Dutch-Indonesian Cultural Renaissance

The Rise of a New Generation:
The Dutch-Indonesian Cultural Renaissance in the Netherlands

(By Boot, Brederode and Krancher, 2006)

Before starting this essay, the writers stipulate that they wish to use the term “Dutch-Indonesian” – herein Indo – since this is the most commonly used and accepted form in the United States. The two young Indos in the Netherlands do not whole heartedly agree that this appellation as being the correct translation of the Dutch word “Indische Nederlander.” They would have preferred “Eurasian” or even “Indo-European” instead. However, for publication purposes they adopted the vocabulary used by their bangsa in America.

An estimated 350,000 Indos came to the Netherlands during a turbulent period spanning just after WWII through the mid sixties. The present Indo community in the country can be categorized in three more or less separate and distinct generations, each with their own characteristics and peculiarities.

The first group was forced to leave just about everything they treasured behind: their motherland, their childhood, their ties, friendships and social lives, even their possessions. As a consequence, all of this makes them who they are – a displaced and dispossessed people. They survived extremely miserable and painful years of Japanese occupation of the land they loved, the Dutch East Indies.  This experience was followed by an equally unsettling Bersiap period, culminating in Indonesia gaining independence and the expulsion against their will.

Upon arrival in the Netherlands, they were obliged to rather rapidly assure their own and their children’s future in this often hostile, strange and frigid land.. They were often unfamiliar with local mores and customs even though they were taught Dutch history and geography in school in the Indies  In fact, they knew more about the Netherlands than the native Dutch did about their colony.  A majority of them never even set foot in their “fatherland.”  This has had certain and definite repercussions and long term consequences.

Post WWII living conditions in the Netherlands were harsh and often bitter. These immigration waves were accorded a rather chilly reception by the Dutch government and by society at large.  The native Dutch had their own post-war traumas and societal rebuilding to contend with.  Therefore, they were either incapable or unwilling to pay much attention to the immigrant’s plight.  It would be best for the Indo to integrate into Dutch society as quickly and as smoothly as possible, to adopt the local ways of living.

Indo heritage and culture ought to be given lower priority. These immigrants should stop attempting to keep their Indies customs and habits alive. To accelerate this process, these Indo families were scattered and settled throughout the country at locations ranging from small hamlets to large metropolitan areas.  The government was concerned that large concentrations in ghetto-like settings would slow down their assimilation process.

A quiet and smooth transition would be beneficial for all concerned. It would also not interfere with the real problems of the country’s reconstruction efforts. Having grown up within a hierarchical colonial society where Dutch rule was preeminent with unchallenged power and authority, many first generation Indos had little choice but to comply with the Dutch homeland edict for rapid assimilation.

The second generation was constantly reminded by their parents never to stand out in the crowd, to act inconspicuously. They would already attract enough attention by being who and where they were, strangers in their own fatherland.  One should remember that the country was not made up of a multicultural society as it is these days.  In reality, the Indos were the first big wave of foreigners to come from a far away country.  They were truly the first colored folks the Dutch encountered and were thus regarded as strangers by their own people.

The Indo culture, people and their background were unfamiliar and therefore not well understood by most of the Dutch. In fact, many still don’t have a clear picture of all this even today.  So the second generation dutifully grew up as they were encouraged and expected.  Some elements of their culture were still expressed and practiced at home. But in the outside world, they mimicked Dutch behavior to the maximum extent possible, representing a good example of successful integration and assimilation.  Almost overnight, they morved into good Dutchman and Dutch women resembling those with whom they associated, went to school with and socialized with.

One consequence of this right of passage was that almost all second generation members married a Dutch partner, making the transition into society complete. This assimilation phenomenon is a throw back to the colonial period where the sentiment prevailed that the more white or European looking a partner was, the better his or her chances were to secure a prosperous future.  Although this assertion can be considered racist when judged by current societal standards and modern perspective, skin color and proportion of European blood, were actual measuring sticks of social status in the former Dutch East Indies.

Even though the apparent total integration of Indos in Dutch society can be regarded as a great accomplishment when compared with recent arrivals of other ethnic groups that have not assimilated, it can be postulated that integration must never be condoned at the expense of a potential obliteration of an entire culture.

Really, Indo culture over the years has become somewhat a matter of nostalgia and being anachronistic. Some of its elements are still being practiced at meetings such as at dance nights, koempoelans and pasars.  Although it can be argued that such activities are the overt ways by which the Indo culture is reflected, only members of the first generation really appreciate its intrinsic value.  It reminds them of the fun-filled times in the Indies, the tempo doeloe, which they still long for.  These reminiscences definitely have a relationship to the past but so not accurately reflect the tempo sekarang, the present.

The third generation Indos is growing up under circumstances not much different than those of their native Dutch counterparts. Most of them have a fully integrated second generation Indo parent and also often a Dutch parent as well.  This fact tends to create a gulf between them and their Indo heritage, one often too wide to bridge.  Contacts and interactions with fellow Indos are principally at occasions where their ethnic Indonesian food is served and get-togethers at Opa and Oma’s place on the week-ends.

