This first appeared on Belda’s blog.
I recently went for an interview to take a teaching English course in South Jakarta. It took 2 (and sometimes 2 and a half hours) to get to, and I decided that since the course would be intensive and full time, it would be better to stay in a hostel near the center. Upon breaking the news to my mother, her answer was a vehement no.
At first, her reason was that eating street food would be unsafe for me, especially since several street vendors still put formaldehyde in their food to make it last longer. Noodles are not out of the equation either as unsafe food coloring is often used. This is a common knowledge and is still happening. “Makes the food really chewy,” as one lady told me, “I know they put in formaldehyde, but well, I still eat them occasionally.” (My mom is quick to tell me the horror stories of the “bakso” – fishball seller family and their maid who all died eating the leftover food they sell)
But the reason that finally dominated was that it was dangerous for a girl to live out there on her own. “You will get raped and killed” was the brief summary.
While there are reasons to be cautious about safety in Indonesia, I think it really depends on the location. From what I have seen, I judged the place to be safe and was in fact looking forward to living there. So I tried to reason to my mom that many expats were taking the same course and some also stayed at the surrounding hostels with no problem.
“It might be alright for expats. But we’re Chinese Indonesians, and as a young Chinese Indonesian girl, you are not safe.” came the reply.
I finally got my friend from Singapore to interview for the course as well, thinking that perhaps, two girls living in a hostel would be better than one. Her mother, a Chinese Indonesian who married a Singaporean and has lived in Singapore for many years, objected immediately for the same reason.
My friend told me it didn’t matter that the hostel was in a guarded complex and right behind the school. The moment her parents heard the words “living in Jakarta”, they objected. Historically and even now, most Chinese Indonesians still live in separate communities from other Indonesians. They tend to go to different schools, different shopping malls, different places of worship etc. Since Chinese language is no longer banned, Chinese Indonesian parents are starting to send their children to learn Chinese in the many Chinese language centers that have opened up. Lunar New Year is also a national holiday in Indonesia.
I wonder if we are still living the effects of the horror of the May 1998 riots. Especially for people of my parents’ generation, who vividly remember the incident and feeling terrified for the safety of their children, I can understand their fear and worry.
“I’ve experienced so many terrible things and had once ran away from the country,” my friend’s mother explained, “It’s so ridiculous why my daughter would want to go and live there.”
I was ten when the riots occurred, safely hidden away in Singapore. But I never forgot the stories, since many of the horrors happened right in my home community. My parents would tell me how the doors of Chinese Indonesian homes were marked as an indication that rioters should loot and burn that home. How my childhood friend’s father had been dragged away from his car and beaten to death. How my parents’ long time friend had to hide for 48 hours in a dark cellar while rioters looted the house. And then there were the endless stories of brutal gang rapes that still make me shiver to think about.
My brother’s fiancee had been visiting Jakarta at that time and she said it was the most frightening experience of her life: “There was fire everywhere, we were in the car trying to find a way out and luckily the guard showed us an alternative route to escape.”
Even with all the progress, many Chinese Indonesians still fear a similar incident happening, especially in the face of an economic downturn. I don’t deny the opulence of some Chinese. I would actually bring friends to certain neighborhoods to let them see “houses that are so big your jaws would drop”. It really doesn’t help that many of them also engage in frivolous parties and lavish gatherings, when more could be done to help the communities around.
If I was a first-hand witness of the riots like the others, perhaps I would not be so carefree in my decision of living on my own in the city. Ultimately, I can understand my parents’ fear, but at the same time, I do want to feel a sense of belonging in this country, not just constant wariness and fear. I badly want to be recognized as not just a Chinese Indonesian, but an Indonesian. It is a fact that we still do look distinctively different from the others. While I may be darker skinned than most of my Chinese Singaporean friends, I am still “too white” in Indonesia and people can easily identify me as Chinese.
I guess in the end, I still want to be recognized as just part of another ethnic minority group in Indonesia, not an outsider. It still irks me some days when I venture to a non Chinese area and people start to stare because it is odd to see one of my kinds in those parts. Or when I venture to tourists areas and locals speak Chinese to me, assuming I am a tourist. Of course, I can hardly blame them, but most days I do just wish they would see me as I am. I was born in this country, I still care for the welfare of this country and while I naturally care about the welfare of many countries as part of the bond of humanity, this one’s always just an extra bit more special.