Us + Them
Jakarta, January 2001
Thanks again for recommending Dr. Dhanita. She seems to understand what I’m going through. How is Kupang? I hope it’s safe and peaceful there and that you’re adjusting well.
I enrolled in an intro French course today. It’s at the cultural center in Salemba, right across the street from your alma mater. I thought it’d be good to learn something new.
Last week I visited some abandoned buildings in Bulungan where addicts and runaways sleep. I met a girl there who likes to scar herself with safety pins. I showed her my own scars and told her I was looking for people like myself—people who need to feel pain in order to feel alive. She let me take her picture, as long as I promised I wouldn’t show her face. Since then I’ve been asking myself: how can I sever her head without taking away her soul? I must make the body speak. Look at the pictures I’ve attached here—what do you think?
I’m happy to hear you’re taking photos again and that you’re trying new things—but promise me you’ll keep going to therapy. Listen, if you ever think of—well, you know—doing it again, just call me, OK? No matter how late.
Kupang is safer now. The churches here spoke out against seeking revenge for the bombings last Christmas. Thank God. It’s still tense sometimes, especially because there are a lot of refugees from East Timor, but I feel safe here. I work at the province hospital, and I share a house with two other new residents.
I like your photos, especially the hands offering a bouquet of flower-shaped scars.
“Je m’appelle Bela.” The ethnic-Chinese girl waved across the room, her bangs skimming her eyebrows. “I’m here because next summer I’ll be attending pastry school in Geneva.”
“Je m’appelle Desti.” She was stocky with short hair and a sweet, sponge-like face. “I’m twenty-four years old and a new mother. I love my baby very much, but staying home all day long gets boring, so I’m here to make new friends.”
“Je m’appelle Ibnu,” said the tall, handsome man with the broad chest and sculpted arms. “I’m here because I’m moving to Paris to live with mon petit ami.”
“Excusez-moi,” interrupted the teacher, Madame Aryati, an older woman wearing a silk pashmina draped artfully over her shoulders, “the correct form in this case would be the feminine form, ma petite amie. You don’t want people to think that you have a boyfriend, instead of a girlfriend, do you?”
Ibnu nodded, but then he removed a U-shaped ring from his left pinky and clipped it on his right ear. Julita was fascinated. She’d never met anyone who would volunteer intimate information so easily to a classroom full of strangers, as if all he’d said was that he ate chicken congee for breakfast. She observed the other people in the class. Laras shared the fact that she worked for a human rights organization, and Bowo said that he’d failed the entrance exams at the military academy and was looking for a new career prospect.
After class, Desti suggested they all have coffee together, so they crossed the courtyard to the café. When Julita returned from the bathroom, Desti was already telling a story.
“I finally managed to get my baby out when, all of a sudden, the doctor’s face went pale. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘Your baby’s white.’”
While the others laughed, Desti explained to Julita, “My husband’s Dutch, but the doctors didn’t know that. The bastard was late, he said he got stuck in traffic.”
“You’re really lucky, Desti,” Bela said. “People are so nice to mixed couples if one of them is white. They think it’s so glamorous, they think the babies are so cute – but when I told my parents that I liked a Malay boy, they were beside themselves.”
Once again Julita was fascinated.
“It’s not easy for us either,” Desti said, “but it does help that Adriaan and I are both Christian.”
"Yes, I think it’s harder to date someone from a different religion than from a different ethnicity,” Laras agreed. She dug a box of candy out of her purse and shook some candies into Bela’s hand before setting it in the middle of their table. “My boyfriend’s Christian, and I’m Muslim. We’ve been hoping to get married for six years, but our parents keep saying they won’t come to our wedding.”
“Why are parents like that?” Bela sighed.
“My first lover was Muslim and Javanese, just like me, but my father was furious,” Ibnu added.
“Because he was a boy?” asked Julita.
“Yeah, of course,” Ibnu answered, straightening his tight orange T-shirt.
Bowo was the only one who cringed. “I’m sure your father was disappointed. Don’t you feel bad for him? If your relatives or neighbors find out, he’ll be humiliated.” He leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette.
Pretending to scratch his cheek, Ibnu slipped his earring off. “He kicked me out years ago … and still won’t take my calls ...”
“Come on, Bowo,” said Laras, “it’s hard to find happiness in this world. If Ibnu found his, who are we to say he can’t have it?”
