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Erin nerds out about Asean and languages
The Debrief with Jakarta-based writer Erin Cook
Welcome to The Debrief, the Monday edition of this newsletter where I ask people to share their burning thoughts and interest in hopes of expanding my own.
During the pandemic, I feel like everyone has that one person, event, or thing that they looked to as a sign that things were truly going back to normal. Sure people may have started going back to the office, but on a personal level, things weren’t really “back” until whatever it personal marker they had for themselves took place.
Now everyone, meet Erin, who was that personal marker of normalcy for me.
We first met 10 years ago, when we both worked at the Jakarta Globe newsroom, and I think we just never stopped going out for the occasional beer night since? Except for when COVID-19 happened and she went back to Australia. In my world, nature wasn’t truly healing until I was once again face-to-face with Erin over a few Bintangs somewhere in South Jakarta last year.
Like any big nerd in my life — and if you look at her Goodreads, you’ll understand that she’s a major one — I sometimes wonder how or why we’re friends. Sure we can chalk that up to the books we like to read, but Erin goes through her read list at a speed that seriously renders anyone, myself included, a poser, so that wouldn’t make sense. Some days, though, I’d remember we both share the same problematic soft spot for the show Girls, or we’d (unironically?) jam along to Oasis’ “Wonderwall” at the top of our lungs in spin class, or we’d spend the night drinking and I’d wake up to her excellent newsletter in my inbox, and it would all make sense. She’s low-key for someone with big thoughts, and whether at a bar next to you or in her writing, she takes the right things seriously and hates on everything else with cautious self-aware humor, haha.
Erin is the writer of Dari Mulut Ke Mulut newsletter, the publication she’s been running for almost eight years, where she writes biweekly debriefs about current affairs in Southeast Asia. Not to toot my own horn but in 2019, Erin was also co-host of the podcast “Indonesia, dll.”, produced by yours truly and another ex-JG colleague.
OK this intro is getting too long. Here’s Erin nerding out… :)
1. What’s an unpopular opinion or hot take you feel strongly about?
I’m still in Asean-mode so please indulge me in being super nerdy. Every year, the Asean Summit around September/October is time for handwringing about what the “point” of Asean is, can Asean survive? I definitely understand that. There’s been no movement on the South China Sea and the response to Myanmar’s military crackdown is more than disappointing. BUT, and this is where the hot take comes in, Asean in its least credible form — and we are nowhere near that — will always be better than no Asean at all.
I’ve covered Asean now for almost 10 years (which I only really noticed when Jokowi handed over the chair to Laos the other day and I thought “but they only just had it!”) and it’s fascinating to see how deeply engrained it has become. I’ve noticed people using “Asean” as a geographical locale instead of ‘Southeast Asia’ which I know winds a lot of people up, but I think that’s kinda cool! Usually in life I’m an enormous hater, but on this I’m a lover. It feels like we’re watching something big and important build in real time.
Plus I love the (sorry for the buzzword) diversity in the bloc. I don't know much about Europe, and I’ve never been, but I feel like there can’t be as much difference between Germany and France as there is between Laos and Indonesia or between Spain and Portugal and Vietnam and the Philippines. Once Timor-Leste is formally in, it’ll be a new day!
Another quick one: Olivia Rodrigo’s gals need to pull her aside and tell her it’s time to get over it.
2. What’s something you’re currently obsessed with?
Ride in SCBD and Gen’s in Blok M. That’s where, as you know, Christabelle, we go for spin class and beers, respectively. There are cheaper places in town for spin class and beers but I’ve made peace with it. Sometimes, in an enormous city where you don’t have familial roots or old high school friends it’s nice to go places where you’ve become a local.
