The National Australia Indonesia Language Awards (NAILA), now in its second year, encourages youth at a variety of stages in life to hone their Indonesian language skills with a speech competition. This year’s Awards Ceremony was held in Melbourne on 14-15 October and was attended by a number of high-profile guests, including the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia His Excellency Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema. We invited Tertiary Awardee Shanti Omodei-James to describe just how she came to present her speech submission at the event.

My relationship with Indonesia is a long and complex one, albeit at times somewhat temperamental. Although there were many frequent trips to Indonesia as a young child, my relationship with the country realistically only began at the age of eight when my mother decided to spend a year in Yogyakarta and bring her two young daughters along. To be quite honest, I am not sure what she was thinking! It is safe to say I had my doubts. I had never been to Java before, could not speak the language and was terrified my friends in Adelaide would somehow forget me. Keep in mind I was eight and not simply being melodramatic.

Shanti presenting at the NAILA Awards Ceremony 2016. Photo: NAILA

It was some 15-odd years later when I nervously recited my speech at the 2016 NAILA awards ceremony. My journey to that point was similar to many others. On a whim I had decided to study Indonesian at university, deciding that learning the language properly was the least I could do for a country and a people who had treated me so well as a young girl. A year and a half after studying Indonesian through Flinders University, I attempted to put my language to the test and participate in an Australian Consortium for ‘In-country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) exchange program. I can safely say this was a shock to the system. I found out very quickly that learning Indonesian in the classroom was no match for people-to-people interaction. My awkward and excessively formal Indonesian got me by for the first two months before a friend asked me to her home town. Two weeks of no English and lots of hand signalling enhanced my Indonesian skills far more than six months in the classroom ever could have.

From that point onward I made a conscious effort to engage with Indonesian people wherever possible. Whether it be on an eight hour train ride across Java, in the middle of a bustling market, or even with my very chummy ojek driver. Upon returning to Adelaide I found it understandably more difficult to interact with Indonesians. I recall spending my time on campus attempting to eavesdrop on conversations in any attempt to hear some Indonesian, often transgressing the lines of normal social interaction. In the end I was fortunate enough to find AIYA. With persistent effort I managed to find myself surrounded by a lovely cohort of Indonesians and fellow Indonesian lovers.

Shanti receiving the Tertiary Award from Ms Julie Barber, Chief Marketing Officer at Allens. Photo: NAILA

Frequent trips to Indonesia had helped to keep my language skills up to par but I craved a new challenge. This was when a friend suggested I apply for NAILA. Winner or not, I thought to myself, what a great chance to refresh my skills and challenge those public speaking skills. Luckily I was able to write about something that I feel quite passionately about, religious pluralism. Having studied this topic extensively in university, I applied for the Tertiary Category and ran with it. When I got down to writing my speech I realised that five minutes would not be enough! I had so much I wanted to say but not enough time to do so. It is amazing how quickly time flies if you feel strongly enough about something. After the last minute scramble to get the video entry submitted in time, I was left waiting, twiddling my thumbs. Then the news came that I had been hoping for.

So there I was, reciting my speech in front a room full of Indonesian language experts, Indonesianists and the Indonesian Ambassador to Austalia. The experience was both daunting and rewarding. The NAILA awards weekend was beyond my highest expectations. I was blown away by all of the other winners, especially those from the primary and high school categories. I sat there smiling and giggling like a little girl as I realised there was a whole community of like-minded Indonesianists. A group of young Australians who, despite Indonesia’s sometimes challenging demeanour, retain a deep love for the country and its people. Of course meeting the fellow awardees and wonderful NAILA volunteers was another great highlight. Over the course of the weekend I came to the realisation that everyone’s journey to Indonesia is a unique one but like an elusive drug, once you get a taste of the crazy, perplexing and outstandingly beautiful country that is Indonesia, you will forever crave more.

I would like to briefly take the chance to thank the brilliant people behind NAILA, in particular Sally Hill. Without this passionate team of volunteers, my experience would not have been possible. The importance of such a competition is vital in the current bilateral climate, with any program supporting Indonesian language learning a big step in encouraging Indonesia-Australia engagement.

2016 NAILA awardees with HE Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, his wife Mrs Nino Nadjib Riphat and Consul-General Ibu Dewi Savitri Wahab. Photo: NAILA

For any future competition participants out there, I would highly encourage you to challenge yourself and enter NAILA. Find a topic you are passionate about and share it with the world. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to create your speech and even more time for the deceptively easy task of submitting the video entry. Keep practicing your Indonesian. For those currently in Indonesia, why not chat with a taxi driver or simply do your best to engage with people on a personal level. Your skills in Indonesia are highly valued, providing you with a diverse range of career opportunities. Most importantly however, your ability to communicate with a person from a different country in their own language allows you to see the world from a different perspective. Your cultural understating will grow, as will your worldview and of course your friendships. Selamat belajar!

Shanti has spent the past four years dividing her time between Indonesia and Australia. While completing her undergraduate degree in Development Studies from the University of Adelaide, she participated in both AIYEP and ACICIS exchanges. She has spent the last year conducting her Honours research with Flinders University on religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue in Indonesia.