Chinese-Indonesians: Is a Once Forbidden Identity Fading?

Just as China is ascending the world stage as an economic superpower, so too, is Chinese culture becoming increasingly visible in Indonesia.

Chinese New Year, banned during the repressive New Order period, is now a national holiday that sees almost every mall in the city festooned in red and gold lanterns in hopes of boosting sales. Students all over the country are learning Chinese language to get a leg up in an international job market where Mandarin is fast becoming as big an asset as English.

So why is it that, while this boom in Chinese culture is going on, so many young Chinese-Indonesians are slowly losing touch with their cultural heritage?

Prisca Muljadi, 18, is Chinese by blood, but, when asked how much she knows about her Chinese culture, she was taken aback. It was as if she was being asked about something completely foreign.

After a thoughtful silence, she said, “To be honest, when I think about it, I don’t really know much about Chinese culture.

“I’ve always wondered how Chinese people ended up living in Indonesia, but I accepted it as a fact and don’t feel curious or question it at all,” she continued.

She confessed that she had never really thought about Chinese culture until the topic was brought up.

Muljadi neither speaks a Chinese language nor does she know which generation Chinese she is. She said that, if anything, she identifies more with Western culture. “I went to an international school, speak English, and go to college in the US,” she explained.

Natasha Silfanus, a 19-year-old Chinese-Indonesian, said, “I cannot speak for anybody except for myself and my circle of friends. But I believe we lack an understanding and, more importantly, an interest in Chinese culture.”

Silfanus’s parents urged her to study the Chinese language, but she said she was “just not interested.” She said she did not know her family history and thought that, although her parents practiced some Chinese traditions, they were not important to her personally.

She put part of the blame on her lack of knowledge about Chinese culture on her family. “My family isn’t that Chinese culturally – we are very much adapted to the Indonesian way of life, with some Western influences,” she said.

More bluntly, Jason Utomo, another 19-year-old student, said of Chinese culture, “Yeah, I’m definitely ignorant.”

Although Utomo is fluent in Mandarin, he said it would be just “too much effort” to preserve his family’s Chinese traditions when he raises his own family.

The sentiments of these three Chinese-Indonesians are echoed again and again by young members of the minority group, forming a trend that experts say has clear historical causes.

Aimee Dawis, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia and the author of “The Chinese of Indonesia and Their Search for Identity,” said Chinese-Indonesians born after 1980 are prone to apathy when it comes to their culture. She believes that this particular generation is in a unique position because their parents grew up in a period where any displays of Chineseness were systematically erased by the state.

“Their ignorance may have to do with their parents,” Aimee said. “But you can’t really blame those parents, because they grew up in the Suharto era, when everything Chinese was discouraged and banned.” She added that many people hid the fact that they were Chinese due to the stigma once attached to it.

Chinese culture was banned in the Suharto era due to the alleged role of the Chinese in supporting the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). For 33 years, any expression of Chinese culture was banned, including celebrations, schools and Chinese languages.

After a substantial period of cultural repression, the prohibition of Chinese culture was lifted by former President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid in the early 2000s. In what Aimee calls a “renaissance of Chinese culture,” Chinese language is now being taught in many national-plus schools, Chinese New Year became a national holiday, and there is no longer a significant sense of fear associated with being Chinese.

The Chinese in Indonesia currently make up about 2 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people. Chinese culture is now legally allowed to thrive in Indonesian society. The question is, with so many Chinese-Indonesian families not being used to practicing their culture openly, is it too late for it to be revived?

Angeline Ang, a mother of three young children, said that she considered Chinese culture important and was doing her best to keep it alive in her family. She said she wanted to teach her children to value and cherish Chinese ideals and traditions. Additionally, she said that she wanted her children to learn a Chinese language for cultural reasons.

“Even without the business and vocational advantages of speaking Chinese, I’d still encourage my children to learn the language,” Ang said.

She said, however, that she hoped her children would still identify as Indonesian because they were born and raised here.

“But we can’t forget our Chinese heritage as well,” she added. “I’m proud to be Indonesian and I think Indonesian culture is valuable. At the same time, I will never forget my heritage, no matter what my citizenship is. You can’t throw away your heritage.”

Likewise, Aimee believes Chinese-Indonesians should identify themselves primarily as Indonesians, without completely losing their connection to Chinese culture.

“Being a Chinese-Indonesian simply means being an Indonesian of Chinese descent,” Aimee said. “I think it’s very important to identify as an Indonesian first and foremost.”

As a Chinese-Indonesian mother herself, she wants her children to feel truly Indonesian – which means sending her children to a school where they have flag-raising ceremonies and giving her first daughter a distinctly Indonesian name, Putri, a practice that was enforced under the New Order.

Aimee agreed that many Chinese-Indonesian young people are increasingly ignorant about Chinese culture, but also emphasized that the Chinese community is extremely diverse.

“There is a big Chinese organization called the Chinese-Indonesian Social Association (PSMTI) which has a very active youth division,” she said. “They’re very aware of their identity and discuss issues of identity openly. So we can’t generalize this trend at all. Family backgrounds and history matter significantly.”

The youth division of PSMTI, the Association of Chinese-Indonesian Youth (IPTI), is led by Andrew Susanto. It was created in 2007 and now spans the archipelago’s 33 provinces, with thousands of members from ages 16 to 35.

According to Susanto, the main goal of the association is to instill a strong sense of identity in young Chinese-Indonesians.

“There are a lot of young Chinese-Indonesians that have grown indifferent [to their heritage], and that’s why the association was formed,” he said. “We want to give them lessons on Indonesian nationality that are specifically tailored to Chinese-Indonesians.”

He also believes that Chinese-Indonesians should see themselves as fully Indonesian. “I don’t even think it’s necessary for Chinese-Indonesians to speak a Chinese language fluently,” he said. “If they can, that’s great. But there is no obligation for them to learn a Chinese language when they need to see themselves as Indonesian first and foremost.”

Susanto said a lack education had played a major role in creating a generation that was unconcerned about their cultural heritage and identity. He argued that because the history of Chinese-Indonesians was rarely touched on in schools, Chinese-Indonesians did not see themselves as vital parts of Indonesia.

“[IPTI] is trying to open up that history,” he said. “In every pivotal moment of Indonesian history, there were Chinese figures that fought for the good of this country. They played a role in the building of Indonesia.

“We need to teach young Chinese-Indonesians that we are not simply temporarily staying in Indonesia. If they can see themselves as playing a role in Indonesian history, they will eventually realize that this is our country and our home.”

For those like Muljadi, Silfanus or Utomo, who have not given much thought to their Chinese heritage, Susanto said it was only a matter of time before they started to question their identity.

“Sure, they might not ponder their identities now. But there will come a point, whether it’s when they settle down or have their own children, where they will ask pertinent questions about identity to ultimately decide what cultural legacy they will pass on for their children,” Susanto said.

Until then, Susanto said the subject of Chinese identity in Indonesia should be more openly discussed in schools, daily conversations, and the media. He said he hoped his association could offer support to young adults who were starting to think about the deeper questions of their identity as Chinese-Indonesians.

“I usually tell people I’m Indonesian because that’s what it says on my passport,” Muljadi said. “But when I really think about it, I don’t fully identify with Indonesian culture. Yet when I say I’m Chinese, I don’t truly identify with Chinese culture either.

“Then I think that, perhaps due to my upbringing and experience studying in the United States, I may be more of a Westerner. But Western culture is not something I completely belong to either. So I guess, I really don’t know.”

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