Social media in Indonesia was set ablaze in the past few days after singer Agnez Mo made a controversial statement during a video interview with Build Series by Yahoo host Kevan Kenney.
In the footage, the singer, who has worked hard to leave a mark in the American music industry, says: “I actually don’t have Indonesian blood whatsoever. So, I’m actually German, Japanese and Chinese. I was just born in Indonesia and I’m also Christian. The majority there are Muslim.
“So, I’ve always been kind of, I’m not going to say that I felt like I don’t belong there because I always felt like the people accepted me for who I was, but there’s always that sense of, I’m not like everybody.”
I’m not a fan of Agnez and I have doubted her music career, but this time around I can totally relate with her.
Agnez, whose real name is Agnes Monica Muljoto, and I share similar backgrounds.
We are Indonesians of Chinese descent and Christians; we belong to a minority group in Indonesia. We were born in 1986 in Jakarta, which allowed us to witness important events in the country’s history, namely the fall of Soeharto’s New Order regime and the May 1998 riots.
However, unlike Agnez, I come from a middle-class family and I am certain that I have Indonesian blood running through my veins.
My paternal grandmother grew up in Cilegon, Banten as a peranakan Chinese, the descendant of early Chinese immigrants who partially adopted indigenous customs through either acculturation or intermarriage with local people. She wore kebaya and jarik (batik skirts) until she drew her last breath. My maternal grandmother came from Bangka Island and was an expert in baking Indonesian desserts.
Both my parents grew up during the New Order. They only speak Indonesian and have adopted Indonesian names. Although they always consider themselves Indonesians, they have frequently felt frustrated when dealing with government bureaucracy. In the 1980s, my father had to pay a lot to try to get an identity card (KTP), but the administration failed him, leaving him without a KTP for quite some time.
I was born with slanted slit eyes and fair skin. These physical traits have made some strangers on the streets call me “amoy”, which I later found out was a Cantonese term used to address young women. However, I’ve known since I was a child that it is used as an ethnic slur against Chinese women.
Like Agnez, I have always felt that the pribumi (indigenous Indonesians), if I may say so, accept me, but in some cases I realized I was different.
In the early 1990s, my family moved to Medan, North Sumatra, where the culture was a bit different from that in Jakarta. While my parents only knew a few Chinese words, the Chinese-Indonesians there spoke the Hokkian dialect. My older sister was in high school at that time. Members of other ethnic groups considered her an outsider because of her physical appearance. On the other hand, she found it hard to befriend people of the Chinese community as she could not speak the dialect.
In 1996, she experienced another act of discrimination when she submitted a form for state university entrance tests, as pribumi applications were separated from those of non-pribumi. This vague memory of my childhood taught me that I would never be accepted into a state university.
Fast forward to the 1998 riots: My family was one of only two Chinese families living in a residential area in Bekasi, east of Jakarta. We lived in harmony with our neighbors and they protected us from the rioters. I saw houses and shops belonging to Chinese-Indonesians raided and the shopping malls I frequently visited burned down. I also read news about Chinese-Indonesian women being raped. I realized then that it could happen to me and it frightened the 12-year-old me.
Indonesia changed for the better after the 1998 reforms. Chinese-Indonesians can now celebrate the Chinese New Year, thanks to then president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, we can enroll in state universities without discrimination and we can learn the Chinese language.
However, events like the 2017 Jakarta election and former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s blasphemy conviction reopened wounds of racial discrimination. Once again, the nation was divided into pribumi and non-pribumi and we were afraid of being scapegoated.
When some people nonchalantly ask about my ethnicity, I try to avoid the question. It doesn’t mean I’m not proud of who I am, but I was taught to lay low in this kind of situation.
Many Indonesians have tried to promote unity in diversity, a movement I strongly support. A recent event hosted by Historia.id and the Education and Cultural Ministry revealed that no Indonesians are truly native. Newly released genealogical mapping found that the DNA of Indonesian people shows they have mixed ancestral roots from different geographical origins. However, it does not make me feel better as I will always be an amoy in the eyes of other ethnic groups.
With all the negativity I’ve experienced, I honestly feel proud of being an Indonesian who doesn’t speak Chinese. As I speak Indonesian fluently, I can easily connect with other Indonesians. We are truly united by our language and it’s different from what I experienced in our neighboring country Malaysia.
When I studied in Kuala Lumpur, I saw how the three ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian – hardly mingle with one another as they feel more comfortable speaking in their own languages.
Oddly, when I was there I was accepted in both Malay and Chinese groups. My Chinese-Malaysian friends and I shared similar backgrounds and ate non-halal foods. Meanwhile, my Malay friends appreciated me because I speak Malay with an Indonesian accent.
So, similar to Agnez, I know that my pribumi friends treat me well, but I am and will always feel different in this country. You can’t simply ignore the racial discrimination the Chinese-Indonesians have endured. Although it has lessened, the wounds are still there and I think we’re going to pass them to the next generations.
If you do not want people like me, who love and want to do something for this country, to feel less for being Chinese-Indonesian, you can actually help us heal the wounds. Not judging us for feeling that way is a good start. (wng)
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.