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Being “too Chinese”

Not a victim, but a perpetrator in Indonesia

It was red everywhere in Jakarta. No, it’s not because the Arab revolution has spread over here. It was red because the Chinese community in Indonesia was celebrating their New Year. It was not long ago when Chinese-Indonesians had to celebrate their most important holiday discreetly within the walls of their homes. This year, fireworks, lion dances, and all kinds of red ornaments filled the already bustling streets of Jakarta.

For decades, the Chinese minority in Indonesia has been socially and politically discriminated against. In 1998, anti-Chinese riots broke out across Indonesia. Thousands of people were killed and hundreds of Chinese women were gang-raped. It is true that the riots were orchestrated by the army loyal to Suharto, a Mubarak-Ben-Ali-type dictator who ruled Indonesia for 32 years, to sow fear and chaos in order to discredit the movement that later ousted him. But the riots wouldn’t have become such a widespread phenomenon if there hadn’t been anti-Chinese sentiment to start with.

However, I am not here to talk and complain about the marginalization of the Chinese minority in Indonesia. I am here to confront an old demon that has been bothering me as a member of this community, by default and not by choice, that we Chinese are racist. We are not merely passive victims of racism. We are also a active agents that perpetuate this problem.

“I don’t like that place, too many huana,” said my Chinese friend when I told her I was at Trisakti University, a native-dominated school. I cringed at her statement. Huana is one of the two “N-words” that the Chinese-Indonesians use to refer to the natives here. It means people with no manners. Another “N-word” for the Indonesian native is tiko, which is far more demeaning. It literally means “black pig.” Most Chinese use these degrading words, knowing full well what they mean.

The Chinese think very poorly of the native population here. But we also think lowly of every race. “White people,” said my father, “are lazy. All they do is sit at a cafe and chat aimlessly.” He always harps on the prime virtue of the Chinese race: hard working. With the ascendancy of China, his pride – or arrogance depending on how you look at it – as a Chinese man is at an all time high. There are few groups who were once colonized who think that they are better than anyone else. Our bodies might be colonized, but our minds never have been.

The younger generation is without a doubt more open-minded than their parents. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A racist attitude is still prevalent amongst many young Chinese.

As someone who dreams of liberating Indonesians, be they native or Chinese, from the clutch of capital, I often have to grapple with this uncomfortable fact. The majority of Indonesians look at the colour of my skin as a sign of ill-gotten privilege, while my own “kind” treats the rest of Indonesians as lesser beings. The latter distresses me more than anything else. “Workers of the world, unite!” seems to be the only solace that I can find, the only rudder that helps me navigate through this thorny situation I have been thrown into.

Ted Sprague is currently in South East Asia. You can follow his adventure through this column or his blog