Unraveling identity and rediscovering roots: Jakarta, the turbulent gateway to a journey of self-discovery.
Submitted by Benjamin Soedira, Glasgow
Jakarta for most consists of long layovers and a blip of their time in Indonesia. For me, it was just the start. A trip through Java before a never-ending stint of island hopping to West Papua. My father's birthplace. Indonesia has been a place of identity for me. The combination of Indonesia’s incredibly diverse and complicated history along with my own family's complex past. The easy answer has been ‘Indonesian’, I look like this therefore I am. Whilst then having to listen to some very predictable spiel about Bali from the questioner. My time in Indonesia was to unravel those preconceptions, peel back what I thought I knew and rediscover an identity further east, in West Papua.
Touching down in Jakarta preys on a tired mind, a wall of taxi drivers line up offering to be your ‘friend’. With the humidity reminding me that I am far away from home. And an appetite that craves something other than dehydrated plane food. I accept my tiredness and fate in the little cash I have on me. Whilst my new friend, hand on shoulder directs me to what may or may not be an official bluebird taxi. Not much was said in my cab to central Jakarta, my tiredness had turned into a groggy hunger and excitement. Watching the highrise slowly emerge and traffic congestion worsen, those feelings of South East Asia make themselves present.
There is no better time to arrive in the largest city in South East Asia, than rush hour. Like myself everyone is exhausted, hungry and wants to go home. What may seem like a burden is the first step to feeling like I belong—stepping out onto the streets of Jakarta, with the sun and home behind me. I begin my first sense of home, sate ayam. Accessible and plentiful, sate ayam feels like it was made for those that have had a long day, or in my case, days. Perched on a small plastic stool, on what will soon become the norm for me. I allowed Jakarta to pull me into its ebbs and flows.
Navigating my identity has been difficult, and so is Jakarta’s roads. I quickly learnt that there is no rush hour, but rush hours. Most of my time was spent on the back of a scooter, actively trying to avoid traffic. Much like Jakarta’s traffic I’ve spent a good majority of my life avoiding things, such as conversations on my identity. Exhausted and at times frustrated like those in traffic, I have worn out and trialled many identities in life.
“Indonesian, Dutch-Indonesian, my father was born in West Papua or my Oma is from here and my Opa is from there…”
At times it can be a blessing, blending in. I find comfort in moving through the city as I try my best to move with the flow of things. A comfort and appreciation in the awkward interactions I encounter. The initial squint, followed by a chuckle as my English accent turns heads. The deep dive conversations through google translate and the friendly interest that follows. As time goes on I notice looks and double glances that suggest, wheres this guy from? The type of suggestion that I am from close by, but not exactly here. Patterns began to repeat themselves, questions of identity surfaced, and Jakarta’s humidity seeps into me, much like my ever-growing curiosity about family history.
My time spent in Jakarta was relentless. Its turbulent charm pulled and pushed me further into its sprawling concrete mass. Wrong turns led me to glitzy malls and back alley food stalls. Clouds of smoke filled the streets. Grilled and fried foods, scooter fumes and smog ramped up throughout the day before being washed away by torrential rain. Thunderstorms would call a short end to Jakarta's chaotic charm. Strong Java coffee and kretek became a crutch to lean on when I couldn’t keep up. I’d crawl into bed after late-night meals expecting the city to do the same. Cooler temperatures in the evening meant things were just starting. Loud music and chatter, souped-up scooters and city sounds echoing. I was doing it wrong. I’d let my own preconceptions chew me up. Jakarta wouldn’t let me get away with this struggle, it was its own microorganism. From the outside disorganised, but in reality vibrant and unapologetic.
Much like my own identity Jakarta baffled me, more often than not I would find myself trying to keep up with its daily life. Answering in ways that would satisfy it, much like my own response.
“What is your heritage?”
For years it fluttered between the broad and quick let's move on to the next question “Indonesian”. An answer that allowed those to box me how they see. West Papua on the other hand was much harder to grasp. Both ethnically and culturally, but arguably not Indonesian. After the Dutch colonial empire had left Indonesia, then becoming an independent nation-state in 1949. The Dutch government recognised West Papua as geographically, culturally and ethnically different to Indonesia. Leading the Dutch to assemble West Papua for its own independence. By 1961 West Papua had declared independence, raising their new but what is now illegal flag, The Morning Star. A year later and West Papua had lost their independence to Indonesia, after their demands on wanting to retain former Dutch colonies within the region. The New York Agreement was put in place, a meeting between The Netherlands and Indonesia. Resulting in the control of West Papua being handed over to Indonesia. Without consulting the people of West Papua. The years that followed were bloody and exploitative. Unfair votes, land grabbing and colonial tactics made themselves present.
My time in Jakarta was closing in, much like how my struggles with identity threw me about. Jakarta had done its job in bringing up the past all whilst driving head-on into asking new questions. Its diverse population had comforted me at times, having people look similar to me, those that shared their mixed background and ultimately being much closer to home than normal. But Jakarta had made me feel lonely, the constant flow of people and rituals it brings became a part of me I missed. I was there physically, but mentally distant and a stranger to those around me. My train to Bandung was early, boarding I felt I was leaving behind some preconceptions of my Indonesian identity. With more questions than before. I felt some relief in what Jakarta wanted from me. Solace in those around me. Rubbing shoulders with those under shelter from its daily downpours. A shared discontent for its traffic jams. And the regular hunched-over position of tucking into what was a never-ending delight of warm and spicy food. Jakarta may not have answered the questions I was looking for, but it certainly made itself known as the start of much more.
© Photography by Benjamin Soedira