It’s Difficult To Hurt Someone When You Know Them

When I was chosen to participate in the ‘In Memory of a Name’ curatorium & workshop I could not help but express how enthusiastic I was, imagining how I would be able to see myself and my family (as an identity unit) in a new way. With the haunting question of ‘Who am I?’ afloat in my mind, I joined the workshop. Originally I thought the workshop would be based purely on intricate concepts, and technical art and social study terms. To my surprise, however, this workshop turned out to include both conceptual issues and self-examination.

In this world, people often find strength through forming bonds with others. These bonds can form in many ways.  We can bond physically. We can also form an abstract bond through communal similarities in nationality, culture, and social practices. One of many agents that preserve a bond is one’s name and the identity it carries.

Throughout my childhood, as an ethnic Chinese who grew up in Pontianak, West Borneo with parents who spoke Indonesian with Sundanese and Javanese dialects, it was quite difficult to find anybody who resembled myself. Unlike the local Chinese, Dayak or Melayu, I had to get through my days at school hearing the Melayu Pontianak (Malaya) accent, and Teo-chew and Hakka dialects having little or no understanding of what the speakers were talking about. As time progressed however, I picked up some of these dialects and interestingly I could finally speak fluently the Melayu style Indonesian dialect, which sounds roughly similar to Malaysian bahasa with slightly different wording.

My name was probably one of the many names in the class that sounded heavily “Indonesian” given the names ‘Jaka’ and ‘Pratama’. This was the source of much playful teasing and jokes. The Dayak would usually adopt a more Roman-Latin name such as Octavianus, Regulus, and Bartholomeus to reflect their Roman-Catholic faith. The Chinese would usually adopt an English or Spanish adapted name with Javanese sounding last names (in response to the Indonesian government’s name changing policy). While some others maintained their Chinese family name.

In the fourth grade I remember finding a friend whose parents had migrated from Jakarta. At once we could connect, finding we had many things in common such as taste in food, perspectives, and colloquial language. To the surprise of my young self however, I found that the background of our parents were quite different. My friend’s parents were from a Batak ethnic group while mine is a mixture of Chinese – Indonesian with a slight infusion of Dutch culture. Then, I felt I was pushed back to the point of yet again wondering if I would ever find someone like me. Am I the only one in this world with such an identity? At this point, the mind of a young me refused to accept what I later learnt as Jean Paul Sartre’s[1] idea of existence (existentialism), the concept that a self and its properties are self expressive without dependency on external connections and networks to define itself.

I am glad that the workshop team members have been given the chance to examine themselves, firstly by studying their name(s) and identities before discussing broader problems entangled within this matrix of identities and selves, and before producing artworks or public programs. Looking around the curatorium circle, I am so glad that the issue I am facing is laid out right before my eyes. I am so lucky to be involved in this curatorium whose members’ backgrounds are so culturally diverse. Some of them, like many other Australians, have become integrated into the Australian culture yet they are not shy talking about their diverse identities.

My attempt to re-examine the sense of identity and contemporary cohesive link between the ethnicity of Chinese Indonesian and Indonesia was spurred personally by curiosity towards the way we see our national identity and whether their views are similar to mine. So, I set myself to interview my Chinese-Indonesian friends who managed to get an education overseas especially in Western countries such as in Germany and Australia. The idea of having been able to experience another world and having their mind opened certainly interest me as it would affect the way they see themselves. The possibilities range from whether they choose to be understanding, refuse the identity labelling, or completely abstain from it regardless of the age long oppression and discrimination. The result was astounding, each of them wanted to be recognized as a unique being under Indonesian nationality.

Growing up as a person who swallowed difference and enduring uniqueness, I finally learnt to stop my quest for someone with a precisely similar identity to mine. I have found my communal identity in difference; by being different I become one with others.

Despite my uniqueness, there may be someone out there with a similar identity to mine. But rest assured, I am, like my friends (interviewees) who agreed to help me re-examine my, or rather our, national identities as part of the In Memory of a Name project. They have admitted that they too are different, not simply Chinese, nor simply Indonesian, but Chinese Indonesians whose cultural experience, localities, dialects, and traditions differ from those of each other.

Like them, I too have decided to live a life which transcends our national borders and settle in with difference rather than communing within our Chinese Indonesian network through fear of not being who we think we are or will be. Following Jacques Derrida’s[2] notion of différance, I realize that with similarities (synonyms) there are still differences (signifier and signified); difference that accentuates how one differs in relation to the other while at the same time is  defined by one’s relation to others. I have found that it is not the similarities that keep us together, but the willingness to tolerate rift-creating variables and acknowledge differences – acknowledging that at some very intimate levels of ourselves, we too are different from each other – even within our very own communal circles.

I have faith that knowing and understanding differences will minimize and render discrimination difficult. For what is there to discriminate when we are all unique?


[1] Sartre, Jean Paul. 2007. Nausea (La Nausée) trans.Lloyd Alexander. New York: New direction.

[2] Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Writing and Difference. London: Routledge. (pp 225)

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