When the walls of your house have collapsed, you will loose security, but what a horizon!
The construction of ethnic identity illustrated by the position of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia
an essay written by Jade Tan
The world of today is a colorful mixture of cultures and ethnicity's, not just on a global level, but also on a national level. Yet, when you belong to an ethnic minority with features that distinguishes you from the dominant group, there comes a time that you are forced to think about your own ethnic identity, because it’s not something you can take for granted.
I remember an incident from my childhood in Indonesia; my brother, my sister and I, wanted to play with the kids from the neighborhood. However, the Javanese kids scolded us calling: ‘Cino Cino!’ (=Chinese) Totally unaware of the meaning of the word, we yelled ‘Cino!’ back at them. It’s obvious that we weren’t brought up with a sense of ethnic consciousness. But the incident made it clear that apparently, we weren’t Indonesians like the rest of them. Despite of the fact that we spoke bahasa Indonesia and that we were born in Indonesia - like our parents, our grandparents and great-grandparents - we were made the Other who didn’t belong in their country.
When I was nine years old, my family and I emigrated to Holland. Again we were scolded, this time by the Dutch schoolkids who called us: ‘Pinda poep Chinees!’ This was also a contemptuous term for ‘Chinese’.
But how could I be called ‘Chinese’ again and again when I’ve never been to China, and I didn’t speak Mandarin and didn’t know much of it’s history and culture.
What is it that makes me Chinese? Is it just the way I look?
Apparently not. I still can remember the contempt on the face of the Chinese waiter in Singapore, once he realized we didn't speak Mandarin. The same goes when we visit a Chinese restaurant in Holland. The Hong Kong Chinese regard us as fake Chinese who don’t even speak Cantonese.
Imagine the irony of this; among the Indonesians and the Dutch we were defined as Chinese, but among the Chinese we were regarded as non-Chinese!
This personal story illustrates that ethnic identity is socially constructed. So it’s not just a matter of identification. It’s not just up to me which ethnic group I want to identify myself with. The history of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia however, shows that that the construction of ethnic identity is also very much power-related. Every dominant ethnic group has the power to define the identity of ethnic minorities, making them 'the Other'.
This legitimates: problematization, marginalization, discrimination, exclusion and even, genocide of the Other group. Race, ethnicity, culture and religion are used as an excuse to evaluate differences in terms of the Others being inferior, evil and exploiters of Us, the dominant group.
The fall of Suharto in 1998 was accompanied with riots all over Indonesia. Much of the violence was directed towards the Chinese population. Houses and properties of ethnic Chinese were burnt,and women were victims of organized gang-rape. The stereotypical image of the Chinese, is that they have enriched themselves at the expense of the local population. History has shown that for century’s ethnic Chinese have been made the scapegoat during political and economical crisis in Indonesia. The scapegoat function of ethnic Chinese goes way back to the Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. The Dutch practiced a rule and devide policy with the ethnic Chinese as scapegoats. In 1740 thousands ethnic Chinese were killed during riots that were deliberately started by high Dutcht officials.
The distinction according to racial lines and the scapegoat function also served the Indonesian rulers its purpose after the independence of Indonesia. Modern definitions like non-asli (=non indigenous) and non-pribumi, categorized the ethnic Chinese as aliens in Indonesia, making them subject to discriminating policy. Even nowadays ethnic Chinese are categorized as WNI keturunan (Warganegara Indonesia keturunan= descendants of Indonesian citizen). This distinguishes them from the orang Asli the native Indonesians.
During the coup by Suharto in 1965, many alleged communists were killed. Among them were thousands of ethnic Chinese. With their alleged links with communist China, ethnic Chinese were by definition suspicious. Many of them went abroad, to Western countries, but some of them went to the Republic of China. One would think that China would welcome them with open arms, being Chinese descendents. However the guards of the red army – it was Cultural Revolution at that time in China – regarded the ethnic Chinese from Indonesia as the enemy. Were the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia suspected of communist practice, in China they were suspected of being capitalist! In both cases they were regarded as aliens and the enemy. Talking about the irony of history!
The history of ethnic Chinese shows some similarities with the history of the Jews.
A Jewish woman has told me the story of her grandmother. Her grandmother was born out of wedlock in Dresden in the beginning of the century. The Jewish family of her father’s side did not accept her as a Jew. Consequently she suffered a great deal from the hypocrisy of her Jewish family. Only when she was 19 years old, her parents got married. And only then she became officially Jew, acquiring the property and the acceptance of the wealthy, upper middle class of Jewish in Frankfurt. But it was during World War II that her dubious origin became her lifesaver. She managed to avoid deportation by proving she was an illegitimate child and therefore she was officially declared non-Jewish. Her remarkable story once again outlines the cruel irony of history and the power-related construction of ethnic identity.
Yet, with the power on their side, Israel has suppressed Palestinians and China has subjected Tibet. This means that perpetrators and victims could develop to exist at random, due to the difference in powerrelations.
Throughout history, the dominant ethnic group has constantly defines ethnic minorities as the Other, like I have been constructed as ‘Chinese’ again and again.
Yet, a Dutch friend thinks of me as a Dutch person. An ethnic Chinese woman from Indonesia I’ve just met, finds me very Indonesian. Apparently one sees the cultural aspects that is being recognized and neglects the aspects that one does not recognize.
My cousin from Indonesia, who visited me in Holland, said that I was neither Dutch nor Indonesian. And I may be a Hua Yi (Chinese descendant) but I am not Huaren. I like to subscribe my cousin’s view; cause why can’t I just BE?
There is an old Chinese proverb: When the walls of your house have collapsed, you will loose security, but what a horizon!
For people who live in the vacuum of a no-ones-land as a result of migration and of mixed cultures of their ancestors, a great challenge arises. It’s the challenge to (re)define and (re)produce one owns identity, for one self, and for the world, while considering the power-relations in society. Only then can one develop social empowerment, and the strength to make each step towards the horizon from inner power and inner freedom.