Wearing Different Glasses

© Andreas and Samuel Handoyo

Hosea has faced discrimination in Indonesia, the Netherlands and Germany. He learned from it – and decided to counter it.

by Hosea Handoyo

With more than 17.500 islands, 300 ethnic groups, and 742 languages and dialects, Indonesia is a country of rich cultural heritage and diversity. About 250 million people in Indonesia are bound together under one ideology and one national language, Indonesian. Although being the world‘s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia is not an Islamic country. The country is built upon five philosophical pillars called “Pancasila” or Five Principles; asserting that Indonesians  believe in one God, in civilized humanity and social justice under democratic government. Despite its national motto “Bhinekka Tunggal Ika” or ‚Unity in Diversity‘, its unity is a work in progress. Many of the people still have a strong sense of ethnicity and they are very proud of it. Conflicts still arise in few parts of Indonesia, primarily involving fundamentalist understanding of religion under Al-Qaeda influence and strong ethnocentrism.

Being a Tionghoan
Since ancient times, Indonesia has been a bustling place for trade. Many Chinese traders came to this area, ended up marrying local women and remained here. In Indonesia, they are known as ‘Tionghoa’ people (Tionghoans). There are about 2.8 million Tionghoans, or 1.2% of Indonesia’s total population.
Many Indonesians do not really acknowledge Tionghoans as parts of their community. A few refer to Tionghoans as ‘mud blood‘ ethnic, just like in the Harry Potter series. Most of them suffer from discrimination and prosecutions by fundamentalist religious groups which label Tionghoans (and also Christians) Zionists or Kafir (infidels). It is an open secret that Tionghoans are not well accepted in the government or public organisations – unless they convert to Islam. Moreover, Indonesian government had banned any Chinese traditions (in suspicion of Communism) from 1966 to 2001. Until 2003, Tionghoans were still labelled as ‘non-pribumi’ – meaning non-local Indonesian – on their national ID, despite being born and brought up in Indonesia.
The gap between many Indonesians and Tionghoans is getting bigger due to the fact that many of Tionghoans are upper-middle class families and non-Muslim adherents. During colonial times, Tionghoans were considered second class people after the Europeans, and eligible for education, whereas Indonesians were not. The Dutch colonial power trusted Tionghoans to handle spice trades. This is also one of the reasons for the long-lasting division with the local Indonesians. In addition, many of the rich Tionghoans are also to blame because they are acting arrogantly in public. I can still recall many of my Tionghoan friends mocking the local Indonesians as the unlearned and second class people. Christian Tionghoans prefer to send their children to private Christian schools rather than public ones. This worsens the situation since many local Indonesians see it as a sign of social separation – the unwillingness to integrate and assimilate. It resembles the question of the chicken and the egg, which one came first? Is it because Tionghoans are discriminated against that they separate themselves from the society, or vice versa?
I consider myself lucky.: My parents did not send me to a religious school – unlike most Tionghoans. I studied at a national school, which means that my classmates were diverse – ethnically and religiously. There I got acquainted with different religious doctrines, customs, and multiculturalism in their true forms. Some of my classmates called me and my Tionghoan friends ‘anjing kafir‘ and ‘Si Cina‘ (derogatory form of Tionghoa), but in the end, we learned the actual meanings of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. Sadly, outside of school, discrimination was and still is common in present time.
To an extent, being discriminated has been part of my life. After high school, I decided to pursue my favourite subject: Biochemistry in the Netherlands and Scotland as I was fed up with the social situation in Indonesia. In both places, again I experienced discrimination by being labelled as ‘education-funds-robber‘, ‘local-job-thief‘, even as ‘passport-hunter‘. Many Dutch and Scottish people see me as Chinese rather than Indonesian. On my first day in the Netherlands, some teenagers shouted ‘nǐ hǎo’ (你好) at me. I replied back their greetings; however, they were laughing at me and started cursing. Puzzled, I shared this with a couple of my Dutch friends; they explained to me that it was an insult to many Chinese people in the Netherlands.
During my neuroscience internship in Amsterdam, I learned that people need time to get used to something different, such as different customs, culture, even the appearance of a person. This reminds me of one of the famous Indonesian proverbs ‘Tak kenal maka tak sayang‘, which means ‘if you do not know it, you will not love it‘. In order to promote understanding between locals and Indonesian culture, some Indonesian students and I organized an ‘Indonesian Culture Day‘ and many other events. These events were successful in bridging the Indonesian communities with the locals and fellow students. We encountered less and less discriminatory behaviour on account of these cultural dialogues. Besides, I realized that, as an international student, although I live in a place with strong racism, I cannot easily judge everyone who is staring at me as racist. Some people need time to adjust.

Life in Thuringia
After finishing my Bachelor’s degree on biomedical research in Nijmegen, I had the chance to do more research with pharmaceutical companies and university partners in Scotland. Thereby, I came to realize that often bureaucracy delays the release of a medication by more than 25 years. How can we make it faster? I cannot change the system, if I am stuck in the lab – I have to get out and get my hands dirty in politics. It may sound cliché, but that is my strongest motivation for studying Public Policy at the Willy Brandt School, University of Erfurt now. During my time here, I have experienced people in Thuringia to be more homogenous and less open to internationals, compared to the Dutch and Scots.
To tell the truth, I have experienced some discriminative actions in Erfurt. On my second day there, an employee of a famous shop in a big shopping centre did not want to serve me – simply ignoring me even though I was standing in front of him and trying to talk to him. I was bewildered and confused. I have heard about the raise of Neo-Nazi groups in Germany, but this is worse. Sadly, many of these discriminations and racial attacks are done by the young generations.
How can we address this issue? Erfurt has various initiatives to address and counter attack these horrible acts. In my opinion, two projects are particularly outstanding. One is Fremde werden Freunde (FwF). FwF provides every international student with a buddy or host family. It is a smart symbiosis: I was able to learn and practice my German, while my German host family learned more about Indonesia and Tionghoa culture. Another program worth mentioning is the Springboard Program in which I am an active contributor. It allows many internationals to visit different schools all around Erfurt and parts of Thuringia from elementary to high-school levels. Different topics are discussed using music, dance, local food, traditional costumes, and games from all around the world. I believe the best way to get rid of racism and discrimination is through education. Programs should help the young generations to become role models and give them the opportunity for more interaction with people from different backgrounds, especially during the ‘identity search phase’.

Lessons learned: different glasses
Discrimination is a social disease that eats up the society from the inside, like cancer. My father used to tell me, the way we see the world depends on what kind of glasses we wear; if we wear black sunglasses, everything we see will be black, too. We need to offer these people clear glasses, so they can see and understand that diversity is a potential rather than a threat; a potential to take one’s country into a brighter future through collaboration and common understanding.

Hosea Handoyo(26) is a Master student in Public Policy of Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt with focus on technology transfer policy. Aside from his passion in natural science, he is also interested in political communication, philosophy, and history. He often shares his thought in his blog: www.hshandoyo.net


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