Indonesia, Shame and Pride

It was 2014, the end of fall semester and my first time flying back to Indonesia as an NYU Abu Dhabi student. Having left Indonesia for four months — ...

Dec 5, 2015

It was 2014, the end of fall semester and my first time flying back to Indonesia as an NYU Abu Dhabi student. Having left Indonesia for four months — the longest I’d been away from my country — I was beyond excited to go home. I longed to meet my family and friends, to breathe the humid Indonesian air and to feel Indonesian again among my country’s food, language, odd sense of humor and everything else. I was even excited to go to the airport, because for the first time in four months, I knew I would be surrounded by so many Indonesians at the boarding gate; “I cannot wait to feel like I’m home,” I thought.
Everything was going as planned until I arrived at my boarding gate at the Abu Dhabi airport. The huge screen said JAKARTA, and as expected, the gate was filled with my fellow Indonesians. The exceptions were some Caucasian-looking people whom I assumed were going for a vacation to escape the cold winter, and some Arabs wearing abayas and kandoras. As soon as I walked into the gate, however, my excitement wore off, and was rapidly transformed into shame. A humongous, overwhelming shame that made my face feel warm in a bad way, the kind of feeling that made me want to disappear at that very moment.
The gate was a mess. There were many people sleeping on the floor. The chattering was so loud, and I could smell the striking scent of herbal oil in the air. Some foreigners were covering their noses with their hands. There were various tunes of music playing at the same time. Needless to say the situation was chaotic, especially for a boarding gate. As I stood there speechless, some security guards walked in and asked people to turn the volume of their music down and to not sleep on the floor because people could not walk by.
I could sense the condescension of the guards and airline staff, as if they were judging my whole country as uncivilized and lacking in public etiquette, as if they had become so used to this kind of situation and found it to be typical Indonesian behavior at the airport.
I glanced at my passport and tried to stay composed, ignoring the suffocating shame that had overcome me. I tried to justify my fellow Indonesians in my mind. Most of them have been tirelessly working as maids, and they might have not been home for years. Of course they miss Indonesian music and talking to other Indonesians. Some others are pilgrims from Mecca on their layover — they must be tired after the long week, it’s totally understandable that they would want a place to lay down for a while before our long-haul nine-hour flight to Jakarta.
Like a mental slap, I realized what I had been doing. The idea of trying to justify other people’s deeds made me feel nauseated.
How could I feel like I had the right to make these judgements? Why did I care about other people’s condescension? Chances were I would never see those flight officials again anyway. I tried to stop myself from overthinking, and my mind went silent after a while. I decided to put on my headset and ignore what was happening around me.
We boarded the plane not so long after 2 a.m. and all I wanted to do was fall asleep, an already difficult task in economy. As soon as the plane took off and the lights went out, I could hear loud music and loud conversations happening around me. Some people were laughing out loud, others singing, and within minutes the whole plane smelled like herbal oil. The stewardess had to ask some people and to turn down the volume because others were trying to sleep, but most of the passengers did not understand English and the stewardess got frustrated. I decided to translate what the stewardess said from afar, but only received annoyed grunts in response.
The stewardess stared at me with a very unexplainable look. I am pretty certain my face turned bright red; at that point, I was ashamed to be Indonesian, I wished I were someone else. Thankfully the other people went quiet and I was able to bury my shame in deep sleep throughout the flight.
That experience made me contemplate what it means to be Indonesian in the Middle East; looking Southeast Asian or being from Indonesia invites plenty of interesting remarks from people. My friends in Abu Dhabi joke about me being a maid, most people would automatically assume that I am coming to the Emirates to work low-paid jobs. This affects the way that people treat me; when I visit a restaurant or go to a service-based place, nobody believes that I came to the Middle East to study, no matter how long I explain myself.
At first I was able to tolerate this, but as time goes by, it annoys me in different ways; why is being a maid seen as something shameful? They contribute remittance money to their country, they are here because they are hard workers, and they are fighters. Why am I ashamed of being associated with Indonesian workers? What is happening to me and my Indonesian pride?
I could not find the answer, so I tried to consider what had me thinking this way in the first place. I tried to think of the stereotypes. So far I realized that there were only two stereotypes of Indonesian abroad: we are either filthy rich shoppers who raid high-end shops in Paris or we are maids who travel to work, and most people think there is nothing in between. The reason for this is because Indonesia is pretty far from the Middle East, which means an expensive flight ticket, and those who decide to travel are either those who have the money or those who need it.
