Eyes and Ears on the Election: What Indonesian Students Want American Voters to Hear

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A student at SMA 3 Pangkalpinang with a message for American voters.

–By Lizzy Hardison–

At the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington, DC this summer, it only took one hour for conversation to turn to Donald Trump.

“As we know, there’s an election this year, and I’m wondering what we do if the country elects the candidate with, shall we say, some xenophobic tendencies,” one scholar said during the question and answer session with our first speaker.

The woman hedged her question with bemusement, and it was met with groans and laughter from the room. Fulbright Scholars are charged with representing America overseas, and the prospect of explaining the rise of Donald Trump seemed daunting at best and impossible at worst. But the good-humored grimaces at the first (tacit) mention of the Republican nominee revealed another general attitude: the idea of a President Trump also seemed like a joke.

Throughout the weekend, representatives from the State Department and experts on the East-Asia Pacific region told us that people overseas had their eyes trained on American polls. As one speaker put it, “when America elects a president, the rest of the world feels like it’s electing a president, too.”

Whenever Americans talk about the global interest in our electoral process, I assume that latent ethnocentrism and American exceptionalism make them overestimate the importance of our politics in the lives of non-Americans. While I understand that our country’s foreign policy affects foreign populations in countless and significant ways every day, I expected that people in my Indonesian community would be more concerned with local and national issues than with the pageantry of an American election. I figured that I would field a few questions about the race, display the requisite amount of shame for the Republican nominee, and call it a day on November 8 when he inevitably lost.

That was in June. As the summer progressed, Trump’s campaign evaded the total implosion that many people — including myself — expected. By the time the 2016-2017 cohort of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) arrived in Indonesia in late August, the possibility of representing America under President Trump (in broken Bahasa, in my case) seemed unnervingly real.

Over the past two and a half months in Indonesia, I’ve had a handful of conversations about the election. Trump’s brand of moneymaking machismo seems to have particular purchase among men here: at least one has told me that he respects Trump’s career as a businessman. To my surprise, I didn’t encounter any outright contempt for an openly Islamophobic candidate.

That is, until I polled my English Club.

For our meeting on Monday, I prepared a lesson on the election. I provided handouts describing America’s separation of powers and gave brief sketches of Trump and Clinton’s platforms. Before distributing the materials, I asked my students what they already knew about the two major party candidates.  

“Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims?” one of them volunteered.

When I confirmed that that was one of his policy proposals, they wanted to know more. Would Muslims be barred from entering the country for tourism? Would they be allowed to study abroad in America?   

I told them I didn’t know the answer to these questions. Like most of his policy proposals, Trump’s plan for implementing the Muslim ban has been vague and ill-defined. If he were to be elected, it’s not even clear whether or not it would be constitutional. But the intricacies of policy-making and constitutionality doesn’t matter to my students, who only hear that they are unwanted and feared overseas.

I ended that day’s lesson with a question for my students: what message would you send to American voters on Election Day? Some of them agreed to let me record their responses, which I compiled in this video below.

Lizzy Hardison is teaching at SMAN 3 in Pangkal Pinang, Bangka. An aspiring journalist, Lizzy came to Indonesia because she was motivated to spend time in a country that is underrepresented in western media. Lizzy plans to pursue journalism fellowships in the United States when her grant year ends, with the hope of returning to Indonesia for reporting trips in the future. When she isn’t teaching, you can find her reading, doing yoga and muay thai, and baking banana bread in her rice cooker. 

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