17,000 Islands, 700 Languages, And A Superhero Indonesia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on Earth. And while that pluralism is embraced in the country's founding documents, its ethnic Chinese minority has been persecuted for generations. NPR's Ari Shapiro tells the story of a young Indonesian of Chinese descent, who is trying to navigate his country's roiling tensions.
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17,000 Islands, 700 Languages, And A Superhero

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17,000 Islands, 700 Languages, And A Superhero

17,000 Islands, 700 Languages, And A Superhero

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Alldo Fellix J. is a 26-year-old who grew up in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. And growing up, he had the same aspirations as any bright young person living anywhere in the world.

ALLDO FELLIX JANUARDY: I have a dream to be a superhero (laughter). There was a superhero, a Japanime, called "Kamen Rider Black." I always wanted to be a masked rider who saved everyone.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, foreign language spoken).


"Kamen Rider Black" is this masked dude. He rides a motorcycle. He fights crime. He protects the world from evil - you know, the standard superhero portfolio. That was Alldo's dream. But as he got older, he realized that saving everyone didn't mean taking down supervillains or jumping into burning buildings. For him, it meant going to law school and studying to be a human rights lawyer. But Alldo also knew that making that dream happen wouldn't be easy because he's an Indonesian of Chinese descent. And with that comes some obstacles.


UNIDENTIFIED MUADDIN: (Chanting in Arabic).

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this week, we're not coming to you from sunny Los Angeles or bitterly cold D.C.

DEMBY: Nope.

MERAJI: We're going on a trip to Indonesia, Alldo's home and one of the youngest, most populous countries in the world. And it's safe to say there's no place on earth that's more ethnically diverse than Indonesia.

DEMBY: Right. It's a country of 17,000 islands with more than 700 languages spoken. Indonesia's population is about 250 million, which is actually not that much smaller than our population here in the United States. Indonesia is actually the fourth-most populous country in the world - which I did not know - with more than 300 different ethnic groups. It's roughly 80 percent Muslim, which makes it the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, although Indonesia officially recognizes six religions.

MERAJI: The median age is 29 years old. More than half the country is under 30. And that's worth noting because really young countries are often ripe for social upheaval. And as you can probably imagine, there are some complicated dynamics around race and culture in Indonesia.

DEMBY: Yes. We're going to talk about one of those racial dynamics at play. To do that, we're tagging in Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hey, Gene. Hey, Shereen.

DEMBY: Hey, Ari.

MERAJI: Hey, Ari.

DEMBY: Y'all might know Ari from his day job as the host of All Things Considered. He traveled to Indonesia earlier this year - just last month...


DEMBY: ...To talk to young Indonesians like Alldo, who are in the middle of all these entanglements and all this churn. Ari, welcome to CODE SWITCH.

SHAPIRO: I am so happy to be here and to talk with you about this really interesting guy I met.

MERAJI: Alldo Fellix J. - what's the J?

SHAPIRO: The J actually stands for January. A lot of people in Indonesia have the name of the month they were born in somewhere in their name. So like, our interpreter, the local journalist who worked with us, was named Febriana (ph) because she was born in - can you guess?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: February.

MERAJI: February. I love that.

DEMBY: That's dope.

MERAJI: Now back to Alldo Fellix - he's an Indonesian of Chinese descent, which we said earlier. He's also a human rights lawyer. And that's something you don't find often in Indonesia. Why?

SHAPIRO: It's strange. Even though people of Chinese descent have lived in Indonesia for centuries, there is still a lot of racial segregation, not just geographically but in the workforce, where people who are of Chinese descent in Indonesia are expected to go into business, finance, things having to do with money. And so for Alldo to go into human rights law was, like, really a leap for him.

ALLDO FELLIX J.: Most Chinese-Indonesians living in Indonesia usually work as a businessman - or at least people who work in a private profit sector, like accountants, doctors or corporate lawyers. But people choosing to work in a public sector for Chinese-Indonesian is rare.

