Being a Chinese-Indonesian Australian: My story of internalised racism
Internalised racism is not a new concept. The experiences I have had with it have been lifelong. Yet it was not until recently that I understood what internalised racism actually meant, and was able to describe my feelings towards my ethnicity in this way. Only recently I realised that my feelings were much less negative than they were in the past, and that is what prompted me to share this story.
I’m Australian. I was born in Australia. I was born to parents who were born and lived their lives in Indonesia, before moving to Australia shortly before I was born. My parents spoke Bahasa (Indonesian) to their families, and to each other, and as I grew up, they taught me both English and Bahasa.
My parents’ ethnicity is primarily Chinese. They both had Chinese names, their siblings had Chinese names, my grandparents had Chinese names, and somewhere further up the family tree, I had ancestors from China. I also had ancestors who were native Indonesians, but little information about this was gathered or known until I was a teenager. My family, like many other Chinese people in Indonesia, were made to change their Chinese names to more “Indonesian-sounding” names under President Suharto’s reign in the early 1960s, as an attempt to assimilate Chinese-Indonesians.
I’ve never, in my life, disliked being Australian.
But I have, many times, disliked, and been ashamed of, being Chinese, being Indonesian, or both.
“I’m not even Chinese”
As a child, I understood my parents to be Indonesian, and nothing else. There must have been some talk of having Chinese ethnicity, but nothing concrete. Chinese was as foreign as any other background or language. My parents did not – and have not ever – known how to speak Chinese, and have never been to China. Since I learned Bahasa at home, and my mum cooked Indonesian food, and I travelled to Indonesia with my family, this was what I understood as where I was “from”.
I grew up in a neighbourhood, and attended a primary school, that was populated with mostly Lebanese and Caucasian folks. In early primary school years, I remember not thinking much of how different the children were in terms of skin colour, hair style, hair texture, facial features, or any other visual difference. I became aware that I was one of the shorter kids (as far as customs go in placing shorter children in the front row in school group photographs), but I made friends with anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or appearance.
Despite this, my first experiences with racism happened before I was ten years old, when another boy at school called me a “Chinese bitch” and I experienced the all-too-common tease of having someone pull at the corners of their eyelids and say something along the lines of “ching chong”.
“I’m not even Chinese,” I retorted.
It speaks volumes that while that I don’t clearly remember the events that led to me being called a Chinese bitch, I distinctly remember the racist remark itself. I know one thing for certain: I didn’t do anything wrong and I did not feel that I deserved to be called something so offensive. Although I did not yet understand that I did indeed have Chinese background, I knew that this boy meant to upset me, and that looking Chinese enough to be called one was a reason to be ashamed.
“I hate Indonesia”
I went to Indonesia with my family several times while I was growing up. I knew I had family far away, and because I didn’t grow up with them, going to Indonesia was a giant family reunion all the time. My mum and dad both have many siblings – so I have many aunts and uncles, and I also have many first cousins. I found it hard to remember all of them. My mum would frequently remind me who they were, but I was often too young to remember, until I became a teenager and I got a better picture of the family tree in my head.
My parents moved to Australia to give their children – myself and my younger brother Brandon – a better life than they had, and more opportunity for our careers and for our lives. In doing so, they had to leave their own families, and Brandon and I remained largely separated from our extended family. Our friends would visit their families on the weekend, and we heard countless stories from them in the playground, or during show-and-tell, about spending time with their aunts, uncles, and cousins – while we, sometimes sitting in silence, knew that our only comment, the phrase “most of my family lives overseas”, had run dry.
I disliked Indonesia. During a visit to Indonesia when I was twelve, I wrote angry diary entries, fuelled by my experience of cultural shock as a slightly woke teen. I was furious that I was catcalled in a foreign, “gross” country, before I had even experienced puberty. I hated the lack of hygiene in public restrooms. I could not accept the way of life in an underdeveloped country, and I experienced first world problems long before first world problems were even a thing. Needless to say, I was an ungrateful child, ignorant of how fortunate I was to live in a developed Western country.
