A friend recently asked me, “Do you feel at home in Berlin?”.
This question caught me off guard. I am not sure if I ever feel at home in Berlin. I don’t think I have ever felt at home anywhere else in my life.
Don’t Call Me “Cina”
Growing up as a half-Chinese descent in Indonesia during the 90s was not easy. There was a grown resentment among locals towards ethnic Chinese as they were blamed for the economic downturn. This led to bloody riots in 1998.
I still remember that day clearly. When the mob came, my mom needed to hide me inside the house since I have similar features like my Chinese dad: lighter skin and smaller eyes.
In the end, our house was safe because my mom is a native Indonesian. However that month, hundreds of other houses and shops owned by Chinese-Indonesians were raided & burned to the ground and dozens of Chinese-Indonesian women were raped. Until today, no arrests have been made.
I was 10 years old at that time and I already felt so ashamed of my identity. On a daily basis, people often called me “Cina”, a derogatory term for members of Indonesia’s Chinese minority. Not only I heard this from some of my fellow classmates at school, a few of my teachers and family members said it too.
Often when I met new people, I even pretended that I came from a region in Indonesia where most of the people have lighter skins. I just wanted to be accepted.
This made me feel very conflicted. I saw myself as an Indonesian but I didn’t feel like I belong. Thus, I made a promise at a very early age to leave Indonesia some day.
My First Ticket Out of Indonesia
In 2011, I got my first chance out of the country when I moved to Austria for a cultural exchange program. My identity was crystal clear at that time: I was a foreigner. I didn’t look like locals and I didn’t speak the language. Of course, I didn’t feel at home. However, I also did not feel conflicted.
I was loving my life abroad. When the program ended a year later, I was sad of the idea that I would move back home. This meant that I needed to face my conflicted identity (again!).
Singapore, Okay Lah
When I moved to Singapore in 2013, it was the first time in my life I ever felt okay with my identity. Ethnic Chinese constitutes a majority of Singapore’s population. On top of that, there is a lot of Indonesian-Chinese in Singapore.
Here I felt accepted being myself. I did not feel the need to cover my Chinese ancestry like I used to. It gave me a sense of relief that I had never experienced before. Nevertheless, I knew that it was not home as I was only here as an expat.
Ich bin Ausländer
Now that I have been living in Berlin for 4 years, I haven’t been struggling with my identity so much. I know that I live here as a foreigner. As a matter of fact, Berlin makes it very explicit. When I arrived here in 2016, I needed to register myself to the Ausländerbehörde, which literally means Foreigner’s Office.
Needless to say, Germany still has their shares of anti-semitism and racism. I think it’s a life-long process to eradicate this issue completely from the world.
In the meantime, I embrace my identity fully as forever a foreigner. I am finding home within myself.