makes Nicholls’ story of the panda a fascinating read.  It took me only 3 days (working days, that is) to finish the 300-page book.  There were many anecdotes derived from accounts previously written by panda observers, enthusiasts, and researchers. 

Nicholls describes many “firsts” in the short history of the panda.  Among them, the first panda seen by a westerner, the first panda killed by a westerner (the son of former US President Teddy Roosevelt), the first panda born in captivity, and the first panda twins.  There was also an account of the first panda( Xiang-Xiang) to be reintroduced to the wild, which died shortly after being attacked by other pandas in the wild.  Well, he certainly didn't know any kung fu .

Panda on my head
While still keeping some of the scientific approaches to learning pandas, Nicholls sets the book against the historical and political backgrounds influencing pandas’ popularity.  How they’ve become such a marketing sensation and used as tools of diplomacy, something akin to the bearing of gifts during Cleopatra’s times.

Nicholls also brought in a study of the ups and downs of the People’s Republic of China.  When the Chinese were in disarray during the fading Qing Empire, pandas were being hunted to death. Their lives didn’t actually become better throughout the Cold War, as China felt threaten by foreign influences.  Lacking resources, the protection pandas became only a side-note in the Chinese Government’s agenda.  And even when China became more capitalist in the 1980s, problems often surfaced when weighing panda-protection programs against economic development (which often affects pandas’ living environments).

Today, things have gotten so much better for the panda.  The Chinese Government, with funds to spare, has made a more concerted effort to protect their “national treasure”.  In one of the examples in the book, the Chinese Government was even prepared to move logging companies and compensate them dearly so that their activities would not intervene in panda-protection programs.  It seems that as the Chinese people’s livelihoods become better, so have those of the panda. 

At the Panda Research Base in Chengdu, 2007
As their “national treasure”, the Chinese have made sure that the panda will always be Chinese.  All pandas born in China are given Chinese names, and even when they are loaned to other countries, they never loose their nationality.  This is why it has been so difficult to bring a panda to Indonesia.  Apparently Indonesians haven’t really gotten over the 1960s laws enforcing no dual nationalities among Indonesians and Chinese. 

But I’m hearing that there is progress in these efforts.  I guess, as Indonesia becomes more important to China, it has become panda-worthy for the Chinese.  And so, pretty soon, we’ll probably get to feast our eyes on a panda in Taman Safari Cisarua.  That’ll be a sight.  More so not only because of the panda’s cute demure, but also because I’ve somehow grown a greater appreciation for the lives and deaths of these beautiful animals.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Unearthing the Potentials in Indonesia-Mongolia Cooperation

co-written with Junianto James Losari

Come on, admit it. When hearing about Mongolia, you would probably picture the famous Genghis Khan and his nomadic warriors riding to glory, plundering cities across Central Asia. Also, you would probably picture cold steppes, dotted with herds of horse or sheep. In one corner, there would be the iconic, round-shaped tent – called “ger” – with smoke coming out from its top.

Well, Mongolia remains home to vast grassland plains. Horses and sheep are visibly plenty, and many Mongolians still prefer to live in gers, even those in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. But to picture Mongolia only from this perspective would be grossly misleading.
Under the blue Mongolian Skies, near Ulaanbataar, late 2008
In the last ten years, the Mongolian economy has experienced dramatic progress. In 2011, its GDP growth reached 17.3%, the second highest in the world. And in 2010, it registered a 37.3 % industrial production growth rate, the highest in the world.

Much of this growth has been fueled by the mining sector, which by 2011, accounts for more than 80% of Mongolian exports, almost 16% of its GDP. The biggest of these mining projects was launched with Australian and Canadian investment in Oyu Tolgoi. Meanwhile, other big projects include the one in Tavan Tolgoi, predicted as the world's largest untapped coal deposit.

Seeing these trends, it is not surprising that Mongolia has been compared to Qatar or Brunei; countries with a small population, but bestowed with abundant resources. The strong economic growth has spurred income increases among the general population. Even civil servants enjoyed a 50% pay raise last year, as the country’s poverty rate was reduced by 9.4%.

With a population of only 2.8 million, a literacy rate of 98%, and 70% of its university students female, the prospect for a more balanced socio-economic development seems promising. In addition, the elite are sending their children to study abroad, and some, such as Harvard-graduate President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, have returned to take up prominent positions in the public and private sectors.

There remain questions about equal distribution of such new-found wealth. But there is no doubt about the arrival of a new class, with growing demands for food, electronics, motorcars, property, and luxury items. Brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton have opened up shops in Ulaanbataar. And when the choices are lacking, many of the country’s nouveau riche go on “shopping day-trips” to Beijing or Hongkong.

In the past, Mongolia was important for its geographic position as a buffer between the Soviet Union and China. As a land-locked country, it has suffered alienation from the international community. However, with the advent of reforms and democracy, as well as the desire to be part of today’s globalization, Mongolia is now on the path towards greater regional and global recognition.