But I am a student. I am in between; I am not rich enough to buy 50,000 USD worth of a handbags. I won't be carrying orange Hermes shopping bags around, and I prefer to dress comfortably without the sleek expensive dress, stilettos or designer bags. But I am not here to work either.
I’m just trying to be a normal student, but I’m treated lesser than people of different nationalities when I’m in public places. Waiters and waitresses ignore me, people look at me differently, and my words aren’t taken seriously.
This puts me in an uncomfortable situation, in which I’m constantly walking the extra mile. Unlike my friends of other nationalities, who wear hoodies and sweatpants to the airport, I dress up when I go, in order to avoid different treatment and condescending stares, and change my outfit later when I’m already on the plane. I feel the need to americanize my English accent, just so others know that I am educated and that I am not a worker with limited English proficiency.I should admit that regardless of how politically incorrect this is to say, sometimes I wish I looked Caucasian, so that people would respect me more and they would listen to what I was saying. I feel like that would give people cause to take me seriously when I say I study here in the Emirates and I can afford a full meal at your restaurant, thank you, instead of them looking down on me and thinking I am worthless.
Yet at the same time, my own efforts to mask over my national identity upsets me.
I am disgusted by myself and my desperate attempts to ally with the expat-side and escape the laborer-side, even though both of them have pretty much the same meaning. I know it is not right for me to be ashamed of who I am.
I was trying to understand this as a matter of foreigners treating Indonesians without respect, until I realized that this is not only a problem for an Indonesian abroad, but it also occurs in my own country: Indonesians treat fellow Indonesians worse in comparison to how they treat foreigners. My friend just wrote a Facebook post on how she made a reservation in Indonesian at a fancy place in Jakarta and the receptionist said that the place was full, but when she later made another call in English, it worked wonders: the reservation was made in a split second. Living in Bali, I have experienced enough occasions where waitress and waiters ignore me or take my order later because they have to serve a foreigner, even though I raised my hand first. It seems that 350 years of colonization were not enough; we have decided to colonize ourselves. How can we earn the respect from others if we are not proud of who we are ourselves?
Everything that I have been contemplating lately has made me think a lot about what it means to be an Indonesian. I must stop escaping my own identity. Although I am not 100 percent Indonesian by blood because of the Thai and Chinese descent on my father’s side, I was born and raised in Indonesia, and I am a proud Indonesian. I remember crying and begging for my mother to buy me an Indonesian flag because I wanted so badly to wear it around me while running on the field during Independence Day when I was in elementary school. I would almost shed a tear whenever I held the  Indonesian to represent my country abroad in competitions, my chest overwhelmed with uncontainable pride. I was the member of my school choir for years because I loved the spirit of nationalism inscribed in each of the national songs. Last year, if anyone had asked me, I would proudly declare that I’d never change my citizenship for the world because I loved Indonesia. I am a product of 12 years of Indonesian education, where we were taught to be proud of our rich culture, our strong values and beliefs, our 17,000 islands and 250 million people. This pride was cemented deep in my mind, but once I went abroad, things just turned. I found myself wishing I could just pretend not to exist, that I was not in any way tied to my identity as an Indonesian, just because I felt ashamed of the behavior of several people I had no right to judge.
But then it hits me; it is such a shame that these small things have dissuaded me from admitting who I really was and from embracing my identity as an Indonesian.
I was there when the whole world shunned Indonesia for our strong stance on the death penalty, which I wasn’t entirely proud of. I was so furious that I accidentally threw my phone when Daesh made threats against Indonesia, and my blood has boiled whenever someone says something offensive about my country. I know that deep inside, I still love my country more than anything in this world.
Who am I kidding? I have always identified myself as 100 percent Indonesian, and I always will. I will always look Indonesian. Bali is the first thing I have in mind whenever I think of the word home, and I will always think and dream in Bahasa. I will always do Indonesian dance moves when I’m happy. Being an Indonesian is a part of me that I could never change no matter how hard I’d like to try, and I promise myself I will stop trying to change who I am.
As the line from one of the national songs goes, "Indonesia, merah darahku, putih tulangku." Indonesia, red is the color of my blood and white is the color of my bone. Indonesia will always live within me, and the next time a fellow Indonesian asks me where I’m from, I won’t answer them in English saying, “I don’t understand what you are saying.” I will tell them in Bahasa, “Ya, saya orang asli Indonesia dan saya bangga jadi orang Indonesia." Yes, I am an Indonesian and I am proud of it.
Carrisa Tehputri is a contributing writer. Email her at 
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