⅓ - Creative-Nonfiction
“Jia xin, ni jin tian xia lai xue xi xin ke,” popo would lovingly remind me every time we had lunch together. It literally translates to “Come down and learn a new lesson today”, which means that she wanted me to start a new chapter of my mandarin textbook. My grandma, my popo, is a mandarin tutor and she takes great pride in it. Pride that she tried planting in me early on in life too. So every afternoon, after school, I would go over to her place where she would be tutoring and slip myself in between bigger and older students. I had my own special seat, a bright pink chair she bought just for me. Compared to the stiff moss green-looking wooden chairs she got for barely two dollars each at a garage sale the other students were sitting on, I thought my chair felt -and looked- like a throne. No one else was allowed to sit there, popo made sure of it and so I always felt a great sense of importance and satisfaction whenever I sat there. Until one day I decided that I hated it and never sat on it ever again.
The saturday sun was shy as dad was driving me to my music school, it was barely eight in the morning but Jakarta was wide awake. Bundaran HI the sun and hundreds of cars, planets orbiting it. We drove through the busiest parts of the city and the roads were congested as many were heading to work, but the clear blue sky felt oddly reassuring. Dad had his bluetooth connected to the speakers and “Thank You Lord” by Don Moen was playing, the same way it did the week before that, and the week before that week, and the one before that one. Looking back now, having that single constant always provided me with a strange feeling of comfort. This had been my Saturday routine for approximately two years, piano lessons from 9 to 10 in the morning, lunch and a short break until 11, vocal lessons from 12 to 1, and the day always ended with choir practice from 1 to 5, this cycle would go on every weekend for another five years. I knew my way around the school in the back of my head, every creek and every nook. I always greeted every staff member, teachers, canteen staff, janitors, everyone knew me. I mean how could they not? I spent every single weekend there. The school was undoubtedly my second home, a place I felt safe in, a place where I felt like I belonged. But little did I know that the day was going to be so much more than just another Saturday.
“Good luck jie, daddy believes in you,” dad said as he kissed me goodbye.
The halls were bustling with seventy children trying to push past each other to reach the bulletin board. The results of last week’s audition were out, 40 names of children who made it to the competition team. 40 children who were chosen to represent our country, Indonesia in the great, marvelous, America. My friends were all fighting to take a look at the list, it was a natural response, everyone wanted to go to America and I did too. However, being freshly 8 years old and the youngest among 70 people did not really fill me with confidence or excitement. It was more along the lines of anxiousness and a profound fear of not seeing my name. A profound fear of failure. It had always been a massive dream of mine, visiting Hollywood with an in-n-out in my hand. An American dream, even just for a summer. My classmates would tell me all about their trip to California, or Vegas, MnM world, Disneyland and I always tried my best to sound happy for them. I wonder now if I actually succeeded, or if they could see right through the show and at the underlying envy and jealousy. A trip to America would cost my parents a hefty amount of money, an amount that would require them to work extra hours for months or even years, but also which they had agreed to spend if only I passed the audition. I decided not to check the list out until after practice ended, a decision made after watching the myriad of reactions that brewed in the halls. Squeals, laughter, giggles, sobs, sniffles, bawls. I wanted to face the disappointment alone. I could already hear all the consolation speeches that were on their way.
“It’s okay, you’re only eight, you’ll get tons of other opportunities in the future.”
“Everyone has their own time for everything, this just wasn’t yours.”
“We can always go to America when you’re older.”
The four hours of choir practice which I loved and was my favorite part of my week felt like centuries and decades that day. Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days. Lucky for me, just as all things come to an end, so did practice that day. As the silence in the room bloomed into chatter and I told my friends that I was going to stay behind for a little while to learn the new songs on my own. They found it strange at first but decided to leave after seeing that I was persistent about staying. I packed my bags quietly after making sure that everyone left. I still remember feeling my heartbeat in my head as I walked towards the bulletin board, palms sweaty and chewing on my bottom lip as I scanned through the list for my name. First ten, no luck. Nineteen..Twenty.. Still no luck. Thirty, I failed. Thirty-six, Thirty-seven, Thirty-eight, Thirty – Hold on. Then I saw it, CAITLYN, big, bold, and beautifully printed next to number thirty-eight. I was paralyzed from excitement. It felt like all my prayers had been answered, happiness streaked right through me like a comet. I hurriedly gathered my bags, and floated down the stairs and into my car where my parents were waiting to share the news. That night, we celebrated over dinner, it truly felt like a dream come true.
