JourneyStoriesIndo Sylvie's parents journey in 1950 from Indonesia to Holland.

by TIP volunteer Sylvie Waxman 

Definition

Cultural identity is the identity of belonging to a group. It is part of a person’s self-conception and self-perception and is related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality, or any kind of social group that has its own distinct culture. (Wikipedia)

The following are short descriptions for a series of future in-depth articles of my personal journey through a profound identity crisis. I know I am not alone in this and that there are many Indos who may be in similar stages of a crisis that is mostly attributed to a physical migration to lands unknown. This journey has provided me with a unique advantage of understanding how the disruption of leaving the only country they have known, effected the lives of so many Dutch-Indos in Indonesia during the late 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s upon arrival to the Netherlands after the Indonesians declaration of independence became a reality.

Bottom left: Sylvie's tante Ernestina de Nijs. Bottom right: Oma Florentina Pereira-deNijs. Top left: Sylvie's mother, Martha de Nijs. Top right: Sylvie's tante Marie de Nijs. In Indonesia. Occasion: Engagement of Sylvie's mother, Martha de Nijs to Jan de Hoop
Bottom left: Sylvie's tante Ernestina de Nijs. Bottom right: Oma Florentina Pereira-deNijs. Top left: Sylvie's mother, Martha de Nijs. Top right: Sylvie's tante Marie de Nijs. In Indonesia. Occasion: Engagement of Sylvie's mother, Martha de Nijs to Jan de Hoop

Born in Holland, Made in America

An assimilation into an adopted culture of capitalism. I remember the journey on the Groote Beer and all I wanted was a pair of American blue jeans upon arriving in New York City. There was an abundance of everything. My introduction to capitalism, to the pledge of allegiance, to softball and in my later years, to the entrepreneurial spirit and a unique approach to democracy formed many of my personal philosophy about how to live a life. I learned quickly that I needed to assimilate my Dutch-Indo into the American culture and eventually learned that assimilation comes with a loss of identity, especially when the culture you were born into has dispersed to many corners of the world.

I am Dutch, it is All I Have Ever Known

Born and raised in Holland for the first of 11 years of my life  I still feel that familial tugging at the heartstrings every time I have returned to Holland. I can see, hear, taste, and feel it down to my toes. I step into the binnenkant of Amsterdam and the breathing in of a familial air and hearing a language once familiar to me, stirs questions of why my father would pack up everything we owned for the USA. I wander around an outdoor market in the Pijp district nibbling on a stroopwafel… and stop in an Albert Hein market to pick up beschuit, hagelslag, komijn kaas and appelstroop and pick-up Indo spices I cannot get elsewhere. I stop at an Indonesian restaurant and inhale almost everything the rijsttafel offers. I take a train to Amersfoort and visit my old neighborhood and the school I attended. I follow a path that would take me into the woods and recall that as a child, we would take this same path. After my father’s move back to Holland, our ritual was to walk this same path and recall memories of visiting the Amersfoort zoo and other favorite family ritual outings.

Finding My Portuguese, Dutch-Indo Jewish Ancestors

A search for personal history and a serendipitous meeting with Sephardic Jews in Southern California led me to a lifelong search for my Portuguese Dutch-Indo ancestry on the maternal side of the family. I recently came full circle and face to face with a path that took my maternal ancestors to Macau, Borneo and Indonesia beginning in the late 17th century. I recently planted myself in Spain to trace that migration before they landed in the Dutch East Indies. More about this journey of a research into Jews of Indonesia in a future article and how I discovered a variety of hidden Jewish rituals and adaptations of recipes to fit an Indo culture that were embedded into my family culture.

Indo Sylvie Waxman's parents. Jan de Hoop and Martha De Nijs, circa 1949 in Indonesia
Indo Sylvie Waxman's parents. Jan de Hoop and Martha De Nijs, circa 1949 in Indonesia

Reclaiming, Rebuilding My Indo Cultural Identity

And a strong desire to recapture the culture I was born into embedded into my memory of a mother who died when I was just 7. In 2015 I arrived in the EU on a long-term mission to dig deeper into my mother’s ancestry. I brought with me photos taken before my mother’s death. These and memories were all I had. Photos of aunts, uncles and cousins in a box given to me by my paternal grandmother. I went on a search on Facebook and started contacting people who had the same surname as my mother and maiden name of my grandmother. I hit the jackpot one day when I found one cousin, then two, three….

I immediately saw myself in their faces and I grieve the loss of being robbed of years of relationships I could have had with them. I learned that my maternal grandmother lived well into her 90’s and the feeling of being robbed of time spent with her feels even more acute. I remember her as being gentle in spirit and as a young child, I loved when she would come and stay with us. Relationships I could have had with her and my cousins if only my father had released the anger and pain of losing my mother. Why he never kept in touch with them I can only speculate. In hindsight, I see that the methodical erasure of memory of my mother was created to protect me when I was a child from the horrors of how she died. I continue mostly a solo mission. I have signed on to Dutch national and municipal archives and have found a wealth of information. I am however at a loss as to how to gain access to archives in Indonesia or the KNIL in which my father served. Photographs are all I have.

