Welcome to Indonesia — can you sing for us?

I arrive at a school committee meeting during my first week at my site in Madiun. It’s early morning on a Saturday, and the first thing I see as I walk in the building with my headmaster is a gigantic banner with my name printed in glaring yellow block letters.

I was unaware I was the featured guest of the meeting until this very moment.

Sure enough, as 250 parents file into the audience, I am shown to a seat at one of the front tables equipped with microphones. Am I supposed to give a speech? Do I need to speak in bahasa Indonesia or Jawa, as few of these parents will know any bahasa Inggris (English)?

SMA 6 Madiun welcome

Kelsey Figone was welcomed to her East Java school with a large banner — and a demand for some impromptu singing. (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

The meeting opens with inspiring musical performances by the students. One boy sings a traditional Javanese song and a pair of girls confidently sing an Indonesian pop duet that I recognize from the radio.

As this duet winds down, Ibu Yuni points to me and says, “Sing!” Ibu Yuni has limited English skills, so I’m sure she can’t possibly mean that it is my turn to sing. I turn to Pak Budiono, my English-teaching counterpart, in confusion. He says plainly, “Your turn to sing” and hands me a microphone.

I sit shocked for a moment. What? My first impression with these parents will be to spontaneously sing? I tell Pak Budiono I don’t know any Indonesian songs and urgently try to shove the microphone back. He replies, “English is fine, I translate.” I am lifted to a standing position and pushed to the middle of the stage with the microphone.

Ok, I am going to sing. What should I sing? In South Africa, I often asked my students to sing me the South African national anthem because I thought it sounded beautiful, and most everyone in South Africa can sing. In return, I always sang the U.S. national anthem. That seems as good an option as any, especially since I lack musical accompaniment; I could use it as an American teaching moment. I briefly introduce myself in Indonesian, and explain that I will sing my country’s national anthem and that I hope to learn the Indonesian anthem, too.

I hum the beginning softly to make sure I don’t start in an unsustainable key, and begin:

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars…”

I forgot the national anthem. My own country’s national anthem. I have sung it dozens of times to my students in South Africa, but I probably haven’t sung it once since. I know that I know it; I simply can’t remember it in this moment. My mind is blank – all I know is that I have to keep going. I also know that the majority of my audience knows zero English, and those that do know English won’t be able to understand me if I sing very fast.

So what do I do?

I speed up the tempo and insert random syllables. Pak Budiono, who has been humming along with me, stops confusedly, but I hope it’s only because I have increased the tempo.

When I finish belting the word “brave” – I can at least remember the end – all the parents and the teachers clap. Pak Budiono asks me to tell him what the song is about so he can relay it to the audience. I exhale – no one has noticed.

The rest of the meeting goes smoothly, although I have a difficult time staying awake during the 3-hour discussion about budgets and goals conducted entirely in bahasa Indonesia. I am presented with a beautiful fragrant flower wreath as a welcome gesture from the parents, and I give a short speech in a cobbled mixture of bahasa Indonesia and English. I conclude my speech with “maturnuwun,” which makes the audience clap and laugh with glee. (“Maturnuwun” means thank you in Javanese, and Madiun people are ecstatic when I make an effort to not only speak bahasa Indonesia, but also bahasa Jawa.)

Inevitably, I take countless pictures with my fellow teachers under the banner emblazoned with my name. I have been officially welcomed into the community of SMA 6, and people compliment my singing voice – my national anthem faux pas has luckily escaped notice.

About the author: Kelsey Figone is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Madiun, East Java. She is a managing editor and contributor to Indonesiaful. Figone graduated from Scripps College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture, studying language and human rights. Contact her at kfigone531@gmail.com.

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