Thinking about how I felt back then causes my eyes to well. My parents didn’t read these furious entries I wrote in an old exercise book and later typed in a Word document that I buried deep in a folder maze on my personal computer. But had they read them, they would have been upset. I felt so disconnected from a culture I should have been a part of, and I felt like I couldn’t belong in a place that was unfamiliar, strange, terrifying, and corrupt.
Being a Chinese-Indonesian means you don’t belong anywhere.
It’s been discussed in Wong Fu’s Yappie series on YouTube; it’s been written about on countless Medium articles; and it’s been in the minds of every pre-pubescent, adolescent, and adult Asian American, Asian Australian, and mixed-race person of colour, and the list doesn’t stop there.
I’m Asian Australian, which is one piece of the puzzle in not fitting in either an Asian community or an Australian community. But being Chinese-Indonesian means not even fitting into any Asian community. I’m not Chinese enough to “belong” among Chinese people. I’m not Indonesian enough to “belong” among Indonesian people. In Indonesia, Chinese-Indonesians, including myself and my family, are treated poorly by native Indonesians. We are still looked down on with contempt following the events of history, and they will do even the most trivial of things to inconvenience us simply because we are Chinese. We’re not Indonesian.
My family and I have had Chinese folks try to speak to us in Chinese, because we look Chinese. We are unable to speak or read Chinese. Yet even if we were, we would have little to no understanding of Chinese culture, customs or traditions, because, well – we’re Indonesian. We’re not Chinese.
I hated being Indonesian.
My parents are very proud of their ethnicity. They wanted me to be proud of it too, but growing up as a teenager, I was incredibly obstinate and I told my parents I did not like Indonesian people. My exact words were, “I hate Indonesian people”. My view of them was tarnished by the negative experiences I had of being catcalled in Indonesia, having extended family members ask me if I had a boyfriend and throw a thousand questions at me, and friends of my parents who would try to set me up with their son, because they were Indonesian too. These experiences, these negative ones alone, formed my opinion on Indonesian people. All Indonesian people.
As a result, I hated myself, and I hated being Indonesian.
My parents like to go to areas of Sydney that have an Indonesian community or are saturated with Indonesian restaurants or grocery stores. They took me with them when I was younger, of course. My parents spoke Bahasa and sometimes I would speak with them too, so my ear would pick up on when I heard someone speaking Bahasa when I was not at home. It became a trigger – I would make a snap judgment, feel embarrassed to be near that person, and I would want to avoid the person at all costs. In cases where it wasn’t avoidable, I often felt like my blood was boiling and that I couldn’t escape.
During a time I was dating a Caucasian ex-boyfriend, my mum didn’t think the relationship was serious (of course, I thought it was, and to this day I know he was the first person I ever truly loved), and she said she wanted me to marry an Indonesian man when I got older.
I remember having several discussions with her about it. They weren’t really discussions… she suggested attending a university that had a large number of Indonesian students and I just exploded. I burst into tears and proclaimed my hate for being Indonesian, hating Indonesian people, and how I would never marry an Indonesian man. It was just my luck that there was nothing at that university that I genuinely wanted to study, so I feel like a dodged a bullet. Attending that university wouldn’t guarantee I’d marry an Indonesian man, obviously, but I hated Indonesian people enough that I didn’t want to be around any of them.
I had an Indonesian exchange student in one of my university classes. At the time, I generally avoided bringing up where I am “from”, but probably by way of seeing my last name or just flat out asking me, this boy found out that I was Indonesian. That was yet another thing I spotted with Indonesian people I encountered – generally, it’s impolite to question someone’s ethnicity, but Indonesians can be upfront about it. It bothered me, because as someone growing up in a Western country, this is not cool. I later learned that some Indonesians will see other Indonesian people as friends immediately, and as a green light to ask more personal questions. Needless to say, I was embarrassed to be around this boy who now knew I was Indonesian (and he prodded me about being Chinese-Indonesian, too), and his actions and behaviour – no fault of his own, but just triggering a negative response in me – had me seething through my teeth until the end of semester.
I’m Chinese-Indonesian, I’m a person of colour, and I’m also Australian.
