Chinese New Year really matters to the Chinese, including me and my family.
I am a young Chinese- Indonesian, whose grandfather and grandmother were born in the southern part of mainland China. They fled to Indonesia and then lived in Bandung, West Java. When riots were breaking out, their children, including my mother, were born in Bandung.
My father didn’t exactly know his origin because his parents died as a child, but he still speaks fluent Fujian, his parents’ native language. I was born the first of four siblings.
Since childhood, I was encouraged to learn Chinese and the Khe or Hakka dialects. Under the New Order regime, which banned all expressions of Chinese culture, it was a struggle to learn Chinese. Still, I was more proficient speaking Chinese than English but I had less understanding of Chinese traditions.
I was unaware that Chinese Indonesians were an ethnic minority until I went to private elementary school with other students from diverse backgrounds. This experience opened my eyes and made me aware of the danger of prejudice without knowing the facts.
Up to high school, I hung out with my close, non-Chinese friends. Some are still among my best friends. Thankfully, my parents were very open minded. I experienced racism but I know whoever did it lacked knowledge and didn’t need to be taken seriously. Ethnicity is a gift from God.
In addition, it was common among ethnic Chinese that instead of working as government employees amid ethnic barriers, opening up businesses seemed the only opportunity during the New Order. I realized that doing business was not a natural talent of all ethnic Chinese people — a mistaken assumption that broadened to the misleading generalization that all ethnic Chinese were rich.
This presumption may have arisen because most Chinese Indonesians were entrepreneurs, but now I see more and more Chinese Indonesians taking different paths although their parents may have family businesses.
I’m not bothered by such prejudices or presumptions, but I was stunned by the New Order policy that legalized discrimination. I remember that I was only able to celebrate Chinese New Year after school. When dealing with the bureaucracy, I got into trouble several times just because of my skin and slanted eyes.
Fortunately, that regime has now passed and I was grateful to know Bandung was excluded from the volatile areas of the May 1998 tragedy. But some of my friends, especially those living in Jakarta, fled abroad due to fear. Since the tragedy, I came to understand that prejudice could be a dangerous time bomb that could lead to unrest and conflict, even at unreasonable levels.
Fortunately I live in a pluralistic environment. I rebelled when the Chinese around me said most non-Chinese hated them. It was a fallacy. I am fine with my non-Chinese friends. Love and humanity rise above all differences. There’s something wrong with those who always have racist thoughts.
I have learnt to understand that living as a minority is a grace. It can become a great reason to contribute something valuable to the country. Being part of a minority does not mean one can only do minor things.
I am grateful to be surrounded by my mentors, Chinese Indonesian figures who are proud of their ethnic identity but who are also role models for diverse people.
They work in the spirit of pluralism. They never think about their own ethnicity or even about themselves. They may not be famous but they have already done real work for this country.
Examples are the physician Lie Dharmawan, the founder of the NGO doctorSHARE; Ester Jusuf, founder of Solidaritas Nasional Kebangsaan (Solidarity of the Nation-State); and William Kwan of the Institute of Indonesian Pluralism. These mentors formed my character as a Chinese Indonesian youth.
I also have a lot of Chinese Indonesian friends who devote themselves to communities in need. I was very moved when I saw how they treated malnourished children in Southeast Maluku, holding their skinny hands and hugging them with love.
For me, this is the true meaning of Chinese New Year — when me and my Chinese Indonesian friends can make people happy. Celebrating Chinese New Year is celebrating new hopes for a better Indonesia that young Chinese Indonesians can be a part of. (***)
Photo Source: history.com
This article published in Jakarta Post.