The current Indo culture thus constitutes a remnant of the past, a phenomenon left behind in a long lost and far away country in a colonial setting. It now merely resembles a collection of traditions, lifestyles and memories tucked away in the hearts and minds of a disappearing first generation.  So the future can be likened to the action of a  broom, sweeping up the last vestiges of a colonial culture with no one to guard it from total disintegrating or collapsing. But is it really? Fortunately this does not appear to be the case at all.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, there seems to be a major resurgence of interest in culture within the Indo community at large, encouraged primarily by those of the third generation. This movement is quickly evolving in a direction contrary to what a majority, especially the second and first generation of Indos, have envisioned.  Although an apparent complete integration has taken place during the past half century, devaluing a greater part of their visible cultural practices, it has not completely wiped out the cultural values residing in their veins.  Blood appears to be thicker than water and it will crawl where it cannot flow unobstuctively.

The third generation has not only grown up among other native Dutch youngsters but also with those from other cultures a majority of whom still maintain strong ties with their native, foreign heritage. A sizeable majority of third generation Indos, ranging from teenagers to young adults, have a deep and authentic sense that they are different than the kid next door.  Nevertheless, they have a hard time expressing this sentiment.  Answers to their questions are sought in vain in the culture that is harbored by their grandparents. Fortunately it can also still be found in their own blood and guts.

Through many forms of current mass media like the Internet, by means of social gatherings like parties and special events, many third generation members have discovered each other. They learned that there is indeed an intrinsic value in having their own heritage and  culture, one that is shared by a great majority of other young Indos.  Many have come to realize that Indo culture is worth keeping alive, a sentiment that has given them a sense of belonging and identity.

As a consequence, during the past few years, Indo youth have created their own Websites, started chatrooms, organized groups, clubs and associations and held parties, social events and meetings, all with the objective to preserve and express their mutual feeling of solidarity and belonging and thus, in a real sense, reviving the Indo culture. Meeting young couples both of whom being of Indo heritage, is no longer an unusual occurrence these days.  They do not wish to consider this heritage and culture as being only that of their grandparents, but also their very own.

So literally thousands of third generation members are now interested in their own background. For some it opens up a whole new and attractive world.  A rather strange phenomenon is how they express these feelings. Contrary to the way the first generation behaved in the past, this new generation does not care to relegate their culture to the background any longer.  They crave maximum attention.  They express their Indo pride in an almost militant manner by wearing badges, T-shirts, creating flashy Websites or even tattooing their body.

Being Indo is no longer a matter to hide but instead something to be proud of, yes, even extremely proud of, and to celebrate it. The third generation is creating their own clothing fashions, hair style and uttering street slang to emphasize their roots.  This culture, once repressed for such a long time, is now bursting upon the Dutch scene with a vengeance. Although it can be interpreted as a positive happening that this renaissance is occurring, critical questions can and will inevitably be raised to interpret and understand this phenomenon.  The following are some questions that are begging for an answer:

In reality, how large is the actual divide between the manner the Indo culture has been expressed by the first generation and the way the third generation has perceived it?

Is the Indo culture one that is destined to disappear or one that is actually still in its infancy and therefore has still room for growth?

Is the third generation actually the first generation that is clearly aware of its own identity and can they still being regarded as real Indos?

Can their culture that evolved at a distant time and in such a far away place, still find a niche in a modern, Western society like the Netherlands?

Isn’t the third generation creating its own “new” version, an artificial kind of Indo culture? If so, should they embrace elements of the “old” version, and if applicable, which elements?

Who is actually going to close the generation gap?  Is it the first or the third generation?  Or both?

Which of them have the greatest responsibility to preserve their culture? What is the role of the second generation in this endeavor?

Is this revival just hype or a true renaissance? Is it going to challenge the notion that the Indos had a flawless early integration and assimilation into Dutch society?

Is the third generation going to jeopardize what the previous generations have attempted to build up? Are they, in a sense, renegades?

Can the third generation that knows exactly how the Dutch society operates, finally give the Indo community a significant voice in modern society?

The emergence of the third generation Indos in conjunction with the revival of interest in the Indo community in general, can be regarded as a boon for Indo culture, a true renaissance. Questions generated by various segments of Dutch society can be interpreted as understandable considering the short period of time and the explosive growth with which this revival has manifested itself.

Currently, no one exactly has a clear comprehension of what is taking place. And nobody is certain where the movement is heading either.  But one thing is for sure.  Anyone who thought a few years ago that the Indo culture in the Netherlands was becoming extinct is proven to be wrong, dead wrong.

(Nicky Boot (30) is a programmer for the cultural association “Het Indisch Huis” in the Hague; Willem-Jan Brederode (24) is a graduate student attending the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, both third generation Indos. Jan A. Krancher, Ph.D. (60 something), author of “The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1949 (www.krancher.org) is a freelancer and first generation Indo. He collaborated and edited this article.  He lives in Visalia, California)