Two months in Riau: An Australian student’s perspective of life within Indonesia

Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program participants

Photo credit: Australia-Indonesia Institute

Julian Tunstill, University of Adelaide, Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) 2011/2012 participants

Julian Tunstill shared his experience at GoLive Indonesia workshop on 3 October 2012 after spending two months in Riau as part of the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program, or AIYEP. Here is his valuable story.

At the outset I should probably mention that before my visit to Riau I had been to Indonesia several times, due in no small part to my mixed family background. My mother was born in Tondano, Sulawesi Utara, and my father is from Adelaide, so my reflections on Indonesian life would probably have differed from those who hadn’t been before. This particular time, however, was  different.  I spent two months in Riau with 35 other young Australians and Indonesians as part of the AIYEP.

Participating at the AIYEP

During the first phase of our particular program, 18 young Indonesians were selected from different provinces and spent two months in workplaces in South Australia—one month in an urban setting and one month in a rural setting. Before the start of the second phase, 18 young Australians selected from all over the country  gathered in Adelaide to join our Indonesian counterparts before we all travelled, in stages, to Riau Province in Sumatra to undertake a similarly divided stay—a month in the country followed by a month in the city.

The purpose of AIYEP is to promote cultural exchange and to build people-to-people contacts among the youth of both countries. According to Australian embassy staff in Jakarta, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ political ties between the two nations are already quite strong but the visible personal links need more development.

To encourage this, AIYEP pairs off the Australian and Indonesian participants and then billets them with Indonesian families for the major part of the stay. I was lucky enough to have Iqbal Amin, a medical student from Aceh, as my counterpart. We still stay in touch and I look forward to visiting him in the near future.

Cross-cultural exchange

For the cross-cultural exchange component each group had to develop a cultural performance to be presented to various schools. Indonesia is blessed with a rich, diverse and easily accessible culture of performing arts that made the Indonesian participants’ task of creating a show relatively easy. This was in contrast to we Australian students who were struggling to find any unifying song or dance that was unambiguously ‘Australian’. Each Indonesian participant came with his or her own unique cultural library replete with songs, dances and even language—the cultural exchange was probably as much between the Indonesian provinces represented in our group as it was between Indonesia and Australia!

The other major contrast was immediately noticeable upon arriving in Jakarta. An Indonesian street—and this applies to rural laneways as well as to city thoroughfares—is a hive of economic activity. Coming home early one morning after a night out I was shocked to find the fruit markets outside our hotel abuzz with trade. The fact that people are trading, eating, sipping cool drinks and walking every which way makes it easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers, and to generally ‘be sociable’ against a backdrop of food and drink vendors lining the streets at every hour. The flow of human interaction, especially in public spaces, is astounding and is in particular contrast to Adelaide’s comparatively sterile streets.

This is, it has to be acknowledged, a natural function of population density, but is also, I think, due to an Indonesian knack for identifying economic opportunity. There are rarely any public spaces without an accompanying ‘value-added’ activity—without a service or a range of goods being offered. This is in large part due to economic necessity, because of the little social welfare, but none-the-less unimpeded by regulatory barriers, an Indonesian streetscape is a perfect picture of entrepreneurial self-expression.

We Australians noticed for instance, especially in the rural phase, that most adults had several streams of income. On most days my host-dad tended to his small holdings of rubber, palm oil, and fruit trees in the morning, then dealt with his petrol wholesaling business after lunch, driving his truck to the large petrol station a few villages away then reselling his purchase to the several roadside warung.

My village

My village stay was idyllic. The sense of community engendered in a small village where everyone knows the neighbours, and where kids are free to roam from house to house, is remarkable.

There were, of course, difficulties along the way—including frustrating infrastructure problems (such as electricity black-outs most nights) and having to deal with provincial governments and the high esteem in which some higher ranking bureaucrats seemed to hold themselves.

But I think I speak on behalf of all the Australian participants when I say our impression of Indonesian rural life, whether this be visiting schools or staying with our host parents, was overwhelmingly positive. There is a cheeky, cheerful humour that both countries seem to hold in common, which comes to the fore during the daily grind but which often goes unrecognised or unacknowledged.

Lessons for Australian-Indonesian Relationships 

Australian–Indonesian relations have a long way to go but I came back from the trip optimistic for the future. Although the two countries are culturally and historically very different, we have enough in common to build strong ties into the future. My optimism is in no small part thanks to those who have been quietly working on the link well before so-called ‘The Asian Century’ became topical and before talk regarding the relations between the two counties became fashionable—for instance, those involved in the AIYEP program or my parents’ marriage, both of which celebrated their respective 30th anniversaries this year. Thanks to programs and people like these, young Australian like myself interested in furthering relations between the two nations have a strong base to work from.

*Visit the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s homepage for further information about the AIYEP.

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Filed under Australia, Culture, Education, Indonesia, PPIA academic discussion

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