I first met Aimee Dawis last month, in an elevator in Guiyang, China. It was in the morning before the China-ASEAN Symposium organized by Guizhou University.
Least to say, it was a brief encounter, probably uneventful. I thought that Aimee was Chinese, like the other 1.3 billion people in that land. Then again, it is possible that Aimee may have also thought that I was Chinese, from somewhere in Guangdong, where the people can sometimes be of darker skin.
Now, when looking back, having just finished Aimee’s book, I can say how appropriate that encounter was.
The confusion of identity. And thus, the struggle to resurrect, rediscover, redeem this identity. This is the underlying theme of Aimee’s book, titled “Orang Indonesia Tionghoa Mencari Identitas” (Chinese Indonesians In Search of Identity).
The book looks at the experience of Chinese Indonesians during the New Order era of Soeharto’s dictatorial regime (which ended in 1998). An era when freedoms were limited, and more so, expressions of Chineseness, through written and spoken literature, performance arts, traditional ceremonies and the media, were simply not allowed. They were all banned.
Forced into assimilation, the Chinese Indonesians were legally stripped off their cultural ties to Mainland China, the land of their forefathers. However, Aimee argues that within such an environment, Chinese Indonesians managed to find semblances of their Chinese identity in the form of Chinese drama series, which were contraband items, whose possession could risk legal penalties.
Many who watched these drama series (most coming from Taiwan and Hongkong, two entities that were always careful to maintain a distance from Communist Mainland China) found some comfort in the values, ideas, and images projected in the series. They gave the viewers a sense of what it (probably) means to be of Chinese background, in a surrounding devoid of any Chinese cultural symbols.
To those who felt prejudiced by the New Order’s dictatorial regime, the Chinese drama series gave their viewers a sense of a “desired other”, and imagined escape from their daily hardship. To those searching for their cultural roots, the series gave them a sense of an “imagined homeland”. And to those feeling disjointed from the Indonesian community at large, the Chinese drama series provided a feeling of “imagined community”, a feeling of belonging to something.
While appreciating her insights into the connection between media (as represented by the drama series) and identity, I also enjoyed Aimee’s discussion of the plurality of Chinese Indonesians. Indonesians too often like to see the Chinese Indonesian community as a single, exclusive identity. Many times, this has been to the detriment of these Chinese Indonesians. Resentment towards affluent Chinese Indonesians often results in hardships for the poorer ones, just because they are of the same descent. Therefore, recognition of plurality is a step towards breaking down exclusiveness, and the prejudices that come along with it.
What I like about this book is the honest tone with which it is written. Aimee doesn’t pretend to know it all, admitting that as a “native ethnographer” she is more susceptible to getting things wrong (in the guise of supposed truths) than right. As a result, she allows the facts to speak, and the opinions to surface without major adulteration. Aimee merely provides a framework of thought to guide the reader into understanding the underlying theme of her analysis.
Employing narrations obtained from focus group discussions involving Chinese Indonesians growing up during the New Order era, the book does not shy away from the stereotypes, prejudices, and feelings that color the uneasy relationship between Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians. It contained accounts of Chinese Indonesians from Sumatera to Papua, those who regard themselves as “totok” and “peranakan”, those who speak Chinese and didn’t. In the end, the book says things the way they are, and not the way most Indonesians often prefer to.
So honest was Aimee that she wrote this at the beginning of the book: “Ini baru sebuah awal”. This is just a beginning. And if this is so, then I certainly am looking forward to what’s to follow. Not only the views that Aimee would develop in the future, but as a whole, the body of literature on Chinese Indonesians, identity politics, the diaspora, Indonesian studies, China studies, and even diplomacy. A body of literature born in a freer Indonesia, based and carried out by people relishing in these new freedoms.
Aimee actually outlined some of the possible directions for such studies. The possibilities are endless. Maybe, just maybe, I can be part of this movement.
I think that the notion of “a confusion of identity” will never wholly disappear. Not with the Chinese Indonesians. Not with every Indonesian in general, who live in a country so diverse and various. For identities are never singular, and people are free to assume multiple identities in this globalized world.
More studies on this theme, however, would raise greater awareness of the values, the prejudices, and the sentiments that we live with every day. To make us feel more grounded, and assured of each and one of our identities. To make us recognize that what we deemed to be truths are sometimes actually far from it.
At least, having read this book, the next time around I will know who Aimee Dawis is. And that’ll be something, ‘cause that’s one identity I would not be confused of.