These days, the international community is being lured by the country’s economic achievements. China and Russia remain as Mongolia’s major trading partners, but others are also rapidly raising their stakes in the Mongolian economy. These trends have converted Mongolia into one of the upcoming “Asian Tigers”, and one of the 3G (Global Growth Generators) countries capable of reshaping the world economy in the next 40 years.

A 3G country itself, Indonesia is definitely no stranger to Mongolia. Diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Mongolia have existed since 1956, the year when President Soekarno visited Ulaanbataar. Since then, leaders of both countries have exchanged visits, the last being Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar’s trip to Indonesia last year.

However, such historical ties have not translated into economic ties, as bilateral trade in 2011 only amounted to US$6 million. Among ASEAN member countries, Indonesia is Mongolia’s 8th largest trading partner. And trade cooperation with ASEAN only comprises about 2% of Mongolia’s overall.

Nevertheless, the future may not be as bleak as pictured by present statistics. As a country heavily dependant on foreign products, in 2010, 69% of Mongolia’s imports came from either China or Russia. Therefore, the Mongolian Government has placed importance on diversifying their import sources.

Mongolian officials have expressed hope that Indonesia would provide palm oil and refined oil to Mongolia. Other trading opportunities include agriculture, food and pharmaceutical products. There are also potential participations in the development of infrastructure and energy projects in Mongolia.

At a time of global economic uncertainty, highlighted by weaker demands from the West, exploring non-traditional markets like Mongolia would be beneficial in the short and long runs. The Malaysians are already jumping on this opportunity, identifying potential cooperation in the real estate, infrastructure, IT, and education sectors. As the largest economy in Southeast Asia, maybe it is time that Indonesia also steps up its efforts in Mongolia.

Such efforts may take the shape of MoUs in trade and two-way investment cooperation. And while friendship associations already exist, there is also a need to establish a more structured bilateral chamber of commerce to promote and ensure the continuity of such cooperative efforts.

Last week, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Ulaanbataar for three days en-route to the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia. While highlighting the historical ties and the potential economic cooperation between Indonesia and Mongolia, the visit was mostly aimed at strengthening interactions and cooperation at the people-to-people level.

During meetings with Mongolia’s top leaders, President Yudhoyono reaffirmed the commonalities existing between the two countries. As developing countries, looking to reap the benefits of globalization and build a sustainable development with equity. As democratic countries, striving for better living standards at home and harmony with neighboring countries. 

Indeed, the biggest barrier to overcome is the limited knowledge that one has of the other. If most Indonesians prefer to picture Mongolians as nomadic tribes, one could only guess at the images Mongolians would conjure of Indonesia and its people. There must be a change in the way both sides perceive one another. And that change may be on its way.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tokyo Devotion

Book Cover
I don't normally read crime-mysteries... I prefer the typical novels exploring human relations (yes, I'm a sappy one). But because The Devotion of Suspect X has become such a sensation in Japan, I just had to figure out what it was all about...

I do have to admit, just 10 pages into the book, I was already feeling that Higashino's prose was not the most beautiful I had read.  It was nowhere as intricate or heart-moving as the words that one may find streaming from the pens of Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, or Tea Obrecht. Then again, the fault could also lie in the translation from Japanese. 
I wasn't entirely critical about the prose, tho. I knew that I was reading a blockbuster novel, and not necessarily a work of literary genius. But I do have to say that for what Higashino lacked in beautiful words, he sure made it up in the plot of the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which the story twisted and turned, going round-and-round. The story was not a who-dunnit; we knew very well who committed the murder just a few pages into the book.  But somehow, for the entire journey of 440 pages, I was kept guessing, digging into layer upon layer of intricacies. And then I got to the end, where the biggest twist of them all happened.

I also enjoyed Higashino's development of the book's characters. Many of the characters
represented what I felt as typical stereotypes of the Japanese: Ishigami (the logically driven math nerd), Yasuko (the hardworking, down-and-out, pretty single-mother and former hostess), Kudo (the honest, well-meaning slaryman) and Kusanagi (the righteous police detective). I would have probably objected to this stereotyping had the book been written by a non-Japanese. But because it was, then I swallowed the story whole as a partial study of the Japanese society.

When I think about it, the story did feel a bit "flat". It wasn't a roller coaster of emotions the way other novels I've read recently, like Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. But now that I've finished reading the book, and am looking at it in a reflective way, I am starting to feel that "that was just it!".

While the prose may have intentionally been developed  flat or emotionless (just like the demure of the main character, Ishigami), the story was actually very engaging . What makes me say so? Well, I finished nearly 3/4 of the book within a couple of days. Swift changes of emotions did not happen, but once the story is over, some of its underlying themes lingered on and on. Themes such as sacrifice, penance,
righteousness, resilience, and of course, devotion. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

你的中文很好 Ni De Zhongwen Hen Hao

It is common knowledge that in order to learn about a particular culture, then one of the best ways is to learn the language.  But when that language is Mandarin Chinese – probably one of the most difficult languages to master – then this becomes a challenge.  

While living in Beijing, I often get locals saying 你的中文很好 (ni de zhongwen hen hao: your Chinese is very good).  At the beginning, I was happy at such compliment.  Later on, I realized that saying these words actually meant the opposite.  Oh well, I figured, I don't think I was the only foreigner in town with such problems.