Not by way of defiance, but because I actually fell in love, I married an Australian man, whom many of you know as Nick (when I talk about my feelings of love, I like to say Nicholas). Our differences have made our relationship interesting. We have both expanded our horizons on not only our own upbringings, cultures, customs, and traditions, but it has opened our eyes to travelling the world together and being open to all these cultures different from our own. I shared my ethnicity with him, my mum cooked Indonesian foods that he got to try, and he learned about my family and was able to visit Indonesia and see how my family interacted and how they lived their lives. I hadn’t shared this part of me with anyone else before, and, in a way, my heart began to feel a little closer to something it should have been close to in the first place.
It was during my career in technology that I frequently bumped into fellow Indonesians and Chinese-Indonesians who recognised that my maiden name, Luhur, was Indonesian. How dare they start a conversation about it, I initially thought. Over time, I realised that mentioning it was just a way of breaking the ice, the way anyone else attempts to start a conversation with someone new. It was never about trying to humiliate me by pointing out that they knew about my ethnicity. The conversation would move onto something else entirely unrelated, and it would be a good conversation. It was internalised racism that caused me to feel embarrassed and angry when that was never the person’s intention in the first place.
I won’t name everyone because I’m not aware that they have a public presence online or wish to be named, but let me start by saying that at some point, my colleague and I counted eight Indonesian people in total working at our company. I didn’t even realise that this was the case until we spoke about it. My colleague is Indonesian himself, and both of us run and co-ordinate our company’s internal speaking program, Bread Talks, together. He’s an enthusiastic individual, always striving to do better, and he even facilitates my team’s retrospectives. He has grown a lot since he joined the company.
Our ex-CIO, Herry Wiputra, was someone I met during my interview process. He recognised I was Indonesian from my surname. At the time, I didn’t want to talk about being Indonesian and sincerely hoped that it was also the last question about my ethnicity. (It was.) I would later learn that Herry is an extremely passionate, wonderful, and humorous person who really, really cares about people, and really loves building teams, as he moved mountains at Campaign Monitor and made the impossible, possible.
I’ve also had the joy of working with an engineer who makes every day at the office more fun. He’s known to start deep and possibly unnecessary philosophical discussions, which have made for bizarre and funny lunchtime conversations. But I admire his keenness to learn and his genuine curiosity about almost every corner of software engineering. On occasion he’s mentioned his ethnicity without shame (albeit also not feeling like he “belongs” anywhere), and it reminds me that I truly struggled with being vocal about my ethnicity at all.
On Twitter, I met Amy, whom many of you will know as sailorhg (Sailor Mercury), founder of Bubblesort Zines. I can’t pinpoint the moment I discovered her work but I adore her work ethic and passion. What I admire most about Amy is that she is true to herself – her hobbies, her interests in fashion, anime, food, her work, and the things she cares about, like her cat Moxie and her bicycle Peppermint Patty. When it comes to expressing herself, she is unapologetic in every way, unafraid of being herself. It was through all of this that I learned that we had another thing in common – that we are both Indonesian. Amy shared stories and photos about her travels to Indonesia, Indonesian food, and even created a zine titled Indo Mie, Indo You. Having a fellow woman in tech unashamedly share her ethnicity – which just so happened to be mine as well – with the world, made me realise that – if I made even the smallest step to be less averse to my ethnicity – I wouldn’t be alone.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I realised I had gone this far into my career being surrounded by amazing, wonderful people who were part of something that I chose to reject. But the thing I chose to reject had never gone away – it never will – and ultimately, I had become used to it being there, almost as if no one noticed it was there at all.
Being Chinese-Indonesian is me, but it’s not all of me.
Now that I think about it, my parents tried very hard to make me love my ethnicity and my cultural background, but I learned the hard way, that no matter what, you cannot hide from the person you are.
After years of running away from, being ashamed of, and having adverse opinions about my ethnicity, I’ve come to accept it. I’m no longer ashamed to the point where I avoid conversation about it. My fury is no longer triggered when I overhear a conversation in Bahasa. I don’t feel put off around Indonesian people. I’m married now and use Nick’s last name, but when people ask me about my maiden name, Luhur, it sparks a conversation where I can happily explain where it’s from. I use “Luhur Cooke” on my social media profiles, but SEO and people finding me isn’t the only reason I left it there… I guess I kept it there because, well, it’s not quite the vexing moniker it once was.
