What’s in a Name? – Night Ramblings

Sugiharti Halim: What’s in a name?

An interesting video, looking back at another long-put discrimination against Chinese Indonesians in terms of names.

Back then, in the New Order, a decree was made to get Chinese Indonesians to choose their allegiance, whether they are going to stay true to their Chinese inheritance and deny Indonesian citizenship or instead become the latter, forcing them then to adopt Indonesian names.

The video then contemplates on its implications on the children of those first generations who experienced name-changing policy and decided to get Indonesian names, as well as naming their offsprings with Indonesian names later on.

My family from my mother’s side is a long-line of generations of Chinese Indonesians. Though unfamiliar with its history, I know enough that my grandfather underwent this period. I also know that my maternal family line is of Hokkien Chinese and that my granddad’s Chinese name was The Oen Siang (although, do pardon me, I might misspelled the last name). He later adapted the Indonesian name Untung Gunawan. My grandmother herself is a Klang Chinese who was adopted into a Hokkien family, and her Chinese name was then changed from Siek Ngo San to Kwee Kien Nio. Later she adopted the Indonesian name Haryani Tedja Mertadiwangsa. From my mom’s faint recollection of her childhood, she did acknowledged that 6 of her elder siblings still obtain Chinese names from my grandparents and that my mom did, too, although her name was not recorded officially and later unused and forsaken. All that remains is a distant, meaningless name of The Poe Liang. Afterwards, none of the grandchildren I know have Chinese names. Now, only my cousins’ children would get Chinese names if they got married to someone of Chinese inheritance as well. I know for sure two of my nephews have Chinese names and their parents use the names frequently at home.

No doubt, this is one of the domino effect of the 1965 coup and one of the worst massacre in the Indonesian history.

As a child of multicultural identities, I spent quite some time in my teens struggling with my own cultural inheritance and identity. My parents’ separation and, later, divorce, did little to help. Not that I think had it not happen in the first place it would be easier for me to obtain a sense of ethnic identity.

My paternal grandfather himself is a Balinese while my grandmother is a Javanese, making me, technically, a Balinese as well since the line passed down from my father.

Growing up mostly in Jakarta, initially, I didn’t even realise that this struggle of identity exists in the first place. I spent most of my childhood in my paternal grandma’s home in Jakarta, where, fortunately, I was either too ignorant or simply never experienced any discrimination being partially Chinese Indonesians. The fact that I don’t at all look Chinese physically did crossed my mind, too, but at the same time, I barely understood the word “discrimination” and “racism” in the first place back then. Although my grandma’s household carefully shows a slight, faint gap of the hierarchical structure of race (e.g. Javanese vs Chinese Indonesians), religion (e.g. Islam vs Christian), and even of master and servant, they never showed any discriminative attitudes toward people whom I’ve met who are different. I spent my childhood in an elementary school, where most problems revolved around my flunked grades and ranking, and trivial friendship problems. I never noticed any of my friends whose races are different, and I distinctly remember getting confused over a friend’s statement who said that she didn’t want to be friend with someone because this someone is of different religion. Seriously, that didn’t make any sense to me.

Then, back at my grandma’s home, I’d spent the rest of my day playing too much with the babu‘s kids who are of my age. I remember playing badminton too much, losing way too many shuttlecock somewhere in the field, and buying too many rackets and shuttlecocks replacements. I didn’t even understand why my mom wouldn’t let me transfer to the babu‘s son’s school which is much, much nearer to my grandma’s house (which means I wouldn’t have to wake up very early anymore every morning, only to get to the school late every single day). I didn’t realise that she (and maybe my grandma, too) minded because the school she sent me to is a more expensive, probably better, private school. No one made me feel different there. In fact, now that I think about it, they perhaps pitied me and spoiled me too much because I’m a broken-home little brat.

Then in middle school, I started to experience identity crisis. In my small hometown, there is a stark difference between being a Chinese or a Javanese , a Christian or an Islam, and a master or a servant. Oh, but actually, I need to correct on the religion part. I didn’t see or experience any religious discrimination, really. The friends I’ve met and known are tolerant and very polite, so I should cross that one out. But it became clearer to me, first of all, what it meant to be someone of a more well-off family. We’re not filthy rich, no (some family members might), but my mom and I were definitely not rich enough to own anything fancy. But our family is rich enough to pay for servants.

My cousins’ first reaction upon seeing me kissing a little babu‘s daughter on the cheek was terrified. In a surprised tone (and not in a good way), I was asked why the hell I would kiss a servant’s daughter. In return, I was too surprised of the question itself to give any answer. That was the first time I understood that as one of the “masters,” I was not supposed to kiss them.

Another thing that was clearer to me is the gap existence of those of different race. Amongst my Chinese-looking cousins, strangers would think that I am their babu. When my mom knew, she was furious. That’s when I realised that having a different skin tone could account to something. People would be genuinely surprised when they found out that the Chinese-looking person next to me is my kin. That they are really related to me. And the fact that apparently I wasn’t adopted.

