When I first went to study abroad to a completely new country, the first thing I noticed was how I am a stranger to everyone, just like how everyone else is to me. I have in me the chance to start life pretty much from ‘zero’, and I had the chance to reshape and rebuild the Adeline I want the world to know, here in The Netherlands. For me, it means that I have the opportunity to rebuild my identity and how I want to be known by others, to highlights my best traits, to decide what I like the most from many business-related courses, to make better choices of the kind of people I want to surround myself with.
I still want to be my authentic self, of course. But I started reflecting a lot on the way I want to present myself, I want to be more mindful with my actions and thoughts. I want to be able to try new things without the fear of what others will think of me (because strangers’ opinions don’t matter as much compared to your closest friends’ and family members’).
One big chunk of my reflection has a lot to do with rethinking my identity, namely my racial identity as a Chinese-Indonesian. It has always been the one thing I am most self-conscious about, and I now realised that growing up I might unconsciously tried to hide it in order to be seen as the same and to be able to fit in with the others. When I told people here that I am Indonesian, I have always feel the need to continue my sentence with WHY I don’t look like most Indonesians, which came from my Chinese descent. When I told my friends about culture and customs I celebrated at home, I noticed that I only heavily recite about my Chinese culture, as I barely have any ties to particular Indonesian tribes and their culture. And even though I feel strong connection to Indonesian land and to its people, because thats where I was born and raised, and thats the people I grow up knowing.
It has always felt like I do not actually belong anywhere. It is like you are seen as Chinese, but at the same time not knowing enough Mandarin or the culture to be one. On the other hand, in Indonesia where I was born and raised, had my whole life at, although my big family still speaks a little of the traditional languages, I also feel physically different, and I feel like I don’t 100% belong there.
When I think back about the first moment when I realised that I was different. In elementary school , the teacher once taught us about the beauty of Indonesia, being a highly diverse country. She first asked if any of us have parents from different nationalities. She then proceeded to ask everyone what Indonesian tribes are our parents part of, to show that we are all diverse and how beautiful that is. And while my friends can easily answer whether their parents are Sundanese, Javanese, Bataknese, or Manadonese, I sat there in confusion.
Yes, both of my parents are Indonesians. But I didn’t think they belong to any of the Indonesian tribes. I remembered being so confused to answer until my teacher then also explained further that usually, where our parents from are also the same with where our grandparents live (because most of the time that where you parents’ grew up). Since then, I have always answered that my dad is Sundanese (because his side of the family reside in Bandung) and my mom as Javanese (because her side of the family lives in Surabaya).
Another big moments in my life happened on my middle school. At that time, it was my prime years of basically reading every book I bought or my parents bought for me. I remembered, it was also the time I gained so much interest in history and I was reading a couple of books written by researchers about the Indonesian history, with the 1965 tragedy and the 1998 riots among them. Not long after, we coincidentally also learned these two events in our History class.
I still can recall how my face pretty much dropped when I realised how different it is between what I read how my school text books and what my teacher explained about the events, with what I’ve read in the books before. The school text book didn’t mention a thing about the impact of those two events for Chinese-Indonesian community. My teacher also didn’t give us any extra information. It felt like a history that was close and personal to me, was not remembered. I felt discouraged to learn about the past of my people.
I remembered coming back home and immediately asking my mom why do the school books didn’t explain the truth. Why did it only brush off the general outline of the event, or instead highlighting the economic crisis behind the riots. The books did not spread lies, but it definitely didn’t tell my friends and I the complete pictures. Thats when my mom, I clearly recalled, sat me down and started telling me hand-me-downs stories from her mother and grandparents. That is when she told me stories of her friends, of the daughter of her mom’s friends.
The stories of how my grandparents and uncles and aunts have to change their name to Indonesian names, how hard it is for them to get a house. How my grandma has to get into a ‘fake’ civil marriage with a naturalized Chinese-Indonesia person in order to be able to get a house since she didn’t have Indonesian name, hence why my family name is actually in my middle name and my ‘last’ name was actually the name of the man that helped my grandma got her house. Stories how my other grandma cycle home along the river, tainted with blood and dead bodies. Stories on rape cases, families getting separated, people forced to leave the country, shops burned down, people having to put signs outside their houses to prove that the building belongs to ‘Native Indonesians’, however absurd that concept is. Of how everything was never properly investigated. Of the generational trauma and damaged caused by it long after even until now, of how understandable it is for hers and the generation before her then to have the tendency to avoid discussing it, to close themselves from others and to have prejudices.