It is the fellow Indonesians and Chinese-Indonesians around me who have helped me feel at ease with my ethnicity. They have made me feel comfortable to be who I am, by way of being comfortable with who they, themselves, are. I’ve turned around and looked at myself and my adversity towards my ethnicity and – although I was ashamed of my own ethnicity, I realised that I was now ashamed that I had felt this adversity for such a long time. Here I was being racist to my own background, while other people of the same background were accepting it, possibly even embracing it.
If you are a person of colour, especially one who has experienced internalised racism, please look around you and support your coloured friends. As people of colour, we experience enough discrimination from society and are exposed to enough discrimination to make us turn on and reject ourselves. We need to be there for each other, knowing that we share something small in common – but more importantly, we need to share in and celebrate each other’s achievements, and encourage each other.
Because although your ethnicity is a part of you, it is not all of you. And sometimes, you need to be reminded that you are who you are not because of your ethnicity, but because of everything else that makes you, you.
✏️ Thank you to Geoffrey Chong for proofreading this for me.
Thank you to my friends, and family, and coworkers, and internet and real-life folx who have always welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like being my true self was never less than, and always enough.
This was difficult for me to write, but I appreciate you reading. It is difficult to be open about controversial and deep topics that are related to something you cannot avoid, but that aside, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who has struggled with internalised racism. If this post resonated with you, and especially if you find it difficult to word similar feelings, please share it on Twitter and mention me @georgiecel, or on any other social network, or in your friend groups.
I am an Australian-born Chinese Indonesian. My name is Georgie.
since you follow me on twitter, i think you’ve seen my dislike, disapproval and maybe borderline hatred towards indonesians so i won’t repeat that. this post is so….relatable. i mean, i know it’s bad and i’m highly aware of it but oh my god i cannot stress how much i hate indonesians. i still do. i know i have to make amends with this judgment but for now, i’m going to be honest and say it won’t happen anytime soon. however, more than my disapproval towards indonesians and their gross mentality (especially when they start quoting religion by saying how a woman’s duty is to always satisfy her husband, yadda yadda yadda) is my hatred towards chinese, both “pure” chinese (as in from mainland china) and chinese-indonesians.
i know this sounds bad but i feel like i have to be honest here since this is such an honest, raw post. i hate growing up in a chinese family and the teachings they taught me. i was never taught kindness or self-love. i was taught how to be racist, how to judge, how to be arrogant, materialistic, etc etc the list goes on. i know i said i dislike indonesians but i think i hate chinese/chinese-indonesians a little bit more since they’re really arrogant people. i know that you know about this whole “facts and experiences breed stereotype, no effect without a cause” thing so i’ll just tell you this: there are a lot of chinese-indonesians here who feel entitled towards indonesians. racism? absolutely. naturally, the fact that i’m chinese living in indonesia means i’m chinese-indonesian, right? not really. growing up, my family taught me that i’m “chinese” and that “we’re different from the locals here.” that teaching also includes implanting this thought into my head that we, chinese (-indonesians) are NOT them (“pure” indonesians) and are BETTER than them. ugh, sick.
ugh i guess what i’m trying to say is that… i hate both. but if i have to choose, i hate chinese/chinese-indonesians more even if they’re “my people.” it’s because i see more…bitterness from chinese-indonesians here, mostly in the form of arrogance and their “it’s ok for us to be rude to them javanese lmao” mindset.
yet at the same time, i call myself a chinese because of my personal dislike towards indonesians. i’m conflicted, that’s what. i don’t like to associate myself with indonesians because, you know…i disapprove with almost ALL of their bs (you know how stupid this country is, let’s just get that out of the way) and so, when i introduce myself, i say “hi, i’m elise. i’m chinese.”
i think it’s obvious that i’m in dilemma with both myself and everything else. what am i supposed to do when i hate and cannot accept both parties? which is why it’s amazing how your mother and now you are able to embrace it. i don’t think i can do that, at least not anytime soon. i’m forever going to think of myself as a chinese, not a chinese-indonesian despite hating both sides. the feeling of never fitting in is just so relatable.
