Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

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A view of the presidential palace in Bogor Gardens.

Indonesia is a diverse, pluralistic nation with over a hundred different ethnic groups. It’s also got politics, so political talk is inevitable: currently, the city of Jakarta is in turmoil because the former Chinese governor Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, while the man who accused him and drove the campaign for his blasphemy trial, the Muslim cleric Anis, is taking control as governor. Any takers for a serialized TV show on this stuff?

We’ve had a few chats on Trump and the state of the states while here, mostly in English. And they people who we’re talking with range from sympathy to total surprise when it comes to our reaction regarding Trump. A friend who directs policy at a nonprofit shook her head with us at the insanity already unfolding in the states – things like the immigration travel ban and the proposed wall with Mexico. Then there was the uniformed military officer in Bogor Garden who wanted a selfie with us. He asked what we thought about Trump after the photo, and was genuinely perplexed when I put my face in my hands and replied, “Terrible. Embarrassing. Bad.” Then again, Indonesia (and much of Asia) has a history of leaders that the Western world condemned for being dictators and strongmen. Trump’s tactics are likely to appeal to them.

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An Indonesian war monument and poorly-placed deer amusement park sign near Bogor gardens, where we had one of our Trump conversations.

But for our last night in Jakarta, we got the same question about Trump from locals in Glodok who DEFINITELY didn’t speak English. They were the guys who made our dinner at their nasi goreng cart. They wanted to know the usual at first, why we came to Indonesia and whether we liked it and where we were from. After using my broken Indonesian to convey we were from the U.S., the two exchanged glances and one of them asked, “Trump?”

Ohhh boy, where to start. I started with the “Bad for the U.S., bad leader,” description, but the guys didn’t understand that. After trying to explain for a few minutes, I gave up. Then the guy asked again, “Trump?” but this time he accompanied it with a thumbs up/thumbs down motion. BRILLIANT! I made a dramatic, emphatic thumbs down motion, which set the two guys off in laughter and excited talking.

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The two nasi-goreng chefs who taught us to talk politics without using words.

Now it’s my turn: I ask “Ahok?” and give the same thumbs up/thumbs down motion. I’m curious to know what they think of their former governor, now convicted of blasphemy. I would guess since we’re in Glodok (an enclave of the Chinese minority), they would like him. I’m totally surprised when they give the thumbs down, and make a motion like calling to the sky: blasphemy. He blasphemed Allah. This sign language politics communication is working pretty well.

I ask one more question of our two nasi goreng chefs: “Jokowi?” This is Indonesia’s current president. He’s aligned with Ahok, and one of concerns of the Western world and among the Indonesians is that this Ahok-Anis affair bodes poorly for Jokowi in the next election. They fear that Indonesia will become increasingly pro-Muslim and anti-every other minority in Indonesia, electing people with more hardline views. But I’m surprised again by our two chefs; they both enthusiastically give a thumbs up for Jokowi! His popularity remains unscathed, at least with these two locals.

So the next time you’re in a country and can’t speak the language, you can still talk politics (or anything!) in the simplest possible terms. Just say the word and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. It’s not going to get you a detailed political analysis, but it gets you a feeling, and you might be surprised at how much you can communicate without words.

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