Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Skin Deep

Indonesia is probably one of the most racist places I've ever been.  Yes, that's right.  Racist.

I've been to 46 countries on five continents (Australia is still a continent, isn't it?).  I've lived in several US states, Mexico, Ireland, England, Spain, Germany, and Indonesia.  I grew up in Texas in the 60s with a father who was Depression Era (the first big one) and a WWII vet.  To him, a racist epithet was a common adjective used to describe people of all stripes.  I went to school in lily white Catholic institutions where we had one Asian, four blacks and a South African (still white, but...).

Through all of this, I managed to maintain a fairly egalitarian point of view, thanks to my mother.  I don't look up to anyone, nor do I look down on them.  We are all God's children, as far as I'm concerned.

When I stepped off the plane here in Indonesia, it was my first experience in Southeast Asia.  When I looked around, I saw one of the most homogeneous societies I had ever experienced.  I know it's trite, but they all looked the same to me.  In fact, if I had to describe an Indonesian for a police report, the best I could do is, "Dark hair, dark eyes, brown skin, and about 5'-4"."  I've just described 99.9% of the indigenous population.

So how could these people be so freakin' racist?

The first thing you learn here is that if you are white, you are dripping money all over the place and you hand it out like candy at the dentist's office.  We tip what, 15% or so?  A really good Indonesian tip is 10 cents.  So when a foreigner comes along handing out tips in the amounts that we are used to, then we train everyone we come in contact with that we are filthy rich on our worst days.

So, the first form of racism you encounter here is that, as a white guy, you can literally make people look like cartoons, because dollar signs appear in their eyes as soon as they see you walk in the door.  Is that racism? Sure.  It only happens to white guys.  On top of that, Indonesians will blatantly lie, cheat and steal from you because you are so filthy rich.  The irony?  Many of the middle class here are much richer than most of their counterparts in the West now.  And even some of the poorest still own land and there is no property tax here.

OK, so enough of that.  That's the obvious stuff.  It's easy to pick out a white guy in a group of 300 million brown ones.

But it goes much deeper than that.  Indonesians are deeply prejudiced against each other, based on which kampung they are from, or island, or (get this) skin color.

The most discriminated group here is the Chinese.  There are two primary groups, other than foreigners.  There's the pribumi, or aboriginal, and the "others".  The others are composed mostly of Chinese, who have been coming here and intermarrying for centuries.  Doesn't matter.  If the eyes are a certain shape and the skin a certain shade of yellow, they are Chinese and are generally reviled.

During the economic crisis of 1998, the Chinese were murdered wholesale and their homes raided for anything that was portable.  Didn't matter that they had been here for generations, they were Chinese and deserved to be attacked for that reason alone.

My wife's grandfather was mainland Chinese.  He married a Java girl and they raised a family in central Java.  My wife speaks fewer words of Mandarin than I do, but she is fluent in Javanese and Indonesian,  Yet, she was attacked and had to have round-the-clock guards for her and her kids back in 1998, for not other reason than she looked Chinese.  Even now, I've heard the worst kind of insults hurled at her simply because there is Chinese blood in her family three generations ago.

OK, so we've knocked out the obvious.  White guys stand out like sore thumbs.  The Chinese, once you learn how to look at people here, can be discerned by the shape of their eyes and other superficial features.

But, I said this was the MOST racist place I had ever been.  How can the pribumi folks be prejudiced against each other?  Well...

The darker brown you are, the lower your station in life.  The implication is that dark skin means outdoor labor, and if you work outdoors, then you must be low class, right?  The lowest of these are the Ambonese and Papuans.  These folks look a lot like the Australian aboriginals and even pure Africans.  Being quite dark, they are universally reviled throughout the country.  As a consequence, they are some of the most violent folks here, since they have to defend themselves from near-constant taunts.

Next up are the somewhat lighter brown folks from the hinterlands.  These include most of the outer islanders and country folks.  Some are quite a bit shorter, as well, even to other Indonesians.  Once you know what to look for, you can usually spot them right off.  In fact, most of the maids, nannies and other domestic help fall into this category.  They are spoken to and treated accordingly, which is to say rough.

As you move up the skin shades, you get into office workers and such.  Even here, there's a pecking order that is so subtle as to take years to be able to perceive the differences.  At this level, we usually find the Java and Sumatera folks.  One level of distinction might be the number of generations away from jungle dweller you are.  Around these parts, that may be as little as one for a lot of folks.  You may have a degree and an office job, but you are still at the bottom of the totem pole because your folks still live in the forest.

The next level of discrimination is religion.  Now this gets downright nasty sometimes.  The Christians are pig eaters.  The Muslims are exclusionary.  They square off constantly in politics and culture, with Muslims bombing churches and the Christians constantly trying to convert everyone.  The Hindus stick pretty much to Bali and east Java and the Buddhists are pretty quiet, but everyone gets their share of the fun.  After all, the Buddhists are usually of Chinese decent (see earlier point).

When it gets right down to it, it reminds me of the old Star Trek episode with Frank Gorshin.  Two aliens, the last of their kind, are locked in mortal combat and hatred.  The crew can't tell them apart, but we eventually learn that their black and white halves are exactly opposite.

It's not unlike white folks who discriminate against each other for being rednecks, or white trash, or blue collars, or white collars.

It leads one to conclude that everyone is hard-wired to find someone else to shit on to make themselves feel good.  Thankfully, Indonesia doesn't suffer from Political Correctness, so all this is still out in the open where it can be dealt with.  In the West, it's been chased into the closet so you never really know what someone else really thinks or feels.  Nor can it be dealt with, since it's all hidden and no one really knows who thinks what about whom, so we can discuss it and fix it.

There's still hope for Indonesia.

If you are routinely attacked by people wearing red coats, then you learn to stay away from anyone wearing a red coat.  Some prejudices are earned.  Others are inherited from old generations and the reasons for the hatreds are long forgotten.  Isn't it time we all took a hard look at our prejudices and think about whether they are earned or just old wives' tales?  Perhaps we could dispense with a lot of the world's problem if we just took everyone at face value.

I try to live by very profound words from a man with his head screwed on straight.  His name was Will Rogers, and what he said was, "I never met a man I didn't like."  Think about that one for a long time and see if those aren't some of the wisest words you've ever heard.  If we all live by that, might could actually achieve some good stuff on this planet.

But frankly, I still hate beets and nothing you say or do will convince me otherwise.