Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who do you think you are?

It's the title of a BBC’s programme where one celebrity each week is trying to find out about their ancestors. After all, your ancestors made you the way you are. They follow paper trails left behind by their ancestors around the world, well mostly around what was part of the British Empire. Was there anyone famous, any inventor, any explorer? Or was there any skeleton in the closet: any murder, any slavery, or affair in the family? Anything.

I guess it's easier for Britons to trace back in time, since they have such a great tradition of keeping everything in writing, while for Indonesian it was never our strongest point. To make the searching worst, not everyone, including yours truly, is using their last name in Indonesia.

Interesting enough, in Indonesia, you know who is who, who is related to whom even without a last name! For instance, I know more of less about the connections between a friend's family and mine... all the way back to the days of our parents and grandparents. It's like seeing six degrees of separation in working. In fact the other day, I was lectured by a Professor who happened to be my grandfather's cousin.

Thinking about that question, who do you think you are? I wonder what I would found in my family closet. I've never been that close to my father's side of family, so I know little about them aside from my grandfather used to be a Lurah in Jakarta and was involved in the cabinets in the dawn of the Republic. However, I know quite a bit about my mother's side. My grandmother... blessed her soul... who we lovingly called Uty, used to 'torture' me for hours by telling me stories about my ancestors. Now, that she's gone, sadly enough, I can't recall everything she said. To my defence, I've never been good remembering names by hearing. Some of the stories were amusing, some were heartbreaking, and others were encouraging. It is good to know where you are coming from.

Back in 2003, in preparation what would have been Uty's 89th birthday, her grand- and great-grandchildren from all over the world were working together to create a wonderful birthday present for her in the form of documentary of her life titled 'Roos van Lembang' in both book and film. After months of meetings, writing, interviewing, and shooting, we were going to presented it at her birthday party on March 27th, 2003. However, one hour after her interview on camera, she had a stroke and died the next day, only three days shy from her 89th birthday.

From that project we learnt how emancipated, modern, insightful and caring our grandmother was. Not only she affected our lives, her descendents, but also others who got to know her all through her life. Some people in the deep of Tasikmalaya area, where she and her 7 children took refuge during the Bersiap period, still remember her and things she taught them to survive the period.

My grandfather's life was similar to a soap opera plot. At the age of two, he was kidnapped by his father's first wife and taken to Java from Bima, Sumbawa. He grew up thinking that person was his own mother, until he met his biological mother when my mom was already a teenager. During the independence period, he quitted his job as a teacher and joined the army to become a spy, as he spoke perfect Dutch. As a man who didnt speak much, we only knew his role in the Army after he passed away. After the Bersiap period he took his wife and eight girls to Sumatra to open schools and later on helped setting up a university. It was only when I was in the elementary school that he returned to his birth place and met some of his relatives that he had never known. I think it broke his heart that no one from Bima had ever searched for him when he needed help, but as soon as they found out he was not poor, they started to search for him only for his money. Eventhough I heard his mother's father was a king in that area back in the day and his father was a noble Javanese, my grandfather always say he was a Javanese who refused using his noble title because we are living in a republic. Noble titles are from bygone era.

It is interesting that eventhough both my grandparents taught in Dutch, none of their children speaks it now. In the early days, they used Dutch at home, but since the Japanese occupation grandfather forbade anyone using Dutch, until I have to learn it before leaving for Holland. My first Dutch teacher was my Uty. Later on we used to talk in Dutch until my grandfather gave up because he forgot his vocabs and resorted to Javanese.

I could really see the Dutch influence mixed with Javanese culture in my grandparents' lives. They were strict, honest to a fault, rule abiding (grandfather almost died because he went to a Puskesmas instead of to a specialist and was given a wrong meds), open minded, and yet also romantic.

When I just got back, I tried learning more about the rest of the family, but most people I asked, have only fragmented information. It would've been great if I could find out more about the Bugis, Banten, Arab and Chinese branches of the family. So far, we only have the Javanese family tree. See, with such ancestry, I am a world citizen.


colson said...

A very special, a very moving and a very beautiful post. A treat to read.

Of the many gifts we owe ancestors I think one of the most precious ones is open-mindedness. You definitely have a lot to be proud about.

(Btw: the information in this post also solves part of the miracle of your superior command of Dutch.)

triesti said...

Thank you, I'm flattered. Yes I have:)