“You are not from here! Shut the f#@k up!”

Those are the words regurgitated by Americans and, to a lesser extent, Brits and Aussies every time I -an Indonesian- critically comment on their countries. They believe I don’t have the grounds to do so and should just focus on my shitty country.

Do they have a point? No, they don’t.

Yes, I have only visited the US and the UK once long ago and I only lived in Australia for around a year. But, at the same time, I am (relatively) proficient in the English language. It enables me to interact with Americans, Brits and Aussies and getting to know their worldviews, both the good and the ugly.

Some of them try to camouflage their rotten true selves by spraying fragrant rhetoric into the air, successfully fooling the fools. Some don’t even try to hide their rottenness. While it is indeed hard to smell beyond the perfume, the unconcealed rotten stench is hard to ignore.

My English fluency also enables me to consume Anglophone media (even though I have been consuming it long before I could properly understand the language). Yes, it does not represent the reality. But, it does represent the ideals approved by the establishment and/or the masses.

As the Queen’s accent has become less prevalent in British TV shows and films, we can confidently say its social prestige has dwindled in the UK. As American pop culture has romanticise depictions of America’s interventionist foreign policy and no one bats an eye, we can confidently say the American public and establishment tolerate or even embrace interventionism.

How we react to the news stories are also very revealing. As many Americans are aroused by reports of police brutality, we can confidently say violent authority figures are worshipped by a large chunk of the American public.

How about those foreigners who want me to shut the fuck up? How much do they know about Indonesia?

Unsurpisingly, almost nothing.

None of them have ever visited it; when they do, they have only visited Bali, an extremely touristy province with predominantly-Hindu locals. None of them can speak Indonesian or any Malay dialects, hindering them from exploring the Indonesian mass media and the people’s reactions to its content.

For many of them, I am their first contact with an Indonesian. Some of them claim to have Indonesian friends which they are deem more knowledgeable about the country than I am, probably because they affirm false preconceived notions.

Sometimes I wonder if their Indonesian friends actually spent much of their lives abroad and have spent little or no time living here. Sometimes I wonder if they even exist. Call me a denier. But, knowing how humans behave, my scepticism is justified.

Those foreigners are indeed right to say Indonesia is a predominantly-Muslim country with human rights violations. But, those are extremely broad remarks. Everyone knows Indonesia is predominantly-Muslim and saying that a country has human rights violations is as in-depth as saying it has foods. It means shit.

When they do detail the cases, they exaggerate virtually all of them to a thousandfold.

Aceh does enforce compulsory hijab. But, there is no national policy obliging women to wear it and they can been seen ‘uncovered’ in the public spaces.

There are indeed territories that shut down churches under the pretense of ‘permit issues’. But, outside those territories, there are tens of thousands of churches still standing with thriving congregations.

Aceh, an Indonesian province, does implement provincial Sharia and that empowers Islamists all over the country. But, we have thirty-four provinces and Aceh is literally the only one governed under religious legislation; our national government does not use Sharia as its guiding principles, never declares the country as ‘Islamic’ and, in fact, acknowledges five other religions. The reality contradicts that infamous Pew Report (which probably only surveyed ‘mosque dwellers’ instead of those who have lives outside mosques and idiots still believe in the inherent quantitative researches despite sampling bias being a fucking real problem).

If you ask those foreigners, they would probably get many basic facts of Indonesia wrong.

Ask them to find the country on the map and they would probably point to the wrong location.

Ask them about its number of population and they would be surprised the country is the fourth most populated in the world.

Ask them to name our official language and they would probably answer ‘Arabic’, thinking that all Muslims are Arabs and vice versa.

Ask them to name our ethnic groups and they would probably stutter and think there is only one, not expecting any forms of diversity (there are far-right westerners who falsely believe every non-western country is homogenous and they utilise the lie as an argument against multiculturalism in the west).

Ask them to name the country which Bali is a part of and many of them would be shocked it is not a country; they would also be shocked that a predominantly-Hindu territory and an extremely hedonistic tourist destination is a province of a predominantly-Muslim country (and it seems the misconception indirectly endorse the falsehood about Indonesia being a Saudi Arabia clone).

If you ask me any basic facts about Australia, the UK and the US, there is a chance I would fare better than many of the citizens. Many Americans still think English is the de jure official language of their country and many Aussies and Brits still don’t know the duties of most present-day monarchs, including the British ones, are entirely ceremonial. I can also name of said countries’ many territories, including their still-existing colonies; many Americans don’t know what DC stands for and that Puerto Rico is a US territory.

In conclusion, not only the foreigners who told me to shut up don’t have any credibility to comment on my country, I have more credibility to comment on their own countries than they do… and mind you, my credibility is still low considering I don’t live there.

To change the topic a bit…

I am also rather assertive with my opinions about East Asia. Not as much. But, it still manages to irk one of my friends.

He said I couldn’t speak any East Asian languages and I have never lived in the region. As a person of East Asian descent who can speak multiple East Asian languages and have lived in two East Asian countries, he was annoyed by me and reasonably so.

But, he was also fucking annoying.

Instead of giving me evidences that counter my remarks, he simply said I should simply try living in those countries. For him, it was more than enough to put me in my place.

Yeah, no.

When foreigners claim Indonesia is an Islamic theocracy, I can tell them that the country still has loads of active non-Islamic places of worships, hijab-less women outside Aceh and things that are considered ‘un-Islamic’… and I can support my claim by simply linking them to countless videos showcasing hijab-less Indonesian women, vibrant church worships and the secular, extremely hedonistic and highly-westernised Indonesian pop culture.

