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.