Over the next three months we would have practice every Saturday and Sunday, from 1 to about 6 or 7 in the evening. I missed all my friends’ birthday parties and couldn’t attend playdates, but this meant so much more to me. It was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to lose. Finally, the last month before the festival, we started intensive training. It was pretty much school, we had physical training – jogging and yoga – before dance classes, group vocalizing sessions and more things that I can’t really remember now. Nevertheless, I still vividly remember the one week quarantine we had where we were all put on ‘voice-safe’ diets, I still remember the scars and bruises from dance classes, the arguments as we were all starting to spend too much time with one another. I still remember ‘Cultural Night’.
Cultural Night was everyone’s favorite night, the most awaited event before we officially departed for San Francisco. It was a celebration of Indonesia, our country, whose name and flag we would carry halfway across the globe. Preparations started the week before when we were all instructed to show up dressed in the traditional costume of our respective Indonesian tribes. It is what our country takes most pride in: our diversity. It was meant to be a celebration of unity in diversity. Diversity that deliberately excluded me. Naive towards the sensitivity of the issue, the best solution I had in my mind was to tell my coaches that I, in fact, wasn’t from any Indonesian tribe and that I didn’t have a tribe that I belonged to. I then politely asked if I was allowed to show up in my qipao, excited and happy to finally represent the marginalized group of people like me, Chinese-Indonesians. They scoffed.
“Just rent a kebaya, this is a celebration of Indonesia, not China.”
I never felt different growing up. Until this single moment.
Disappointment, anger, frustration, and the list of negative emotions that I felt could go on forever. This was the community I thought I felt safe in, people whom I loved spending time with, people whom I enjoyed learning from, people whom I looked up to, people whom I had spent every weekend with for years. For the first time in my life, I hated being different, I hated looking different, I hated my eyes, I hated that I spoke chinese instead of an Indonesian dialect, I hated the thought of that chair at popo’s place, I hated the color of my skin, I hated the way my nose was, I hated the way I pronounced certain Indonesian words with a weird accent, I hated that I wasn’t up-to-date with the most recent local slangs. I hated that I wasn’t like them but knew that it only meant that I needed myself on my side more now than ever.
I showed up to Culture Night in a red dress and a batik vest. What was supposed to be the best and most fun and memorable night from the four months of preparation felt the most dreadful to me. The room was filled with the familiar faces of friends and their families. Familiar faces that were smiling at me from a distance. People who knew I was there but never really saw me. I never felt more out of place as I watched the other children gather together and take pictures in their ulee balang, aesan gede, teluk belanga, kebaya, and other traditional wear I could not recognise but were absolutely magnificent and beautiful. I considered listening to my coach’s suggestion about renting a kebaya. Yet just the thought of it felt self-deceiving. Thinking about it now, it could have been a fun party and function to make memories with friends and family, but it was never about wearing the kebaya, as a matter of fact, I thought they looked mesmerizing. It was about having my culture annulled to celebrate another. Nothing would’ve ever made me do it – not even for just one night.
History does repeat itself even though sometimes we beg for it not to. In January of this very year, I got the opportunity to participate in a model congress held in Seoul, South Korea. I remember the deja vu I felt as we were on the plane, the same giddiness and exhilaration, the same feeling of nervousness and anxiousness. My lips were shut almost entirely together in the first few hours of the event: opening ceremony and socializing time. The older I grow, the more intriguing I find observing people before actually approaching them. Maybe it came from the fear of talking to not-so-nice people and getting hurt but who knows. I found it amusing, all the teenagers dressed up in professional-looking blazers, it could have easily been mistaken for a black tie event. I wondered if they act and behave just as sophisticated on other days, or if it was all just a show to win ‘Best Delegate’. A million things were sorting themselves out in my head, but my biggest concern stayed the same since the past two weeks: Do I tell them that I’m Indonesian or Chinese?
It wasn’t long before a girl with long, brunette locks and pale, fair skin came walking towards me. European, looked like she had English features, maybe, maybe not.
“Hi ! I’m Emmeline, what’s your name?” I could tell that unlike me, she was genuinely enjoying this – the socializing.
“It’s Caitlyn, where are you from?” I responded, trying to make my voice sound as enthusiastic as possible.
“Oh I’m from the UK, London, you?” Bingo!