That was the moment I realised that no matter how much I tried to fit myself in pursuit of this collective belonging of becoming 100% Chinese or 100% Indonesian, I will never be able to. Because I am bound to different history, different traumas, different roots. A community is bound to connect when they have shared goals, shared faith, shared feeling. Mine was all uniquely tailored to being and becoming Chinese Indonesian. Not tied to only Chinese history (especially the Chinese people who actually live and grew up in China, and it is also not tied to Chinese descent in other countries because we all have different events and history), and although there are some connections, also can’t be fully understood by fellow Indonesians.
That is when I started gaining interest in knowing more about the history of Chinese-Indonesians. I watched films and documentaries made that highlights my community. I read books related to the topic. I took every opportunity i get to write about Chinese Indonesians in my school essays and projects. I cherished the different identity I was born in, I reflected on how I am the same and how I am different to my high school friends.
I reflected on the way I was raised by my parents and how the way of living they are trying to teach us has so much to do with what has happened in the past. We are always taught to never waste our money, to never show off even if we have a lot of it. We are taught that trust is the most important thing in both life and business, and that good friends will last you along long time in life. Back then, I imagined, you probably had no choice but to trust one another. I was even (maybe not intentionally) discouraged from pursuing my interest in politics and other social studies. First reason being their concern as to my career prospects, but I feel like deep inside they knew the risk that it comes with being who I am, being so involved in politics. And although I still have a small calling in me to pursue it as passion through my side jobs or writings, I completely understand where it all came from.
Another big moment was when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama made his way to be the Vice Governor of the capital city, and later on his trials following his 2 years in jail. I wrote about him once. When his name and career and governor started to take off, I saw him as a symbol of hope. I hope that it means there are more opportunities for us Chinese Indonesian to be recognised, to be more involved in more aspects of the country (not only in business and economics, but also in politics, in culture, in law). A hope that quickly died down when the trial happened. It was a sad day for our family. Not only that he actually looks like my dad (I became really sad imagining bad things happening to him, God forbid), but its more because I felt hopeless, I felt defeated too.
The journey to being comfortable with my own identity then continued here, in Groningen too. Studying abroad means you are getting used to being different, of meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures. When you are far away from home, you will try to affiliate yourself to a certain group, to a belonging, to be able to feel at home. This was the point when I decided to start embracing myself as Chinese Indonesian.
A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to join a hybrid panel initiated by Soy Division Berlin, an art and culinary community by Asian diaspora in Berlin. They were hosting an event called KAUM Festival to celebrate art and alternative performances. The hybrid panel I joined discussed is titled DARE TO BE DIFFERENT – Understanding roots: Being Chinese Indonesian, in which was attended by Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Monica Tedja, and Jan Tedja, three Chinese Indonesians living in Jakarta and Berlin.
The discussion, delivered in the form of sharing of personal stories and experiences, had reminded me of my own journey too. As fellow Chinese Indonesian currently living abroad, it does makes you reflect a lot on how being away from home has to do with you starting to want to know and explore your roots. To have something familiar and close to home to hold on too.
When reminiscing about home, I will remember the land of Indonesia, along with the struggles of its people and the constant up and down we are facing. I will also remember the lovely faces of my family, home-cooked Chinese meals and the annual celebration of Chinese New Year or the Qing Ming festival. I will remember that I am, in my own way, are uniquely and wholeheartedly Chinese Indonesian. That maybe it is fine to be in the middle, to be in between, to be different.
The road, still, is never linear. One big point I reflected was the internalised racism and discrimination I had due to the pasts. We are taught to close off and stay exclusive as Chinese-Indonesian (which again, understandable), but we also then have prejudices towards every other group other than ours. This also shows when someone complimented, I felt undoubtedly happier when I am mistaken to be Korean or Japanese instead of Chinese. Of how I tried to hide my Chinese-ness because I thought being Indonesian in The Netherlands makes me fit in easier.
Funny how I, as much as I say I am proud to be a Chinese Indonesian, still from time to time intentionally or unintentionally tried to dissociate myself from who I really am.
Along with the yesterday’s celebration of Indonesian Independence day, although not with as much spirit as usual, especially remembering the lives lost and the injustice still faced by many every day in the country, I wore my batik proudly. It was the Batik top I made together with my family, in which I had mine designed to be similar to Chinese’ qi pao / cheong sam collar style and top. To remind myself that I am proudly an intersection of both, of being born in a very beautiful land with rich history that is my home country, along with its amazing people that comes in a form of helping hands, close friends, and inspiring teachers that strengthen me and my life values, and of having the genes and celebrating the Chinese culture my whole life, the culture that shaped me to be who I am today.
I never have to choose one over the other. I don’t have to worry about fitting in into one of them. I am proudly both Chinese and Indonesian.