I spent my childhood years watching Doraemon cartoons dubbed in Indonesian every Sunday morning and memorizing a gazillion things from school from the Pancasila to the bible. While I took an interest in English books and writing, I couldn’t imagine speaking a language other than Indonesian.
When I was nine, my mother sent me to school in Singapore for its quality education. First day of school was terrifying; a girl came up to me and admonished me fiercely, “You can’t wear lipstick to school.” I wasn’t and was very confused. Hearing Singlish for the first time was also extremely bewildering.
The growing up years was not free of identity crisis. I stopped speaking Indonesian and adopted Singlish. I would sing the national anthem daily and memorized Singapore’s textbook history just like the other children but would feel a little strange during each national day, wondering where I really belonged. On paper, I was (and still am) Indonesian, and I would go to visit my dad in Indonesia every school holidays.
When I went to the US for my studies, I took on an Asian identity along with the other Asian international students. After I returned and started traveling and meeting people from the Southeast Asian region, I started forming a Southeast Asian identity (see an interesting discussion on what it means for us to be Southeast Asians here).
But as with anyone who has lived in several places, each place carries deep meaning for me, even if I’ve only lived there for a while. The people you get to know and the lives and stories that have managed to touch you; they resonate deeply in your heart and make you who you are. When you see old folks still living alone and struggling to make a living, you start to wonder why. When you start teaching Mexican illegal immigrants, you start to care about policies regarding them and so on.
Having returned to stay in Indonesia recently, not everything comes easy. Sometimes, I feel a sense of shame, that perhaps I have lost my identity of as an Indonesian. My command of the Indonesian lexicons is limited to daily conversation usage and trying to express complex ideas can be rather taxing. When I went to Brastagi recently on citizenship education program training; I had low moments where I felt completely incompetent. There I was, struggling to express myself in what was supposed to be my native language, in a context that was still quite unfamiliar to me. After all, how much could I know of Indonesian politics, history or constituency compared to all these people?
But in the end I realize identity is a constantly shifting entity relative to your surroundings and relationships. I don’t think you can ever lose an identity; it’s just how much your environment allows you to associate with it. And there comes a point where I realize there’s really nothing to be ashamed of. Our past is often shaped by the decisions parents or other adults made for us. Instead of blaming the past for things I can’t do, now that I’ve reached maturity and can make my own decisions, it’s time to move forward and begin the learning process. Running away or avoiding the issue is not the solution; if I don’t start putting myself in an uncomfortable position, when will I ever learn?