In 1997, having found a calling for the study of Chinese politics and diplomacy, I forced myself into taking Chinese lessons.  I figured that one day I’d have a chance to visit China.  And so, why not get a head start? 

At first, it was evening classes at the local community center in Victoria, Canada.  But I felt the pace of the lessons too slow, as I was surrounded by white-collar workers (forced by requirements from their employers), reluctant students, and pensioners.  So, I got a private tutor.  That worked out for a while, until I got bored of her teaching patterns. 

Cover of Dreaming in Chinese
In the end, I opted to register in a Chinese course for undergrads at the University of Victoria.  My Mandarin skills grew significantly during the two years I took that course.  I even became one of the best students in class.  More than that, I got to hang out with undergrad students, including a pretty Chinese-Venezuelan girl, whose name escapes me.  However, learning Chinese in Canada didn’t give me the context which surrounds the language.  Sure, I knew how to say things, but I barely heard any Chinese actually saying it, other than my professor, who was actually Taiwanese.

Therefore, I was excited when in 2005 I found out that I’d be moving to Beijing.  Nevertheless, having lived and traveled extensively in China for 3.5 years, and having made multiple trips there since being back in Jakarta, I can say that my grasp of the Chinese language remains rather… mediocre.  I know, I should’ve studied more during my stay there.  But somehow, the 3.5 years went by in a second.

Regardless, my stay in China remained an eye opening experience, and my daily interactions with the locals (albeit with poor Mandarin) made me understood the Chinese people more, even if it’s just “a little more”.  I got to know some of their habits (good ones, and many bad ones), learn some of their traditions, and identify  the nuances with which they lead their daily lives.

I got to know that whenever I proposed an idea, and  was responded by (xíng: okay), then things will be okay. But when the response was 没问题 (méi wénti: no problem), then problems would be just around the corner.  And that when the waiter shouts out 马上 (mă shàng: immediately), then you’d know that she’ll only be back at your table once everything’s already been finished.

Looking back at these experiences, I then sought guidance on what I believed to be discoveries of the Chinese culture through my day-to-day chit chat with the office’s drivers, the ayi (maid), the baoan (security guard), and at times, the lovely hostess with beautiful almond-shaped eyes – this last one never actually happened.  As always, in my times of uncertainty, I resort to my trustful books.  This time around, I read Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese: Lessons in Life, Love and Language and Eveline Chao’s Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. 

Needless to say, the two books tried to elaborate on Chinese culture using slightly different Chinese language expressions.  While Fallows looks into the culture and traditions underlining terms such as 我爱你 (wŏ ài nĭ: I love you) and 老百姓 (lăo bái xĭng: common people), Chao elaborated on what Chinese women really mean when saying 你很坏阿 (nĭ hĕn huài a: you’re so bad!) or what 断袖余桃 (duàn xiù yú táo: cut sleeve, leftover peach) actually implies – it’s a euphemism for homosexuality.

Fallows provides a nice introduction to deciphering the Chinese language, a language that’s complicated at many different levels.  She explained the many dialects in the country, the semantics of time and place, and even the reason why the Chinese hear tones when we foreigners can’t.  Indeed, the book is very informative; it’s an easy read.  I also enjoyed the personal anecdotes that she included in her narrative.  I too experienced some of the things that she went through.

Cover of Niubi!
However, I have to admit that I already know much of what Fallows describes.  For someone like me, who may still be a novice Mandarin speaker, but who has lived in China for some time, Fallows’ book merely provides a reconfirmation of the things I learned while living in China.  When describing the problem with tones, Fallows expressed that a waiter smiled when she said 我要打包 (wŏ yào dă bāo: I want some take away).  She later thought that she must’ve pronounced the word incorrectly as 打报 (dă bào: to embrace).  Reading this. I’m sure that the waiter was thinking of something else, something along the lines of 打炮 (dă pào: blasting cannons), which is a dirty northern Chinese slang for “having sex”.

Chao’s book talked about 打炮 and many other Chinese expressions that I never truly had a chance to learn while living there.  The swear words, mocking and derogatory terms, words of love, and everything else that I would need to roam the underworld of Beijing, Shanghai, or any other cities in China.  Chao not only provides the definition of each expression, but also their etymology, thus making the book a refreshing read; it didn’t feel like a list of expressions that one would find at the back of a travel guide.

In the end, if one was to ask me which of the two books served the purpose of my enquiry, then I’d say that both of them did.  Both demonstrated that the Chinese language contained many marvelous understandings of the people’s culture and traditions. 

But if one was to ask me which one would make my life in China easier the next time I’m there, then I would have to say that Chao’s Niubi! would better serve that purpose.  While informative, I feel Fallows’ book only scratches the surface.

Chao's book would help me get around China better, allowing me the power to hark back at cab drivers who would try to rip me off.  I’d also be able to make sure that the masseuse coming to my hotel room would be the right type of masseuse.  It may not get me a job as interpreter for the Embassy, but I’d surely feel like more like a local.  And this boost of confidence is exactly what I would need to explore further the Chinese way of life.