The “Asli” Fallacy and Me
I learned to love people before myself.
In fact, self acceptance—steps before self love—did not happen for me until, give or take, four years ago. Before then, I used to feel uneasy about my skin and my features. And it’s all very much due to the Indonesian concept of “asli”, or real, authentic, native, pure.
I remember the years between 6 to 10, when my family members and relatives would not only tease my small eyes, low-bridge nose, and my fair skin that they decided too (italics) fair. My nickname at home is Sasa, but at my father’s family functions it was “Cacong”, because they thought it sounded properly Chinese and full of mockery. I remember one of my brothers asking my mom in the car, with me sitting next to him, “Ma, Sasa kasian banget sih, kenapa dia mukanya Cina gitu?” It sounded like a legitimate concern that my Javanese/Sundanese genetic makeup was tainted by the seemingly mysterious infestation of something Chinese.
Remarks like this would be thrown at, behind, and over me all the way through middle school. Every time, I would defend my authenticity as a strictly Javanese and Sundanese person. Every time, my eyes would feel hot as I tried not to cry.
I envied women whose skin is dark enough. Women whose eyes are bigger than mine, but kinder. Those women whose slim, unaggressive body became elegant when wrapped in kebaya. Those women who, when taken as a whole, embodies the ideal “asli Indonesia” beauty. They existed in TV screens when it’s time for Puteri Indonesia, and Miss Universe. They existed as my friends, and they were called “hitam manis” by admirers of their beauty and asli-ness, which were inseparable.
It was later in life that I realized how political this is. It was related to the dynamics of ethnic and race groups in Indonesia, as well as political power. Last year I had a revelation: Indonesian women all look different because “Indonesian” is a nationality, not an ethnicity. That said, the idea of wanita dengan kecantikan “asli Indonesia” is a social construct build upon colorism and racism.
But the idea of asli is more than beauty. It’s about recognizability, and in the context of Indonesia this means having identities that match with the majority: being Javanese, Muslim, and educated in the motherland. This idea presents itself in other facets of Indonesian culture too. Consider how it played out in Joko Widodo’s presidential campaign.
I was in my second year in Seattle during the 2014 Indonesian presidential election. I wasn’t very in-tune with the debate happening nationally in Indonesia, but every now and then I would read articles about Jokowi. From what I gathered quickly then—and now, after more research—is that his primary campaign narrative was that he is the “man of the people.” He used his rags-to-riches story, his “commoner” background, his wong deso appearance to gain popularity. He mocked his “ugliness” and using it as a tool to humanize himself. Underlying all of these assertions is the idea of asli. This is 50 percent of his appeal. He was supposed to be recognizable and relatable to the masses. He was the authentic leader from Solo, Central Java—he and my mother went to middle school together—whose brown skin is just right, too.
Now, the discourse around Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok is completely different.
As a Chinese Indonesian man of the Catholic faith, his competency as the governor of Jakarta is supposedly tied to his ethnic and religious identities. In addition, the sometimes-abrasive, in-your-face governor has been told to be more “courteous”, because he wouldn’t want yet another reason for people to hate him, right? Or, it’s because he’s not helping other Chinese Indonesians’ cause, right? When you are outside of the norm of the asli, people will try to make you feel small.
I even made myself feel small and unimportant.
I desperately wanted to be darker-skinned, so I could assert my asli-ness, my authenticity. One of the turning points of my life was when I switched from putting on skin-bleaching creams—a phenomenon that deserves its own write-up—to spending an extra amount of time under the sun. Both things didn’t feel right, though. I eventually stopped doing the latter, and believed the concept of asli as a fallacy. How can I be inauthentically Indonesian when I AM Indonesian, anyways? There are so many ways you can be Indonesian.
Last December, the last time I went back to Jakarta, I visited my father’s older sibling. She commented on my pale skin, which I told her was a consequence of living in cloudy Seattle. Then, I brought up to her about how her children and my other cousins would call me “Cacong”. She paused briefly, and said in her raspy voice, “You know, I think those people forget that there is some Chinese blood in this family.” I was surprised. Nobody had ever admitted that before, though I had been suspicious for a while. I asked how Chinese we are exactly, but she didn’t have an answer. “Who knows? All I know is that we wouldn’t look the way we look if we were fully Sundanese.”
Gone are the days where I wilted whenever somebody called me Chinese as a mockery. Gone are the days where I tried to suppress and hate parts of me that didn’t say, “I’M PRIBUMI!” Boy, what a long journey it was.