One Half and Three Quarters
Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is said to roughly translate as ‘Unity in Diversity’, is Indonesia’s national motto. It was also coincidentally the motto of the international high school which I attended. The intent is clear, well meant, and a move toward greater enlightenment. Indonesia contains a multitude of ethnicities, although one is overwhelmingly dominant. Even though they have the luxury of residence in one of the world’s most remarkable melting pots, by law the country’s citizens are limited to one of six religions.
At school I had a teacher who made attempts to impart some fairly radical ideas on us. I like to think he is a fairly common fixture in schools whose pupils have a little luck. While his subject was history, I don’t recall being asked to commit many important dates to memory. On United Nations Day, the primary school pupils were asked to wear their national costume and march around the playground waving their country’s flag on a stick. Our local radical saw fit to make some controversial comments about the proceedings. He questioned the value of it all. The ostensible purpose of the event was to celebrate the diversity of our surroundings, but could it be that more sinister ideals were being taught to the youngest among us? Was it really just an introductory class to jingoism?
More recently I was asked to host a seminar on ‘Cross Cultural Understanding’, here in Jakarta. The purpose was to share the wisdom accrued from my own bi-ethnic parentage, and itinerant youth. The participants thought nothing of expressing their concerns about eroding their own sense of national identity were they to become too assimilated by a foreign culture - especially linguistically. I tried to explain in polite terms how nonsensical it was to assume that speaking Indonesian could be a source of national pride, pointing out its obvious debts to other languages, English among them. Indeed, the scolds who are so troubled by the deluge of foreign media that Indonesian youth are inescapably fond of, would do well to look in a mirror on a typical day and compare their mode of attire to that worn by their ancestors, whose culture they claim to be the torch bearer for.
I do have a home other than Indonesia, thousands of miles away in Scotland. I long ago chose not to live there. It’s mostly the climate which gets me down, although having been blessed with an appearance which is not obviously European, I also enjoy being able to walk the streets of Jakarta unmolested by racist epithets or threats of violence. Having said that, I do give a great deal of contemplation to which country better affords me a more comfortable existence. Much of Europe in theory holds itself to progressive ideals which in practice it is often forgetful of, while developing Indonesia, still reeling from the effects of a decades-long strong-arm dictatorship, frequently publicizes its commitment to puritanical mores which it, in turn, can be very absent-minded about.
The news tells me of the land of my fathers taking a very hard line on immigrants, both legal and illegal. While the land of my mothers is still swamped by such an impenetrable bureaucracy that my hope of ever making it a truly permanent home for myself and my young son tends to wither. Although my son does at least have a document saying he’s allowed to stay here legally until he’s an adult - which I think is the least the government can do given that he’s a quarter more Indonesian than I am, if you’re prone to making such qualifications.
The world’s incredibly resilient desire to carve itself up according to invisible lines of demarcation appears to be having an allergic reaction to the vaccine known as ‘globalization’. Anybody who has picked up a newspaper any time during the last few years will see that Indonesia is no exception. However, perhaps because it is so richly endowed with difference, phobic prejudices are directed inward even more than they are at other nations. Sometimes with horrifying results. Many of its politicians, with notably admirable exceptions, appear as cheerleaders to this unfortunately human brand of madness. A favourite trick being to pander to the fragile temperaments involved by making public statements expressing a similar inability to contain sensitivity. Such public displays of indignation come of as better suited to a maligned infant than a professional diplomat.
The differences between members of different nations, and tribes, are clearly not all imagined. We are, like it or not, physiologically different according to ethnicity. Where that leaves myself and my son in the grand scheme of things is anybody’s guess - he appears to be growing up with more chiselled facial features, which he may see as a blessing once adolescence kicks in. But the differences between men and women are obviously far, far greater. And the differences that exist between any two people selected at random are infinite in number. The problems two neighbours living in a homogeneous community are bound to endure are far more real than than any perceived threats from the next village, city, or island.
So while I am happy to talk about any personal knowledge I can muster concerning cross cultural harmony, there is a human being deep down in my heart who wonders as to the necessity of it all.