I had a very sheltered upbringing in terms of racial interactions as a kid. My parents fit the bill of your stereotypical, conservative Chinese in a couple of fields: They are very suspicious, frugal, exclusive, and Buddhist. As the result, I wasn’t allowed to mingle with the locals (native Indonesian) and was sent to the most “Chinese” school in town. My teachers and my friends were all Chinese. It’s just like growing up at the Mainland China with two seasons instead of four and the abundance of tropical fruits . We spoke in Hokkien dialect (the most popular form of Mandarin dialects in our town) and not in Bahasa Indonesia (our official state language). I grew up learning to identify myself first as a Chinese, then second as an Indonesian.
My parents did this to protect me as we were living in a small town where the majority of people were Indonesian and also Moslem. The racial slur thrown by the locals at us – Hey,Cina! – just strengthened our belief that the Chinese and the Indonesian hated each other. Apparently, this phenomenon happened all over Indonesia too. It hit the roof on May 1998 when mass riots broke out under the regime of Suharto in three main places : Jakarta; Surakarta; and Medan – where I was living. The cause were economic problems – food shortages and mass unemployment. The protesters considered Chinese-Indonesians as the root of the problems, and they lashed out by destroying the properties owned by Chinese-Indonesians. I remember windows of the houses being sprayed with the word “pribumi”, which means local, to avoid being destroyed. A lot of my friends fled to Singapore with their family when the tensions were high. My family and I fled to my auntie’s house. I was on the second grade of primary school.
More than a thousand people died in the riots and at least 168 rape cases were reported. Our country lost more than 3.1 trillion rupiah in materials, and also its dignity.
Flash-forward fifteen years, I am glad to say that the relationship between Chinese-Indonesians and the native Indonesians is getting better. Racism still happens, but not as frequent and as bad. We learn to coexist and cooperate. After all, we are all Indonesian, regardless of our races and skin colors.
This positive change that is slowly unfolding helps to shift my perspective of being a true Indonesian. You can’t get away by saying: ” Oh, I am Indonesian. But you know, I am Chinese.” It is just disrespectful to your country and shows that you are ignorant.
I believe that a country should not be defined by its past. An atrocious act committed by a group of misguided people can’t be used as the representation of the whole population. It is unfair and bigoted. But we need to learn from the history to never let it happen again.
I am going to leave you with a famous saying by the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno,that came to my mind while writing this post.
“Jangan sekali-kali melupakan sejarah.”
“Never forget [your] history.”
A true advice from a true visionary.