Arrival

The moment I stepped out of the plane, even the air was distinctly Indonesian. It was very different than the air of any other place in the world I’d been to. It felt familiar and comforting to me, though; it was warm, humid, and smelled of smoke.

It probably smelled that way partially because there are approximately 60 million smokers in Indonesia (about 34% of the total population). About two-thirds of men and five percent of women report being smokers. About 90% of Indonesian smokers, including two of my cousins, use kreteks, which are cigarettes made of a blend of tobacco, cloves, and other flavors. The name comes from an onomatopoeia of the sound of burning cloves. In Indonesia, there are hundreds of kretek manufacturers, which employ 180,000 people in Indonesia and 10,000,000 people indirectly. There’s often strong brand loyalty among the people and an insistence to only use what they think are quality cigarettes (or rokok berkualitas).

But air pollution there probably contributed the most to the quality of air. Indonesia’s rapid industrialization has caused serious pollution, and the regulations there are either lax or improperly enforced. Firms weren’t the only people responsible; individual families and towns burning trash is not an unusual thing to see. Jakarta, being the most industrialized area there, would naturally have a noticeably different atmosphere.

These all sound like very bad things, health-wise, and they doubtless are. Nevertheless, I breathed deep and couldn’t stop smiling as I walked towards the customs area, dragging my carry-on behind me. It was home.

It was close to midnight when we arrived, so except for the people who had just gotten off the plane with us, and a select few personnel, the airport seemed to be deserted.

My dad seemed to become immediately more comfortable and relaxed here. He joked around with the person in charge of visas (it turned out we didn’t need one because we were staying less than a month) and seemed to be so much happier than he usually was in the U.S. I felt the same way. Even though my Indonesian skills were rusty, it still felt like home.

We got through customs and met with my dad’s side of the family outside the airport. My paternal grandmother was there, as was her sister-in-law and my uncle. We were going to go to a nearby hotel to stay for the night, and then we were going to go to the city of Bandung, about three hours away.

A year or so ago, my oldest brother changed his Facebook surname to Tjong. I asked him why, and he told me to look it up.

My dad’s side of the family is purely Chinese. Their real family name was Tjong (in Cantonese Chinese). In Mandarin Chinese, it would be Zhang or 張.

But over time, under social and political pressures, the ethnic Chinese people that lived in Indonesia adopted names that better match the local language.

The way my dad told it, it was all President Suharto’s fault. Suharto was the second President of Indonesia, holding the office from the ousting of Sukarno in 1967 until his resignation in 1998. The legacy of Suharto’s 31-year rule is hotly debated, but the impression that I get from my dad, and from most Western media, is that he was a corrupt tyrant.

Once Suharto came to power, his administration passed many anti-Chinese legislations that encouraged assimilation rather than integration. One of them ordered that ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia adopt Indonesian-sounding names instead of traditional Chinese names. Suharto was known for his vehement anti-Communism, and he painted the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia as supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, which he defeated in a power struggle to succeed Sukarno’s government in the late 1960s. The Chinese-Indonesian community was powerless to oppose this law.

Some Chinese-Indonesians adopted Western first names and Javanese or Sudanese surnames. The ethnic Chinese in Indonesia would often find creative ways to keep their true family name in their first name. For instance, adopted surnames were commonly based on the original Chinese phonetics.

The “Indonesianized” names resulted in such exotic-sounding names that natives can accurately tell whether a person is Chinese-Indonesian based only on their name.

Ironically, the government would occasionally modify a person’s name without consent to suggest the true ethnic origin of an individual. For example, Junedi Santoso may be changed to Junedi Santoso Liem, Junedi Liem, or Liem Junedi. Today, names prefixed or suffixed by a Chinese surname are more common. When the legislations passed, my dad was only a young boy. My dad’s name was Tjong Samuel Himawan. After becoming a U.S. citizen, he changed his middle name to “Tjong” and his first name to “Samuel.” I never asked him if the government made him keep his Chinese family name, or if it was a decision his family made.

After Suharto resigned in 1998, Chinese-Indonesians were again allowed to use their traditional family names. Because a generation had gone by, most people no longer cared and kept their Indonesian names. Some reverted to their original Chinese names. Some decided to use Mandarin Chinese romanization. Some included both their Chinese and Indonesian names in their legal names.

As I turned in for the night at the hotel, I found that I was still basking in the glow of being in a totally different culture. Travelling is something I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of.

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