by Astrid Berg, PhD
During childhood, I had little connection to my Indonesian roots. I rarely heard Maleis (Malay) or Javaans (Javanese) spoken. I only had a slight relationship to Indo/Indische customs and culture. Both my parents appeared European. My mother is Dutch, and the Indonesian influences were subtle in my Indo father.
I was forty-one when I went to Java, the island where my father was born. As I deplaned, I entered a long, red-tiled hallway surrounded by rich, green fauna. I sensed something familiar in the heavy and humid air. During that month-long trip I became curious about the colonized side, the magical side, the dark side, the delicate side, the graceful side, the non-Western side, the forbidden side, the non-privileged side, and the shadow side of Indonesia.
Trip to Java
After a brief visit in Jakarta, I took a train to Yogyakarta. I was refreshed by the contrast of the countryside as we left this city of thirteen million—with both modern hustle and bustle and its darker side of rats, roaches, and poverty. We passed through flatlands of rice paddies. Surrounding the wet rectangular plots were raised pathways that farmers could use to get from one section to the next. They were hunched over inserting rice into the shallow pools of water. Just as in the picture books of my relatives, they wore wide brimmed hats. I occasionally saw a man guiding an ox pulling a plow, akin to the paintings I’d seen on walls of Indische (of the Dutch East Indies) families.
My attention turned to the inside of the train. Many of the co-passengers looked familiar, yet foreign. Somewhere in the setting of their cheekbones and the dark almond eyes, I saw the face of my father. I wondered if they could see the same when they looked at me. Or am I just a blanda tourist? I walked around Yogyakarta and later Malang, absorbing the land and the faces of its people as I looked closely, but not intrusively, in hope of recognizing something familial. We don’t know the names of our Indonesian relatives. DNA results show that my father is about fifty percent Indonesian. Yet, when I had asked about the Indonesian side, he only could recite those of European ancestry: Berg, Butteweg, Abels, Mons, Pfefferkorn, Ravenswaaij, Castricum, van Franquemont, and Falck.
I visited the tourist sites of the Kraton, the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, and the Hindu temple of the Prambanan. I visited the volcano at Mount Bromo. All the while I continued to seek the familial in faces or in gestures of women selling fruit in the pasars (markets), of men playing chess on improvised chairs and tables in the alun alun (town square) under the umbrella of waringin (weeping fig) trees , of young, veiled Islamic women riding motor scooters, or of vendors cooking in large wajans (woks) on the side walks. My contact was limited to those who served tourists. I brought pictures of Indo family members and showed a hotel reception clerk, a becak (pedicab) or bus driver, or a server.
Map of Malang
Before I left for Java, my father had drawn a map of Malang, where he attended secondary school. Malang had not changed much from his drawings, except for some new buildings and Dutch streets that were renamed in Bahasa Indonesia. I could easily follow Papa’s map to the alun alun, his secondary school, the streets where he had lived, the track field where he had run the 400 meter, and various other landmarks like Toko Oen—a restaurant, still with its colonial ambiance and where I enjoyed Gado Gado. My hotel, the Splendid Inn, had décor from the time my father had lived there.
With a map in hand, I mostly explored the small city on foot—feeling, imagining, and remembering my father’s stories. He was full of stories, which he told often, especially during his latter years. He liked to make light of his secondary school years with tales about dances, playing pranks on teachers, or of his popularity. Race and culture played significant roles. The stories my father shared about his childhood portrayed cultural acceptance and understanding, but they also posed discrepancies.
I was able to imagine the lives of my father and ancestors. When I ran into a group of girls walking home from school, I could see Oma Sok and her sister Bon returning from their school. At Pap’s old HBS (Hogere Burgerschool), now an Indonesian school, I envisioned my father and his friends coming and going on their bikes or in class playing pranks on the teachers. On the alun alun with the waringin trees, I could glimpse traces of Lintang, Helena, Suus, and Adele (female ancestors) at the pasar. Viewing the homes from the now gated driveways, I caught sight of the large verandas where so much of my ancestors’ daily lives were lived.
Connection through the Arts
I felt a strong connection to my roots by way of the arts. I came upon a group of young girls with slight bodies and round faces. Their delicate fingers, eyes, and heads made subtle movements. Wearing striking sarongs, they were dancing to gamelan. I have not learned this traditional dance, and yet it was so familiar. I saw in their gestures, the behaviors, and attitudes of my relatives. Later I learned the Javanese word for what is expressed in the dance. In Indonesian mysticism, alus means refined, subtle, and ethereal. The delicate expressions and gestures of alus in the Javanese dance are like those I have seen in Indo family members.
One evening in Bali, I heard the sound of fast-beat gamelan. The music flooded the silence of the balmy evening. I left my hotel room and ventured down the street following its sounds. Local musicians were rehearsing under a pavilion. As I was now in Bali, they were not playing the more melodic gamelan of the Javanese. This is a fast-paced sound called Kebyar. This strange and foreign music was somehow familiar. I found myself moving closer until I was on the platform with them. The music reverberated in my body, and I longed to be one of the players. When they stopped, I noticed the tears running down my cheeks.
After this trip, I began to research my ancestors at the Indisch Familie Archief and the Nationaal Archief during trips to The Hague. I read dozens of books about Indië and collected family stories to eventually write Mixed Blood: Reconciling My Colonial Family’s History in the Dutch East Indies. Part of the incentive was to better understand my father, who had many psychological daemons. I came to understand better the ‘sins of the father’ (in which sin means dis-ease of the soul) that had been transmitted from generation to generation. For the male Bergs, the impetus of their sins was honor, pride, and a reverence—but also idealization—for what is noble. My great-great-grandfather, Fransz, was preoccupied with restoring his family’s honor. His son, Johan, fiercely identified with the honor and nobility of his European ancestors, and my Opa Frederik upheld the family’s honor through strictness, diligence, and rigid principles. In the telling of his stories and his ancestors’ stories, my father also reflected these values.
I focused on the male line beginning with the colorful story of Fransz escaping Germany (via Holland) to the Indies after killing someone in a duel. I also discovered intriguing stories about my female ancestors. For instance, one great-grandmother, who was very dark, lived in Holland with a foster family from age six to eighteen. Another great-grandmother was a medium and friends with Mata Hari. And my Oma Sok was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese for being in the resistance. She later received two honors from Queen Juliana for her courage and contribution to the resistance.
In addition to intriguing, adventurous, and humorous stories, my explorations have unleashed dramas and traumas. Perhaps telling my ancestor’s stories with all the losses, as well as the cultural and racial inequities of colonialism, brings that which was hidden and denied to light. The particulars may be different, but most Indo histories contain the ugliness of war, imprisonment, brutality, loss of family and home, prejudices, classism, and racism. These unprocessed life experiences were passed on to the ensuing generations to bear and integrate. My telling these stories has been a step towards healing family trauma and to reclaim my Javanese ancestry.
Astrid Berg, PhD, is of Dutch, Indonesian, and German heritage. Astrid is employed as a freelance editor, which brings her close to her love of writing. Devoted to a spiritual path, she also teaches meditation and offers workshops on connecting with ancestors.
The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article