Thu, 25 Mar 1999

Indonesians finds home away from home at UC Berkeley

By Dewi Anggraeni

BERKELEY, California (JP): Mention University of California Berkeley to an Indonesian who grew up in the 1970s or even in the late 1960s, you will most likely be told of Professor Widjojo Nitisastro's think tank, also known as the "Berkeley Mafia".

The Berkeley Mafia was the first batch of technocrats whose collective expertise was utilized by the New Order government to revamp Indonesia's dire economic situation at the time.

While the New Order government itself may have outlasted its usefulness in Indonesia, the core of the Berkeley Mafia, such as Professors Ali Wardhana, Emil Salim and Subroto, still hold considerable standing among economic experts.

Curiously, if we then associate UC Berkeley with free market economy or hard-nosed economic rationalism in its Southeast Asian Studies Program, the current courses offered do not reinforce that supposition. Instead, listed are culturally oriented courses such as Orality and Literacy in Insular Southeast Asia; the Poetry of Indonesia and Malaysia in Translation; Articulations of the Female in Indonesia, and specifically in the Malay/Indonesian field, language courses. Offered as well are seminars and readings in Malay letters and oral traditions, and in modern and traditional Indonesian and Malay Literature.

Has the university changed direction? The short answer is No. Along with other universities in the Western world, UC Berkeley is still in the forefront of social, political, technological as well as cultural and literary research and studies. What the Berkeley Mafia has revealed is only one facet. While compared to Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, Indonesia does not loom high in the Southeast Asian Studies Program, it is the quality that counts. An Indonesia component may be present in various courses, from Economic Development, Political Science, International Economics, Law, Geography, History, to Civil and Environmental Engineering. In fact, Dr. Eric Crystal, now heading Southeast Asian Studies, is a self-confessed Indonesianist.

The Southeast Asian Studies Program at UC Berkeley was inaugurated in 1954 to meet a national need and the extensive interest in the region. Eric Crystal also pointed out that during World War II, UC Berkeley became a language training center, assisting the increasing role of the U.S. in the war. Apart from Indonesian and Malay, the other languages taught were Thai, Vietnamese and Malayo-Polynesian linguistics. And after the big war, the U.S. gradually became a haven for many Southeast Asians. California seems to have been their favorite destination for a second home. It is now the home of, for instance, 75,000 Hmongs, 25,000 Miens, 100,000 Cambodians and 100,000 ethnic Laos.

North Asia is still the biggest contributor to California's ethnic Asian population. It is understandable, since the Chinese had been there since the gold rush era of the 1850s. The Japanese came shortly after the war. By the 1990s, there were 300,000 Chinese and over 100,000 Japanese living in California.

It is not clear what came first. The more recent growth of California's Asian population may have stemmed from UC Berkeley's pioneering language training center. However, UC Berkeley's strength in Asian and Southeast Asian Studies may well owe its drive from California's ethnic Asian population. The state especially has a fair representation of Asians, 11 percent out of the total 33 million. San Francisco, across the bay from Berkeley, has the biggest Chinatown outside China.

Interestingly, student population at UC Berkeley is dominated by Asian-Americans, 38 percent. Caucasian-Americans, while being the majority 52 percent in the state, only represent 35 percent of the university's student population. This has caused some resentment on the part of the Caucasian-Americans.

"In other states, the tension is usually between the whites and the blacks, but in California, it is very much between the whites and the Asians," explained Eric Crystal.

In 1960 the Center for Southeast Asian Studies was established to develop research, teaching and training facilities on the region. It has since become a very busy and active department, sponsoring annual Southeast Asian studies conferences, lectures and workshops during academic year and providing numerous opportunities to visiting faculty and scholars from Southeast Asia and other parts of the world to work with Berkeley faculty. Thus, interdisciplinary research and interaction in the region of Southeast Asian studies are promoted.

The university's Southeast Asia library collections are known to be one of the finest collections in the U.S., along with Yale and Cornell universities library collections. Its strength lies especially in social sciences and humanities, available in Western as well as the countries' own languages, covering both prewar and postwar periods of Southeast Asia. There is, for instance, a wide range of Dutch colonial literature on Indonesia, including all the major newspapers and other publications. In fact, according to Professor Ling-chi Wang, chair of the Ethnic Studies Program, the library's Indonesia component is one of the most comprehensive Southeast Asia collections in the U.S.

The Berkeley township grows around the university. It even gives the impression of being an extension of UC Berkeley. The streets, the shops, the book rooms, are full of young people who, from their mannerisms and their clothes, could only be students. Even the older people around are unmistakably academics or academic support staff. The whole town oozes of learning and academia.

In the thick of this atmosphere, even though you are continents away from Indonesia, it does not seem strange speaking the language here.