What isn’t there

The insidious creep of fear

I DON’T KNOW how to write about something that isn’t there, such as longing. My entire life, it seems, I have been longing for a country, a city, a small space on the side of the road where I needn’t feel like a stranger, an alien – someone to be gawked at or studied. I am an Indonesian of Chinese descent, which in my case means that six or seven generations ago a man set sail from mainland China to this country, married a local and fathered mixed-race children. I have no idea who that man was, or what he did, or what his life was like before he came here. But his blood runs through me, and this blood is the curse that will forever brand me as an alien in my homeland.

The history of the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia is as complex as it is obscure for some – if not most – people. What documentation exists of how they began their journey is rarely brought to light, or put into context in Indonesia. Under President Suharto’s New Order regime, any involvement of national patriots of Chinese heritage in the struggle for independence was often overlooked. Soe Hok Gie, for example, an important activist who spoke out against the oppressive leadership of both Sukarno and Suharto, was virtually unknown to the general population until his biopic was released in 2005. The exclusion of Chinese-Indonesians’ contributions to the nation’s journey toward independence has created a ripple effect across generations. Instead of recognition, their roles have largely been eclipsed by other narratives that promote ignorance, even disdain, towards them. Eventually, this breeds entrenched misconceptions of how we may or may not fit into each other’s lives. That said, I am a perpetual exile imprisoned by the desire to belong somewhere, anywhere.

Last year was the first time I had visited China. It was for a writing residency and I was there with eight other people who hailed from different parts of Asia and Australia. On a train ride from Guangzhou to Guilin, I received a message from a friend in Indonesia who knew of my plan to visit China. The text read: So? Feel at home yet? Somehow, this felt offensive to me. And it took me a while to respond properly, to understand the non-malicious nature of it and to justify it as another well-intentioned message. He didn’t mean it that way, I thought. It was a joke, I assured myself. Let it go. However, for the next six days of the residency I couldn’t think of anything else. I wondered what was so provocative about the message. What could be so insulting about the fact that he equated my visiting China with some sort of a homecoming trip? I do have Chinese blood coursing through my veins, after all – he wasn’t to blame for asking the question. Certainly, if anyone was to blame, it should be me. It was me. I had overreacted.

When I was younger, I had the idea that if I could disown parts of myself that were different from others and act as though I was the same as everyone else, no one would remember all the things that separated us from each other. All throughout high school and college I was able to dismantle my Chinese identity, if only by way of ignorance, and force the blood of my forefathers to stop its course. This performance became a way of life. As years passed, I
learned to dismiss my roots, to deprive them of any acknowledgement and to deny their existence. I picked up other identities to cover for the one
I didn’t want anyone to point out. I was a writer, a reader, a cook, a friend, a comic book collector, a daughter, a sister, a student and a talker. When I lived abroad as a college student, I would tell people I was born and raised in Indonesia – but seldom would I tell them I was Indonesian. Because some people would follow up the statement with questions like ‘How come you don’t look Indonesian?’ or ‘Is it near China?’, and sometimes I just didn’t have the patience for it.

Two days ago, I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and thought about the story of my eyes, nose, chin and lips. I imagined my face as if it were a map, each organ an island with its own set of terrain characteristics and history of formation. Perhaps I had my great-grandfather’s eyes, my great-aunt’s nose, my estranged uncle’s chin and my mother’s lips. In pictures, I look like my mother’s mother when she was my age. It’s the crooked smile and the chubby cheeks. I touched my hair, thin as a cat’s fur, and remembered my grandmother’s soft mane which, towards the end of her life, had become very white. With the tip of my forefinger I traced the edges of my lips, then the bags under my eyes. I wondered which parts of me were Chinese and which were Indonesian and which were solely mine.

