Thoughts from a Girl Far From Home

“Where are you from?”

The question comes up almost every time I meet someone new. It’s a fair question; I’m at university, I’m an international student – it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to want to know where I’m from. (The implications of that question directed towards someone who is an immigrant is another issue entirely, and not one that I’m qualified to talk about.)

I answer easily, “Indonesia.”

“Oh cool, which city?” they continue.

Here is where I pause. “It’s complicated,” I want to say. “My parents are from different parts of Sumatra, but they both moved around a bit before settling in Jakarta for work. That’s where they met and where I grew up.” The split second it takes me to think up this response is enough to realise I was way overthinking the question.

I look at the person still awaiting my answer and say sheepishly, “Jakarta.”

I get used to answering the question over time, but the internal conflict I have every time it comes up haunts me long after the conversation is over.

I’ve always been around a large extended family growing up, as many Indonesians are. My dad is the seventh of twelve children, and my mom’s family all moved to Jakarta, making family gatherings an amalgam of second cousins and grandaunts. My dad is Batak and my mom Chinese-Padang, but there was no confusion around the cultural differences I had to navigate back then; 10-year-old me was just concerned about getting both the red envelopes and the less subtly packaged bills of money at weddings.

I had always been much closer to my dad’s family than to my mom’s because my dad was closer to his siblings than my mom was to hers, so it was only natural that I thought of myself as Batak. But as I grew older, I found myself pulling away from the culture I had come to identify myself with. It was certainly not my intention to distance myself; rather, it happened because I felt distant from it. Anyone who’s Batak or had a family member marry into a Batak family will know that our wedding ceremonies are complicated as hell. The reception lasts all day (or several days if you celebrate back at the hometown), and it is entirely conducted in Bataknese. Sometimes I look at the bride and groom’s families up on the stage and wonder who actually knows what’s going on. You can see how I would have been completely uninterested in waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare for events I didn’t even understand, where everyone else was older and I couldn’t even read or play games or talk to someone to pass the time. So I stopped going.

That being said, I was still adequately exposed to the culture. I still saw my cousins, aunts, and uncles frequently, and I had even gone to my dad’s hometown on the outskirts of Medan for a cousin’s wedding. I laughed at memes about Batak culture, I knew the famous songs and superstitions, I would even slip into the characteristic intonations whenever I spent too much time around it. I was still very much Batak – or so I thought.

I had a rude awakening when I met someone who would later become one of my best friends. As the new girl, all I really knew about her was that she was Batak, which her surname gave away. Later, we laughed about the fact that she was flirting with someone at a wedding and later found out he was a distant relative. She brought up the antiquated concept of pariban, essentially cousins from your mother’s younger siblings that you were allowed to marry because it would strengthen your familial bond (I guess incest transcended the European monarchies!). I was floored. I wasn’t as surprised about the idea as I was at the fact that I hadn’t heard of it before. Over the next few years, my friend would continue to tell me about random Batak facts and even experiences that I was unaware of, and with each new tidbit I questioned myself more and more. Was I really Batak if I didn’t know anything about my own culture or its history?? Growing up with it, I was aware of a lot of ‘traditions’ my dad and his siblings still upheld that I thought were outdated. Its constant enforcement made me want nothing to do with the culture, despite still feeling proud whenever I talked about our cultural traditions with friends. I was very, very confused.

When I came to Australia for university, I thought it would be the first time I could truly be free of any oppressive cultural influences. I was right, in a way. I only have to expose myself to probing questions once or twice a year when I go home now, and I no longer have to pretend I know what traditional ceremony I’m at because I rarely go to one anymore. What I didn’t expect was the longing. Being part of the diaspora has reduced my identity to ‘foreign’, or at the most, ‘Indonesian’, and I longed for the sense of comfort that I had back home (which I know not everyone has had). I wanted to be part of the family gatherings again, go to a ceremony or two, maybe even learn the language. I realised that I couldn’t be rid of the culture without being rid of family too, not when my family is still so connected to tradition.

If you read this because you were feeling the same way and wanted to see what solution I found, my sincere apologies for disappointing (what else is new?). I’m still very much conflicted, especially now that my perspective has changed due to being in Australia. If I’ve learned one thing, though, it’s that identity is so much more complicated than people make it out to be. You can love your culture and not agree with all its traditions. You can live far from your hometown and still feel connected to it. Most of all, you can change your mind – your thoughts on these ideas are bound to change as you grow and learn new things, but who you think you are now is just as valid as who you think you were in the past. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to just get over your own pride and admit that you know better now.