Selasa, 05 Februari 2008

I am a Chinese-Indonesian

Aimee Dawis, Jakarta
In December last year, I attended a seminar in Singapore. I was welcomed by the seminar representative at the Changi Airport. After shaking hand, he asked me, "Are you ethnic Chinese? Your name is not Chinese, but you look Chinese." I told him that I am Chinese and he was taken aback. "I couldn't tell from your name that you're Chinese," he said. The puzzlement around my name and my identity as an ethnic Chinese from Indonesia continued throughout the one-day seminar.

As a writer and researcher on the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, I was invited to present my paper on China and the Cultural Identity of the Chinese in Indonesia.
Hoping to dispel the confusion arising from my name, I decided to begin my presentation by explaining my name and the historical implications and significance of naming among the Chinese in Indonesia.

In 1966, the Indonesian government issued a policy which strongly recommended Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent change their names into Indonesian ones to prove their loyalty to Indonesia. This policy was released in the wake of the Soeharto regime's closures of Chinese schools, bans on public expressions of Chinese culture and language and widespread government suspicion regarding the Chinese community's role in the PKI's (The Indonesian Communist Party's) uprising in 1965.
Being a heterogeneous and diverse community, the Chinese in Indonesia responded to the name-changing policy in distinct ways. My father chose to change his name to Didi Dawis from Djie Ie Ling.

His other six siblings chose different names for themselves. One of his siblings who chose to keep his Chinese name. While the names chosen by my father's family (except for his youngest brother) have been Indonesianized to the extent most people cannot tell that they are Chinese, there are other Indonesian names chosen by the Chinese in Indonesia that implicitly indicate that they are still Chinese. For example, those with the Chinese surnames of Tan, Ong and Wee chose Indonesianized surnames such as Tanuwijaya, Ongggara and Wijaya.

These names show a desire to retain a sense of Chineseness while at the same time complying with the government's policy. When Abdurrahman Wahid served as the President of Indonesia between November 1999 and August 2001, he abolished the Presidential Instruction Number 14, signed in 1967 by Soeharto, which restricted the practice of Chinese customs and religions to private domain.

Following this abolition, he signed the Presidential Instruction Number 6, stipulated in the year 2000, which allows the public celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Megawati took a step further by declaring Chinese New Year has been a national holiday in 2003. Other than the official celebration of Chinese New Year, the revival of Chinese culture may be seen in the establishment of schools offering Mandarin as a mode of instruction and a proliferation of Chinese-language newspapers in Indonesia.
In 1999, a television channel that broadcasts news in Chinese (Metro TV) and a radio station (Cakrawala) have joined the growing number of Chinese-language newspapers to form a media climate that is more open to Chinese language and culture.

The dazzling array of choices and opportunities arising from the acceptance and embrace of Chinese language and culture in today's Indonesia does not mean the process of identity process and maintenance among the Indonesian Chinese is less complex than in the Soeharto era by any means. The meaning of Chineseness is always shifting through time and place, and is dependent on the discursive tug-of-war between self-positioning and being positioned by others. With the available options, the Indonesian Chinese are now presented with various means to (re)negotiate their own sense of Chineseness. From the moment their babies are born, Indonesian Chinese parents are no longer pressured to name their offspring with Indonesian names. In my observations, some parents have chosen to meld not two, but three cultures together by giving their newborns names such as Adrian Wijaya Ng, Louisa Kartadinata Liu; the first names being Western (because the parents have been educated overseas), the middle names being Indonesian, while the last names are Chinese. Yet there are many other parents who still prefer to name their babies with Indonesian names such as Hendra Suryajaya or Dewi Kurniadi.

The differences in attitudes and expectations in the Indonesian Chinese community with regards to naming reveal the polyphonic nature of identity issues. As Indonesia erases the discriminatory regulations against the Indonesian Chinese, members of this community are presented with different sources of Chinese cultural expressions that begin with their names and formal Chinese language education and continue with Chinese media, Chinese organizations and cultural performances.

Depending on their distinct socio-cultural backgrounds and the choices they make, the next generation of Indonesian Chinese and their parents may uncover new channels and avenues in their continuing process of being Chinese in Indonesia.
The writer teaches in the graduate programs of the University of Indonesia School of Social and Political Sciences, Department of Communications, and the Letters Department at the School of Humanities. She can be reached at


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