What Makes You An Indonesian?

ist1_9204431-indonesiaSomebody posted intriguing threads on twitter on the other day. I wasn’t sure what subject that triggered her posting, but she was ranting about Indonesians living overseas who pretend to know more about Indonesia [compares to those who are inside the country], who only like to criticise but do not help. She surprised me when she then said these people should stop being self-righteous, and should do something real to help Indonesia. If they think that the country is beyond help, these people should just stop being Indonesians.

ist1_4518328-indonesia-boyHer threads about being Indonesian – or stop being one, for that matter – got me thinking: what actually does make you an Indonesian?

It is the same question asked to me by a researcher from Glasgow University a couple of weeks a go. The research is looking into the nationality and immigration aspects in Scotland, but half of the questions were about me being an Indonesian. Her questions have opened up my eyes on issues I have never thought about before.

So, what does make you an Indonesian? Is it by birth, by ancestry, or by domicile? Do you have to have all three aspects to be a true Indonesian?

I was born in Indonesia, my parents are Indonesian, I have spent most of my life in Indonesia, but have been away from the country since a couple of years a go. Does it make me an Indonesian, still?

How about my friend Rose*, who was born in Indonesia from Indonesian parents, has spent most of her life in Indonesia but since she is married to a British, she has been living overseas for a couple of years and is holding another country’s passport. Is she not Indonesian anymore? No? Then what is she, British? Do you think British people will call her British?

How about my friend Ali*, who was born in Indonesia, from Indonesian parents, but has moved to another country since he was 6 years old. Is Ali still Indonesian? If Ali speaks bahasa Indonesia fluently, is he more Indonesian than if he doesn’t?

How about if it is the other way around, like my friend Uni*, who was born in Austria from Indonesian parents, but they have been living in Indonesia for a very long time. Is she Indonesian?

How about my uncle, who was born in German, from German parents, who has been living in Indonesia for over 30 years and is holding Indonesian citizenship. With his blonde hair and blue eyes and fluent bahasa Indonesia, can we call him an Indonesian?

Can you erase your original nationality and adopt a new one completely?

ist1_4652907-old-indonesia-stampTo me, birth and ancestry play more important role rather than residence, or a piece of paper or a stamp on my passport. I can be anywhere else and/or hold any other nationality, but I am truly Indonesian. I can’t stop being one, even if I want to! It’s here in my blood, my veins, my skin, eyes, and hair colour, in my custom and culture, in my body language, in… everything! It is like the air we breath and the gravity we take for granted. It’s there, it’s ours. I have not met any single Indonesian who lives abroad, no matter for how long, and denies their home country or their origin. Never. Everybody will immediately call themselves an Indonesian, even if they have spent more than half of their lives outside the country.

I also wonder if those who live outside Indonesia know less about the country compare to  those who are living their lives in there, as suggested by the twitter lady. With news spreading faster than the light by the help of internet and social network sites, I guess as long as we have the access, we will get the updates. Maybe we will know later than today, but we would find out quickly enough to keep up with the news and gossips. What separates me from the others, is probably just the degree of interest in different issues. Some will keep up with the celebrity gossips, some will follow politics, some will focus on pop culture, some only will talk about photography, and so on. Even those who do live in Indonesia would not follow all issues – my maid is interested more in celebrity gossips than local elections in her area, for example, so naturally she knows more about local celebrities than politicians. Actually, those who live abroad tend to get news from different sources, which can enrich the perspectives of the news itself. For example, when Indonesian former president Soeharto died, all Indonesian media were being very gentle and only talked about the good stuff, but international media were more blunt, harsh, and quite the opposite, as I wrote it here. But when the bomb blasted in Jakarta last month, UK media reported in similar way as Indonesians, none but all praised the government’s success to crack down the terrorism groups and how the bomb was condemned by the whole nation.

ist1_7947372-indonesia-flagI am not sure either if we need to be physically present to criticise our government. Just like any sport match which everybody thinks they are better than the players or Alex Ferguson plus Jose Mourinho combined, whether they were actually at the match or just watching it on television wouldn’t matter. I guess the only job where you have to be there in order to review it, is food critic. Maybe years from now we could taste food by fax or internet, but not today.  I never knew that people who are geographically challenged are not allowed to criticise their government. Everybody has a right to do so, regardless where they sleep tonight, and only our credentials will determine our voice and will make people decide whether we are worthy to listen to. I will definitely listen to Habibie rather than my own siblings about politics, even though Habibie has been spending his days in Germany and they are living and breathing in Indonesia.