It dawned on me then that I couldn’t tell where my Chinese self begins and ends on my face and physical body, or where my Indonesian self begins and ends in my mind – and what it says about my soul. If there’s any truth in what Sartre proposed – that man is the sum of his actions, which constitute his whole life – then I will be happy to say that I am who I am irrespective of where I was born or whose blood runs through my veins. But some days you look into the mirror and find your reflection doesn’t quite live up to the expectation you had in mind. The map has changed a little here and there. The story changes along with it.


VERY FEW CHINESE-INDONESIANS are able to articulate their feelings about living in Indonesia beyond what is already known. What tension exists in race relations in Indonesia is not new, but where Chinese-Indonesians are concerned, two incidents seem to dominate the nation’s political and social landscapes.

In 1965, responding to an attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the government led an anti-communist movement that in turn inspired the population to adopt an anti-Chinese sentiment, believing there were strong ties between the rise of communism in China and the Chinese-Indonesian community. A racially charged massacre ensued. Then, in 1998, in a political move against Suharto’s regime, the community once again became a target of mass violence. Racially motivated attacks spread across the country, with the heaviest concentration taking place in the capital city. Glodok, often dubbed as Jakarta’s Chinatown, suffered the worst attacks, with hundreds of shops and homes belonging to Indonesians of Chinese heritage destroyed and looted, their inhabitants tortured or killed. Interestingly enough, or perhaps expectedly so, in both cases the final death toll remains a mystery, and any attempts to probe deeper into them have been met with a strong resistance from the government. Though, it is important to note that non-Chinese-Indonesians accounted for the largest death toll of the May 1998 riots (they were mostly looters who were caught in a fire).

The persistent narrative imposed upon the Chinese-Indonesian community certainly appears to have been carefully tailored to maintain racial tensions within the population – to insist that we do not truly belong to this land, or that we are expendable. More recently, the case against Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the outgoing Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta, incited a level of anti-Chinese sentiment that had not been seen since 1998. There were banners hung and stretched over highways calling for Ahok and Chinese-Indonesians to be killed or hanged – though, in a larger context, many also believe the move had been orchestrated by certain parties looking to secure their spot on the political stage. In this way, the Chinese-Indonesian community has become, in short, the easiest collateral to avail and abet a political agenda.

I still don’t know how to reconcile my lived experience with the nagging fear that, despite seven generations here, my family and I could become a target in the time it takes to raise a mob and send them rampaging. Most Chinese-Indonesians, like myself, are unwilling to publicly address the deep racial divides that continue to exist between the different ethnicities that make up Indonesian society. As a minority group, we have learnt to know our place, to speak carefully and to pick a corner and stay there in silence when things get rough. Any resentment that may occur as the result of insensitive or politically incorrect remarks often takes place behind closed doors and in hushed tones. But we all know what happens when something gets shoved under the rug one too many times. Sooner, rather than later, it will show. And it’s not going to look pretty.


IT’S TRUE THAT my sensibilities about what’s offensive and what’s not may be more finely tuned than most people’s because of my personal experiences. For example, some years ago I was standing around in the park with a Caucasian friend when suddenly she lifted her sunglasses over her head and tilted her face toward the sun while narrowing both eyes. It was spring and having the sun over our faces felt nice. Then she looked at me, her squinting her eyes, and smiled. ‘Look, look. Chinaman.’ I was stunned for a minute or two, unable to respond. I knew she hadn’t meant to tease me personally and that it was probably seen as light humor. And I loved her dearly. It should have been okay. I could have brushed it off easily. Let it go. She didn’t mean it. But I didn’t. I told her it was offensive to me. She didn’t take it well and went on to accuse me of trying to paint her as a racist, and insisted she wasn’t.

So, I apologised. This was another habit I had picked up over the years, to apologise for things I shouldn’t just to avoid conflict. Most people who belong in minority groups have learnt to accept small injustices as part of our survival strategy. The default position assumed by many minorities is to do nothing in the face of attacks – an understanding of the disadvantage in battling the voices of the majority. For many Chinese-Indonesians, this means preparing a quick exit plan for when things take a turn for the worse: to find new homes. For those who cannot afford to prepare exit plans, all we can do is succumb to the act of acceptance. Once you have accepted it, you then learn to keep it to yourself. You develop a thicker skin and make a deal with yourself to not let little things get to you anymore. You learn to normalise the verbal attacks, the slurs, the innocent jokes – and you move on.

