In search of my Dutch roots in West Java, Indonesia
“You are Bandung Belanda”
“Yes, Bandung Belanda”
“Yes, Bandung Belanda”
“In the West, you know we joke that Blondes like me are stupid”
“Why Holland girl is stupid girl? You are clever Holland girl in Bandung city”
I’m not really Dutch. My Mum is Dutch and I have a Dutch passport but I speak only a few words. I was born in British Colonial HK, moved to UK with my family when I was 10 years old, left as soon as university ended to travel and “find myself” (I could be excused for having an identity crisis), and have recently said goodbye to China after 10 years in the Middle Kingdom.
I have obviously forgotten what it is like to be somewhere and not be able to speak the local language, not be aware of the laws of the land. In China, I’d know how to describe the conversation I have just had: JI TONG YA JIANG, a chicken talking to a duck. But now that my job has plonked me unceremoniously in a garment factory located in the middle of rice fields just outside of Bandung, a small city on Java, Indonesia, I have found myself acting blonde and blurting blunders once again. During my first two China years, each time I ate out, I would habitually ask for semen instead of a serviette. But, shortly after arriving in Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, I felt reassured that my inappropriate behaviour could be limited to that time I visited a hot spring resort in a skimpy bikini only to realise that everyone else was in long leggings and t shirts. I was confident of this because despite my love and history of travel and adventure I was adamant that I was coming to the time of my life when I needed to get my single, 35 year old butt out of here, and into civilisation, where there would be decent wine, dinner parties and a smattering of nice, soon-to-be-divorced, 35-40 year old prospective husbands/fathers to be. A ticket to all the things my friends already had.
However, during the last 10 months in which I have been here, something has changed that has altered my perspective slightly. Small details in my surroundings have started to catch my attention. A lamp in an antique shop, cascades of black wrought-iron chains hanging from a dome-shaped shade made of opaque white glass: an exact replica of the one that hung for years in our hallway; a packet of Speculaas spiced biscuits (the ones that taste of Christmas), found in a local convenience store; a distinctly European building that on the surface looks out of place; and words. I am slowly (very slowly) picking up words, and some of these words are familiar, from my childhood. Words that I had always believed were made up words, childish words I thought we had co-created as a family. I have discovered that my Oma’s (Grandma’s) nickname, Tikus, is Indonesian for “little mouse”, and that “cicat” really is a word for gecko after all (albeit the smaller version).
It seems that this place, just like me, is a little bit Dutch, but not a lot. Yet I am recognising that, like me, the Indonesia of today, its laws, its people, its industry, its traditions, in some way or another are all inextricably linked to a history that at first consideration seems so distant.
This unexpected familiarity has inspired me to stay, to explore more about my roots, the country and places that my Mother, my Aunt, my Grandparents and their friends called home. The former Dutch East Indies where events of the 2nd world war changed the path of my family’s lives forever - but not before the people were able to inspire in them a fondness that they have held onto all their lives. The former Dutch East Indies where events after the 2nd world war changed the path of Indonesians’ lives forever – but not without a great cost to human life.
Over the years, snippets of those years in Indonesia have been revealed to me, through the hazy childhood memories of two little Dutch girls, two little refugees from Japanese POW camps who in 1946 boarded a hospital/evacuee ship bound for New Zealand from Batavia (as Jakarta was then known). These two little Dutch girls went on to learn English, study, be reunited with their parents, work, marry, divorce, remarry, have children, grandchildren, lose a daughter to International travel, lend a son to addiction, see another son compete for Holland at the London 2012 Olympics and see another daughter, widowed long before her time, find happiness once again. Their lives have spanned decades and continents, have endured hardships, experienced great joy and incredible change. But for me there is an undeniable constancy about these two formidable and incredibly loving Dutch women. As my Mother sits in her home in Cheshire, UK and reads an email from her sister in Auckland, NZ, 18000 km and 13 hours apart (yet through the power of technology, as close as they ever were), she erupts into roaring laughter at the contents. Her eager reply is written in perfect English, ruined only by ubiquitous punctuation mistakes that are to do solely with her inability to master the “buttons” on the computer.
Before the war years, Henny and Lottie Van Bael, 1938
I have come to realise that there might just be a bigger reason for which I am here, that I should follow the way as it unfolds before me, that I shouldn’t be in such a rush to get to get to the next chapter in my life, that maybe that’s not what I am supposed to be doing right now. Maybe it’s not about where I am, but about who I am. This was cemented in my mind the day I heard my Mum shriek over Skype: “Bandung?! Really? Bandung?! We lived there during the war! It’s known as Paris Van Java, Paris of Java, such a beautiful place”. In recent years, I have followed my Mother’s life path in reverse, from UK to China (as HK is now) to Indonesia. In my imagination, two women in their mid thirties, one dressed elegantly in a flared pant suit and carrying a hard suitcase, the other in jeans and t-shirt, wheeling a carry case and checking her i-phone, cross paths at a train station. One moment paused in time yet made timeless by its very existence. They turn their heads in recognition as they continue to pass by. This is that moment.
I am not only interested to understand the influence on my family that this place had, by understanding more about its people, landscapes and traditions. I want also to explore how Colonial Dutch History changed this country, for good or for bad. How my family fit into that history, what role my grandfather might have had as a Captain at that time in the Royal Dutch Indonesian Army (KNIL), what remains of that history and influence and how it is perceived by those left behind.
As I return home from the factory, as we crawl up and ooze thickly down the undulating, uneven roads of Bandung in the infernal Indonesian MACET (traffic), this place is calling to me, literally calling my childhood nickname: Large banners line the pavements, decorated with brightly coloured text and cartoon style pictures of fish and chickens - at once signalling and hiding the motley collection of wooden tables and plastic chairs that constitute street-side restaurants cooking up a variety of animals in the PECEL style. Rice, vegetables and a spicy sauce made of chillies, peanuts, ginger, garlic, lemon leaves and palm sugar, are served as accompaniments to the main ingredient of choice, such as LELE, which means Catfish…. or as the Indonesians (who find F and SH very difficult to pronounce) say: “Catpiss”.
So here I am. My Mother’s daughter. My Aunt’s niece. Leontina….Lele… L…. a.k.a Catpiss….. ready for a new adventure. And what more appropriate day to start this journey than 17th August, Indonesian Independence day……….