“I knew you intentionally said petit ami,” Julita said.
“What about you, Julita? Are you seeing someone?” asked Ibnu.
Julia shook her head. “I have a close friend, but he’s working in Kupang now.”
“Where are you from, Julita?” asked Laras.
“My dad’s Javanese and my mom’s Madurese, but I was born and raised in Jakarta.”
“Thank God you don’t live in Sampit, huh?” said Laras. “Even our organization refuses to go there. We’re trying to help the refugees, but most of them don’t even have any family left in Madura. They’ve lived in Sampit all their lives, but everyone still thinks of them as immigrants.”
Bowo leaned in. “My father’s stationed in Poso, he’s an army captain. My mother insisted on going with him. Last month, she was on a bus heading to the market when a bunch of rioters surrounded the bus and started rocking it back and forth, trying to flip it over. Suddenly, one of the men shouted, ‘Stop! There’s a woman in hijab on the bus!’ And just like that, they scattered. Everyday I thank God that my mother wears hijab.”
By the time he finished his story, Bowo was trembling. He stood up. “I have to go. My mother’s home now, she doesn’t like to be left alone for too long.”
Dear Rizky, here’s a photo of my left arm. You can see that the scars are healing and there aren’t any fresh ones. As further proof, I’m sending a photo of my right arm, too. —J
I’m glad to see that, Juli. But how can I be sure that you’re not cutting other parts of your body? Send me photos of your whole body. Otherwise, I’ll be too worried about you to get any sleep tonight. ;) —R
I’ve never showed my arms to anyone else before. Be satisfied with that for now. Promise you’ll never show those pictures to anyone. —J
I promise, Juli. How was your first day of class? A friend told me there were bomb threats around my old campus. Please be careful.
Wednesday after class, Desti suggested going out for lunch together.
"Let’s go to the med school across the street,” said Julita. “My best friend said the kiosk behind the geriatrics faculty serves the best pecel ayam in town.”
Even though the day was much too hot for spicy food, everyone agreed, except Bowo, who had to go home and check in on his mother. The road in front of the cultural center shimmered from the heat, creating a mirage. Cars darted past like steel sharks in silver water. On the far side of the road, Julita saw police officers carrying billy clubs and shields. She was still watching when Bela pulled her toward the rushing traffic.
“Why don’t we use the bridge?” Julita shouted as a car sped by, blowing dust into her face.
“It’s faster this way.” With a raised finger Bela ordered each car to stop, like a schoolteacher scolding her unruly pupils.
Desti clasped Julita’s left arm. “Don’t be scared, the cops are too far away.”
“I’m not scared. It’s the Reformasi era, let’s be responsible citizens.”
“Too late for that!” Desti grinned as she pointed at Bela and Ibnu, who were jumping over the road divider like professional gymnasts.
They reached the campus’s main gate and walked under a banner proclaiming, “Welcome to the Campus of the People’s Struggle.” Julita remembered Rizky had told her that the banner used to say, “Welcome to the Campus of the New Order’s Struggle,” but three years ago, in ’98, students had torn down the old banner and replaced it with the new one.
A few minutes later, they found the chicken kiosk, which was packed with customers. The ground was bare beneath the wooden tables and benches that were arranged around the little kitchen. A plump woman was bent over a soot-covered kerosene stove that hissed each time she dropped a piece of chicken into the hot oil. Behind the counter, a man crushed tomatoes and chilies into a bloody pulp in a wide stone mortar.
Julita thought Bela, because she was wearing brand-name clothes, would hate to sit on a dirty bench like that, but she kindly asked people to make room for her group, and then she put her leather bag on the ground under her seat.
“Bel, can you get me some Chinese herbs that’ll help my husband gain weight?” Desti asked after they placed their orders. “He doesn’t like Indonesian food, so he’s getting really skinny.”
“I’ll have to ask my dad where to find them,” said Bela, “but I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
“Thanks, Bel. I’ll give you some eggs from our farm in exchange.”
“You have a farm?” asked Ibnu.
“We have an egg farm in West Java,” said Desti. “Adriaan used to run one back in the Netherlands. We met when I went to visit my sister who was in school there. When I got pregnant we moved to Jakarta so I could be close to my mother.”
“What about you, Ibnu? How did you meet your petit ami?” asked Julita.