A few years ago, while attending a literary festival, my mother called me minutes before I was supposed to go on stage. She said, ‘Be very careful about what you say in public. Don’t put your family in danger.’ I had been asked to read a love letter by the festival organisers, so my mother’s warning made me laugh. But she was not kidding. She didn’t care what love letters had to do with putting families in danger. ‘Your pen is mightier than the sword,’ she said, quoting an old proverb. ‘Don’t underestimate its strength.’ Her words were set on replay in my mind while I read the letter I had written to an ex-lover in front of some forty people. Whenever I took my eyes off the page, in between lines, in the midst of a pause, I would scan the crowd seated before me and think of the many ways they might spin the content of the letter into something it wasn’t. Were there words in the letter that could be construed as offensive or incendiary to the people I was reading it to? Could they sense fear in my voice? The room seemed to be contracting and getting smaller with each passing line. I would need to pick a corner. And stay there until whatever emotion I was feeling had subsided.


IN LATE 2016, I was involved in a group discussion with other writers about what happened in 1998. I was the only Chinese-Indonesian at the table. At some point in the discussion, everyone turned to me for confirmation: did I feel persecuted, and do I still feel that way? Have there been significant changes in the way Chinese-Indonesians are treated in this country since then? Yes, yes, and no. Another writer, a non Chinese-Indonesian, was quick to correct me. ‘Of course, there have been changes,’ she insisted. ‘The racial divides between Chinese-Indonesians and non-Chinese-Indonesians are almost non-existent nowadays.’ Everyone agreed with her. Things are better nowadays, they concluded.

Two years after the May 1998 incident, I moved to the US with the intention of never coming back. I didn’t do it out of fear for my own safety; rather, I did it because I was tired of having to try too hard to belong in a country that should have been my home. I was tired of having to question my own worth every time I felt the urge to belong to Indonesia. I was determined to start a new life in a new place where everyone comes from someplace else and is in some way an outsider too.

Following the tsunami in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet with a family from Aceh who had to be flown out to Boston so their young son could receive proper medical care for his illness. Responding to a weekly newsletter released by the Indonesian Students’ Association of Massachusetts, which was seeking a group of volunteers to act as local liaisons and translators for the Acehnese family, I offered my services. What free time I had between work and classes would be spent with the family – primarily to visit the hospital where the boy was to undergo surgery, and to translate the various procedures he would be subjected to before, during and after the surgery. I took turns with another volunteer to act as the family’s liaison; we scheduled our visits in shifts every two days. On my days off, I would spend an entire day with the family – at the hospital, the grocery store, the laundromat. Some evenings we’d take the subway train just to get a better glimpse of the city.

Every now and again, I’d take them out for coffee and scones. Our conversations were often the highlight of my days. The boy’s mother was a few years younger than me (I was twenty-four at the time), and she told me devastating stories of how the tsunami wrecked entire villages in a day. The water came at them hard and fast, said the mother. She barely had time to leave the house. People were killed by sharp debris in the water – and that was how her son got an infection and nearly died from it. She tried to find help, but every local doctor in Aceh kept telling her it was no use, that her son was dying and there wasn’t anything anyone could do. An American doctor who happened to be volunteering in Aceh heard of the story and agreed to find the necessary funding to fly the family to Boston for an emergency treatment.

They stayed in Boston for a little over two weeks, living on a per diem and on people’s generosity. The surgery was a success, and the boy recovered well. Only afterwards did it occur to me that not once since the day we met did the boy’s parents see me as anything else other than a fellow Indonesian. They did not question my identity, and they did not make assumptions about me. If they talked about my Chinese-ness behind my back, I heard nothing about it. And it was the only time in my life, up to that point, that my Indonesian self came to dominate my entire being. I didn’t have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, nor did I have to validate my sense of worth in their presence. They were my people, my home. Knowing them had changed something inside me. It was no longer enough for me to be elsewhere. All of a sudden, my existence in America felt irrelevant.