Although ignorant at first, slowly, I started to feel inferior of my skin colour. I hated myself because I was dark-skinned. I hated God because there are people of mixed inheritance, but their inherited genes allowed them to inherit their one of their parents’ narrow eyes or fair skin. I used to hate having wide eyes. And some boy-classmates’ mockery of how big, electrified-looking my eyes are did little to elevate my moods. I thought the way people discriminate me was because I didn’t look Chinese enough. Or perhaps my stupid inferiority made the discrimination exist where there were actually none. And I blamed my not-looking-Chinese-enough for it. I walked home from school one day, taking a shortcut through an empty alley when a guy riding a motorbike came from behind and stopped to squeeze my right boob so hard and then left me stunned and speechless. As I continued walking, an old guy apparently stood nearby and saw everything and said that he didn’t do anything initially because he thought the guy was my friend. Later, I felt very ashamed and humiliated, and again, I blamed my look which is not Chinese enough. I thought if I looked more Chinese, if I had fairer skin and/narrower eyes, if I didn’t look like a babu, this would never happen to me. He wouldn’t dare to touch me had I look like a Chinese nonik.

Only when I entered university and met a lot more people of different cultural background did I realise that not all Chinese Indonesians are discriminative towards those of non-Chinese. It took me quite some time until I finally stopped hinting to strangers that I’m actually partially Chinese because I was afraid of discriminations. Yet what happened next was the complete opposite. As soon as I found out that I could claim my Balinese inheritance (at least until I probably marry a guy of non-Balinese inheritance), I started telling people that I am a Balinese, who was born and raised in Java. It was easier, though, really. No more shocked responses and disbelief statements, although I still did smiled when the old Chinese lady who opens a warung with a tasty Chinese food called me “nonik” instead of “dek.” Only recently did I finally admit to people who ask that I’m also partially Chinese. Back then, I would deny it until my co-worker who found out then told those who asked that I’m actually partially a Chinese Indonesian, too.

I was really surprised upon reading an article by Vltchek who tells a story of a Chinese Indonesian who experienced sexual harassment and later felt ashamed and humiliated, then instead blamed her Chinese inheritance. I thought that those stuffs only happened because you don’t look Chinese enough. That was a significant eye-opener for me, because that’s when I started to explore further of the horrible, discriminative history of the government, from the colonial era up to now, against the Chinese people. How people could hate the Chinese because back then people assimilate Chinese with communism. But even that is only one of thousands of reasons to discriminate Chinese, and some of them are ridiculously fabricated. And the very sad thing is, how easily some people in the country could still be manipulated by racism.

When I watched a family’s story in the documentary film “40 Years of Silence,” I began to understand even better why Chinese Indonesians could be very discriminative to non-Chinese. I wouldn’t blame them, really. Not to mention the racist comments uttered to Ahok who’d become the first Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta, it’s just appalling how shallow the comments uttered and that’s maybe an understatement. But then again, I think now more and more people are becoming more combative against racism, and care less about it. I’d like to believe that more people are beginning to value people more on their personal qualities and performance and characters, and not on their race or religions. Also that those with the racist comments are decreasing in number and who knows, they might be paid to utter such comments.

As I was too spoiled and inferior about myself, not to mention ignorant, I was too focused on my own identity crisis, never thought that the similar things, if not worse, could also happen to others (aside from the calamities of the 1998 riots), but now that I know more about it, I wonder whether all these are simply trivial matters to be shrugged off, compared to those who might have experienced much, much worse discriminations growing up.

P.S. I’m thinking of writing another post someday when I found out more of maternal family’s genealogy because after talking to my mom after writing this, my mom just mentioned another family history, saying the the Javanese inheritance in the family is actually passed down from my granddad-____-‘ It’s just getting more complicated.

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Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? – Night Ramblings”

  1. You should blog more often. Once more this is a very worthwhile read. An extraordinary and moving autobiographical story in the first place. And a piece of very catchy writing on top of that. Moreover it offers a to me fascinating insight in the very complex, sometimes subtle and sometimes rude divisions in Indonesian society. And in a weird way it reassures me that the accusation of racism and discrimination can be directed at others than Caucasians only ;-). O and by the way, puberty and identity insecurity go together as fork and knife at a dinner table ( well, at least at Western style dinner tables :-D ).

    1. Oh Colson, sometimes I think you just praise me too much :p The divisions, however, still exist, especially in rural parts of the country, although I can see it slowly disappears and hopefully it will really be gone someday soon. And no matter how ugly the divisions are, we have nothing similar like the the Dalit caste in India (although I’m not so sure of the rural parts of Bali). And I also believe that discrimination exists in all parts of society, especially those with the ancient history of class hierarchical distinctions. Thanks for making me feel that my identity crisis stage was only a part of me growing up :p

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