An Immigrant’s Indonesia, a Generation Later
I have no other choice. Since the war ended, my life has been miserable. The communists have confiscated our house, our money, our belongings, everything. The 10 of us live in what used to be our kitchen, which is now our only space. Every time any of us leave the house, we’re body searched in case we’re hiding anything. I hear murmurs pervade through my broken city of thousands of our own dying at sea, but Dad has already paid my five pieces of gold for the trip.
I could’ve chosen to do a writing workshop in Japan or Spain, but I wanted to go to Bali. I’ve been researching beach clubs to visit, and restaurants to eat at. The brochure says I’ve got my own room with a queen bed and an en-suite bathroom. Bali’s supposed to be a lot hotter than New Zealand because of the humidity. Without telling me, Dad’s booked my flights with Emirates – I guess an early Christmas present.
The journey is rough. The South China Sea takes prisoners in the form of lives. There are 362 people on this wooden fishing boat. I’m hiding in the toilet; if not, they would’ve thrown me down the hull to rot with the rest of the men. I wish I knew where we were going.
The flight happens to have Wi-Fi, so I’m switching between YouTube and inflight movies. The seats beside me are empty, so I’ve sprawled over them.
I don’t know how many days it’s been, maybe three. I’m rationing my food in preparation for weeks at sea. I close my eyes and pray every time I hear the captain shouting about pirates. I don’t have anything worth taking, but that might mean they’ll take me instead.
Another three hours till I land, so they’re bringing out dinner and our arrival cards. I close my eyes and recline my chair.
My feet planted themselves onboard the Indonesian oil tanker ship that found us. From that moment, I knew that I’d survived. I’m now in a refugee camp on an island called Tanjung Penang. I don’t know why these people are taking care of me. Feeding us an excess of fish and cabbage, providing us with a roof over our head, and a springboard to a better life.
I’ve arrived at the airport. All the Balinese staff greet us with the biggest smiles. I see a man holding a laminated sign with my name on it; he offers to take my bags for me.
I’ve now spent eight months waiting for admission into any western country that will take an uneducated Vietnamese refugee. Though, I’m one of the lucky ones. Some mornings I wake up to men hanging from the beams on the ceiling. I wonder if I’ll be here my whole life.
I’m currently in Bali. I am the second of my family members to arrive in Indonesia. Dad was the first. Dad risked his life for his family and has worked tirelessly ever since to ensure we never had to go through what he did. The only reason I can embrace the warm welcome of Indonesia today is because they welcomed my father with the same open arms 41 years ago.
But it’s hard being here knowing what it was like 41 years ago.
I feel such guilt and ignorance every time I think of the way Indonesia is presented to me. I keep forgetting my father’s lens – a lens that saw underprivileged people still provide aid to those in need. Sometimes I wonder if the locals who helped him are the same ones hiding under the masks of hospitality smiles.
My awareness is blinded by the English spoken and the surplus of vegan, gluten-free and organic food options, perfectly packaged in neatly wrapped parcels so they are digestible for my western palette. As I sit in a foreign-owned café and eat my lunch, I close my eyes and pray the staff are paid fair wages. I feel such guilt for not contributing to the livelihood of the elderly lady sitting at the empty warung across the road on the tourist drag, yet it’s not enough to compel me to forgo aircon and filtered ice. My brain and gut play tennis when my driver doesn’t give back the change.
Being in Indonesia has me stranded in my own thoughts. I’m finding myself unable to grasp onto a solution that emits the least ignorance. Does my attempt at using Bahasa Indonesian demonstrate my effort to assimilate, or will it be misinterpreted as mockery? I try to convince myself that my contribution as a tourist here promotes growth, but when I look around, my payback doesn’t seem to be producing the intended results.
I’m sorry Indonesia, and I thank you for allowing my dad the chance to start a new life. Because of your generosity, I will never have to endure the hardship that he did. I only hope the positives of my time here outway the negatives. Terimakasih Indonesia, and cám ơn Bà.