The Chinese Assimilation in Indonesia


Earlier today, I had an interesting conversation with my boyfriend about assimilation versus integration, a sociological phenomenon or theory that I’m really sure I’ve came across when I was in High School (teacher sucked, so the best thing I got was a vague memory of the difference between the two). This is particularly relevant to me as I came across an article from TEMPO yesterday about how a particular group of Chinese ethnicity in Medan (North of Indonesia) was “asked” by the local government to speak Bahasa Indonesia. 

Is it right for the government to encourage “assimilation”? Actually, what’s the more suitable word: integration or assimilation? It appears that very few people understand the difference between the two and mis use them (I’m not surprised if the local Indonesian government doesn’t know). I was prompted to investigate further and found quite a revelation of my own cultural background. 

Let’s start with the difference between the two words. 

Social integration, according to Princeton, is defined as the action of incorporating a racial or religious group into a community. It requires proficiency in an accepted common language of the society, acceptance of the laws of the society and adoption of a common set of values of the society.

Cultural assimilation, on the other hand, is when people of different backgrounds come to see themselves as part of a larger national family, or the process by which a person or a group’s language and, or culture come to resemble those of another group. Full assimilation occurs when new members of a society become indistinguishable from members of the other group. 

In other words, assimilation is one step deeper than integration. Assimilation would require integration, but integration does not necessarily require assimilation. With this understanding in mind, let’s see where the Chinese ethnics stands in Indonesia. Please note that I’m fully aware of my narrow scope, as I will be looking through the lens of a Chinese born and bred in Jakarta. 

I will be using the four primary benchmarks that social scientists rely on to assess one culture’s assimilation to the host culture. Then I will give a score on each benchmark, in which 1 = low assimilation and 5 = high assimilation. 

1. Socio-economic status: defined by educational attainment, occupation, and income. The underlying assumption here is that the minorities did not do so well in these three areas compared to the natives, thus a full assimilation would mean the minorities have caught up with the natives in terms of human capital. Not the case in Indonesia : A much-quoted but spurious statistic contends that they control 70% of the economy (The Economist). Chinese Indonesians do own many of the biggest and most prominent conglomerates, several of which profited greatly from Mr Suharto’s largesse before and during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. A primary example? BCA, the second largest bank by assets in Indonesia, which was owned by a Chinese. Even though in some provinces there are still many poor Chinese, the nation largely regard the Chinese as wealthy (again, it’s not always true). Assimilation Score : 4/5 

ImageDespite the widely regarded cliche, there are many Chinese living in poor condition. 

2. Spatial concentration: defined by geography and residential pattern. The hypothesis is that the more assimilated a group is, the less concentrated their residential area is. Although most of them reside in Java, I would say the Chinese are quite sporadic, with presence in three different islands : Java (Jakarta, East-Java), Sumatra (Medan and Bangka Belitung), and West Kalimantan. Assimilation Score : 3/5 

3. Language attainment: defined as the ability to speak Indonesian and the loss of the individual’s mother tongue, which in this case is Chinese. As of today, there presence of four different Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Mandarin, Hakka, and Cantonese) is still felt, but it is slowly losing grip. I would use the three-generational model to argue about this. The first generation, which is my grandparents,  are thought to “made some attempt to adopt the national language, but remains dominant in their native language”. This is true for my grandparents as even though they command fluent Indonesians, they still use Chinese to communicate to each other. The second generation, which is my parents, are supposed to be bilingual. Emm, this is a bit tricky as my father is bilingual, only because he learned it by himself through conducting business with the Taiwanese. My mother on the other hand, does not speak Chinese. This is largely due to the anti-Chinese sentiment happening at the end of the Soeharto regime (a LONG story which I would not touch upon, for now). The third generation, which is me, speaks only Bahasa Indonesia. This completes the process of assimilation, which is the eradication of a group’s native language. So in the sense of language, I can see an element of assimilation in the sense that a lot of my friends are Chinese, but we do not speak Chinese (unless we decide to learn it, which is what I’m doing right now). Assimilation Score: 5/5