DEMBY: That's fascinating because here in the States, the jobs you just listed are, like, prestigious, white-collar jobs. And it sounds like Indonesians of Chinese descent are sort of forced into these fields, as they don't have a lot of options to do other stuff.

SHAPIRO: It's hard to know how much is being forced and how much is self-selecting and how much is really a legacy of colonialism.

What we think of today as Indonesia was a Dutch colony for many, many years. And the Dutch kind assigned ethnic Chinese people to work in the business sector or as tax collectors. The Dutch government actually passed laws categorizing people based on their ethnic groups with different rules and regulations for each group. And that bred racial resentment.

And so then, even after Indonesia gained independence in 1949, Alldo told me it has been really hard for Indonesians of Chinese descent to expand into other parts of the economy. And one of the things he told me that resonated with my own experience as somebody growing up Jewish in the United States is that a lot of the stereotypes that apply to people of Chinese descent in Indonesia apply to Jews in the U.S. and Europe and for kind of the same reason.

You know, in the 19th and early 20th century in Europe, Jews were sort of forced into fields having to do with money. And so you had this reputation that Jews were stingy, that Jews only cared about money. You know, the money-lender Jew is sort of the negative racial stereotype. And there's a very similar stereotype of people of Chinese descent in Indonesia.

And when you look at the data, people of Chinese descent in Indonesia do, on the whole, make more money than the median Indonesian income.

Indonesia is a poor country, and there's a disproportionately wealthy number of Chinese-Indonesians. And so those people often become the target of resentment and outright racism.

MERAJI: So knowing there's that much racism out there and that much discrimination towards his people, how did that affect Alldo's decision to do something completely different that would maybe, like, set him up for more scrutiny?

SHAPIRO: Right. He told me that he felt a lot of pressure, both from his own family - that didn't want him to stick his neck out and try to break the mold - and from people outside of his circle who were like, you're of Chinese descent. You're not supposed to be interested in anything but business and finance.

And he told me that when he went to college was really the first time that he experienced a multiethnic environment.

ALLDO FELLIX J.: I decided to enroll for the University of Indonesia. It is the best university in Indonesia. But not many of the students are Chinese-Indonesian.

SHAPIRO: And he went and did something that no student of Chinese descent at this university had ever done before.

ALLDO FELLIX J.: I tried my luck once. I put an effort to run for the university president, the faculty of law, to be exact. When I ran the campaign, I was attacked by similar issues like Ahok. Do you want to vote for a non-Muslim leader? It is restricted by the religion. So it happened to me what had happened to Ahok back then. But then I won the election anyway.

MERAJI: Similar issues to Ahok?


MERAJI: Who's he talking about?

SHAPIRO: Ahok was the governor of Jakarta, basically the mayor. And this was one of the biggest stories out of Indonesia in the last year. And it has some real parallels with what Alldo went through. Ahok was Christian. He was of Chinese descent. And he was governing this majority-Muslim city, Jakarta. And when he came up for re-election, his opponent said, hey, voters, if you're Muslim, you can't vote for a non-Muslim. You can't vote for Ahok - even though Ahok was really popular.

He had sort of made progress on traffic and waste disposal problems in Jakarta. He had high approval ratings. But not only did Ahok lose re-election, he actually got convicted of blasphemy against Islam and got locked up for something he said on the campaign trail. And Ahok is now in prison.


SHAPIRO: So between Alldo Fellix J. and Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta, you've got these two very different narratives. In both cases, you have an Indonesian of Chinese descent trying to get a position of power and people - perhaps from racist motivations - saying this guy's not Muslim, maybe he doesn't seem authentically Indonesian - you shouldn't vote for him. But Alldo Fellix J. actually was elected president of his student body.

MERAJI: And were people supportive of him in that position?

SHAPIRO: He still encountered racism. I mean, if you want to draw parallels with the United States, you could say it's a little bit like having a black president governing a majority-white country, you know. And a generally popular president - but did that make racism go away? Of course not. So I asked Alldo what lessons he took from this experience.