“Indonesia,” I decided to just keep it short, praying that she wouldn’t ask further questions about anything regarding my answer.
“No, where are you really from, I mean you just don’t really look like the other Indonesians here today, ” I could feel my stomach churning.
“I’m chinese, ethnically, but I was born and raised in Indonesia,” I said, desperately trying to keep a smile on my face.
“Oh really? Chinese? You don’t really look Chinese either,” maybe it was just all new to her, which was why she found it interesting. Or maybe she was ignorant towards issues like these in general, or the way that I couldn’t stop fidgeting at this point. How do I explain to her that I’m mostly Chinese, that my maternal great-grandparents hailed from Shanghai or that my fraternal great-great-grandmother was Thai, a woman who independently migrated from Sayam to Indonesia for a better living? How do I tell her that the complex routes those who were before me had taken are the reasons I look the way I do? I don’t. I simply forced out a laugh and that was the end of our conversation.
I thought the second day of the event went well. The international model congress circuit was definitely far more diverse than any of the ones I had been to in Indonesia. It felt like the whole world in a room. I met people from South Africa, Japan, Chile, Switzerland, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, America, UK, people from everywhere. I spent lunch and break time that day with fellow Indonesian delegates. The familiarity of the language and the social culture felt much needed as the newness of the entire situation could be overwhelming at times. We talked, and joked, and watched videos together. I thought everything was going as great as it could’ve possibly went. Until most of them stopped talking to me the next day.
“Oh, um, the thing is, yesterday, Max kinda told everyone that you’re poor and that you don’t go to a good school, so most of them don’t think it’s a good idea to work with you, but I guess that includes not hanging around you either. Sorry about them, they’re all no good anyway,” Michelle, one of the people I was eating with the day before, explained when I finally mustered up the courage to ask.
Oddly enough, as much as I was upset about it, I completely understood where they came from. They all went to big, international schools in the south of Jakarta, the Upper East Site of our city, and I went to a smaller one. A much smaller one. To be frank, I found it a little vexing but also hilarious at the same time, that someone so, very, explicitly told people that I was poor, a person who barely knew me. But I guess that’s the thing, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but we never really talk about the people in between. Families who can’t afford sending both children to an international school, but not struggling so much that they can pay to send one. People who would rather not answer the question ‘Where are you from?’ because they don’t like explaining the complexity of their roots. I grew up feeling like a foreigner in my homeland, like I didn’t belong. I never celebrated Eid al-Adha even when every road in the city is decorated with banners and lights in all shades of green. Instead, I celebrate the lunar new year at home. I have never admitted it, but I always thought I would feel more at home when I visited China. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case either. Locals always spoke to me in English, they always asked if I was partly American, and stopped me to take pictures. It was as if I had “A Tourist” painted across my forehead. I had always felt like I was never fully anything. Not fully Chinese, not fully Indonesian, not rich, not poor. I was always just there. In math class, I used to always always hate it when the answer to a question is ⅓, I always felt an odd sense of exasperation and irritation when I see the number. I used to never be able to explain why, but now I do: I am ⅓ . 0.333333333333, never a definite number, never just 0.33, never 0, but also never 1 either.
As I continue to learn a new lesson everyday, one lesson after the other has snowballed into one big one: Even if a pin falls in a crowded room where no one heard it, it still makes a sound. Today, I carry my family’s roots with immense pride and honor. I truly believe that never being fully anything is the only reason I am a whole person today. The will to never stop learning that germinated from the hunger of acknowledgement somehow transformed into unending curiosity of the world and how I can contribute to the bettering of it. Being socially displaced has allowed me to find and create my own space, a space which proves that there is indeed a place for everyone. This world is so much smaller than we think it is, but still so much bigger than our own. At some point in maturing, I realized that mankind is far too busy to make a place for me, and that society is just as lost as I am. I can’t sit back and expect people to make me a place that I can feel at home in – it’s a place I have to make for myself, I need to make people hear me. A situation is only what I make of it and just the same way my popo once deliberately bought me the pink chair with the goal of motivating me to study and sit in class twelve years ago, I have to build my own pink chair in society today. A pink chair that stood on four steady legs – kindness, compassion, dignity, and respect.
⅓ is still a real number.
Nathanya Caitlyn Lim is a 17 year old who is passionate about people. She resides in Jakarta, Indonesia and enjoys reading, journaling, and songwriting in her free time. Caitlyn believes that the world can use a lot more kindness and just as much less judgement.