Tomorrow is the first ever New England Indonesian Festival, and I only just heard about it today from an uncle in California. I’d really love to go, to take the kids and my husband, but I fear that attending will require some serious scheduling acrobatics. There’s still hope, but it doesn’t look good.
My mom was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her family was living there as part of the Dutch Colony that established roots there long before. Shortly before she was born, the Indonesians fought for the independence, and my mother’s family had to make a decision between remaining in Indonesia where they had made their life, denouncing their Dutch citizenship, or leave Indonesia forever. They chose the latter, heading to Holland for a few years before immigrating to the United States. They moved here in the mid-twentieth century when assimilation was the only way for immigrants, especially nonwhite ones, to move up the social ladder. So when I came on the scene a decade and a half later, my mom’s family was this amalgamation of Dutch-Indonesian-American culture. They proudly claimed their Dutch heritage, spoke Dutch fluently, and made Dutch foods. They also made Indonesian foods, looked more Asian than European, and laughed uproariously at my stepfather when he served them Uncle Ben’s rice (“He made Uncle Ben’s for Orientals!” they shouted between hysterical gasps of air). Still, my mom had pretty much completely given in to white culture and married one white man (my biological father) and then another (my stepfather). I grew up following my mom’s cultural lead.
Then as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I started to explore my differences. Recently, I wrote to my Oma–my grandmother–to ask her about our mixed racial ethnicity. Here’s essentially what she told me:
First we have to go back a couple of hundred years, the time that the Kings of Europe were sending ships all over the world to bring back goods from far away places. The first fleet of European ships that landed in Indonesia came from Portugal more than 300 years ago. The Portuguese traded with the natives mostly for spices, and eventually one of their trading posts became the city where I family came from: Padang on the west coast of the big island of Sumatra.
Other countries had started to send their ships too, fighting with one another for power. French and England took turns at the top, and finally the Dutch ruled the island, called Insulindia at the time. The first [European with my Oma’s maiden name] came with one of those trading boats from Portugal, under admiral Vaso da Gama, via India to Sumatra; he was one of those Portuguese settlers, and he stayed through the French, the English, and finally the Dutch.
Settlers from all of those countries married one another; that’s why we have Portuguese, French and English names mixed in with the Dutch. Eventually, the settlers received Dutch citizenship when the East Indies officially became a colony.
My Oma and Opa were both born in Indonesia when it was the Dutch East Indies. My Oma says that her grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) was Portuguese, English, and Dutch, while his wife was English, German, French, and Dutch. Her grandmother’s father (my great-great-great-grandfather) was Dutch with a wife of “mixed nationality.” Her mother’s father was primarily French with a mix of different nationalities and his mother was Chinese.
She went on in a future email to tell me that she didn’t believe there was much “native Indonesian blood” in our family because the native Indonesians in North and Middle Sumatra didn’t take too kindly to their colonizing rulers. The colonists lived separate lives, attending European schools and interacting only with the natives when they employed them as servants. Some of their close friends did have clear Indonesian relatives, but my Oma didn’t remember any in our family.
Still, the seven children in my mother’s family range in shades from extremely dark skinned to a yellowish tan, and I wonder how the varying degrees of melanin entered our gene pool. The Dutch history of colonization in Indonesia is long and sordid (and recently even made headlines), and I can imagine any intermingling of the colonizers and the oppressed might be a touchy subject, even now decades later.
I’ve only started focusing on these questions about my background in the past few years, during my 30s, and although I don’t think I’ll ever have all the answers, I have a whole lot more than either of my kids will when they grow up. I wonder how much they’ll feel they’re missing by not knowing even the mix of nationalities that made up their great-great-great grandparents. In my daughter’s case, there’s the complete loss of any national origin since her ancestry is likely tied up in the awful business of the African slave trade (my son’s too for that matter with his biological ties to the Caribbean). They will undoubtedly long to know about their distant genealogical past, and I wonder how the lack of answers will affect them. I just hope the way we’re raising these kids will help cushion the blow when that time comes.