Friday, January 23, 2009

Keith Davies: A quarter century of Asian immersion

Matheos V. Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 01/23/2009 9:02 AM | People

Keith Davies: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)Keith Davies: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)

If it weren’t for Keith Davies’ first overseas posting to Indonesia some 25 years ago, he might have become a filmmaker.

But all he needed was a few months in Jakarta and his direction changed. Now, after years of working in other countries, Keith Davies returned to Jakarta in December as the new director of the British Council Indonesia.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” Davies says of his first temporary overseas posting with the British Council to Indonesia in 1984. “Lots of staff members were on holiday and I came as an extra UK member of staff just to cover the summer holiday period.”

At that stage, Davies was working in the film and television department of the British Council
in London.

“I was applying for the jobs with the BBC and with filmmaking companies. I thought that perhaps I would move into filmmaking, but I loved travel as well and the trip to Indonesia helped convince me to stay with the British Council.”

During those three months, Davies was able to fit in a tour of Indonesia taking in Yogyakarta, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Bali.

He even climbed Mount Bromo in East Java.

Davies was born in Chester, in the northwest of England, on May 9, 1954. He studied drama and English literature at Hull University.

In 1976, about a year after he graduated, Davies joined the British Council where he has spent more or less the whole of his career. Before then, he was a self-confessed jack of all trades, hopping between jobs – in the backstage crew of a theater, as a clerk in an office and as a cocktail waiter and porter in a hotel.

“I worked in several places for less than a year, but my serious work has always been with the BC,” he says.

His first position with the British Council was at a student center in London. “I was arranging activities such as film shows, cultural activities, lectures, theater performances and trips around Britain for overseas students. It was a very exciting job, like being secretary of a club for four years.”

He then moved onto the film and television department for four years, where his main duty was to promote British film overseas. “In those days, the British Council had a film library and we used to buy films and videos from around the world. I also went to film festivals.”

It was as part of this job that he was first posted to Jakarta.

The new few years becomes almost like a travelogue: Bahrain for three years, before returning to London, and then onto Malaysia – where he met his wife, Christine Loh, a Chinese Malaysian. The newlyweds lived in Bangkok, where their daughter, Rebecca, was born.

After Thailand, he went back to London for six months for Mandarin language training, before being posted to Beijing, China. “Actually I can remember Chinese better than most of the languages, but now I’m trying to learn bahasa.”

But those four and a half years in Beijing, as British Council deputy director, were among the most challenging of his career, if only because of the size of the operation. “It was quite exciting,” he adds. “I liked living in Beijing, although it has a different climate – it’s very cold.”

From China he went on to be director of the British Council office in Vietnam. He has spent the last four and a half years of his career in Hanoi, working with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

“I’ve been very lucky to stay in East Asia, and have come full circle, back to Jakarta and Indonesia.”

And despite being with the same organization for most of his career, he has never been bored.

“The main advantage is that all the jobs have been very different; from film department to working with overseas students, to marketing British education, and in all these different countries.”

Which is why he joined the British Council in the first place.

“I want to see the world not just as a tourist. I’m a tourist myself, but it very different when you live in a country. I feel that I know Thailand, China, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and hopefully soon Indonesia, much better than any tourist does.”

After 20 years of living and working in East Asia, Davies finds it hard to choose the place he likes the most.

“I like East Asia. I like working overseas, because that’s where our real work is, but don’t ask me which country I like the most. It’s hard to say, I like all of them, but I’m very happy to return to Indonesia.

“I used to say Indonesia was my favorite country because it was the first place I experience living in Asia and it was so exciting and such a culture change, I love it. So I still have very fond memories, very positive feelings.”

Indonesia, he says, has changed a lot between 1984 and 2009. He says the first time he returned, in 1990, was a shock. “In 1984, I was living in Adityawarman near Blok M [in South Jakarta]. When I came back I went to look at the house I stayed in. I couldn’t recognize Blok M; I couldn’t find the road or the block where the house was.

“In 1984, the traffic wasn’t so bad, sometimes I traveled to the warungs [food stalls] by bajaj [motorized pedicab] or on becak [pedicab]. I could just go from the British Council building in Widjojo to Blok M in 10 minutes. Now, it’s impossible.”

Jakarta, however, is still a great place to live and to work, says Davies. “Now it takes much longer to get to work…but people still seem very good natured…people here are more friendly and very approachable.”

Davies says that 20 years of working in East Asia has made him “more Asian than British in some ways”.

“I like England. I love to go back once a year... It’s a wonderful exciting country, but I also like Asia.

My wife is Asian; my daughter is living her life in Asia and I like to eat rice everyday.

“So I’m more Asian in some ways than British now, but the best football team is still Everton,” he says, laughing.

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