The three generation, in a farewell dinner for my departure to Hong Kong

4. Intermarriage: high rates of intermarriage are considered to be an indication of social integration because it reveals intimate and profound relations between people of different groups. In Indonesia, intermarriage is lawfully right, however it is still a social topic. For example, if a relative of mine who is Chinese is married to an Indonesian (called “pribumi”), it becomes a topic discussed over lunch. It’s not necessarily a taboo or frowned upon, it’s just that marrying a Chinese is seen to be the safe choice. I hope this practice will gradually decrease! Assimilation Score: 2/5

Average assimilation score : 3.5/5 

As indicated in the average assimilation score, the Chinese has not been fully assimilated to the Indonesian society, retaining a 60% assimilation. They dying presence of Chinese language and the more wide-spread usage of Indonesian language is the ultimate proof of assimilation, followed by the higher socio-economic status attained by the Chinese culture. Interracial marriage is still a deviation from the social norm, which indicates that the Chinese have not fully let go of their native culture and identity. 

I think to a certain extent Indonesia (in the 21st century at least) has been less of a hostile environment and a more welcoming place for the Chinese minority. The host culture has been welcoming of integration, respecting and thriving the Chinese culture and people, a fact that the Chinese should not take for granted. Having said that, I see the benefit of assimilation to a host culture and I do encourage a certain level of assimilation. 

However, I have a particularly strong stance on the fact that a culture should never be fully assimilated and lose their identity wholly. A part of me is dissapointed with the fact that the third generation nowadays do not speak Chinese. Speaking one’s origin language does not only give one an advantage of speaking an additional language, but most importantly it gives him/her the tool to rekindle, connect, and always be accepted in one’s origin culture. Having lived in an international environment in Hong Kong, I came to appreciate the power of diversity, how enriching, dynamic, and exciting it can be! 


Source: Cultural Assimilation (Wikipedia) ; picture #1 and #2 are not mine; picture #3 is mine, permission is required for reuse. 

An overdue project!

Ah, writing the first post of your blog is always a difficult one. It’s such a big honor for the post, don’t you think? 

But this is it! 

I would like to start with WHY first.

Why did I come to publishing this blog? 

Well, it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve always enjoyed sharing my thoughts, orally and written. I started my very first blog ages ago and really enjoyed writing, but I tend to babble so much that I spent a lot of time writing. Soon, I was inundated with a lot of work (especially in my college life) that I couldn’t find time to write anymore and left writing/blogging. But you know what, you will always have the time if you make time for it. I am not going to let time dictate me; this is me taking control! 

Second, I see the immense benefit of writing. Believe me, if you think writing will stop in high school, think again. The amount of writing assignments that you have to do in University only doubles (if not triples). The ability to recall vocabularies, organize your thoughts, and write in a cohesive way thus become very important to your success in college. But that’s not even the most important reason. 

Finally, and most importantly, writing makes you THINK. Through someone’s words, you can see their ideas, way of thinking, logic, and personality. I spent a considerable amount of time to know myself and one of my weaknesses is that I read a lot of things, but I could not quite materialize what I gained. All those information that I retained slipped from my head way too easily, resulting in time wasted. Through writing, I believe, I will be forced to stop, examine the materials that I’ve read or heard, and try to think about the implications. By doing this I will be able to train my critical thinking skills and creativity. 

There are SO many benefits that I can think of from writing. But I’d like to start and stop with those three above for now! 

Next is WHAT

What is this blog going to be about? 

I read almost about anything! Being connected to the wonderful world of internet and bright, talented friends (yes I’m grateful for all of this), I’m inspired and mesmerized by a lot of things. Thus, I decided that this blog will not have a specific topic and limitation; it can be anything from the latest Woody Allen movie, last night’s tennis match, to the frustratingly rude people of Hong Kong, the latest absurdity of the Indonesian government, and the eye-opening country report from McKinsey. 

Overall, this blog is a hybrid; it is personal as it contains some of my latest reflection, yet it is public as I believe there will be information that will benefit your knowledge. 

Finally, the HOW. 

How am I going to go about every posts? 

Each posts will be about a certain topic or dilemma; I will often quote and use external resources and provide my own thoughts there. And of course, you are welcomed to post comments! 

That’s it readers! Hope you enjoy my first post. 


Stop. THINK. Do.