Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Indos On the Prairie

My three older brothers and I are what are known as Indos. Indos are people of Indonesian and Dutch heritage. Although we are largely Dutch and Indonesian, because of Indonesia’s history there are some Indos that are also German, Turkish, Indian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish or any number of combinations. We are spread out all over the world. Interestingly we are rather chameleon-like, we can blend into many ethnic groups and go relatively unnoticed. The history of the people known as Indos is not very well known. But in order to tell you my story, I need to give you a bit of Indo history. 

My friend and fellow Indo and co-founder of The Indo Project Inc., Priscilla, has provided me with a lot of information to help me “wade” through the vast history of  WWII Asia and more specifically Indonesia. She reminds me that an Asian Holocaust occurred. She reminds me that over 23,000,000  people were killed in Asia during WWII and yet the information that is readily available on the subject is rather limited.

Europeans began arriving in Indonesia in the 16th century in pursuit of spices, thus the name The Spice Islands and also known as The Dutch East Indies. Long before however, as early as the 8th century Muslim traders began spreading Islam and by the 13th century when Marco Polo arrived Islamic states were strongly established. In the 1500’s the Portuguese began to trade Indonesian spices that were used for cooking as well as food preservation but were also thought to cure disease. The Dutch however took over the trade and established a spice monopoly. The Dutch for the most part gained rule over Indonesia although a native rebellion began as early as 1825. During WWII the Dutch under German occupation were powerless against the Japanese and by 1942 the Dutch surrendered Indonesia to Japanese occupation. Initially the Indonesian people thankful to be relieved of the Dutch, welcomed the Japanese referring to Japan as its older brother.  

After four years of the brutal Japanese Occupation of Indonesia on August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrendered to the Allies but were asked to maintain “charge” of Indonesia under the Allied forces arrived.  The Dutch seemingly not having gained much empathy after the German occupation of The Netherlands returned to Indonesia for what they referred to as “Reconstruction”.  This also marked the beginning of the Bersiap period.  Indonesian Independence leaders began to take control of positions left by Japanese leaders and violence against Indos began.  Indos routinely disappeared and were later found floating in canals.  By the end of the Bersiap period, 20,000 Indo men, women and children were abducted and never returned home.

By 1949 the Indonesian Independence Movement led by President Sukarno was successful in regaining control of Indonesia and eventually all Dutch Nationals were expelled from Indonesia. Upon expulsion most Indos went to The Netherlands where they were not necessarily welcomed by the Dutch. Fortunately for people like my family there were refugee programs sponsored by organizations like Church World services and many had the opportunity to come to the US. 

I’m often really envious when I learn about Indo immigrants that landed in places like California where there was a community of other Indos or at least other Asians. My parents and two older brothers immigrated to Kansas….rural Kansas. My Dutch father who was serving in the Royal Dutch Army volunteered to go to Indonesia after WWII for “Reconstruction” or what I now understand to have been “Re-colonization”.  He had recently been liberated from a work camp in Germany and I imagine that venturing into a vast world without confines confirmed his freedom. Upon arriving in Indonesia, my father not only fell in love with my Indonesian mother, he fell in love with Indonesia. I think that my rather socially awkward father found a place that he felt he belonged, in Indonesia. He would have happily lived out his life in Indonesia had he, my mother and my two brothers not been expelled from the country.

The Netherlands felt claustrophobic to my father after living in Indonesia and of course the economic conditions were less than ideal. When the Church of the Brethren offered sponsorship to my family the idea of going to Kansas seemed like a great idea. If my father imagined grassy plains and wide open space, he imagined right. He might not have imagined a landscape dotted with small farms, the beautiful tree covered rolling hills, the lazy lakes or the rushing creeks of northeastern Kansas. He probably also never imagined that although his Caucasian features would allow him to “blend right in” his wife and children would be sort of an oddity.

We were an oddity. At some point my father decided to start buying land and he and my mother bought a white farm house with a dairy barn. He had a romantic idea about farming so he bought a tractor and some cows. Although I don’t really remember the story firsthand, the first day he took the tractor out in the field it broke down and never moved again. At some point in the late sixties, my brothers, experimenting with, Peace, Love and the Age of Awakening, painted the tractor bright orange. The cows often succumbed to the idea that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” and frequently succeeded in an effective “jail break” to sample the fare on the neighbors land, as a result there was a lot of emergency fence mending, usually in the middle of the night. The idea of farming did not last long. Fortunately for all of us, my father did not quit his day job.

