The Complexity of Split Identities
What it is like being Chinese in Indonesia.
July 11, 2021
Identity is a complex matter. Yet for any one of us – whether as individuals or organizations – to exist fully and confidently in a constantly changing world, it is imperative to be able to unravel the complexity of who we are.
However, like anything else in life, this is much easier said than done.
Take my story, for example.
My Chinese-Indonesian family
I was born in 1980, to a sixth or seventh generation Chinese-Indonesian family. My parents had Chinese names, as did my brother.
I don’t have one because my paternal grandfather passed away shortly after I was born. And he was the one who had given all the grandchildren their Chinese names.
Disowning my Chinese parts
My family never celebrated Chinese New Year, but we would go and visit relatives who did celebrate the occasion. Our palates are unabashedly Indonesian: savory, hot and spicy. I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese and I have zero relatives who live in or were raised anywhere near China.
So, I learned to disown my Chinese parts from an early age – the way my eyes are slanted, my fair complexion and even the hyphenated term Chinese-Indonesian.
The least Chinese, Chinese-Indonesian
“You’re the least Chinese, Chinese-Indonesian I know,” said a friend a long time ago.
I was strangely relieved to hear this assessment. I knew that in the modern context of preserving one’s heritage and owning one’s culture, there was this demand for me to embrace all the things that I am.
But the most visible parts of me were the least representative of who I was. This was my truth.
Keeping one’s head down
Growing up, I remember participating in upacara bendera, or the mandatory flag raising ceremony held every Monday at 7 a.m. in the school yard. I would wonder if I truly belonged to the red-and-white flag.
In the news and in conversations that I caught my parents having, it was clear that as a community we were supposed to always keep our heads down. The fear of expulsion hung over us.
Riots and racism
I went to a private school in a neighborhood known for Chinese-Indonesian population. My experiences with racism were therefore mild, at worst.
Then, in May 1998 riots broke out in Jakarta in which 1000 people were killed, most of Chinese descent. Ethnic Chinese have long been used as scapegoats for any economic woes that Indonesia might suffer.
My family were spared the horrific violence we saw in the news. Even so, the message we received was clear: “Get out.”
Escape to the United States
So, I left and studied abroad.
One evening in April 2000, with a one-way ticket from Jakarta to Boston tucked between the pages of my green passport, I stood in the immigration line at the airport. I was dreaming of a place where I could restart my life on a blank page.
I had only seen Boston in pictures: a beautiful city with lots of parks and red brick buildings. I imagined myself escaping into that postcard.
Finally becoming Indonesian
For my first nine months in the city, I attended a language school. I lived with a Persian American family, where I also shared a room with a South-Korean girl who had been born and raised in Bonn, Germany.
It was perfect. At every international gathering — and every time I met a new person – I would say, without second guessing myself, “l am Indonesian.” And no one could challenge me.
It felt good. I felt closer to my country than I ever had while actually living there.
Melting away my Chineseness
It was as though the Chinese parts of me had melted away. In their place were cultural and geographical prints of Indonesia that I had created. My identity which had been a blank page, now began to display shapes and colors.
Later, I started college and majored in Liberal Arts. In the fall of my first year at university in 2001 , I saw Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, at a community theatre. The performance lingered in my mind for months.
The insecurity returns
The protagonist Willy Loman was unstable and self-deluded. He vacillated between different eras of his life throughout the play and couldn’t grasp what was real and what was imagined
Somewhere deep down, I felt the nagging fear of one day discovering that I was like Loman. Of being exposed as a fraud. That someone would come up to me and say: “You are a liar. Get out.”
The rules of storytelling
For several years now, I have been teaching the power of stories and storytelling to business executives. The question is always the same: How do you apply storytelling in business operations?
I tell them that they must match their internal stories with their external stories. That is the only way to truly understand who they are and why they do what they do. Only then can they design how to go about doing what they do best.”
Hard to practice what I preach
But I’m not sure I practice what I preach. My external story was, is, and always will be, that I belong entirely to Indonesia. My internal story, however, is less clear.
So, I rely on abstract values to describe myself. That somehow, I belong to no particular part of the world, which by default means I belong to every part of the world.
Here’s what I never tell my students. It takes a certain kind of madness to match your internal stories with your external stories.
The fact is that the narrative of who you are and why you are here in the world is always in flux. It does not stand still. The best thing you can do is to recalibrate your narrative every now and then – and carry on.
Identity is a complex matter. Yet to exist fully and confidently in a constantly changing world, it is imperative to unravel the complexity of who we are.
I learned to disown my Chinese parts from an early age - the way my eyes are slanted, my fair complexion and even the hyphenated term Chinese-Indonesian.
It was clear that as a community, Chinese-Indonesians were supposed to always keep our heads down. The fear of expulsion hung over us.
In May 1998 riots in Jakarta left 1000 people dead. Most of Chinese descent. Ethnic Chinese have long been used as scapegoats for any economic woes that Indonesia might suffer.
It was in the United States that I felt closer to my country than I ever had while actually living there.
I rely on abstract values to describe myself. That somehow, I belong to no particular part of the world, which by default means I belong to every part of the world.