Indonesia Learns Chinese

A once-banned language makes a comeback.


It looked like a typical Chinese language class. A young woman named Mela strode to the front of the room and performed a skit about shopping at the beauty counter. "I shop by quality and by price," she said in near-perfect Mandarin. But the location of the scene was a bit more unusual. The class took place at the University of Indonesia, the top school in the world’s fourth-most populous country, and almost all the students, including Mela, who was wearing skinny jeans and a headscarf, were Muslim.

A decade ago, an indigenous Indonesian, or pribumi, studying Chinese would have been almost unthinkable. Indonesia had a history of conflict between its Chinese minority and Muslim majority dating back to colonial times, when Dutch rulers favored the Chinese over the pribumi. But today many young Indonesians — both ethnic Chinese and pribumi — are leaving behind the old ethnic strife and learning Mandarin to take advantage of China’s booming economy. When U.S. President Barack Obama visits the country of his childhood next month, he may find a population increasingly looking north across the South China Sea rather than east across the Pacific.

Although millions of ethnic Chinese lived in Indonesia and were the driving force behind the economy, Mandarin had been excised from public life since long before students like Mela were born, as part of a general effort to assimilate the Chinese by force. Under the rule of President Suharto, from 1965 to 1998, Chinese schools and books and even the celebration of Chinese New Year were forbidden. Ethnic Chinese were strongly encouraged to adopt Indonesian names, and cina, meaning China or Chinese, became a racial epithet.

The Mandarin language was driven underground in many parts of Indonesia during those years, and studying Chinese became a clandestine activity. For example, Henry Tong, the owner of a company in Java that manufactures gloves, told me he learned Chinese as a child by reading Hong Kong comic books and from a private tutor. "When we studied, we had to close all our doors and windows. And when we saw somebody from the army outside, we quickly hid our books," he said.

In May 1998, riots broke out in Jakarta and other cities as demonstrations against economic woes turned into widespread looting and arson lasting for nearly three days. Much of the violence targeted the ethnic Chinese and their businesses, though ultimately most of the people who died, trapped in burning malls, were non-Chinese. But the riots also brought down Suharto, and the next elected president dismantled the country’s anti-Chinese policies.

Now, companies now come to the University of Indonesia to recruit Chinese majors, and job ads asking for Mandarin skills have cropped up in local newspapers. "Finding a job in Indonesia is easier if you speak Mandarin," Mela told me in Chinese. She took up the language in high school after a teacher said China’s development would make Mandarin fluency valuable to employers.

As other students gave their presentations in the University of Indonesia class I visited, Daniel Kus Hendarso and a friend sat at the back of the room, joking around and tapping at their cell phones. Hendarso, though three-quarters Chinese by heritage, is even newer to the language than Mela. He and his parents are typical Chinese Indonesians. Their family has lived in Indonesia for generations, and they now speak only Indonesian and a local language, Javanese. Hendarso noted that the Chinese own many of the top Indonesian companies, and he said he hopes to improve his job prospects. But he also cited another motivation for studying the language. "I want to better understand my homeland," he said.

To meet growing demand from students and parents, about one-fifth of the country’s universities now offer Mandarin, compared to just 5 percent a decade ago, according to Dendy Sugono, who heads the Language Centre at Indonesia’s Ministry of Education. But qualified teachers are hard to find — not surprising given how long the language was banned — and often have to be imported from China.

More and more, students are going directly to China for educational opportunities. Another student in the Chinese class, Amelia, one of the few to have parents who speak Mandarin, has just applied for a scholarship at a well-known foreign languages university in Beijing. "Most of my Chinese friends from high school want to go to China to study, not the U.S.," said Amelia, who has one name, as is common in Java. "American universities are too expensive."

Last year 7,926 Indonesian students studied in China, more than three times as many as in 2003. For the first time, China was more popular than the United States, which drew 7,509 students. The high price of U.S. tuition only partly explains the trend. Another reason? Indonesians are beginning to see China, not the United States, as the world power to bet on.

It’s easy to see why Indonesians who master Mandarin might have a bright future with one of the many Indonesian companies that do business with China. Last year trade between the two countries totaled $22.41 billion for non-oil-and-gas products. Indonesia’s wealth of forestry and minerals products are particularly appealing to a natural-resources-hungry China. And since a free trade agreement took effect early this year, exports to China (excluding oil and gas products) have already skyrocketed 137.6% in January and February, compared to the same period in 2009.

"Just as in the past having their sons and daughters mix at American universities paid off at a lot of levels, Indonesian parents feel that now is the time to do that in China," said Greg Barton, Indonesian studies professor at Monash University in Australia.

But for or all the enthusiasm around Mandarin’s resurgence, no one can say how much language learning will bridge social divides. True, ethnic tensions have eased significantly in the last decade, and a new politically correct term, tionghoa, has replaced cina, but the differences between ethnic Chinese and the pribumi pervade life in Indonesia. In Jakarta, the two groups usually attend separate schools, live in separate neighborhoods, shop at separate malls, and seek treatment at separate hospitals. During a recent trip to the capital, I stayed at a large apartment complex where almost all the residents were ethnic Chinese; only the building workers and nannies were pribumi.

But change is afoot, as the students in Chinese class reminded me. "Before I came to university, all my friends were Chinese. But here, there are more Indonesians, so I’m friends with them," said Amelia. "I think it’s okay.

Michelle Tsai is a freelance writer living in Beijing. She blogs about China and the overseas Chinese at ChinatownStories.com.