Indo Sylvie Waxman's Family includes Mama Leen Amersfoort de Nijs family
Indo Sylvie Waxman's Family: mother's family, her brother, her Oom Wim, his wife and daughter; then her tante Marie with her daughter Saskia; Sylvie's mother with her sister Vonnie, Sylvie's Oma de Nijs; on the floor, Sylvie and cousin

How to Rediscover Your Culture

  • Eat Your Culture’s Food
  • Read Authors Who Relate to You.
  • Google Your Culture
  • Travel to Your Parents’ Home Country
  • Bring Back a Cultural Ritual
  • Try on a New Sense of Identity
  • Learn How Your Culture Practices Self-Study
  • Practice Cultural Rituals for Yourself

Source: How to Rediscover Your Roots and Own Your Cultural Identity by Andy Seth

Indo Sylvie's parents journey in 1950 from Indonesia to Holland.
Sylvie's parents journey in 1950 from Indonesia to Holland. One of the last journeys out of Indonesia for KNIL and civil servants. Her mother is fifth person from the left.

If you have struggled with feeling of a loss of cultural identity, I would love your feedback; leave feedback below.

Sylvie Waxman

February 2021

Are you too attempting to understand and embrace your Indo identity? Are you an Indo who would like to share your story with The Indo Project? We welcome you to describe your journey. Submit your story!

7 Comments

  1. Sylvia, very well written article. You took me with with your words. I joined the Facebook group, Koninklijk Nederlandsch Indisch Leger (K.N.I.L.) which turned out to be a great resource for researching & understanding My Opas’ & uncles’ military lives. Perhaps they can be a resource for you as well. Good luck with your search for answers.

  2. Great article! Cultural identity shapes all our lives especially when you’re not sure where you fit in. Born in Australia of a Dutch dad and Indo mum, I was raised in a culturally Dutch home knowing nothing about the concept of “Indo”. As a kid, I just wanted to fit in, and sometimes hated that I looked different from how I felt, which was Australian, and that I was raised eating “strange” Dutch foods. As an adult, however, I’m delighted to see my DNA result that encompasses so many corners of the globe, and absolutely love lekker Hollandse eten. But the mysterious 10% European Jewish that came up in my DNA result (and my brother’s) has had me stumped; my father’s relatives have researched the family tree in detail, and going back generations there is no Jewish connection. So I’ve assumed it comes from my mum’s Indo heritage, but had no idea how. Looking forward to learning more about Jews in Indonesia in your future article! Thanks for such a well written piece.

  3. I found my cultural identity through my family tree and DNA test from 40% European, Dutch to Indonesia, India, Thai, Cambodian, Chinese and North American Indian through my Pacific Islander connection. I am even related to Ashkenasi Jews. Even though I feel connected to Indo’s specifically, especially through food and language, I also feel connected to humanity in general, because of the recognition that we all belong to one human race and as such will promote the Unity of Mankind which also means the Equality of Women. I am first American since all my children are American and my life is here. I love your article, it is well written and I wish you success in all your endeavors.

  4. Interesting reading this story. Would like to know the area in Indonesia your family came from. Our family was for 5 generations in Soerabaia. I was there for 15 years 6 in Holland and now 60 + in Southern Calif.

  5. This article resonated with me in the respects of the loss of family ties/culture. My parents were sponsored to come to the U.S. in the early 60’s. I grew up in a Indo household that spoke Dutch, and that had many Indo social gatherings monthly. All my parents friends were my Tante’s and Oom’s, and all their children were my friends. As a child you don’t think about things ending, especially not the cultural aspect. However, as an adult you realize that accessing your culture or familial ties isn’t as easy as they once were.

    As a second generation Indo, I grew up in San Diego. My parents never emphasized the need to learn the culture of either Dutch or Indonesian. Even though they spoke Dutch in our home, I was never required to reply back in Dutch or really know anything about it. I believe it was all about assimilation at that time. Looking back I wish so many things had been different. The first being speaking either language, and although I understand Dutch spoke by Indo’s, I find it’s not the same as the Dutch spoken by the Dutch. I also know very little regarding Indonesia, definitely not the language and only a little bit of the cooking.

    Unfortunately, now that my parents and most of their friends (Tante’s and Oom’s) have passed, there is less to remind me and pass down to my children. My Indo friends have become Americanized as myself, and have little to contribute to our culture. What I know and attempt to pass on has become a watered down version of what I learned. I’m thankful for the time that my children had with their Oma and Opa, and what they were able to absorb, but I believe they’ll have very little to pass down to their children and that’s a great loss.

    I just want to thank you for your article, especially the suggestions on how to rediscover your culture. I do plan on looking into them, in hopes of rekindling the interest of the culture for my children.

  6. I am trying to tack down anyone who might have known the de Nijs family (Anne Solomons, Doortje Riemvis, Erick, Guus and Paul (my dad)) from Yogyakarta. Thanks

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