By: Michelle Lim
Our abrupt move to the United States from Indonesia was because of May 14, 1998. I will not forget “May 14th” because it was a date that changed my life forever. On that day a riot started in Indonesian’s capital city of Jakarta that lasted for two days and resulted in more than a thousand people dead and injured, physically and mentally. The economic turmoil and unemployment that had plagued Indonesia for some years led to this violent riot that mainly targeted the ethnic Chinese, who had been made into scapegoats for the country’s troubles and corrupt government. Businesses, properties, and homes of many Chinese Indonesians were looted and burned, their years of hard work gone in one night. But this was not the real tragedy. The real tragedy was the raping and killing of nearly hundreds of Chinese women and girls throughout those two days. I remember hearing my parents talk about the gruesome details of rape stories after the riots: how men broke into the homes of Chinese families and brutally rape the wives, daughters, and even little girls living there, and fathers forced to rape their own daughters. Then they would burn their houses afterwards, sometimes with the families still inside. Fearing for their lives, countless of Chinese Indonesians left the country after what came to be called the May riots, or simply “May 14th.” My family and I were one of those who left.
I was born on October 30, 1988 in Jakarta, Indonesia. My family and I are one of the minority ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia. My family and relatives have resided in Indonesia for many generations. My father is seventh generation Chinese, while my mother is third generation Chinese. Although we distinguished ourselves from the natives, or what we call pribumis, I did not really feel that I am Chinese. We cannot even speak Chinese nor have real Chinese names. Later on, I learned that my unfamiliarity with our Chinese culture was a result of the Indonesian government passing discriminatory laws against Chinese Indonesians in the 1960s, forcing us to assimilate into the Indonesian culture. The laws forbid any display of Chinese characters, closed down Chinese schools, and even changed Chinese last names to Indonesian or Indonesian-sounding names. As a result, I do not have a Chinese name, and none of us could really speak our Chinese Hokkien dialect. I identified myself more as Indonesian, and this was fine with me. I never gave my heritage a thought when I was younger.
Growing up in an upper-middle class family, I was carefree and privileged. We had a comfortable home to live in and maids to attend to our needs. Our family was very close and tight-knit. We always gathered together in my grandparents’ house every Sunday with my aunts and uncle and their families. I did not have the faintest idea that we would be leaving our families and the only life I had ever known behind. I still remember clearly the sequence of events that led to my parents’ decision to move to America.
My mom and I were driving home from my grandparents’ house when we heard about the protests by university students that went out of control and resulted in the police shooting a few of the students dead. The next day, the riots started. My brother and I got calls from our schools saying that we have to stay home from school until the situation gets under control. We knew then that things were serious. None of us dared to leave the house. On May 14, the riots got worse and spread throughout all of Jakarta, and I remember being scared that night. We had heard that they had been burning businesses and other properties owned by Chinese, but then we also heard that they were looting and burning homes. That night, we turned off all the lights in my house and my parents gathered all of our papers and passports, ready to flee the country if the mob of people were ever to reach our house. We all gathered in one room and sat waiting, hoping and praying for the best. When morning came, the riots subsided.
Soon after, we started hearing rumors of Chinese Indonesian girls brutally raped in their own homes during the riots. Many Chinese Indonesians fled the city during the riots, and many of their cars were stopped by mobs on the way to the airport, and some people were burned alive inside their cars. Many more gruesome stories surfaced, and they turned out to be true. We realized that we were one of the lucky ones. My parents thought it was no longer safe for us to live in Jakarta. They decided to move to America because luckily we have green cards that allowed us to live here permanently. Two months later, we moved to California.
As I was barely ten years old at the time, I could not understand why we were hated in our own country. I asked my parents these questions, why being Chinese was so bad. They explained that there had always been tension between the ethnic Chinese and the natives because they always believed that we were rich, and they envied us. Maybe this is the case, or maybe they just hate us because we are different. I did not understand prejudice back then, but after learning about racism and discrimination here in the United States and other parts of the world, maybe I understand why now.
In America we are all immigrants, and all my friends, who are predominantly Asians, are proud of their heritage. When they asked me what I am, I always have a hard time answering. I want to say that I am Chinese, but I cannot speak Chinese nor ever experienced Chinese culture, besides Chinese New Year. I want to say Indonesian, but I am not a native Indonesian. I say Chinese Indonesian, but many people do not understand what that means. They do not know the history and discrimination that we faced in our own country. My mom said that we Chinese Indonesians have no real homeland. We are hated and discriminated against in Indonesia, and in China they do not even consider us real Chinese anymore. She said we are Americans. At first, I did not like the sound of that. I wanted to identify with an ethnic group.
Now looking back, I understand what my mom meant. We left Indonesia because of the racism and discrimination we faced. In America, we feel more welcome than in our own “homeland.” America is where we belong. So thirteen years later here I am now, an American. I am proud to say that I am American. I am even more proud to say that I am Asian-American. I have worked hard throughout my academic endeavor, and I do so because I want to make something of myself. My goal is to become a successful dentist in the future, and as a health professional, I want to be of service to my community. I want to be an example of a successful Asian-American, for other Asian-Americans out there. Most of us are here in America because our families have gone through struggles, such as wars, political oppression, or prejudice, and made sacrifices to give us, their children, the best opportunities. I have been blessed with parents who had given me these best opportunities in my life, and I intend to make the most of what they had given me.
“May 14th” was “in many ways a terrible lesson, in many ways a significant one.” It taught me that prejudice can drive people to great lengths to make their hatred known. It can drive people to discriminate and commit violent and evil acts against another human being. The “May 14th” riots reflected the hatred of Chinese Indonesians in the most terrible way. Nonetheless, it changed my life in a good way in the end. If “May 14th” did not happen, then perhaps I would not be an American now. We would never have started a life here, and I would have grown up thinking that discrimination is normal and part of everyday life. Now I know otherwise.