What Does It Mean To Be ‘Chinese’? An Issue of Indonesian Identity

March 9, 2016 NOW! BALI

Identity, especially in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, can be a confusing and somewhat muddled topic. For centuries, the Indonesian archipelago has been subject to the mixing of cultures, religions races, ethnicities and so on, resulting in the ‘Indonesian people’ of today. However, perhaps the identity of Chinese Indonesians is one that stands out the most from a population of majority Austronesian Malays. Historian Jean Couteau through the following story depicts the perceptions of identity in the country, focusing on the Sino-Indonesian identity in particular. 

Let me tell you a story about the Chinese. No, it won’t be of Chinese dragons or emperors, of horoscopes and mythology. This is a modern story about Indonesia today and its (in)tolerance towards the Sino-Indonesian people and the complexities of identity. This is a story about my friend.

“Her legs were white, but with a yellowish tinge. She was wearing a tight tweed jacket, walked with elegance, with a sense of importance as much as purpose, and had an aloof way of looking at things with her beautiful eyes and well-drawn lips which, to me, were alluring. Her whole behavior betrayed the natural arrogance of the well-born and well-educated Chinese. Myself, a writer, while she was an executive and main-shareholder of a large Surabaya textile company. She actually spoke English better than me. So, needless to say, we were different. But she was in my car and I had enough self-confidence to think that the meager condition of my bank account would not be a hurdle in my seducing her. I had decided to take her around the island, because I would not get a second opportunity of the kind. It was to be now or never.

I was tired of driving. So stopped at the sort of haunt that village folks call a restaurant, but which city people call a food-stall. I hesitated to enter, but not for long. The place had to me the right “feel”, at least to the standard of my nose. Since romance was in the air between me, the writer, and her, the manager, I was sure it would do, or so I thought. It would be a good change after the restaurants my friend was obviously used to. It would work, I was sure. I was seeing myself in a manager’s life. She was romance, and I was adventure.

But s**t. I knew the lady inside, or rather she knew me! Dark-skinned, fat, somewhat ugly, she had a broad, natural and innocent smile, of the kind one still sees on the remote roads of Bali. She was the restaurant owner, and I had known her back from my old days in Batu Utuh. Before I could utter a word, there she was, blurting loudly in Balinese: “Pak Kadek! Dije maan cewek Jepang ane jegeg nenenan?” (Mr Kadek –my Balinese name—where did you get that pretty Japanese girl?”

Unexpectedly, the unknown language had awakened the tigress’ soul in my manager friend:  “What does that ugly Balinese lady want?” she growled to me, deliberately in English, to show her “difference”, clenching her jaw slightly.

“She is not Balinese as you think, Pinky,” I replied to my hopeful romance,” but Chinese, or at least classified as such, even though she is Sino-Balinese. Her name is even Mrs Oei or something like that, a pure Chinese name!  But do you know what she asked me?  She asked me where I got “this pretty Japanese girl”.  Isn’t it funny? You, Pinky Sutomo, a full-blooded Sino-Indonesian woman with an Indonesian indigenous name, speaking English and mistaken for Japanese!  And refusing to accept that a woman that you perceive as being an ugly Balinese woman can be a Sino-Balinese bearing a Chinese name. Two Sino-Indonesian women unable to recognize one another as such!  Isn’t it interesting – as well as meaningful?”  Upon these words, I burst into laughter.

But, she did not smile. She did not grasp the irony of the situation. “To me, that lady is not Chinese at all,” she said, looking at Mrs Oei, who was busy wafting Balinese offerings at the other corner of the restaurant.

“She is certainly no full-blooded Chinese”, I replied. “You know these Sino-Balinese, they often have an ancestral shrine for their ancestors on their mother’s side, and they make regular daily Balinese offerings.  So they are Balinese in many ways, even though they are Chinese on the father’s side, and hence by name. Well, she won’t be mistaken for Japanese like you, at least!” I joked, again.

The more sarcasm I added to the irony, the more Pinky was becoming irritated. “She is certainly not Chinese to me,” she said. She was obviously referring to the disorder, the dirt and the offerings abounding in that restaurant –all that her “Chinese” bourgeois status told her to scorn.  It was too much for me.  So I replied, “And you, are you Chinese?  You speak English all the time, no Mandarin and never Indonesian either. So it is no surprise if you are mistaken for Japanese. If both of you –Chinese Indonesian women—are unable to recognize one another as such, this means there is a problem. Or, on a positive slant there is no problem, it is precisely because of that that you are both simply Indonesian, Pinky. Discarding any prejudices of face, class and especially full-bloodedness.”

She bit her lips, in anger. We were definitely not on the same wavelength. It is then that I understood that Pinky had an identity problem that blinded her. To her, “Chinese” was paler-skinned, rich and speaking English, in short, associated to the foreign world. They may not be poor, dark-skinned and ill-educated, like the lovely Mrs.Oei.

By then the romance was wearing very, very thin. She added class to ethnic prejudices. And she did not even bite her lips anymore.  I forgot my initial interests in her beauty altogether and took back to her hotel without many more words.

Last time I heard of her, she had moved to the United States. She was organizing a Balinese dance festival and collecting Javanese puppets. She had at last become Indonesian, it only took emigration for her to realize it…”

What the story lays to ground is the incredible range of racial mixtures Bali and Indonesia have due to its history; one cannot judge upon first glance where someone’s ‘blood’ may be from. Here in Bali, at least tolerance of culture and religion are high, but there are many steps to take before racial divide within the country can be ignored.

The post What Does It Mean To Be ‘Chinese’? An Issue of Indonesian Identity appeared first on NOW! Bali.

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