Mixed Roots in Transient Times

The fabric of the dress was soft to the touch, light in the wind, and always had a certain joyfulness about it. The bright rainbow colours interwove to form flowers fluttering in the wind. The sabrina neckline paired with a blue cardigan and buttons down the back finished the look. It was quaint, simple, and belonged to my mother. I often imagine her twirling in it in her high school years, laughing with friends and dancing to ABBA.

I decided to wear it to a family gathering in Jakarta, thinking it was a great occasion to show off the dress. My eyes locked with one of my aunties from across the room – she’s serving lontong and sayur lodeh for everyone, and I soon moved to the front of the queue.

“Apa kabar?” I asked.
“Great! How are you?” She answered back in English.
Peeved, I attempted to switch back into Indonesian, “baik sekali, gimana Tante Wisma and Irma?”.
Blankly, she smiles, “they’re great – happy to see you here!”

At this point, my bachelor’s degree majoring in Indonesian Studies, the year I spent living in Yogyakarta, and my constant (failed) attempts to add sambal to my KFC over the last 10 years felt redundant. I can’t even convince my aunty to believe that I am one of them.

All my life, I’ve always felt more Indonesian, but my skin colour, accent, and appearance say otherwise. At first glance, you’d think I’m just your average Australian: bule, with brown hair and hazel eyes. I often find myself saying, “Ibuku dari Indonesia” (my mother is Indonesian) to legitimise myself – I am one of you! I am Indonesian! But when I say, “Bapakku dari Serbia” (my father is Serbian), I am not. I am ‘exotic’, ‘interesting’, ‘unique. In other words, not Indonesian.

Explaining this third culture experience has all become very well-versed for me now. This familiar, bittersweet feeling sits painfully on my shoulders as I maneuver through the squints and uncomfortable glances pinned at me. I do understand why myself and other mixed-race kids are looked upon with interest. Somehow our parents went against the cultural expectation of marrying within their race and religion and looked past the unfamiliarities of other cultures. To be a product of such dual cultures, I find myself in limbo, ‘othered’ by each culture, trying to navigate the social norms of each community.

I can still vividly remember my very first visit to Indonesia as a five year old: walking out of Soekarno-Hatta Airport and being overwhelmed by the smell of burnt rubbish and harsh humidity – I loved it, sparking my curiosity with the country. Fast forward to my twenty-year-old self going on exchange to Yogyakarta and embracing university life and nongkrong terus. One particular student commented that my mixed background was like gado-gado, a traditional Indonesian salad of slightly boiled, blanched or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, fried tofu, and tempeh with a peanut sauce dressing. Tantalising. I’d laugh, say that I love eating myself *ba-dum-tisk* and move on to other topics. There’s just something about Indonesia that has always made it feel like a home away from home.

Language makes for a great tool to hide the fact that I’m not completely Indonesian, but does include some challenges. My thick Australian accent are not quite able to capture the rolled “r”s prevalent in bahasa Indonesia, nor does my lisp aid in this plight. Sometimes I can only catch every other word my Gojek (Indonesia’s version of Uber, but for motorbikes) driver says. I hide my lack of knowledge with expressions like sih, kok and kan to sound like a local. And just when I feel like I have the culture slightly under control, an ibu-ibu (Indonesian aunty) throws me a question in Javanese (a major dialect of Indonesia) and I’m back in unknown waters.

Now, this is not to say I haven’t been interested in my Serbian background – I’ve just never had the chance to fully embrace it. I haven’t been there since I was 3 years old, and my vocabulary doesn’t extend far beyond “kako ci” (how are you) and “lakcu notch” (goodnight). I never quite fit in going to Serbian Sunday school, confused by the little idiosyncrasies the other Serb kids my age threw around. I’m a splitting image of my dad, but only a splinter of his heritage.

And so, ensues a conflict – in heart, belonging, and being.

I will confess: there is a genuine worry in my heart that I won’t be able to pass on this heritage to my own children (especially given I’m not even sure what to make of my own background). I almost feel like no matter what I do, it will never be enough. My first language was English and I grew up in Australia; one year’s worth of study in Indonesia is little in comparison to my mother’s entire childhood and young adult years there. Her background is a door into a world I so badly want to grasp, but I consistently struggle to find the key to unlock it.

No matter how many times I’ll silently shout to my aunty, ‘I am one of you, ACCEPT ME’, nothing I do will change her mind. I’ve learnt it’s not my place to convince her but rather know that I’ve done what I can to bring myself closer to my culture with the best intentions at heart. It’s okay to not be one hundred percent into sambal (I only like a little bit of it!). It’s okay to not perfectly understand Jakarta slang. It’s okay to be somewhere in the middle, because my Indonesian experience is just one piece of this bigger jigsaw puzzle I’m trying to piece together. I’ve realised that the pieces of my heritage and self that aren’t meant to necessarily fit perfectly. They’re instead made to co-exist with one another, somehow achieving harmony.

This midi dress once owned by my mother, whilst plain at first glance, speaks volumes. It may be tattered, worn through laughs and potentially tears, from the last 30 years, but it’s a symbol of what can transcend time. Culture doesn’t need to remain static – it’s a tapestry of experiences, people you meet, and the books you read. And so I’ll continue to wear this midi dress, passing it on to my own daughter one day, knowing that heritage is hers to shape, hers to keep.