I simply cannot stop talking about language. I’m doing a course at the moment in Indonesian grammar and it’s popping my brain, but alongside that I’m doing a course through an Australian university about the history of Bahasa Indonesia. Add to that so many of our friends being from all over the country, I can’t hear enough. I’m psyching myself up to begin using “gue”/”lo” and even that is complex! A friend who moved to Jakarta from Sumatra for uni won’t use it because it’s not his, a Betawi friends claims her people invented it and a friend from Jakarta Utara is outraged at that and says it’s all from his people and the Chinese community.
In Australia, the linguists are moving away from the accent model I grew up learning — broad accent (which is what some of our Queenslander friends sound like), general accent (which is me, unless I’ve had a few beers and someone makes a joke about dingoes eating babies and then I go deep broad), and the cultivated accent (this used to be super common for newsreaders and the like but now Cate Blanchett is the only example). This was all formed back in the day when a whole lot of British people and Irish people were mixed up and regional accents that rarely met in the old countries were all on the same street (or penal colony, lol). Now they reckon with generations of immigration since the old days changing to Mediterranean and pan-Asia everyone sounds different. And it’s so true! I love watching a Reel from a gal in Western Sydney flooded with comments from people overseas “what accent is THIS?” Well, that’s for sure Lebanese-Australian. I don’t know what they’ll decide on calling these new levels, but isn’t it fascinating! Language!
3. Who’s someone you think more people should know about?
Darathtey Din! She’s a Khmer writer and researcher based in Phnom Penh who I became chatty with online during the pandemic when she was trapped in New Zealand. She’s one of those people that when you finally meet face-to-face, in a beautiful bar near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market naturally, nerves immediately dissipate and you’re like, yep this gal’s a proper friend. She writes Campuccino, a fantastic Substack that covers Cambodia with beautiful humour and tact. Cambodia is having an awful time at the moment with press freedoms (and a lot of other freedoms) and she goes out of her way to highlight the work of other writers and reporters producing in these conditions.
She has really interesting things to say about contemporary culture in Cambodia. She’s just written a book, Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia, that I’m so excited to crack into shortly. I’ve also been struck by something she said recently about how the rest of the world is still stuck in seeing Cambodia through the Khmer Rouge/civil war lens. And while it’s a nation-defining event still felt today, for her generation of Cambodians it’s not the only story.
I can’t wait to see what she does next.
4. What’s a life hack or advice that recently changed your life?
I was on bed rest for four weeks a month or so ago and spent that entire time watching 22-year-old YouTube girlies try out the Andrew Huberman morning routine. He’s an American neuroscientist whose whole thing is using science to inform productivity goals. Usually that stuff sounds like garbage, but he’s got some great ideas. He reckons wake up at 6.30 am, get some natural light straight into the eyes, drink some water, do some exercise and then mediate a bit. The content creators stick to his plan solidly for a week and all seem to like it a lot, although most of it doesn’t really work for me (wake up at 6.30 to what? Get an early start on scrolling Twitter and whining about how much it sucks?)
BUT! That waking up with some natural light and a lot of water has been a gamechanger for me, even if it’s at 8am. My kost has a beautiful huge window that only gets direct light between 7.30 and 8am and he’s right! That shit feels nice! Stand there chugging 500ml of water and I feel like Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hold on — is my life hack get out of bed and drink water?
5. What are you looking forward to the most in the coming week?
I’m about to have one of those hellish weeks that are simply unavoidable. I’m trying to drag myself through uni again, so I’ve set aside this week to cram in all the assessment I’ve ignored in favor of hanging out.
I’m going to treat myself to time in Panglima Polim’s most beautiful cafes to write an essay about Buddhism in contemporary Australia in the first half of the week and then sit myself down at my desk on Thursday-Friday and bash out 1500 words on Balai Pustaka. I say that, but I just read your newsletter this morning about a new Netflix doco on the Coffee Murder and that might ruin all plans.
The Debrief is the Monday installation of the Pages Not Found newsletter. Visit past Debriefs with Avi who talked about gatekeeping and Vero who hates ambient music. On Wednesdays, I tend to publish essays. On Fridays, I send out a short pleasure list.