also, i’m glad you live in australia because ugh, i cannot imagine how you have to always hear all the bullshit this country sprouts these days. sometimes i just laugh at the idiocy and think this country is beyond helpless and that when this country burns, i’ll pack my things and go. yeah, this makes me sound like a total psycho because i don’t love this country. but i’m just being honest, even if the truth sounds bad.
p.s sorry for the long rant. i don’t know how to deliver and express my thoughts properly. and i do seriously hope that people don’t start judging me or anything for being honest. i’m honestly worried about this comment :\
I understand your conflict! I think the reality is, even if you did “choose”, you will be burdened with the negative characteristics of whichever ethnicity/cultural group you choose to belong in and it’s a matter of overcoming that. There are also always going to be people who don’t believe you belong there. You choose to identify as being Chinese over Chinese-Indonesian, but never does it mean that you are the kind of Chinese-Indonesian who is heavily bitter, arrogant, etc. towards others. It’s those characteristics and the people around you who might make you ashamed/embarrassed, perhaps in the same way I was embarrassed by other Indonesian people. But I think if you did go through the same emotions that I did, and come to terms with your ethnicity, it would honestly come from within, and something that you feel internally.
I don’t know how to express this in a better way. But even though I was surrounded by some Indonesian folx who inspired me, it wasn’t until I looked at myself and my emotions in the past that my views began to change.
We live in a country that had its origin in the preservation (sic) of the so-called “white” race; aka White Australia Policy. While the pre-independent South Africa and the US have their clearly defined racial divide, Australia was attempting to create a genetically pure Aryan society. Australia’s refusal to accept refugees of colour andJews, post WW1 is an unspoken historical fact. The White Australia policy was meant to keep cheap labour and artisans from”flooding” the (then) Australian work place; e.g. furniture making et., as well as maintaining the racial purity(sic) of a fundamentally Aryan race (the Nazis had the same goal). Of course, the whole thing is laughable given the origins of the human race (out of Africa).
With the exception of post-war European migration, the host population of this country have either English or Celtic ancestry; i.e. Anglo-celtic. And we all know the tradition English (British) attitude towards foreigners.For that matter, the English don’t like the Scot, Irish andWelsh and the same goes for the Scot etc. Hence, racial vilification, in my view, is almost second nature to some of them. We don’t tolerate them and we should condemn them. But an understanding of their psyche is our strongest weapon towards these socially disadvantaged and disenchanted losers. There is a strong underlying envy on their part towards some of us. In my view, it is also their perception that they, themselves, have failed to achieve anything near the successes that the likes of us have achieved. I’m sure you’d remember how some Javanese viewed us in the context of their social status etc. I’m constantly highlighting this ugly face of the society we live in. Not because I view the Australian values from a “half glass empty” perspective. On the contrary, it is by revealing this country’s dark past that will enable her to face tomorrow’s bright future.
I enjoy reading your post.
Like you, I’m an Indonesian born Chinese. I have been working on a memoir that tells the story of my family – predominently – during the Japanese Occupation of the (then) Dutch East Indies.
Thank you, Alex! That was really thought provoking, honestly nothing I’d ever thought of, or heard anyone express, before. I wish you the best in writing your memoir and sharing your story – all power to you. 💪
Thank you Georgie for your comment and good wishes. I’m in the process of finding a publisher. If you know anyone who might be interested, please let me know.
Georgie, I just want to thank you for sharing your story with everyone! It is so brave of you to write about your internalised racism, but thank you for being open and honest about this.
Whilst I must say I’ve never shared the same feelings you have had about myself, I’ve always been fascinated to hear about one’s story who has felt those feelings. This is not to say that I’m judging becasue the way you’ve articulated how you’ve felt makes so much sense to me and it’s one of the reasons why it’s good to hear other perspectives.
