The mastery of Chinese has always eluded me, even though learning the language has always been part of my life. When I was six, my parents made me take Chinese lessons with a private tutor at home.
I dreaded those sessions because I could never remember the right way to pronounce and write the complex Chinese characters. Moreover, there was never an opportunity for me to use the language after the lessons ended. We spoke only Indonesian at home and in society, which forbade the formal teaching and learning of Chinese in school and suppressed all forms of Chinese cultural expressions due to the policy of assimilation that lasted from 1966 until 1998.
Under the assimilation policy, the Indonesian government closed all Chinese-language schools and ruled that children of Chinese descent must enroll in Indonesian-language schools. In these schools, Chinese children were to learn Indonesian history, politics, and social practices alongside their Indonesian peers.
Besides closing the schools, the use of Chinese characters in public places, the importation of Chinese-language publications, and the public celebration of the Lunar New Year, were prohibited.
These restrictions affected the lives of a whole generation of Indonesian-Chinese people. Some members of this generation, including myself, refer to themselves as the generasi ‘kejepit’ (the suppressed generation) because, unlike their parents, the vast majority of them cannot read or write in Chinese.
It was not until I was 10 and living in Singapore that I picked up the language simply by living in that country. I watched countless Mandarin serials on TV and spoke Mandarin at home with my grandmother, who has an excellent command of Mandarin, along with three other Chinese dialects such as Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien. I could even carry on simple conversations with hawkers and shopkeepers in Chinatown.
Although I became conversationally fluent, I was still not literate in the language. Upon my arrival in Singapore, I continued having Chinese lessons at home. However, I did not learn the language at school because my parents were concerned about my inability to speak both English and Mandarin. The educational curriculum in Singapore mandates all students to learn English as their first language and a choice of Chinese, Malay or Tamil as their second language.
Taking this requirement into consideration, my parents decided that I would make an easier transition into the Singapore educational system by focusing on English and Malay (a language that is very similar in structure and pronunciation to Bahasa Indonesia) as my second language.
Mandarin lessons, they reasoned, could still be taken at home. Without the urgency and need to learn the language seriously, my parents agreed that I should direct my attention to “real” school work instead. I soon abandoned the lessons.
There were times when I felt deep pangs of regret for not knowing how to read Chinese characters. Once, when I was in grade five, someone handed out free Chinese newspapers. He automatically gave me a copy because I looked Chinese and presumably knew how to read Chinese characters. As my classmates excitedly flipped through the pages and read the stories, I slumped in my seat and stared at the jumble of characters that meant nothing to me.
On another occasion, one of my classmates showed me a copy of a Chinese comic book and asked me what I thought about a story depicted on one of the pages. When I told her I could not read the characters, she looked at me pityingly and shook her head.
Deep inside, I felt angry and ashamed for not knowing how to read Chinese but being 12, I could not tell my friend what I truly felt and kept quiet instead. My sharp pangs of regret and shame were joined with profound longing when I went to Hong Kong and could not read the street signs and billboards of that vibrant city.
Thankfully, this generation of Indonesian Chinese does not have to bear the deep sense of cultural loss that members of my generation endured during the Soeharto era. When Abdurrahman Wahid was in power as the President of Indonesia from November 1999 to August 2001, he spearheaded efforts to end discrimination against the Indonesian Chinese population.
The first step that he took was to revoke Presidential Instruction Number 14 of 1967, which restricted the practice of Chinese customs and religions to the private domain. He formalized this by signing Presidential Instruction Number 6 of 2000, which allows the public celebration of the Chinese New Year. Under Megawati, the Chinese New Year was made a national holiday from Feb. 1, 2002.
Living in Indonesia today also means that this generation of Indonesian Chinese can learn the Chinese language in an environment that is very different from the one in which their parents grew up. Unlike their parents, they have the option of enrolling in the many schools offering Mandarin as the mode of instruction. They may also choose from the growing number of Chinese-language newspapers in Indonesia.
These newspapers include Guo Ji Ri Bao (The International Daily News), Shang Bao Ri Bao, Wen Wei Po (a Hong Kong-based newspaper), and, most significantly, the People’s Daily overseas edition (the overseas edition of the People’s Republic of China’s official newspaper). Since 1999, they have also been able to watch the news in Chinese on Metro TV and listen to Mandarin programs and songs on Cakrawala radio.
This more conducive climate has prompted me to take up the Chinese language again in a much more serious manner than when I was six. There is a tremendous motivating that has compelled me to do so: my own daughter, whom I plan to enroll in a school that offers Mandarin as the language of instruction.
For the past year, I have been taking intensive Mandarin lessons at a language institute with an instructor from Beijing as I fully intend to reinforce at home what she has learned at school.
By knowing the language, I hope that my daughter will have the tool she needs to traverse Chinese culture and unlock the mysteries of Chinese history. As her mother, I will be there to hold her hand as she navigates the often difficult path of learning the Chinese language and being a person of Chinese descent in Indonesia.
The Jakarta Post, 29 July 2007
by Aimee Dawis, Jakarta. The writer teaches in the graduate programs of the University of Indonesia School of Social and Political Sciences’ Dept. of Communications, and the Letters Department at the School of Humanities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.