It used to be about the economic storm of the 1930: how people respond to the crisis, especially the Chinese in Java. I didn’t know why the Chinese popped up. Maybe because they owned small-middle business. It was an intuition, I was too ignorant. Social history is not my fort but I respect testaments. So, memoirs should be great sources, I thought again. Worldcat then helps me to find dozen of titles, of first-person memoirs, of memories left in written words. Then I arrived at Tjamboek Berdoeri. Ah, a giant intellectual once searched him for decades – thanks to him I knew the thorny whip as Kwee Thiam Tjing. So I looked at Thiam Tjing’s writings too. This guy was hilarious but maybe there is something more. I don’t fully trust a narrative overglossing reality. I looked. And looked. Scanning newspapers, reading his words. I delve deeper. And now I’m lost in the middle of cobweb that I have avoided for almost all my life: the story of Chinese Indonesians.
A classmate said to me once, “Thank god your mother is tenglang. If she’s not, my mother would not allow me to come to your place.” I stayed silent. My mother is not Chinese. She is a Javanese from Sidoarjo, East Java. But people think she looks like one. Or maybe because my father is Chinese, so people assume she is too. I never bother to explain to people about my mom, although I know some people are not necessarily racist but merely curious.
There are a lot of rules. If you see someone older (but not too old) and they’re Chinese call them “koh” or “cik” but if they’re not Chinese call them “mas” or “mbak”; if you’re not sure, call them “kak.” In elementary school, it looked easier: most of my schoolmates and seniors are Chinese. In junior and high school, it got harder. Once I went to university, I barely used cik/koh outside the church.
I still remember many remarks about my outside appearance. “Really? You don’t look like Chinese.” “You look sooo Chinese.” But I never really bother to take it seriously. I feel safe when I’m not declaring “I’m Chinese,” I feel safe when I’m declaring “I’m Chinese.” Ethnic card is useful for me everytime I need comfort in social relations. Pragmatic.
I never really know why I particularly avoided the history of Chinese Indonesians. I felt reluctant. My father’s stories about his childhood in Madura, Jember, and around is enough for me to see how hard it is strolling around cities, scavanging chances, scrapping for life. He is lucky. His family is lucky. His love of math and God allows him to survive. So I thought being a Chinese descendent is already enough to understand what does it mean being a minority with all of its problems and conflicts. The burden of history has been weighed within our existence. I was wrong.
I’m trying to redeem my ignorance: reading as much as possible, studying it, writing about it. I see historians of Chinese Indonesians, academic and public, have done a lot of things in the development of scholarship – more than half-century of scholarship, covering hundreds of years of history. One camp celebrates heroic narratives, one camp uses critical approaches, one camp offers more complex nuance. The body of knowledge is rich. But the storm comes for me. A feel of bitterness lingers, creating a big question I’m not sure how to articulate. The history of Chinese Indonesians overwhelms me, a kid who once didn’t bother about manifesting descendent/lineage/blood/heritage. They say knowing history makes you wiser. It makes me blue.
Maybe someday I will find a better way and becoming a better person to understand all of this. Maybe someday I will know how to resolve the tension of being a person labeled as minority but want to escape from its complex. A pressure to understand self-positioning in a society makes one lost. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just too overthinking it, maybe I was trapped in my own way to stay safe, maybe it’s only a projection of my survivorship bias, maybe i just miss my family, or maybe I’m too privileged to even say something like this. History, where is thy greatness?