I’m Just Another Tourist in My Home Country
My stomach is churning as I walk towards the big green sign. No matter the destination, the feeling I get arriving at the immigration desk never ceases to change. When I get to the front of the line, a middle-aged Balinese man ushers me over.
Before I get the chance to give him my passport, he grabs it from my hand. His eyes fix on me, then my passport, then back again. He pauses, before casually starting to speak to me in Indonesian. I catch the first three words, but miss the rest – he’s too fast for me to comprehend. He stares directly at me, and all can do is stare back, oblivious.
He finally snaps.
“CAN YOU SPEAK INDONESIAN? Cannn youuuuu speaaaak Indonesian?” he asks, in a slow, patronising tone. The question itself is nothing new. Even back home in Australia, I am constantly asked it, but never as condescending as when I hear it in my so-called motherland.
“Sedikit (a little),” I smile, thinking it will ease the tension. It doesn’t. He just shrugs and sighs, then enquires as to where where I’m staying. I know the answer to this one: I have been practicing on the plane for the past three hours in preparation.
“Saya tinggal di Canggu (I live in Canggu),” I announce, pronouncing the ‘c’ like a ‘k’ in my Australian-born accent. He looks at me confused, then finally understands. “CANGGU!” he says, pronouncing the ‘c’ like ‘ch’. “Chhanggguuu, not Canggu.” Disappointment is etched all over his face and all I want to do is run away.
The airport incident is one of many I face while travelling in Indonesia. Every time I visit, every time I meet a local, their reaction is the same. They are curious as to where I am from: questioning my heritage and testing my Indonesian, then they get frustrated when they learn that I know very little about my own culture.
I sit in the front seat of the cab watching scooters and warungs pass by in a blur. The taxi driver is attempting to make conversation with me in broken English, but it doesn’t seem to get past “How are you?” After a few minutes of awkward silence, I see him in my peripherals glancing at me. His body is tense; hands tightly grip the wheel. Finally, he builds up the courage to timidly ask, “Orang Indo, yah (Indonesian person, right)?”
“Iya (yes),” I reply. He breathes a sigh of relief; his whole body relaxes as he sinks comfortably back into his chair.
“Mbok dari mana (Miss, where are you from?)”
“Dari Australia (From Australia).”
“Bisa bicara Bahasa Indonesia (Can you speak Indonesian?)”
He asks why don’t I speak Bahasa, and with my limited Indonesian vocabulary, I explain that no one taught me. The driver laughs, then proceeds to ask about my parents, what they do, how long they’ve been in Australia and, like many nosy Asians, how much money they make. I respond, then he starts his rant.
He comments on how “lucky” some Indonesians are. They go and work overseas and become rich quickly. “How easily one can give up on their own country,” he says, “forgetting where they came from, not bothering to teach their children of their own heritage.”
“Bukan orang Indonesia lagi (They are not Indonesian anymore)!”
As I stare out the window, I change the subject fast.
“Would you ever go and work abroad?” I ask. Rookie mistake.
Amplifying his rage, he says, “NO! I would never leave my country here. I am full-blood Indonesian and I will work here until I die. People are always coming here – I don’t need to go there.”
Luckily enough, we arrive at my destination. I quickly pay my fare and exit the car before he can preach anymore of his patriotism at me. As I walk away, his words ring in my head: “They are not even Indonesian anymore.”
Born and raised in a small-town city on the very south of Western Australia, I am accustomed to being the minority. My grandfather migrated with his wife and seven children in the ’70s with the dream of a better life from rural poverty. With no education and limited English skills, he worked odd jobs to support his family. Being one of the few Asian families in a western community, you learn quickly where you should and shouldn’t stand.
Yes, there have been racial abuses here and there, but as I grew up, I came to learn that the many good eggs do cancel out the rotten ones. I remember simple things, like when my western friends invite me over for Australia Day, or when friendly strangers step in to help out, or even just having caring workmates there to support me. They make it easier to forget the unpleasant times, like when teenagers ripped off my aunt’s headscarf in the middle of the shopping centre, or even how my boss constantly mumbles “stupid Asian” under his breath at work.
However, the greatest struggle of all has been the constant battle of cultural differences. On one side, I had my family wanting to pass on their traditions and customs; on the other was my internal desire to fit in – to just have what everyone else was having. It’s an ongoing fight between balancing Indonesian traditions with the Aussie way of life.
When I was nine years old, my mum did try. She was going through a phase of constantly cooking Indonesian dishes at home, and one day, she prepared mie goreng in my lunchbox for school: a fried noodle dish mixed with a variety of veggies, eggs and anchovies. There was one boy in particular, loud and boisterous, who shouted, “Ewwww – she has worms for lunch!” causing everyone to cackle in laughter.
I can’t remember if I ate those noodles, but I do remember yelling at my mum that night. All I wanted was a normal lunch with a fruit roll-up, a Nutella sandwich and an LCM rice bar like everyone else. All she wanted was to keep some of her Indonesian ways alive.
After all that, I never spoke to that boy again, but he did speak to me once more when I was 14. We were playing dodgeball in P.E and I tagged him out. As we were walking off the field, he turned around and bluntly said, “Fuck off, you stupid Asian; go back to where you came from.” As I stood there, lost for words, he walked away feeling so proud of himself.
Go back to where I came from? Where that is, I still don’t know.
I shut the taxi door and the sun’s rays burn as they touch my skin. As I walk to my villa, I suddenly recall that boy’s face. “Go back where you came from.” It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since, but it was him expressing it, the first time, that will always be imprinted in my mind.
Right now, I am currently standing here, in that place they always tell me to go back to: Indonesia. But I am still not welcome here.
Cover by Dylan Grant