Embracing My Stuttering During a Protest in Jakarta
On a seasonably warm and very humid August day in 2013, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, and gathered outside the U.S. Embassy, chanting anti-U.S. sentiment. Many held up signs with messages of anti-Zionism and calling the United States “imperialist” for its military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The local police force and National Guard were dispatched to the area to guard the embassy and to instill order, should violence ensue.
What could possibly go wrong for someone fresh out of college and who since the third grade has had chronic speech disfluency? In each of the countries I had visited prior, I relished the opportunity to engage with locals and was never in fear of spontaneity. Confidently approaching a group of people or just one individual to engage in conversation was a commonality wherever I traveled.
Seven months into what would eventually turn out to be a nearly two-year foray traveling independently around the world, I arrived in the heart of Jakarta, Indonesia to a situation I was unprepared for. Sure, I had seen similar protests play out on the silver screen, on the evening news or had even read about in the newspaper, but this was real life.
The chaotic scene unfolding in front of me should have been a warning to steer clear, particularly for someone unfamiliar with the country and the sensitivity of its population to American policies in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to me, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates had sent out an email alert to all U.S. citizens in and traveling to Jakarta to avoid the city due to the demonstrations.
The U.S. embassy was already prepared for such an occasion. Barbed wire wrapped around the perimeter of the compound, and security guards outfitted head to toe in tactical gear were armed with pistols and carried assault rifles. They manned entry points up and down the length of the embassy grounds. Concrete barriers were also erected along the outside of the embassy to prevent vehicle entry.
As the minutes passed and as more and more curious onlookers gathered about to find out what the protest was all about, I decided to enter the fray. While the area surrounding the embassy was without violence – all but for one protester who decided to burn the U.S. flag – I decided to explore this dynamic, energetic environment and engage in conversation as best as possible with a few protesters and policemen about their views towards the U.S. I was overly enthusiastic because I was literally in a situation where I could finally put my studies in international relations and personal interest in global affairs to practical use. A quasi-diplomat? Why not.
From the periphery, I nervously approached one of the demonstrators knowing full well that it was obvious to her and everyone else that I was a foreigner. I was conscious of the fact that I stood out, and ironically would use this to my advantage. Aware of my excitement and increased heart rate – bodily signs that acted as precursors to instances of stuttering during conversation – I took a deep breath and remembered to enunciate my words, just as my speech therapist had instructed.
Marwar, a 20-something year-old woman who was from the area, came to protest the American military presence in Iraq and was livid about the past administration of President George W. Bush. I felt no animosity by Marwar, whose command of English — to the fullest extent we could converse — impressed me. Slowing my speech down as time and again she would ask me to repeat what I was trying to say and to use less words for my questions was in and of itself speech therapy, and a bridge uniting our oft-broken conversation. Never did it cross my mind that throughout our conversation I did not stutter once.
With as many distractions happening around me that engulfed my senses, my focus was concentrated on Marwar and understanding her feelings towards my country. I was not subconsciously thinking about my stutter or when my stutter would reveal itself during our conversation.
As I continued to roam around the area, intent on speaking with someone from law enforcement or the military, I was unnerved because of the amount of weapons both police officers and National Guard soldiers carried and my lack of command of any of the native languages spoken in Indonesia. Meeting Marwa was a stroke of luck. How then would I approach armed policemen or members of the military and engage them in conversation?
As foolish or naive as this may sound, I decided to pull out my U.S. passport from my pack and walk towards several policemen who were hanging out by their motorcycles along a side street, parallel with the Embassy.
Immediately as I came within their vision, they began yelling at me and waving their hands in the air for me to come to them. My heart rate skyrocketed as a result and I knew without a doubt I would have disfluent speech sometime over the course of conversation.
I walked over to the three police officers, showing them my passport and speaking slowly while enunciating each word in precision: “I am an American visiting Jakarta for the week,” I began. One of the officers grabbed hold of my passport, inspecting it for the proper visa and told me as best he could in English, that I should not be in this area. “Go!” “Leave,” he instructed.
I knew my time and their patience with me was limited, so I rattled off several questions to the officers about what their impressions were of the U.S. and what other reasons they thought protesters had for demonstrating in front of the U.S. Embassy. It became clear that neither the police officers nor myself could make sense of what each other was saying. Trying to use alternative words and rephrase my questions elicited facial grimaces and abnormal breathing as I began to stutter.
My nerves got the best of me as I hastily spoke, disregarding the fundamentals of what I had learned in speech therapy and through many a spontaneous conversation. The chants and sheer number of protesters, the heat and humidity of that afternoon and the foreign environment that surrounded me all coalesced into one of the greatest challenges I have faced in communicating. Were it not for the soft smile and genuine appreciation for my attempt to converse shown by the officers, the experience of the afternoon’s event would not have been as enriching and memorable.
I refocused on my words and gave a pat on the back of the officer nearest to me in order to lighten the conversation and attempt to befriend them. The instant the mood and conversation changed from formal, serious questioning to informal and lighthearted, I felt at ease as I waded into back and forth chatter. I exchanged smiles with the officers and even showed them photos from my other travels prior to arriving in Jakarta.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best,“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” My speech impediment has been a defining feature ever since I can remember. But on that unforeseen, chaotic and hot August day in 2013, a language barrier and speaking barrier by no means obstructed the intimate conversation or ability to understand between myself and local Indonesians. Were it not for living with a speech impediment and as a result, developing a highly attuned sense of self-confidence that propelled me into spontaneous conversations, the path I blazed in Jakarta would have never have come to fruition.