I believe nationality is a more complex matter rather than just a geography (ask Barack Obama!). As it is defined in Wikipedia, nationality is about the relationship between a person and their state of origin, it’s about loyalty, it’s about what we feel. It is personal. It is not what the country, nor man, dictates us. It cannot be printed on us and it cannot be taken away from us. It’s who we are.

* = names are made up.


  1. Concerned Indonesian says:

    How can that twitter lady can be that SHALLOW? She should know that criticism from outside Indonesia, whether it is from Indonesian leaving abroad or even foreigners is very valuable. It is sometime can be very constructive in a way that it can improve Indonesia as a country.
    I would understand her standpoint being ‘patriotic’, but she should see things at a bigger picture.

  2. What makes you Indonesian is…. the fact that you are far too polite to share the link to the twitter thread! (LOL!).
    I am for the argument that we don’t need to be in Indonesia to contribute. But then again, I am pretty biased! :)
    .-= katadia´s last blog ..Four too’s =-.

  3. It is simple really. The law acknowledge what citizen you are by what passport you hold. Some countries allow dual citizenships. My son who is 5 holds dual passports, he was born in the USA making him Indonesian American. I am kind of bothered by your statement questioning whether British people considers your friend “Rose” a Brit even after owning its passport just because she is not bule. I dont know how it is in Europe, but the USA is colorblind when it comes to citizenship. If you hold a US passport or born in the USA, it doesn’t matter how dark a skin you have, or have a name as wierd as Barrack Obama, they’re not going to question your nationality. Random people in my office never assume I am Asian right off the bat just because I have full Asian features, they always assume I’m American with Asian roots. To think otherwise is considered ignorant. If you’re talking what nationality people feel at heart, only they would know. If I ever end up being a US citizen, I know I will always feel Indonesian at heart no matter if my son becomes a US Congressman at 40 years old. As far as criticisms towards our government, I think people are just speaking out of frustrations as they should, no matter where they live. Only thing I know for sure is no matter how much Uncle Sam has taken care of me, I will love my country wholeheartedly and give back any chance I get. I don’t need to prove to anyone else how “authentic” of an Indonesian I am, I know it’s in my heart and that’s all that matters.

  4. You know, the purest love that I have is probably towards my country. Yes, I rant about the government, the people, the politics, etc., but I just can’t stop loving Indonesia. This is the place I will always call home. When there is a tsunami, earthquake, bomb, my heart breaks, my mood swings down. When I travel too long, I miss Indonesia so bad.

    Indonesia is always home to me, no matter my passport, my hair color, where I live. I have cried for Indonesia, my heart bloomed when I saw the flag raised underwater in Bunaken on the Independence day. I guess that women is just…not thinking?
    .-= parvita´s last blog ..Blogging: need the time to listen to my mind =-.

  5. Criticism is not treason!

    Perhaps it is a case of you can take the Indonesian out of Indonesia but you cannot take Indonesia out of the Indonesian.

    My advice (not that you want it), don’t sweat the little things and this woman and her views are little 😀
    .-= Rob´s last blog .."Scandalous" Advertising… =-.

  6. Concerned Indonesian: I think she just sees what she sees and the rest of the world doesn’t matter or must follow her thoughts, and if they don’t agree, they’re either not worthy to be Indonesians or are simply stupid. It’s rather dangerous way of thinking, don’t you agree?

    Katadia: I wasn’t trying to raise an argument, I was trying to get people engaged in a more meaningful discussion, and – as ulterior motive – to find out what actually Indonesians think about those who live abroad. So no need to post the twitter message here;)

    Fab Mom: I wasn’t talking about technicality about nationality, nor about what your passport tells you who you are. It is more about our origin. I was thinking about the conversations that I am normally in, like when my husband’s grandmother or father introduces me as their granddaughter/daughter (not granddaughter or daughter-in-law), people always look puzzled and in their eyes I could see question (i.e. but she’s not white. Is she adopted? Ah she must be married to your (grand)son). Other people will ask me “Where do you come from?” which basically asks where I am originally from, not about whether I hold British citizenship or not. I agree totally with you that only we know how ‘Indonesian’ we are in our heart. However, do Indonesians who live in Indonesia think about us the same way? The twitter lady doesn’t think so, apparently :)

    Parvita: I actually wonder how many people who think like this Indonesian lady, that Indonesians who live abroad should do more, should give more, before they are allowed to claim to be Indonesians or criticising the government.

    Rob: absolutely, so why there’s Indonesian think that since we live outside Indonesia we are not fully Indonesians? And moreover, how many of them thinking like that?