My parents kept the land and rented it out to local farmers. It served as a beautiful part of my childhood. For me the land my parents owned became an extension of our garden and a huge wonderland for untroubled play and exploration. At a very young age I would venture off into the wooded property, take my shoes off and wade in the cool water, catch crayfish in my hands and stage crayfish races and other amphibious, athletic feats in the mud. Occasionally I would encounter a snake, sometimes venomous and run to the safety of my home not to return to the woods again until the image of the snake was dulled by time.

I don’t think I knew until I was nearly 12 that there were a lot of Indo people like me roaming the earth. I was comforted by that knowledge. I imagined that somewhere in the world there might be a girl like me, eating satay with cucumbers and peanut sauce with rice in the middle of a prairie.  In the 1970’s beauty and glamour were defined in my adolescent eyes by the women that I saw on magazine covers and television series. Those women were Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Faucet and Cheryl Ladd. I looked nothing like those women and neither did my mother. The American stereotype of an “Asian woman” was a meek, subservient woman…that wasn’t me either.

To date the only other Indos I have ever seen in real life are my brothers and our children. The Internet has introduced me to other Indos who have filled in a lot of the “empty blanks” in my life. You have no idea how reassuring it is to know that sambal, ( a hot pepper paste used as a condiment) is a staple in other people’s homes or to know that there are others who believe that a house is not complete without a barong (a hand carved mask, that is rather fierce looking) to ward off evil spirits. The truth however is that I search through all of their photos of the early days in Indonesia hoping to find a glimpse of my mother. I keep hoping that through some strange synchronicity, I will find that one of their father’s knew mine as children in Amsterdam. Some of those “blanks” are still empty. 

There do seem to be some of us, like my brothers, who don’t seem to need the confirmation that Indo groups offer. One of my brothers does not have one symbol of our ethnicity in his home. While the other two proudly display wood carvings and other artwork perhaps as an appreciation for art more than for what it symbolizes. For me the hand carved wooden sculptures and masks, although appreciated for their artisan quality, are a reflection of something I carry within me. It is something that is deep and primal that makes me feel connected to my ancestors for whom the works were not only art but part of a belief system. The tiny wooden shoes and whimsical delft blue canisters in my office or orange Holland scarf hanging in my closet are symbols of my Dutch pride and allegiance to my father’s country. I need these symbols in my life to give me balance, to remind me of who I am and from where I came.

As a parent I recognize the responsibility that I have to share my history with my children and yet I realize that the symbols with which I surround myself are not enough. My beautiful, American husband has perfected his satay recipe and I make a mean batch of Nasi Goreng, it is comfort food for my children, this also is not enough. We live in a culture in which multi-ethnicity is becoming the norm. Our Indo children have representations of other people of mixed ethnicity in the media and in film. There will not desperately seek out the comfort of the familiarity that I have sought. The people that have created groups and publications to bring us together are truly heroes but each of us has to keep our story alive by telling our stories, honoring our history and like the siblings who have shared our journey holding tight to one another.


  1. Thank you for this article. Very touching.

  2. Your story sounds much like mine. I grew up in the Midwest, the only American-born daughter of Indo parents. Growing up in Indianapolis in the 1960s, it was difficult being the only person of "color" in my school, and I was bullied quite ruthlessly by several boys in my neighborhood. Luckily for me, I had a sister who set these boys straight, and the bullying digressed to verbal taunts from physical torment.

    I wore my ethnicity with reluctance in my youth, but once I hit my teens, I began to wear it without shame. In my adulthood, I've come to embrace it; sadly, however, my parents have been gone for many years and never lived to see me embrace it. I am left to my own devices to explore my culture. Cooking the traditional dishes has been challenging, but my sisters and my nieces and nephews and my own children, are embracing the challenge with vigor and enthusiasm. My biggest regret, however, is that my parents (anxious to fit into their adopted homeland) never taught me to speak Dutch fluently. I can understand it somewhat (if it's spoken slowly), but I can say only a few words and phrases. This is another challenge my children and I will be seeking to overcome. Together.