Indonesia: Chinese language proficiency and the politics of identity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 29 18:14:17 UTC 2007

*Chinese language proficiency and the politics of identity*

*Aimee Dawis*, Jakarta

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

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

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,

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 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 *
canting at
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