For William Yuen Yee being a beginner again is a challenge he embraces wholeheartedly. After dedicating over a decade to Mandarin Chinese, participating in CLS Chinese in 2019 and NSLI-Y in 2018, William dove headfirst into learning Indonesian and is currently participating in CLS Indonesian hosted by Universitas Negeri Malang in Malang, Indonesia.
William joined CLS Communications Officer Rori DiFiore virtually from Malang to discuss his CLS experience so far, the joy of being a beginner again, and what has surprised him most about the Indonesian language and people.
William recently graduated from Columbia University in New York with a double major in East Asian Studies and Political Science and hopes to use his East Asian regional expertise and Mandarin Chinese and Indonesian language skills in a career as a foreign policy advisor to U.S. government officials.
Rori DiFiore: What motivated you to begin learning Indonesian?
William Yuen Yee: I was interning for the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic International Studies. My boss, who knew I was interested in a career centered in the Indo-Pacific region, asked me, “Have you ever considered learning Indonesian?” He talked about how Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim majority country and the third largest democracy. It's a big player in geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. Beyond that, it was the excitement of tackling a new language and a new country for the first time. I’d admittedly forgotten what it was like to learn a new language, because I've been learning Chinese for over a decade now. I was excited to travel to Southeast Asia and be a new language learner for the first time in more than 10 years.
RD: There is something special about being a beginner again. How is this experience different from your CLS Chinese experience?
WY: As a Chinese American in China, I always felt like I was compensating for the fact that I look native Chinese. My Chinese is strong, but people also expect that when they look at me. I’ve gained more confidence in understanding what it means to know a language because in Indonesia, I’m very much a beginner. In that way, my experience here has helped me better contextualize my past study abroad experiences in China and Taiwan, as well as to have more confidence in my Mandarin language abilities. Every day here is so exciting. I'm learning new vocabulary all the time and I have a massive list of words on my phone which keeps growing. It's so fun because everything is brand new—the food, the culture. To give a specific example, I went to Yogyakarta a couple of weekends ago and watched the Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan Temple. It was amazing. It's a Hindu story and is told in traditional ballet style dance—I just loved it. I'd never seen anything like it before. In the U.S., often when people talk about Asia, they are discussing East Asia and specifically China. Living in Indonesia and experiencing this country had opened my eyes to just how diverse the continent that we call Asia is.
RD: What has your experience as an Asian-American in China, Taiwan, and now in Indonesia been like?
WY: That's always something I love about opportunities like CLS where you have the chance to serve as a citizen diplomat. In Taiwan and China, people would ask me, “Where are you from?” And I’d tell them that I’m from America and they wouldn’t believe me. They’d say perplexed, “You're from America? Well, you don't look like an American.” I used it as an opportunity to explain to them that America is a diverse country with people of all different ethnicities. I love sharing that there are over five million Chinese Americans in America too. Because my Indonesian language ability remains somewhat elementary, I get treated as an American. When I met people here in Indonesia, I take the opportunity to explain how my family came from Taiwan. Of course, I identify first as an American. I want to work for the U.S. government in the future, because I think America is a truly singular place where you can come from all over, no matter your past or background, and make an impact and a difference. The U.S. is unique for that reason. I really love these opportunities to share my personal experiences and background with the locals I meet here.
RD: What’s one thing about Indonesia that has surprised you most?
WY: The biggest shock has been a concept called santai, which means to relax. It’s not just a word but a way of life in Indonesia and specifically Malang. It's been a huge culture shock and adjustment for me, almost more than the language. Little things like the pace at which I walk, my language partners, and teachers will comment on it, “You walk so quickly.” I must walk at an American speed. After all, I went to Columbia and lived in New York. Indonesians prefer to walk slowly. I think they sometimes appreciate life more.
One of the coolest moments I had was in Yogyakarta. We went to the palace of the Sultan there which is surrounded by palace guards. It's a traditional ceremonial practice for guards to keep watch outside the palace similar to Buckingham Palace. The guards carry these weapons called kris. I asked one guard offhand if he could tell me about the kris. A few of them were just hanging out, sitting on this carpet, lounging around casually, some were smoking. One guard starts showing me his kris and explaining the different parts of it. The wilah is the main part of the dagger. The hulu, or hilt, reflects the social status of the owner, and its distinctive design can tell you where a specific kris is from within Indonesia. He spent 45 minutes just chatting with us. That's been a common thing—whether it's shop owners I buy fruit from or juices from—they're just so open to talking. In the U.S., we're always looking to direct our attention to the next person or place. It's refreshing that the people here are just so friendly. And they'll talk to you for like an hour...and that's normal.
RD: What a stark contrast to western culture and places like Buckingham Palace where guards are expected to be stoic. Have you noticed that Indonesian culture is less hierarchical than the U.S. or maybe even other Asian cultures?
