What does it mean to be Indisch, Indo, Dutch Indonesian, Indonesian Dutch? Most of us Indos believe it is all about the food – sate, sajoer assem, sambal, pete, lontong – the Resep-Lemper-Abon-Ikansnacks: lemper, loempia, risolles (is that one rissoles and two risolleses???) – or great single words that have so much meaning: rakoes, bohong, sombong, tjerewet, senang; or maybe a system of pretty traditional, conservative, yet super generous values: never go to someone’s home empty handed, never accept drinks or anything offered to you the first time (wait until you have been asked at least twice – if you accept so eagerly, people will think you don’t get enough at home), NEVER call an adult by his/her first name without Oom or Tante before it.

The sum total of Indo-ness is so completely individual, it may not be describable, but at the same time, it’s easily recognizable, comfortable, and familiar when you know the extremely subtle and mostly unwritten rules of engagement…

In the days when we were all fresh off the Holland America Lines’ Maasdam having sailed from Rotterdam to the port of New York City and then by train across the country to Portland, Oregon, the Indo community was tight as can be — everyone helped each other out and though the roddelpraatjes (gossip) abounded over who was on IMG_2264welfare, who got free government cheese, who went to which school in Indonesia, who was more “Dutch”, who claimed not to speak any Maleis, it didn’t prevent Indos from helping each other find jobs, make ends meet, come to the rescue in a crisis (like when our house burned to the ground except for one bedroom and eight kids and 2 parents were suddenly without a roof over our heads) – yes, that’s when Tante Fien van Waardenburg who worked as a school cook brought food for the whole family daily until we figured out what to do on our own (restaurants were out of the question since they were far too expensive)…

Generosity abounded within the Indo community – if someone had enough, there was always room to share and stretch it even further. Oom Gaby Ladage must have given my mom at least a couple dozen canaries and beautiful finches over several decades of friendship because he knew how much she loved those birds. Tante Gerrie Bergman (nee van Dien) was always cooking something delicious in her kitchen and sharing it with us kids not the least being her enak sekali (super delicious) oblok-oblok. And I’ll never forget Tante Mien Verdonk who passed away so long ago, but has a corner of my heart IMG_2251always because of her kindness – I was her “hired” garden helper as a kid who worked very little but sure had lots of homemade pasteitjes and other refreshments at her place. She would always pay me much more than she should have because she knew our family struggled financially.

As a group that came about as the result of racial and ethnic mixing in the context of a very distinct colonial infrastructure, Indos come in every size and color. There are tall ones, short ones, dark and light skinned ones, and brown haired and blonde ones. Some feel very Dutch and minimize their native-ness while others cannot but express pride in their hybrid culture being neither Dutch nor Indonesian. Some Indos trace their mixed Dutch East Indies roots back 350 years while others have a much more recent and more clearly defined mixed background with one Indonesian Oma and a totally Totok (Dutch) Opa who arrived in the Dutch East Indies to fight the Japanese during World War II. My family on both mother and father’s side go back at least three centuries with the first figure22apaternal Dutchman arriving in the colonies in the mid 1600’s and my maternal seafaring ancestor sailing into the Indies in the early 1700’s. Then there is the fact that we are not talking exclusively about a mix of ethnically diverse Indonesians with Dutch colonizers. The Dutch East Indies was a super diverse trading society so the population very early on included Chinese, East Indians, Africans, Arabians, Austrians, French, Belgians, British, Portuguese, etc. It’s a wonder with the huge differences in Indo-ness that there could be anything we can call Indisch at all! But as a folk that has always had to fit in and adapt, we are and we do, for now anyway.

My fear is that with the daily loss of our direct connection to this place we call the Dutch East Indies which no longer exists except in the memories, customs, traditions, values and actions of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, this mestizo culture will fade into the distant past and we will be assimilated into wherever the current generation landed. Australians, Americans, Nederlanders, Canadians, Brazilians, Spaniards and Indonesians, to name just a few, but with roots in a magical almost mythical place faraway in distance, memory, and history.

To my generation born in Indonesia and the Netherlands: Listen to and document the stories and carry on the Indische traditions however modified and adapted they may be – remember it is your story to pass on or to lose. Tell your children and your children’s children about our journey – whichever one it is because there are many – all of them valid Indo histories. To the next generation who probably is not reading this and may not be particularly interested anyway: don’t let yourself be totally subsumed and assimilated into the mass culture that surrounds you. It’s an inevitability and much easier, but with the loss of your individuality, something deep inside you is also lost. Your DNA has a stamp on it that places you squarely on the shoulders of so many who came before you who lived expansively, took risks, sacrificed, bled, cried and suffered but still managed to live and love so that you could be here… Teroes adja…

NOTE: I mostly used the Dutch East Indies conventions for spelling of words in Maleis as a nod to the past…

About helvetius59

Lifelong learner, loyal friend, setting out to take over the world-- but only for the powers of good!
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7 Responses to Indo-ness…

  1. Jack Profijt says:

    Well written sir, and keep up the good work we need more items written, and as often as possible.

  2. roydio says:

    Asem Lud, magnificent writing

  3. Sylvia Soumokil says:

    Love this Topic Ludy!! Thank you for reminding me. That we need to tell the stories and keep our heritage alive and well!!! When people ask every other day, what are you ??? I’m Dutch Indonesian!!! They go , Oh… I am Very proud and I do love to sit and listen to. Oma and Opa talk about the past , and all they did for us.. Thank you Ludy ..

  4. Very well written including great memories…thanks for writing this article, Ludy!

  5. Thank you very much for sharing

    Michael Leidelmeyer…Placentia, Ca.

  6. Enjoyed your article, very well written and informative, also for non- Indos!

  7. Neerav Vyas says:

    Great insight into Indo and Dutch culture. It somewhere resonates with the Indian culture too. I grew up in India with almost all of the values you discussed here.

    I believe, for any culture, there is something or the other that it has common with other cultures of the world.

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