Perhaps home is a state of mind, and not the destination of a long quest. After seven years of trying to find a new person, what I discovered instead was an old reflection: I am an Indonesian, regardless of how Indonesia chooses to see me. Eventually, the time I spent away from home had given me what I needed to return to it. Indonesia is as much a part of me as I am a part of it. And the Chinese parts of me – the visible ones, at least – can stay where they are. In time, I will learn to love them too.


THAT WAS TEN years ago. Today’s world is not quite the same. It is becoming less and less hospitable to minorities – whether you’re a refugee fleeing a systematic genocide, a queer, or someone with a different opinion, a different appearance, a different quality than the majority of the world’s population, there’s an uphill battle ahead. When President Trump initiated the infamous travel ban for people from certain nations, primarily those with a large Muslim population, I was among those travelers who had had to make adjustments to my US-bound travel itinerary just in case things went wrong. Indonesia was not on the list of countries affected by the travel ban, but it is the country with the largest population of Muslims – and I have the tendency to err on the side of caution. In light of the travel ban, I was advised to have somebody from the consulate pick me up at the airport just to be safe and to prepare extra documentation – such as proof of good character signed by the local authorities in my neighborhood in case the immigration officers require them. Granted, these were mere suggestions. Nobody made an official request for me to fulfil all these requirements…but still.

In the news, the travel ban caused an uproar when it was brought to light how US immigration authorities had detained travellers seemingly at random, including a French Holocaust historian, Henry Rousso, and an Australian children’s book author, Mem Fox, who were nearly deported upon arriving in the US. Eventually, I’d been forced to cancel my trip because something else came up on my schedule; but in some ways I wasn’t ready to travel to Trump’s America. The travel ban and Trump’s government broke my heart. The US was where I had rediscovered my roots, and now it has become a place where the President encourages Americans to point and jeer at outsiders, a place that makes me feel like a criminal for no good reason.

Nevertheless, what’s happening in the US is happening in many other parts of the world: fear has become a global currency. And in these parts of the world, including Indonesia, religious intolerance and racial vilification have reached an alarming level. I would like to think we have become better at battling these issues where it counts, at the core; but it might have been wishful thinking.

‘It will get worse before it gets better,’ I heard someone say after Ahok was sentenced to prison for two years in early May of this year. In September 2016, Ahok, who at the time still served as the incumbent governor of Jakarta, delivered a campaign speech in which he warned voters about people who quote a specific verse in the Quran to mislead them. With Ahok leading the gubernatorial race in Jakarta, the highly contested election became a fertile ground for foul play and rough competitions. The election was no longer about groundbreaking ideas and stellar visions; instead, it had been reduced to what Indonesian elections had always been about under Suharto’s regime: the fear of otherness. Anti-Chinese sentiments were quick to resurface soon after religious hardliners denounced Ahok as a blasphemer who should neither be shown respect nor have his shortcomings tolerated.

Other candidates didn’t waste any time, either, in courting religious scholars and imams to create new narratives that would play well with their voter base. At mosques and in schools, these narratives were tested, approved and redistributed. Their message was clear: We are with you; Ahok is against your faith and everything you believe in. This fear of otherness became the driving force behind public rallies and protests. And the same fear will bring about the death of this nation, if it is allowed the space to grow.

We often think of fear as a transient feeling that is both difficult to capture and impossible to visualise – or that it is the sort of emotion that only exists in reaction to potentially dangerous situations. I think fear can stay dormant for a long time, only to return at the most opportune moments to throw us off balance. Maybe it’s time for us to learn to talk about things that aren’t there. Because the things that matter most are often the ones we cannot see.

31 May 2017

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