“Indonesian And”: Language and Conjunctive Identity

‘Garis Batas’ by Agustinus Wibowo (published by Gramedia)

I’m reading a book called Garis Batas (‘Border’) by Indonesian writer and backpacker, Agustinus Wibowo, and it’s making me realize how much I unconsciously associate the Indonesian language with a certain attitude – one that tends to be socially and religiously conservative, and whose conceptions of Indonesian identity are frustratingly simplistic. It’s a limited and myopic judgment on my part, and one entirely devoid of nuance and compassion. I just never knew how deeply this bias was ingrained in me until I read Wibowo’s book and felt my heart fill to the brink at how much this guy’s experiences mirrored my own. Wibowo seemed to have the same priorities and cynicisms I do when it comes to matters of cultural identity, colonial legacy, and immigration bureaucracy. We can’t always help what ideas we internalize, but we can be aware of it and hopefully start taking steps in the right direction to mitigate our own ignorance.

Garis Batas means ‘borderline’, and the book is about Wibowo’s travels through the Central Asia, relating anecdotes and analysis about the Soviet legacy and how well (or not) the -stan countries have held up under the weight of Russian influence and international pressure. It’s fascinating stuff, and exactly the kind of reading I loved getting in college because I superimposed a lot of my identity angst onto my studies. HUMAN MIGRATION FLOWS, HOW DOES IT WORK? It’s a subject close to my heart, and to read about it in the Indonesian language is like a rediscovery of the subject and the language all over again. I don’t always agree with Wibowo’s observations, but I relate to his wanderlust, his curiosity about the historical foundations of national essentialism, and his romantic cynicism. Seeing my own thoughts reflected to me in this way has perhaps done more to repair this artificial divide between my ‘Indonesian side’ and my ‘American side’ than anything. It’s about finding a foothold. It’s about realizing you’re not alone, no matter why you do or do not call the place where you live ‘home’.

“Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson (published by Verso Books)

Even now, I find that my usage of Indonesian or English tends to depend on subject and audience. In my experiences, the Indonesian language tends to be associated with my family and our traditions, and the English language tends to be the language of friends and academia. Indonesian is the first language I learned, but English is now the language I know best. It has been ever since first grade, when we moved to the Philippines and I became distanced from my mother tongue. But languages are funny. Finding yourself in books is a strange and wondrous thing. When I read Benedict Anderson’s sociological writings about the Philippines and Indonesia in college, I felt I was brought closer to the subject (i.e. my homes) because it was expressed in a language I’m comfortable with (i.e. English). With Garis Batas, it’s the opposite. I feel like I’m being brought closer to the language because I relate to the sentiments it’s expressing. My point is that language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These are exactly the kinds of reasons why people say that if you want to suppress a culture, you cut out their tongues. To feel apart from the core of you is a very alienating thing, but it is an alienation that people can get used to. A marginalized complacency. It’s like when people have asked me dubious questions about the difference between People X and Indonesians/Filipinos with the assumption that the ability to otherize people and the ability to feel marginalized are mutually exclusive things. They are not.

I would like to emphasize that I don’t speak for all Javanese Indonesians or Indonesian expats. I grew up receiving a strict definition of what it means to be Indonesian, and it’s something I’m trying to deconstruct. There is a soul-deep difference between saying “I am Indonesian AND” and “I am Indonesian BUT”, the latter of which I’ve been saying my whole life, dividing me. There is a time and a place for compartmentalization, true, but I’d like a little less of it in the areas that matter most.

Originally posted June 30, 2011.