WY: You completely nailed it. It is the opposite of hierarchical, it is very open. I think it's one of the reasons I've been able to improve at the pace I have. Language learning, which would otherwise be a very grueling process, has not been, because I like our language partners and my teachers so much. We have a fantastic excursion team that goes with us to places on the weekends including a documentation team that takes pictures. I'm close friends with all of them. We sometimes call ourselves the Sate Crew because every Tuesday night we go out for sate. It’s always such a cool moment sitting on these plastic stools at local warungs and eating together. Someone’s usually yelling at the soccer match on the TV. We play badminton on Thursdays and futsal on Wednesdays. Not only is my language improving, because I am talking with them a lot, but I also want to improve because I can have more enriched and better conversations. It's motivation to get even closer. I've just been blown away by how friendly the Indonesian people are.
RD: You seem so well acclimated even though it's only your third week! Even having set things, you do on certain days of the week. It really sounds like you’ve developed a life there.
WY: I’ve studied abroad a few times before. During both CLS in China and NSLI-Y in Taiwan, I was in the highest-level class. I was the go-to person for questions, “Can you ask the shop owner to order these noodles?” I’m in a different place now being in Indonesia and I’m embracing it. It’s important to forgive yourself for the mistakes and have a good sense of humor about making mistakes. Be open to it. You can’t learn without trying. And fortunately, people in Indonesia are so nice. They correct me in a very nice way. I think I've acclimated much more quickly than I expected.
RD: You shared with us this fantastic photo of you and a mango vendor. Can you tell us the story behind it?
WY: We had just learned numbers and how to say things like, “Oh, that's a little expensive, I'm a student. Is there a discount?” Every week we take a field trip, and that week, we traveled to a traditional market to practice bargaining. It was an opportunity to put our skills into action. I went up to the mango vendor and bargained with him a little. I ended up buying the mango for probably less than one U.S. dollar. It’s incredible - mangos are so cheap here. And it was the most delicious mango! Later on, the vendor came up to ask me where I was from, and we just started talking. I learned that he shows up to work at five every morning and doesn’t leave until after four in the afternoon. I asked him about his family and his kids. His eyes lit up when he spoke about his kids, who were still in middle school. It surprised me because from the outside looking in, it seemed at odds with the santai culture that so many Indonesians were working grueling schedules like this mango vendor. I was struck by that. I think for Indonesians, it’s not work if you don’t view it as work. There’s so much I admire about how they approach life.
RD: What’s one of your favorite memories from your time so far?
WY: Over the weekend we went to a traditional Javanese mask making place called topeng. These masks were traditionally used in performances that retold Hindu epics. It’s interesting that although Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, they are very open to other religions. In fact, many of Indonesia’s most famous cultural sites are Hindu temples and traditional ballets and dances that are often based on Hindu or Buddhist epics. I had just had the opportunity to paint my own mask and I was carrying it back when I bumped into a large group of kids—over 15 second graders. They stopped because they saw goats by the side of the road and then saw me. They asked me why I had this very traditional looking mask. The only city they knew was Los Angeles, which is where I happen to be from! We started talking about the Lakers and LeBron James and what they were learning in school. They were over the moon—I was the first American they’d ever met. That moment really stuck with me.
RD: What are you most looking forward to in the last couple weeks of your program?
WY: I’m looking forward to continuing to make significant language gains. Coming into this program with no Indonesian experience, initially, I thought I’d get a lot out of the cultural aspects of the program but perhaps a bit less from the language aspects. I think I have proved myself wrong already. I’m able to have real conversations that last five to ten minutes. Sometimes I'll pull out Google Translate but still I’m communicating! I'm able to have longer conversations than just a week ago and apply new things that I learned in class to that conversation. I have close friends in my cohort that are stronger Indonesian speakers than me. In the beginning I leaned on them to help me communicate, but now, I feel more comfortable speaking up for myself.
RD: Tell me more about your cohort and what’s been like connecting with them!
WY: Support is really crucial because it's an intense program emotionally and mentally. I’ve been able to lean on my cohort. There is also so much diversity in terms of our paths to learning Indonesian. One of my closest friends learned Indonesian when he enlisted in the military. Some of my other friends are Indonesian and heritage speakers, while others have experience reading Indonesian novels and poems, and playing traditional Indonesian instruments like gamelan. Some decided to learn Indonesian because of their love for badminton. If you follow badminton, you’ll know the sport is practically a religion here.
Our cohort truly reflects the diversity of the United States. Admittedly, I had never before met an Indonesian in America or people interested in studying Indonesian language, culture, and history. CLS introduces you to new ways of thinking and expands your understanding and empathy, not only towards the local people you meet overseas, but also towards your fellow Americans. I remain incredibly grateful for the close friendships forged and memories shared with my cohort.