The Struggle of a Chinese-Indonesian that Doesn’t Look Like a Chinese
What am I, exactly?
Today I’m going to talk about something sensitive. My race.
For your information, Indonesia has many different cultures and races. There are indigenous ones and the immigrant ones. Usually we live peacefully side by side, but it wasn’t always like this.
We’re colonized by the Dutch and Japanese for more than 300 years, but (weirdly) Indonesians are quite hostile towards Chinese. We have a long history back in 1998 which nobody wants to talk about because it’s too shameful for Indonesians and too painful for Chinese-Indonesians.
Are you sure you’re Chinese?
I got this question quite often from my friends in college. Back in primary school all the way to high school, I went to a private Catholic school where 60–70 percent of the students were Chinese-Indonesians. So they never really questioned my race. They just knew. We use Chinese slang and languages. They expected me to understand, and I did understand what they’re saying.
But in college, my friends come from different schools and backgrounds. I would say 50% were Indonesians and the other 50% were Chinese-Indonesians. We worked together, but we don’t exactly hangout together. It was just too different, the culture, the customs, and what we’re talking about.
We definitely don’t want this to happen on purpose. I think it’s in our subconscious. We’re raised by different people with different backgrounds and prejudice. You can watch this great TED Talk about unconscious bias by Yassmin Abdel-Magied. I found the talk about 2 years ago, and I can really relate with it.
We all have that bias within us. We might not want to admit, it’s like a dirty fact that we don’t see others as equal human beings. But in reality, we do that all the time.
What I really am
I’m born and raised as a Chinese-Indonesian. All of my family members and relatives that I know are Chinese-Indonesians. We can’t speak Chinese though, except for my mom’s mom. We don’t do monthly prayers to honor the ancestors. We are Catholics. We celebrate Chinese New Year, not by praying but by visiting relatives’ houses for hong bao (money in an envelope) wearing pretty cheong sam.
I have mouse for my shio (like spirit animal). I tried to learn Chinese several times by taking a course, but I ended up too busy with other stuffs, so I just know several basic words in Chinese. Even my parents can’t speak Chinese!
But I always know that I’m a Chinese-Indonesian at heart. We’re taught to be proud of our heritage, but not too stand out to attract attention.
Many (Indonesian) people don’t want to be reminded that tragedy in 1998. But let’s just be honest, we won’t forget something like that. The parents of the rape victims wouldn’t forget that terrible days. We can’t blame some of Chinese-Indonesians that still hold grudge against the Indonesians.
That’s why there’s (and there will always be) this tension between us.
How do I feel?
Being a Chinese-Indonesian that doesn’t look like a Chinese? I feel great.
Honestly, I used to feel a bit insecure. I don’t have that glowing, bright skin like most of my Chinese-Indonesian friends. I don’t have slanted eyes. I don’t have the accent. I almost feel like I’m trapped in someone else’s body. I remember thinking that if only I had the usual Chinese-Indonesian look, I would be more accepted in the Chinese-Indonesian circle.
This look has given me some of the most awkward, confusing situations. I will give you some examples here.
- I was a member of my major’s student council in college. We’re having a dinner together to celebrate fasting/break fasting. Most of the members are Indonesians. When it’s time for the Moslems to pray, suddenly, surprisingly, unexpectedly (!), one of the member asked me why I didn’t pray with the others. She thought I was on my period. It didn’t cross her mind that I was not a Moslem. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to say, I just said I didn’t. I wanted to laugh though..
- When I was attending our student council’s annual conference outside the city, we’re sleeping in this creepy villa. I was in the same room as the other girls (most of them are Moslems). I didn’t like the crowd, so I was staying in the room playing my phone. There’s just two other girls in the room, both of them are Moslems. Then they start talking about Chinese-Indonesians. Not badmouthing, but I was startled when I heard this because they don’t see me as a Chinese-Indonesian. They just talked freely. I can’t reveal my identity there. (I felt like a spy eavesdropping the enemy side)
- Like I said, we still have silent tensions here. We don’t talk about our race or the other race openly in front of the others, unless they’re the same race as we are, or they’re close friends. So when I was still interning in the insurance company and met several intern friends who were Chinese-Indonesians as well, we don’t talk openly. Because they think I’m not a Chinese-Indonesian. After 1 or 2 months, we started to talk about our family, and I revealed my identity. They’re confused and surprised. One of them said, “I thought so.” I asked him how did he know, and he said, “It just shows”. I don’t know how he did that, but people like him are pretty rare.
Now, after almost 22 years of life, I can accept the fact that I will never look like a Chinese-Indonesian. And it’s okay.
I feel grateful, even, because I can approach people without them having prejudices. I really feel like a spy. I look like an Indonesian, but I’m a Chinese-Indonesian. I can be friends with Indonesians as well as Chinese-Indonesians. I can show to Indonesians that their stereotypes about Chinese-Indonesians are not all true.
That’s why I identified myself as an Indonesian in my bio. Because I’m an Indonesian.
If you like this story, please leave a comment below or give me some claps! I really appreciate it.