“I’m a traditional dancer,” he said. “My troupe was performing in Paris, and after the show, some of us went out to this bar, which was supposed to be the meeting place for people of my kind. I was wishing and wishing for a Tom Cruise lookalike, but I got a daddy instead. Oh, well. Philippe’s good to me.”
Ibnu fished a photograph of a showgirl in a glittering, feathered costume out of his wallet. “That’s me at night,” Ibnu passed it to Julita, who squeezed between him and Bela on the narrow bench, “my stage name is Linda.”
Julita gaped. Ibnu asked her to pass the photo to their other classmates, but she hesitated. She eyed the sweaty strangers around them, tearing off pieces of flesh, crunching into crackers, red sauce dripping from their fingers. Every now and then a lone grain of rice or shred of onion would cling to the corner of their lips, like a lonely outcast or scapegoat, only to be obliterated with a swipe of their greasy hands.
Bela snatched the photo. “Oh, you look so pretty!”
Ibnu beamed. “How about you, Bel? How’d you meet your boyfriend?”
Julita had asked for a spoon and a fork, but Bela was eating with her fingers like everyone around them. “I met Anwar at culinary school in Kuala Lumpur. He sat next to me in class, and we started hanging out after school. He and his friends were the first Malay friends I ever had. My Chinese friends used to ask me, ‘Bel, what are you doing hanging out with them?’ So I’d say, ‘If you don’t wanna hang out with them, then you can’t hang out with me.’ Since my Chinese friends didn’t have any other friends, they started to hang out with us, and they ended up telling me, ‘You’re right, Bela, they’re good people.’”
“Good for you, Bela,” said Laras.
“I bet their parents are just like mine,” Bela continued, “always telling me not to hang out with the natives, like you guys.”
“My dad likes to say the same kind of stuff about the Chinese—that they’re cheaters, that they’re a bunch of pork-eaters,” Julita whispered to Bela.
“That’s why I always tell my dad not to cheat our customers. Just like I told him it was wrong to stockpile rice back in ’98.”
“Were you here during the riots?” asked Laras.
Bela nodded. “I was supposed to start school in KL three months after they started.”
One question was at the tip of everyone’s tongues, but they stuffed their mouths instead.
“I wasn’t raped,” Bela said, “It was sheer luck. That day, a crowd had already gathered around the outskirts of our neighborhood by dawn. They were carrying crowbars and shovels. My dad and the neighborhood men made a barricade out of spare tires. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger, so my dad poured gasoline all over the barricade. He was going to set it on fire if the crowd attacked. Then we heard a couple of gunshots. My dad said the crowd was running towards the barricade, so he torched it, hoping the fire would keep them back. Then he rushed home.”
“Dad said that if the rioters caught us, they’d rape us. He thought that if we were wearing maxi-pads, they might get grossed out and leave us alone. So my mom, my sister, and I all put on pads. The rioters were just outside. They broke into houses and dragged stuff out, you could hear screams coming from every direction.”
“Dad told us to run to the car. Before the banks collapsed, he’d withdrawn as much as he could and put it in a suitcase. He grabbed that suitcase, and we made it into the car, but before long we were blocked by a crowd that had been waiting at the other end of our neighborhood. Rows after rows of them. They surrounded our car, rocking it back and forth, hitting and kicking it. Those faces—they weren’t men anymore, they’d turned into demons. Dad rolled his window down, just enough to throw out a couple bundles of cash. The crowd went wild trying to get their hands on the money and a path cleared for us.
“We raced to the airport. We couldn’t get tickets going anywhere, so we camped out there for a whole week. When we heard that the riots had died down, we decided to take a chance and go back home. When we reached our neighborhood, we saw that our house had been emptied out and burned down, like a lot of the other houses we’d passed on our way home. The rioters had stopped targeting people—Chinese or Indonesian native, they burned everything to the ground.”
Everyone had forgotten to keep chewing during Bela’s story, now they forgot their words. But Bela’s eyes were still bright and dry. “Go on, eat,” she said, “We’re okay now.”
Not knowing what to say, Julita put her arm around Bela’s waist and rested her head on her shoulder.
After hearing Bela’s story, I decided to come home and see my parents. We were having tea in the living room when I told them about my French course and about Bela. When I finished talking, Dad looked me right in the eyes and said, “But they deserved it, didn’t they? They’re Chinese after all.”
He might as well have punched me in the gut.
