Finding My Nation’s Footprints On My Family’s Bloodline

The 1920s. Western Java. A woman sits on her front porch. In broad daylight, she’s wearing nothing but a cloth, and a brassiere. 

Her children come home from school and shout, embarrassed, “Mom! Get back inside!” She smiles and follows them in, shamelessly.

That woman was my great-grandmother.

The mother of my maternal grandfather. She was what you’d call a nyai-nyai Sunda

Her name was Katidjah. She never left the bedroom without her jarik – a batik fabric that Indonesian women would wrap around their waists. Her everyday wardrobe was one straight out of those Indonesian films set in the colonisation era. 

In the same town, there was a man. My mother described him as resembling Douwes Dekker, an author whose portrait I often saw in my 4th grade history textbooks.

“Well, that’s him,” she joked, “that’s essentially what he looked like.” The man was big, tall, with a dashing mustache. He came from a different socioeconomic status, and of course, a different ethnicity. 

This man, let’s call him Mr. K, was a blend of Indonesian, Dutch, and Chinese. When Mr. K strolled around town, his broad frame in a slick suit, people would say he looked like a Compagnie, a term they’d use to refer to the Dutch in the olden days. 

One day, Mr. K fell in love with Katidjah, this beautiful, shameless woman from the village, and their love story became a rebellious act. He was later shunned from his family for being with an ethnic Indonesian.

It was not uncommon. Indonesia was a nation finding its feet. Increasingly diverse, but still repulsed by the idea of interracial romance. 

It just so happens, however, that good stories come from acts of defiance. So when, regardless, Mr. K married Katidjah, their household grew with eight children. 

The seventh of those was my grandfather. My Opa was tall and slender, much like his father was. Opa, who started his own family, then raised my mother. Whose big brown eyes then landed on me.

Before my late Opa Jan passed away, he would sit side by side with his 7 siblings, in warm little get-togethers in his home in Bandung. 

In these afternoons, they’d chat and praise my grandmother for her delicious cooking. Bitterballen, risoles, and her famous pudding filling our tables. My grandmother was a Chinese-Indonesian woman, with roots from Central Java. But she had adopted plenty of Dutch customs and recipes during her day. These became generational recipes in the family – ones that would take years of practice to perfect. My mother spent a long time trying to ace her famous erwtensoep. No matter how much we tell her she succeeded, my mother would only laugh and say, “It’s still not quite the same.”

My grandmother’s pudding was a family favourite. “You only get pudding if you nap,” she would say to my cousins and I. We would race into bed, tuck ourselves in, and share whispers pretending we were asleep. Outside, the adults talked and laughed, revisiting my grandparents’ stories. 

I would hear it from the bedroom – uproars of laughter interlaced with mellow family chatter. And I’d wonder, listening to the sounds of my grandfather’s wind chimes, about our parents’ funny conversations.

In some ways, the tales I learned from my mother’s side of the family helped me understand my country’s colonial past. The Dutch stayed on our land for centuries, so sure enough, they left fingerprints. In subtle things, like my mother’s eyes or my grandmother’s cooking, but also in more apparent ways, like the buildings that line the oldest streets of our hometown.

But the Dutch weren’t the only ones that settled in our country. In the early 17th century, there were Chinese settlements on the northern coasts of Java.

Most of the Chinese who resided on the islands were traders and merchants, attracted by our fine spices and rich soil. But when the Dutch unleashed their monopoly across our land, in the same way, many of the Chinese lost their freedoms too.

In a shared land where the Europeans’ needs were prioritised, both the Chinese and the native Indonesians lived under the oppression. Together, yet alien to one another.

It was like this until the 1940s, when the second world war broke out. Until the day my country claimed a hasty independence in August of 1945. 

Swaying between celebrations and diplomatic battles, it was also during these years that hostility began to grow. Indonesia, a nation finding its feet, wished to retain their independence and newfound freedom. Specifically, freedom from any foreign blood – Chinese “settlers” included.

