Monday, August 11, 2014

A close look at US soft power in Indonesia

One of my highlights during the study program was a trip to what is quite possibly the US' largest effort in public diplomacy in the region.

@america is located in one of the glitziest shopping malls at the heart of downtown Jakarta. The facade was as American as one would expect, complete with large monitors, glossy & modern displays, and a red, white, and blue color scheme. It was first launched in 2010 in an effort to engage with the youths living in the largest Muslim population of the world.

One of the many concerts taking place @america

The name "@america" invokes one of the US' major assets that the State Department highlights to make its hard sell--technology. Visitors who enter the facility are able play with such American-engineered technologies such as Microsoft's Xbox console and Google Earth. The small facility also hosts free events such as concerts by local and foreign bands and movie screenings, some of which can garner as many as 200 attendees.

Aside from the gadgets, @america offers free academic counseling and a study corner (complete with SAT/ACT and GRE prep books) for students who are interested in continuing their education in the US.And this, ultimately, is one of the US' big PD goals--to foster a longterm relationship with Indonesia through building a strong connection with its future generation of leaders.

A mural by @america's study corner highlighting campus life

As an international communication student, I've read and researched much about soft power and diplomacy as way to improve relations (and, let us not forget, to pursue state interests). So it was pretty cool to see US' public diplomacy in action and to meet the products of such efforts--the students who have studied in the US and now work at the center. After days of meeting with political leaders, it was refreshing to chat with our young tour guides, both of whom have studied in the US. Our conversation ranged from their experiences in the States to romantic relationships, popular Indonesian dramas/movies to cool indie bands. It was from them that I learned about the jazzy trio, Maliq & D'Essentials:

It's these type of people-to-people connections that I value whenever I travel, and are what ultimately frame my persepctives of the country. It definitely made it easier for me to see young Indonesians for what they really are--ordinary people with similar passions and goals for life and the future. @america may be a small space filled with images of typical American stereotypes (football, anyone?), but inside can be found big dreams and a budding relationship.

Ruth and I with the young @america employees

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Southeast Asia Buzz

I arrived back in D.C. a few weeks ago and immediately jumped back into my life. I have a wedding to plan, I had to move into my new apartment, and I also had to transition back to my internship at the Southeast Asia program at CSIS.

Coming back to the office after spending over a month in the region had an interesting effect on my work. I was full of energy, I was inspired to publish more articles, and I had a much better understanding of Malaysia and Indonesia - two countries I had only a passing understanding of before my trip. At work I follow the news coming out of the Philippines and Thailand, and with a newfound appreciation of two more ASEAN countries (as well as a cultural appreciation of Cambodia after a 4-day trip), I felt like I was well on my way to becoming someone who could comfortable talk about all 10 ASEAN countries without sounding like an idiot.

My enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. When I described how I felt to my boss, she smiled and told me it was called the "Southeast Asia Buzz." When other people at work travel to the region, they tend to come back with their batteries charged and their brains firing on all pistons. It's a cycle that analysts have to go through. Sitting in an office, reading white papers and news stories and meeting with people who have been to the region is helpful, and it can even be enough to gain a pretty good understanding of what is happening on the ground -but there really is no substitute for being there.

Having now made my first trip to Southeast Asia, I feel much more confident when I speak and write about the region critically. In relative terms, it was a brief trip, but it will forever add weight to the work I do from now on. It also resigns me to a hard, but worthwhile cycle. I need to travel back to the region again and again to maintain this appreciation and keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening. This time, I saw over 200 million people vote in one of the largest young democracies in the world. Who knows what I'll see next time!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Malaysia and my transportation woes

Malaysia was my home for a good portion of my 3 months in the region, and even though I barely returned to the States, I miss it greatly.

The sight of the man riding his bicycle full of snacks every morning, the wonderful smell of fried pan mee, the laughter of the elderly people who gather in my neighborhood park... They are all still vivid images in my mind.

A reason to walk through the park early in the morning: mass tai chi

Despite all the things that I miss about Malaysia, there is one thing thing that still frustrates me even thinking about it now: TRANSPORTATION. Everyone in this program knows very well how much I despise the Malaysian transportation system. I could rant about the often rude and incompetent taxi cab drivers, the inefficient infrastructure (always under "construction"), and the overcrowded & slow Monorail line all day. It doesn't help that KL is as big of a sprawl as my hometown Los Angeles--people need a car to get around. But I don't drive when I'm abroad, and I definitely did not feel confident enough to do so in KL. So I'm left with little choice but to take all forms of public transportation daily.

Typical Monorail line experience--good luck getting through this

My biggest beef is with the taxi drivers. It all started with my first taxi ride from the airport to my Malaysia residence--what could've been an easy 40 minute trip (as I later learned) ended up being an hour +. I was one of the few who lived outside the city, in a lovely and quiet suburban neighborhood of Petaling Jaya. But because it's a suburb, most taxi drivers do not know how to get there. Oftentimes, they flat out refuse to get me home. I've even had few instances when the drivers would try to swindle me for even more money than what the meter shows.

Luckily, my studio was not too far of a walk from my internship (about 1mi) or the nearest train station, which can get me to town fairly easily. However, when it gets dark, my options were limited to taxis (note: never walk home in the dark, alone). I learned about the MyTeksi app from some coworkers, but since they use actual taxi cab drivers they were still not reliable (they've also outright refused to pick me up because of where I lived).

The Solution? Uber, my dear friends.

Occasionally I cheat--instead of walking to work I take an Uber cab for less than $1USD

Yes, Uber is such a godsend. I don't remember how I discovered that the ride share app works in KL, but I think I just opened it one day out of curiosity and found that I could actually use it. And I cannot be more thankful that I could. I've only used Uber once in DC, but in KL, it was my exclusive go-to whenever I need a ride to/from home. I found KL's Uber drivers to be not only reliable but super personable. My favorite is an elderly fellow, named Patrick (or Uncle Uber). He has a van that can seat 8 people quite comfortably. Despite his strict policy of no more than 4 people in his vehicle, he made the exception for me and my classmates--super useful when we were trying to get to the US Embassy's Independence Day Celebration or to BurgerLab for one of their amazing burgers (sooooo worth it, btw)!

If you ever find yourself in KL and need a reliable driver, I recommend contacting Uncle Uber via his phone number (+011 33 (0) 48987) and open up your Uber app. You can thank me later.