Just last week I reported on a couple of accounts describing Barack Obama's conversational skills in Indonesian, a language he learned living in Indonesia from age six to ten. In both of the accounts, Obama was said to handle conventional Indonesian greeting routines with aplomb. Now thanks to ABC News we have the video evidence, from an exchange that President Obama had with State Department staffer Charles Silver on Thursday as the president worked the State Department rope-line. Silver has been stationed in Jakarta at various times since 1969 and now works in the State Department's Office of Inspector General.
Silver initiates the conversation by saying Selamat siang, Bapak ("Good afternoon, sir"). Obama responds with Terima kasih ("Thank you") and then follows up with Apa kabar? ("How are you?" lit. "What's the news?"), the same standard greeting that Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Obama used when they had a phone conversation last November. Silver responds with the equally standard Baik-baik saja ("Just fine"), and then Obama code-switches out of Indonesian and into English with "Are you, uh…" Silver responds in English, explaining, "I've served in Indonesia many times."
Obama compliments Silver on his "flawless" accent, and they go on to discuss Menteng, the Jakarta neighborhood where they both lived. Obama says he didn't live in the rich section of Menteng, but rather in the subdivision known as "Menteng Dalam," which he glosses as "below Menteng." I'd translate it as "inner Menteng," but perhaps Obama was thinking in terms of the status hierarchy of the neighborhood rather than strict geographical location.
Though this conversation, like the previously reported ones, doesn't rise above basic pleasantries, the readiness of Obama to engage in Indonesian chitchat is still remarkable. Indonesians call such exchanges basa-basi, and the ability to deploy them is seen as central to establishing the pragmatics of polite interaction. Of course, one could say much the same thing about routines of courtesy in any language. But now we know for sure that Obama is, if not bilingual, at least bi-courteous.
[One pet peeve: the ABC News report refers to Obama's proficiency in "Bahasa Indonesian." The language is called Indonesian in English and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesian. "Bahasa Indonesian" is a mix-up of the two terms. This confusion could be avoided by simply referring to the language, in English, as Indonesian, but the imprecise use of the term Bahasa on its own (which simply means "language") by expats and journalists has apparently led to further misunderstanding about the name of the language.]