I was only 11 years old when the May 1998 riot happened. My mother had just had brain surgery on a tumor that was slowly deteriorating her vision.
I lived in Bandung, West Java, a city located only few hours’ drive from Jakarta that was relatively safe from the riots. But back then, nobody knew what would happen.
As Chinese-Indonesians family, my family followed every second of television news updates with anxiety.
I heard how terrible the situation was in the capital at the time. Buildings, homes, and shopping centers were looted and burned. Chinese-Indonesians were “the most wanted” group in the riots.
Many Chinese-Indonesian women were raped, even killed. The situation became tense, especially for Chinese women. With mom in post surgical recovery phase, we thought of escape scenarios in case the riots spread to our hometown.
As an elementary student, I couldn’t digest what was really going on. I didn’t understand the connection between the riots and Chinese-Indonesians. I heard the word “rape” for the very first time. My parents said that “this event is proof that we (Chinese-Indonesians) are always the object of hatred.” When I asked why, they could not give an answer.
All the unanswered questions encouraged me to keep looking for answers. Although not directly experienced by my family, the riot became a great horror.
From kindergarten to high school, I became a student of “assimilation”, devoid of religious or ethnic labels. I had never felt any problems with religious or ethnic differences, skin color, or anything – until the riots.
When the riots erupted, I immediately questioned my identity as a Chinese-Indonesian. I started to question things I had never thought of before, such as why I had to learn Mandarin secretly, why there was no Chinese languages on television, why I was called amoy in a disrespectful tone, why there were no barongsay (lion dance) shows on the street, why Chinese New Year a national holiday, and why all Chinese-Indonesian were considered rich when my dad was only an ordinary clerk.
In short, why was my ethnicity treated as a different group – as non-Indonesian? Why couldn’t I find anything about my own ethnic history in school textbooks? At this point, I began to explore Chinese-Indonesian issues, just to seek answers to the question of who I am.
I realized later that I was not alone. This is a classic struggle experienced by many other Chinese-Indonesians. It also finally opened my eyes to the complexity of Chinese-Indonesian issues.
We cannot choose to be born a certain ethnicity, but identity is a very fluid, allowing people to freely identify us and allowing us to identify ourselves.
A few days ago, I met a new colleague from mainland China. Strangely she said my face is “very Indonesian”, though my other friends always say that my face is “very Chinese”.
Non-physical identification is certainly much more complicated. Facing reality that almost always places Chinese-Indonesians as “foreigners”, I can choose to agree to identify myself as a foreigner destined to be an object to blame.
Or, I can choose to identify myself as an Indonesian who loves and consider Indonesia as my homeland.
But more importantly, studying various available versions of history has been the key that makes me more aware of significant contributions of the ethnic Chinese to Indonesia.
But then I discovered that Chinese-Indonesians have had a significant role in Indonesia’s nation-building, just as importantly as other groups.
Growing up in transition period from the New Order to the Reform Era places myself and Chinese-Indonesian millenials in a unique position. We witnessed this historical event, though we were only children at the time. Today, we are a young generation full of energy and with more opportunities to work. We also have more choices than before.
With this better atmosphere, I am grateful that many young Chinese-Indonesians and millenials are actively contributing to Indonesia in various ways.
They consciously dedicate their work for the good of others. Many are tough women, the gender that was displayed as victims in the previous era, especially during the May 1998 riots.
Here are examples. Through her stunning skills and hardwork, badminton athlete Liliyana Natsir, 32, repeteadly champions Indonesia’s name in the world. Yolla Bernanda, 35, is a dedicated policewoman who bravely arrested a drug dealer. Margareta “Margie” Astaman is a writer actively appealing for tolerance and diversity. Audrey Yu Jia Hui wrote a book, Mencari Sila Ke Lima (Seeking the Fifth Principle) to invite people to love the Pancasila. Tiffany Robyn Soetikno, 25, is working hard to build business lines to improve the quality of health for Indonesians.
Some of them experienced the dark history of May 1998, and many others have experienced discrimination. But that hasn’t stopped them. Their works are even able to break down negative stereotypes about Chinese-Indonesians in various fields with major impacts on society.
Two decades after the May 1998 riot, their valuable contribution proves that young Chinese-Indonesians are agents of change. This has ignite the fire of hope within me, to further spread hopes of a better Indonesia. (***)
This article published on The Jakarta Post (Saturday, May 12, 2018)
Photography by Maria Sandra N.