I suspect he said it to piss me off, to put me in my place for daring to try to teach him something, but still ... He knew I was talking about a friend, not some news story!
I stormed out of there so fast, but I know no matter how far I go, I can never escape him and what he is—my father, my origin. The seeds of hate run through my veins. A history of hatred runs through our country. What does that make me? What does that make us?
Juli, pick up the phone.
Please pick up.
Juli, pick up right now! I need to know you're ok.
If you don't pick up, I'm going to call Dr. Dhanita.
I'll be all right, Riz. Don't worry. It just helps me calm down a little.
Oh Juli, please don't hurt yourself because you don't like what you're made of. Hatred is not some hereditary blood disease. If it's any consolation, my father used to say the same things to me. I guess that just makes it worse. Sorry. Look, we're going to be totally different from our parents. We're the reformist generation, remember? We're going to write a new history.
The next day after class, Julita and her classmates were sitting together at the café. As usual, Desti was telling a story, “My mother showed up yesterday with this huge teddy bear. She saw Adriaan scrubbing the bathroom, and her face turned bright red. She said it was supposed to be my job. She got mad at me and started apologizing to Adriaan over and over. He just kept repeating that he didn’t mind sharing the housework.”
Shaking her head, Bela pulled a photograph out of her wallet. “Here’s a picture of Anwar and me two years ago. Promise you won’t laugh.”
After her friends nodded, Bela handed over the photo: a young man with a thick mustache had his arm around Bela, who looked at least forty pounds heavier.
Desti, Laras, Ibnu, and Julita burst out laughing.
“Sorry, Bel,” Desti gasped, “but you slimmed down really nicely. Good for you. You must have an iron will.”
Julita—who was wearing a sweater that was much too hot for the weather—noticed that Anwar was holding a butterfly-print handbag, which she assumed was Bela’s. “He seems really nice, Bel,” she said.
Ibnu passed around a photo of Philippe with his teenage son and daughter. “Philippe had a wife for fifteen years until he realized that he was my kind.”
Julita noticed that Ibnu never used the term gay or queer, instead he said ‘my kind’.
“Can you get married legally in France?” Laras asked.
“Well, we can live together at least. I’m going to fight so that we can get married.”
“What about your family?” asked Desti.
Ibnu’s face lost its luster. He could only look away.
“Listen, I’m gonna take an imam to talk to my parents next weekend,” said Laras. “He’s pretty well-known and he’s not against intermarriage. He’s been kind enough to offer to help me with my parents. He told me not to ask for their blessings, though, because it’ll probably be too hard for them. He said I should only ask for their understanding.” She reached for Ibnu’s hands. “I’m not sure what the imam thinks about, uh, your kind, but if you want me to, I can ask him. Who knows, maybe he could help you talk to your parents.”
Ibnu jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Laras. “Thank you, Ras!”
As the others continued talking, Julita was working up the courage to tell Bela what her dad had said. When the others started to leave, she asked Bela to stay a little while longer.
At the end of Julita’s story, Bela said, “Promise me, we’ll be better than our parents.” She put her arm around Julita and rested her head on her shoulder.
Thanks for looking out for me last night. I’m sorry if I made you worry. Your attention meant a lot to me, but I guess I was too afraid to answer the phone. I don’t know if I could even tell you half the things I’ve told you if you were still here. I guess it’s easier to type words on the screen rather than speaking to someone face-to-face. Anyway, it’s a big step for me to share my problems with someone, so thank you for listening.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my classmates. I’m sure there are more people like them, but we don’t hear much about people like that. All our lives, we’re told to be extremely careful when talking about ethnicity, religion, and race, and now everyone’s afraid to mention those things. Isn’t it important for a country as diverse as Indonesia to talk about stuff like that and to figure out a way to forge a stronger bond between all of us? After three decades of the New Order’s policy of suppressing difficult topics for the sake of harmony, we can finally express our ethnic and religious identities and advocate for our group’s interests and values. But it seems like we haven’t learned how to do it without chipping away at other people’s interest, or how to make others respect our values without forcing those values on others. Don’t you think that’s one reason why we have so many riots nowadays?
I want us to be able to talk about our differences and connections in a way that increases our appreciation of each other. I want to offer portraits of love conquering all kinds of division, so we don’t see nothing but images of violence and hate from around the country. I want to take pictures of my classmates. I’ll call the collection Us + Them.
Wish me luck.