Don Lemon, whom I love for so many reasons, went on a journey exploring his ancestry that brought him back to his roots on the slave coast of Africa. During his visit, he had an emotional encounter with what they call the “Door of No Return”. The guide told him that through that door millions of people left behind the known for the unknown, security for insecurity, to be loaded onto a ship and treated as cargo. And centuries later, still be struggling to escape the bonds of slavery both from external foes as well as internal demons.
As I, with similar emotions, watched the CNN segment, I could picture my ancestors on both sides of the family – ancestors who left home to seek a better life, some compelled by circumstances to flee their native lands, some brought in shackles by force, some on slave ships as cargo and some as crew. Others were native to the land but enslaved by the Dutch and other European overseers whose only goal was to extract the riches that the exotic Spice Islands yielded. And yet others were me and my parents.
I know for sure of one unwilling piece of chattel. This is the story of our maternal great-great-grandmother, the slave woman Apu who walked through the Door of No Return from Africa to the Dutch East Indies on the ship Barbestein. This branch of the family was fortunate to endure only one generation of enslavement, sailing East and providentially not West which placed our family on a totally different trajectory for generations to come. Her children would not be born slaves but free like their Dutch seafaring father, Wijnand Lucas Baggers, and become part of the mixed race folk who would fill the Dutch East Indies multicultural melting pot with a flavor all its own.
And what of our Japanese paternal great-grandmother, Ogide, whom we know so little about except that she was reported to be just another member of our great grandfather’s multiethnic harem? Why did she have to walk through the Door of No Return leaving Japan for a place so far away? Family stories weave a tale of intrigue and exoticism about Henri Alexander Wasch – this part Austrian gentleman born in the Indies is said to have had a Dutch wife, but also Chinese, Javanese and Japanese women with whom he had many children including our grandmother, Louise Fanny Wasch with the Japanese Ogide and our father’s half uncle, Harry Wasch, with the Chinese woman. I wonder how these women led their lives in the shadows of a culture that did not empower them and in fact, regarded them as property. Somehow they were able to rise above, survive, thrive and recast the culture that intended to silence their voices.
Fast forward to 1957 as my parents flee the now independent Republic of Indonesia, the only home they had ever known. Five children in tow with just a few suitcases that represented multiple lifetimes and generations on Batavian soil both natives and immigrants from all corners of the world deeply rooted and steeped in its colonial history. They walked through the Door of No Return as they too embarked on a ship leaving behind the known for the unknown and the security of language, culture, family and a way of life destined for a lifetime of insecurity and never again truly belonging.
A few years later, they again walked through the Door of No Return when they decided to leave the Netherlands where at least the language, some cultural notes and extended family provided a bit of security and familiarity. But the lure of the United States offered all sorts of opportunity in the early sixties. What better place to find new life, fresh beginnings, and unlimited possibilities?
Although I walked through the Door of No Return as a small child with no real knowledge of leaving anything behind, ever present in my consciousness is the reality of my parents’ risky, courageous and selfless decision to seek out more for us; their ways though curious and old fashioned are woven into my DNA; their willingness to be foreigners in a foreign land. In some ways it is ironic that I still feel the insecurity of the unknown even with so much American cultural insider information. A foreigner in a foreign land like my parents. We walked through the Door of No Return together and though I live what is unarguably a charmed American existence, I often wonder what it would be like to walk back through time retracing the steps of those who came before me. What would I find on the other side? Java, Holland, Japan, Sulawesi, Ghana, China, Austria, Belgium? The Dutch East Indies no longer exists as a physical space but the vestiges of our culture can be found among the diaspora of those who passed through the Door of No Return carrying with them nothing but their hopes and dreams for the future.