Following years of prejudice and hateful attacks, in 1966, the New Order came into power. Disguised in noble sentiments around strong nationalist values, it came and erased the ethnic Chinese identity. 

There was a government committee built to tackle what was called the nation’s “Chinese Problem”. Expressions of Chinese culture, language, religion, or festivals, were banned. The ethnic Chinese were pressured to conform by adopting Indonesian-sounding names. 

Assimilation often means erasing your heritage for a chance to stay. 

Among the many Chinese names being reinvented or disguised, was the name of my grandfather’s – the one from my father’s side. He was, by then, a businessman in a port city in Java. Loving, humble, kind-hearted, I’ve heard, a man who treated cab drivers the same way he’d treat his business partners.

To continue raising his family in the hometown they’d built their lives in, my grandfather had to let go of most of his strong Chinese roots. So when the legislation was passed, and Chinese-sounding names were no longer heard of, the family opted to take my grandmother’s maiden name instead.

My father’s mother, Martha Pangkey, was a Manadonese woman, through and through. My mother said, “She had dark skin, frizzy hair, lived near a coast line in a region called Amurang.”

I’ve heard Grandma Martha was the most rigorous, assertive woman in the family. So it felt fitting that her last name would be the one passed down to future generations.

Most of her features made their way to my father. In his Chinese-Manadonese family, my mother described, “he had your grandmother’s eyes.”

Eventually, he met my mother, who came with her own mixed disposition. It was then that a new story began. And that story was mine.

When I was in kindergarten, I was playing with my best friend in the playground. She looked at me intently, the way a child does before a question.

“Were you… born here?” she asked.

Little Me answered, “Yes!”

She paused, and continued, “Then how come you look so different?”

In ballet class, my teachers said my eyes were too big for my face. They’d play with my hair, fawning over its colour. They’d whisper, “Maybe she’s part Dutch but doesn’t know about it.” 

By 4th grade, we had learned about the history of the Dutch’s settlement. I learned of how they set foot on our shores one day, and took 350 years to get comfortable. 

Some boys in class started calling me nicknames like “coloniser” by then. In 4th grade, all any child would want is to be just like everybody else. So amidst their childish laughter and silly remarks, I felt like an outcast throughout many points of my childhood. 

But eventually, I outgrew the “foreign” features they thought I had. I grew up in an Indonesia that tried to grip diversity – although with trembling hands. 

Unity takes effort, but we aimed to knit it in place. In many ways, we did. Some of us had Oom, Tante, and Oma, while others Jie, Ko, and A’yi. We celebrated Chinese New Year, as much as we would Ramadan and Christmas. The New Order was long gone. Multiculturalism was at our core, and it never left, no matter how we struggled to take hold of it.

Questions of identity can often be questions a nation’s history has the answers to. Tracing my family’s bloodline, what I found was an interwoven history, comprised of the different cultures that crossed Indonesian waters, pre- and post-independence. Cultures that made its way into my parents’ stories; stitch its way into their being, and eventually, into mine.

2019. Melbourne, Victoria. I find myself at the heart of one of the most multicultural places in the world. Souls of all backgrounds brave the city one day at a time. Dreams at the forefront of their sight. 

Back home in Indonesia, I’d hear, “You look different than the rest of us.” Yet in Australia, I’ve heard some people say, “Oh, you look Indonesian!”

I used to rely on these remarks to somehow define my sense of belonging. But having learned about my grandparents’ stories, I know now that I longer need to.

So I simply make peace, knowing well that embracing my heritage means never having to apologise for it. In fact, how could I? How could I do anything else but to honour, and lovingly introduce it? 

And so I carry with me my Grandma Martha’s last name. My great grandparents’ reckless love affair. Slowly, through time, I reckon with my identity, and at the same pace, hope that my nation can do the same. 

And one day, in a dinner gathering, when a friend asks, “So where are you from?”

I smile. “Indonesia,” I proudly say, 

“but it’s a long story.”