For myself, I’ve experienced more a feeling of other – wherein because I’m multiracial, I cannot find myself fitting in properly with either of my sides. I’ve never once hated being multiracial, I feel super blessed, but in past experience I’ve felt like to black people I’m not black enough and to Asian people, they don’t even know I’m Asian. But I agree with what you said about ethnicity at the end there – it’s not ALL of you and I feel like if you let it, you can be swallowed whole by it.
Thank you Chynna. ❤️ I must say I’m really happy for you that you’ve never had these sorts of feelings before, but not surprised that at times you don’t feel like you belong in certain groups. I think part of it comes from both of us living in very multicultural western countries!
I can definitely relate to a lot of this. I’ve never had anyone call me anything like “Chinese bitch” because of my unique military/expat environment, so I am thankful in that aspect.
However, I, too, have sometimes disliked my ethnic background, wished I was 100% Caucasian, or just wished I wasn’t dual-ethnic/nationality. But as I get older, I find myself liking the complexity of who I am because it shapes and forms my real self.
I realise now that we don’t have to be tied to our ethnicity, but we can take what we are to combine it with other factors that make us who we are and be proud of what we are.
Thank you for writing and sharing this, Georgie. This was a powerful and relatable read.
Thank you for reading, Tara. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts 💕
Hey Georgie, I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while, and this post came up on my feed and I knew it would be something I would relate to as a Chinese Australian. I remember being deeply insecure about my ethnicity for a long time while growing up, but now being proud to know the language and experience a different culture outside of what I know in Australia. Rather than not belonging in either Australia or Hong Kong, I like to view myself as being lucky enough to belong in both places. Thank you for sharing your struggles, its brave of you to admit and great to hear that you are accepting of your background now but also that it doesn’t make up your entire identity. Btw I remember seeing the Yappie video on WongFu as well and it is totally relatable!
Hi Enoch, thank you for sharing your experience :) I’m really glad to hear you’ve grown from being insecure to being proud about your ethnicity. I think the more we talk about these experiences (and share them, such as in the Wong Fu videos), the more we find people who are similar to us or have often felt the same way. I think that really helps in feeling less alone.
Ms H aka Sage
Wow. Yeah. Wow.
As a white Australian of Scottish/Swedish background it’s interesting to me. My siblings and cousins are Australian born… We are the only generation of Australians in our family. Personally, I’m proud of my background and where I was born. I can’t begin to understand how you feel and felt. I will say this, I went to a school with Europeans and Australians and I never fit in. I was branded a wog. I was like no I am Australian. I look Scandinavian yet have a Scottish name haha, go figure 😂
I have to explain that hatred towards Chinese Indonesians by pribumis didn’t come out of nowhere.
It happened since the Dutch settlers arrived and classified the ethnic Chinese a class higher than the pribumis.
The pribumis were the lowest of the lowest and oppressed for more than 300 years. They were literally nobodies and slaves.
The ethnic Chinese who obviously were mixed from pribumi ancestresses took the opportunity and ever since looked down on the pribumis. Pribumis experienced lots of unfairness from the more privileged ethnic Chinese.
The way Chinese always looked down on the real native people on their own soil was disgusting. They were always very racist to the pribumis and the Chinese was supposed to be superior in many ways. Because they were a privileged group during Dutch colonial powers they had a better chance to develop better than the struggling oppressed pribumi. Not because they have more superior genes as Chinese people usually believe.
And the Chinese media tycoons in Indonesia were always forcing some Chinese light skin phenotype on pribumis soil. Wiu other word real Indonesians are ugly apes.
You still see the post colonial deceases in modern Indonesia.
The Chinese Indonesian is still much more wealthy on average and I have heard about many Chinese families having a pribumi maid and abusing this maid like she is a low slave. Even rapes are known to be common. But these females are so poor..their lives are worth nothing. This is Indonesia.
Hey Mary, thanks for adding your thoughts to my post. I really appreciate that you took the time to share this important history. I’m aware of the discrimination that pribumis experience because I’ve sadly seen it and heard conversations about it from Chinese Indonesians, but your comment has helped shape my understanding around why that happens. While my family has treated many of their pribumi maids like their own family too, and helping fund extra for their own families, I can see that it’s still a problem, as you said – this is Indonesia.