JAKARTA -- "People in the United States often ask me about Islam because they're curious," said Salsabila Diar, an Indonesian exchange student who is studying in Virginia, when asked about her interactions with Americans. Diar shared her experience abroad through Skype in a discussion entitled "Islam in America: Youth Perspectives" at the @america center in the Pacific Place Mall in Jakarta in late February.
An innovative high-tech U.S. cultural center, @america officially launched in December 2010 and is the first of its kind in the world. The center routinely hosts discussions that visitors can join for free. In addition to interactive dialogues on various topics -- from Islam in America to grunge music -- @america frequently organizes workshops and concerts, and assists Indonesian students who want to study in the United States. These efforts are providing opportunities to further strengthen bilateral relations and reduce prejudices of the "other" held by people in both countries.
While American films, songs and other pop culture products have long been popular in this country, the image of the United States is not always positive among Indonesians. Sometimes Indonesians are upset by U.S. political, social, and economic policies considered detrimental to Indonesia and other Muslim-majority countries, like the U.S. government's intervention in counter-terrorism in Indonesia and decision to abstain in the UN Palestine vote last November. These policies lead to perceptions among Indonesians that the United States is controlling and hostile toward Muslims.
Events at @america have changed some Indonesians' perceptions about the United States. For example, Suci Sekarwati, a journalist for Koran Jakarta, a national newspaper, shared her thoughts on the recent talk: "The 'Islam in America' discussion I attended showed me that Muslims in the US enjoy the same rights as other citizens."
Similarly, Aprilia Ramadhina, an art aficionado who participated in a number of arts-related events at @america, was happily surprised to see how receptive the United States is to Indonesia's arts scene. "It's good to see Indonesian musicians like Gugun Blues Shelter [a blues band that has been gaining popularity in the United States] perform at @america. It shows that the United States is open to Indonesian music," she said.
Having @america located in a mall is a perfect way to blend with Indonesia's modern urban scene and to grow interest in people-to-people exchange between Indonesia and the United States.
However, the windowless walls and the extra security at the center -- lockers to deposit bags so that visitors do not bring them inside, in addition to security scanners -- give an exclusive atmosphere which make some visitors uncomfortable and may be counterproductive to @america's goals. @america could mirror other foreign cultural centers in Jakarta, such as the Netherlands' Erasmus Huis and Germany's Goethe Institute, where visitors are allowed to bring their bags inside and open spaces give a laid-back ambiance.
Apart from wanting to improve relations with Indonesians on a people-to-people level, the United States chose Indonesia as the first country to launch @america for two main reasons. According to John Y. Choi, Assistant Cultural Attaché for @america, the first is the high number of Indonesian users of social media, suitable for the high-tech concept of @america. Second, Indonesian students are particularly interested in pursuing their studies in the United States.
"We find that many Indonesian students are curious about the US and they want to know how they can study there. We realize that Indonesian students often pose their questions, express their ideas and sentiments to the US by utilizing the latest technology tools," Choi explained.
To attract students from Indonesia to the United States, the U.S. government has invested considerable funds to build @america and provide scholarship opportunities like the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) and the Fulbright Program.
"For those who want to study in the U.S. in particular, @america has provided many beneficial programs. In addition, the U.S. government is now more cooperative when it comes to visa issuance for Indonesian students and tourists, including those who previously had much difficulty," said Sekarwati.
Despite its minor downsides, @america is a representation of the United States' goodwill toward Indonesia. With more interaction and mutual understanding, the respectful relations between both countries could improve and lead to a more fruitful partnership.
by Faya Suwardi
Faya Suwardi is a Jakarta-based freelance journalist. She previously worked as a sports and economy reporter for various media outlets such as Bola, Sport Week, Kompas.com and Koran Jakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), April 9, 2013. Copyright permission is granted for publication.