  7. Agree with you, mba.. We can’t stop being one and it’s just like the gravity we take for granted. But besides blood and ancestry, nationalism is also matter. We’re not gonna feel we’re Indonesian if we never been taught about Indonesia -its culture, beauty, and even its food taste and all of its imperfections-. Simply, the deep feeling we have for Indonesia completes our blood as Indonesian.
    .-= Wulan Aquariyanti´s last blog ..Date =-.

  8. The way people arrange themselves seems to be like those rings in tree trunks, that can be used to tell the age of a tree. Or like the Russian dolls that fit inside each other.
    First there is “ME”, then 2nd ring “Family”, then there is maybe school or suburb, or kota, or football club, or state, or religion (in no particular order), then country, but after that thers only “Earth Man”. But its how we fit in this world. So patriotism has a real use – its like the ouitermost layer of our upbringing.
    But in Indonesia, its getting a bit out of adjustment with sweeping for Malaysians and hot heads wanting to go to war over Ambalat.
    To me it means the culture that I wwas brought up with. A place I always feel comfortable and ät home”. However there are other places I feel comfortable and warm, too….. incuding Indonesia

  9. Interesting topic and very well written.
    I for one think that this lady on twitter needs to open up her horizon a little further before making such a strong statement. For me, being Indonesian and spending a few years abroad opens up my knowledge and educated me more about how the government of the country I stayed at works. Like it or not, there will be comparison between the two countries. In short, without trying to sound snobbish, we who has the opportunity to live abroad ‘have seen better’ than those who didn’t know better so for us to voice our opinion and critics in hoping the government would change for the better is not a crime or let alone be labeled as non-Indonesian anymore (no matter what our passport says). Does it make us less Indonesian than the one who never travel or live abroad? I don’t think so! I would still bleed red and white if you cut me open LOL.

    Btw, do you mind if I link your site on mine? Thanks.

  10. Wulan: true. My friends have passed their passion about Indonesia to their children, so even though their children never live in Indonesia, they like “kerupuk” and can sing national anthem. Now how can we argue that they are NOT Indonesians?

    Syd Bourne (are you a brother or sister of Jason Bourne?): I guess some people, instead of realising that the world is getting “smaller”, choose to live inside their own boxes and don’t relate to reality.

    Maureenat: exactly my point. This twitter lady, as far as I know, albeit really smart, has not yet experienced living abroad, so she sees Indonesia from one point and one point only. The longer I read her posts the more I am worried about the state of Indonesia in general. I hope she doesn’t represent most of the citizens who think we – those who live abroad – are ‘traitors’ and not worthy. And yes of course, be my guest to link me in your site.

  11. ehhmmm being indonesian is …
    maybe mix a large amount of ignorance,religious self esteem , proud, don’t be so easy saying you’re sorry ( well maybe once a year ), ignorance ( i said that twice ) and there you’re indonesian
    .-= mare´s last blog ..can cartoon educate people? =-.

  12. Bagus sekali, pesannya, terima kasih.
    Nama saya Marc. Saya orang Italia yang lahir dan berkembang di Perancis. Saya sekarang tinggal di Kanada tetapi saya tidak senang dengan kebudayaan Amerika Utara / Inggris, juga tidak suka lingkungan kota Toronto. Sebetulnya bukan kepunyaan pasport sebuah negeri yang menyebabkan orang menjadi warganegara negeri itu. Saya punya pasport Kanada tetapi saya tidak menganggap diri sebagai orang kanada, bahkan merasa malu karena kebudayaan Amerika Utara yang jelek itu tidak saya terima. Untuk menghilangkan diri dari lingkungan itu, saya selalu pergi ke toko-toko Cina (saya berbahasa Cantonese), bahkan pergi ke gereja orang Indonesia. Sebetulnya saya ingin pindah ke Indonesia tetapi untuk tinggal untuk selama-lamanya, caranya saya belum tahu. Saya harap menemukan teman yang bisa membantu…

  13. Hi harry I am only going to comment on the aspect of would the British call here British.
    Yes of course they would the term British was coined to encompass any one that lived in one the 4 territories England Ireland Scotland and Wales and Any one that comes to reside here from whatever culture.
    Of course there are still some die-hards that call themselves English or Irish or whatever, But this also applies to immigrants who would call themselves Pakistani or Indians etc.
    This being said we are in the melting pot and that will never change.
    Anyway I like it but as with any society comprised of so many different cultures it brings it’s own challenges.
    Viva la difference as the french say.
    stugod recently posted…Welcome to the 3d world of turbocadMy Profile

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