'Nighthawks', painting by Edward Hopper
To go to London has always been a dream of mine. London: the self-advertised city of diversity, connections, and culture. But now that I’m finally here, I have never felt more alone.
Growing up as a Chinese Indonesian in Indonesia, I have never quite questioned the makings of my identity. I was raised in a Chinese Indonesian household and went to a mainly Chinese school for most of my school years. However, I have always known that something has always been a little off - as if it was difficult for me to place where I truly fit in. Both my parents could not speak Mandarin and we still refrain from using our Chinese names. My parents would often tell me how lucky I am, as I did not live through the New Order era of political rule - a dictatorial rule that outlawed the use of Mandarin, Chinese names, and Chinese New Year celebrations. Although they are right that I am lucky and did not have to suffer in the same ways they did, the leftover burden of those laws still remain in modern Indonesian society.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my use of language. Although Indonesian is my first language, I have never utilised it in a classroom as I went to an international school. You can also trace more of my personal history when I speak Mandarin, a language that I have only learnt in classrooms but never with my family, as they are not able to speak Mandarin. Sometimes I dream of escaping to China, maybe then I’ll finally reconnect with my own roots. Although deep down I know that I’d feel nothing but more out of place than ever in a country full of people who look like me but with a language I do not speak fluently. Thus, my language of expression has always been English. It is the language that I use as an escape from the difficulties of fitting in - the language of the novels that I devour and the movies I find myself attracted to.
To be honest, it wasn’t until I arrived in London that I’ve become sharply aware of my own identity. I’ve always romanticised London as this diverse utopia where everyone can belong. I can still vividly remember how surprised I was when I first visited London three years ago and being able to find people who look like me walking the streets. Before then I have always been sold on the extremely white-centric narrative that is British TV, and in that moment, I completely fell in love with the city.
However, I quickly realised it was not always the case. My first encounters with white people were often filled with micro-aggressions: how is my English so good? Or how come I don’t have a stereotypical Asian accent? As diverse as the city is, my first few weeks only managed to exacerbate my feeling of incompletion.
In ‘How It Feels To Be Coloured Me’, Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I feel the most coloured when I’m thrown against a sharp white background.” This is exactly how I felt during the first months of university when I found myself growing close to a group of English girls. I pictured myself to be one of them and partied with the decadence only a white girl can possess. It was the first time I’ve felt so free, that suddenly the weight of responsibility my parents have placed on me to focus on my studies did not matter anymore. However, it was also during those parties that I’ve realised that I was always the only person of colour in their social groups. I was both an insider and an outsider, always wanting to be a part of them although I knew that I simply do not look like them.
It was only a few weeks after, I realised that they have been texting each other on their own group chat, excluding me. At first, I was mad, but I wasn’t surprised. I mostly felt stupid - stupid for thinking that I can fit in with them, or that they would consider me as an equal to them.
I wish I could say that I immediately confronted them, but I didn’t. Instead, I swallowed my pride and decided to move on. To this day I still have no idea how to fully define my identity and if I’m being honest, maybe I’ll never be able to do so. My whole life I’ve never truly felt whole - that I’m not fully Indonesian, not fully Chinese, and not fully a Londoner either. Yet I’ve learned that you don’t have to, and the struggle of being an ethnic minority is one that you grapple with constantly and yet, you survive with it.