Whether they convince the fools or not, it does not matter. I know my country rather well (I love to think so, anyway) and I have a decent internet access. Therefore, I have the means to debunk the falsehood and I can do so almost instantly. I have no excuses to not do so.

My friend annoys me because he complains about my alleged ignorance… and yet he does not bother to counter despite having the means to do so.

I don’t know how a person can see ignorance right in front of him/her, get agitated by it and somehow too lazy to annihilate it.

Diversity and a shared identity

What is culture? Well, it is often seen as a tool to determine how one perceives life and seen as an inseparable part of our identity. For many, cultural identity is easy to pin down. But, for anyone of multiple backgrounds, it is quite problematic. It is even more problematic to pin down the identity of an entire country.

It is no secret that Australia is a multicultural country and has always been. Before the arrivals of Europeans, the continent was already diverse with hundreds of indigenous languages being spoken (assuming one language represents one culture). Under the White Australia policy, the country was still multicultural, albeit differently, with massive immigration from various European countries. Now, it can be argued that the country is even more multicultural considering there are less restrictions for non-European immigration. How about Indonesia?

Unlike Australia, Indonesia still retains its native population. But, like Australia, it is also multicultural and has always been. There are over 300 native ethnics groups in the country. Many regional cultures are strongly shaped by Indian, Chinese, Arab, Dutch and Portuguese influences. Overall, Chinese-Indonesians are the fifteenth biggest ethnic group (Badan Pusat Statistik 2010, p. 9). An assortment of indigenous and international flavours. How does one determine the overall cultural identities of each country? Well, almost a trick question. One cannot do that simply to a highly diverse country.

In the case of Australia, some may argue the country’s identity must be based on Anglo-Saxon culture as the white people of such heritage are the majority. But, it is discriminating against white people and racial minorities of other roots. Some may argue that Aussie identity must be of Aboriginal roots. But, most Aussies are not Aboriginals. Forcing non-Aboriginals to embrace Aboriginal culture, something they are not familiar with, is also discriminatory. Even if they settle on it, there is another problem: which indigenous culture should they choose?

As I said, there are lots of them to choose from. I am not familiar with a single one. But, I can safely assume some are very distinct from each other. If they prefer the easy way out by choosing only one, they would create needless conflicts by culturally alienating a chunk of the population. Even if the chosen culture is also the most numerically dominant, cultural well-being of the minorities should be something to be mindful of. Similar case with Indonesia.

Forming 40 per cent of the country’s total population, Javanese people are the biggest ethnic group. Unsurprisingly, they are among the most culturally influential ethnic groups in the country. Javanese words are widely-used in pop culture, Javanese foods are easily found everywhere, Javanese social hierarchies are used in the establishments and all Indonesian presidents, living or deceased, have Javanese blood running through their veins. But, when we look at other ethnicities, we will see lots of disparities.

Batak people, Madurese people, Bugis people and a group of smaller Sulawesi ethnicities are the third, fifth, eighth and fourth biggest groups, respectively (2010). Yet, apart from the shallow stereotyping of the first two, I know nothing about their heritages. Nothing. I know some singers of Batak descent; even then, they sing westernised pop songs. Foods of those cultures are unheard of on a national level. Compared that to other statistically smaller peoples.

Batak people, Madurese people, Bugis people and a group of smaller Sulawesi ethnicities are the third, fifth, eighth and fourth biggest groups, respectively (2010). Yet, apart from the shallow stereotyping of the first two, I know nothing about their heritages. Nothing. I know some singers of Batak descent; even then, they sing westernised pop songs. Foods of those cultures are unheard of on a national level. Compared that to other statistically smaller peoples.

To summarise, the national identities of both countries are relatively sound considering they are based on the ancestral heritage of each country’s masses. Relatively sound. The exclusion of other heritages also embraced by the people is, as I said, alienating. It is gross disunity. Yes, 100% inclusivity is impossible. But, when they entirely exclude even the numerically significant cultures, the unification effort is either half-arse or a sugarcoated form of sectarianism. If only there is no diversity…

What if there is none? Surely, homogeneity would make it easier to define a country’s national identity. There is literally just one available option. No minorities to be mindful of. Only one national collective, united under a definite cultural singularity. Except, that premise ignores who we really are: human beings.

We tend to see ourselves as mere collectives. But, we often forget that one human collective embodies distinct human individuals, each with their own biases. An utterly all-embracing agreement on anything can never be realised. Not one. Not even on matters like cultural identity. Especially on matters like cultural identity.

Culture is abstract and inherently intangible; it is unaffected by cold objectivity and it will always succumb to our biases. In the end, a culture is not defined by a joint agreement, but by the ones who speak the loudest, the ones who see themselves as worthy spokespersons. It does not matter if many disapprove. The conceited loudmouths win and we ought to listen to them.

In conclusion, there is no easy way to determine a country’s cultural identity; any of such efforts will forever be contentious. But, from my personal point of view, there is a way out.

A study shows youths who have experienced racial and cultural education are less likely to show signs of racism (Mansouri 2009, p. 110). Frankly, I do not know if they are genuinely unprejudiced or just being politically correct. But, we still can learn something from this: cultural backgrounds do not matter. What matters is our sense of belonging in which we identify as Indonesians, Aussies or what have you and unite with fellow citizens. Never ever let others using our predestined familial circumstances to negate your self-proclaimed identification.

Badan Pusat Statistik 2010, Kewarganegaraan, suku bangsa, agama dan bahasa sehari-hari penduduk Indonesia, BPS, Jakarta.

Mansouri, F, Jenkins, L, Morgan, L & Taouk, M 2009, The impact of racism upon the health and wellbeing of young Australians, Foundations For Young Australians, Melbourne.