ALLDO FELLIX J.: The society put an unrealistic standard for Chinese-Indonesian if they want to excel in certain sector, like, let's say, public sector. If one Chinese-Indonesian do something bad, they believe that all Chinese-Indonesian have similar bad attitudes. But if you want to be recognized as Chinese-Indonesian who is Indonesian enough, you have to be - have this - some kind of integrity like other Chinese-Indonesian prominent figures, which is kind of also discriminatory (laughter).

DEMBY: Yeah. All of this checks out. We will...


DEMBY: Trying to represent your people, being twice as good - absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, you have to be better than the best in order to prove that you can rise above the negative stereotype. Yeah, this (laughter)...

DEMBY: Absolutely, absolutely.

MERAJI: Or three times as good if you're a woman of color.

DEMBY: Right, right.


DEMBY: Is there - this is a weird question, but is there a slur that is thrown at ethnic Chinese in Indonesia?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the word is Cina, which is basically, I guess - I don't speak the Indonesian language - but sort of the Indonesian equivalent of Chinamen. That term, Cina, was in the country's founding documents. And at some point, it was changed because it was thought of as derogatory. But people who I spoke with in this Chinese neighborhood of Jakarta called Glodok, they told me that when they walk down the street, people still shout that slur at them.

DEMBY: They shout it at them?


MERAJI: And Ari, we know it's more than just slurs being tossed around. In recent memory, there was widespread violence against Indonesians of Chinese descent. And although Indonesia is a really young country, the young population remembers this. And we're going to talk about what happened in the late '90s after the break.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So before the break, Ari was telling us about the discrimination that young ethnic Chinese people like Alldo Fellix J. face as they walked on the streets of Jakarta. And like you said, Shereen, it's not just slurs. In the 1990s, there was targeted violence against their community.

MERAJI: And we wanted to know more about that, so we called up Jemma Purdey. She's a professor at the Australia-Indonesia Centre at Monash University in Melbourne. She wrote a book called "Anti-Chinese Violence In Indonesia, 1996-1999." Purdey says, to understand what happened in the '90s, you got to go back to the '60s, around the time Indonesia gained its independence.

JEMMA PURDEY: So 1965, beginning in September, there was an alleged coup by members of the military, who were affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party - that was the allegation. And as a consequence, this became a pretext for the military and anti-communist forces to launch attacks on the Communist Party and, in fact, completely eliminate the Communist Party in Indonesia and any leftist elements. And, you know, various other groups, including ethnic Chinese, were targeted during that period.

MERAJI: OK. If these two things feel a little bit disconnected, remember, the biggest communist power in Asia is China - and was back then, too. So during this Red Scare in Indonesia, ethnic Chinese were assumed to be a part of this alleged communist agenda. And they got caught up in the Indonesian government's anti-leftist backlash.

DEMBY: Ethnic Chinese were thrown in jail. The government shut down organizations that the Chinese had created. They banned Chinese-language reading materials. Chinese people couldn't celebrate their cultural traditions in public. Ethnic Chinese people even went so far as to change their names to avoid discrimination.

And Purdey said that as a result of all that targeting and all that scrutiny, ethnic Chinese people just sort of put their heads down and retreated slowly from public life.

MERAJI: And that's pretty much how it was for three decades.

PURDEY: 1996, '97, '98 - you saw the Asian financial crisis. So the Asian financial crisis really hit hard across Asia, Southeast Asia, but it was particularly difficult in Indonesia. The currency, you know, fell in its value, and there was huge inflation.

So all these different pressures - so you had economic pressures as well as political movement. So that that was all coming to a fore in 1996, and that's when these events of anti-Chinese violence did occur.

MERAJI: And because of the way Indonesian society had been arranged under the Dutch, ethnic Chinese people were overrepresented in banking and finance and commerce. So when the economies in Asia collapsed in the late '90s, Indonesians saw the ethnic Chinese as responsible for things like rising food prices and low wages.

DEMBY: In 1998, Indonesia's cities exploded with violence. People attacked ethnic Chinese and looted their stores. And Purdey said that while all this was going on, the police were suspiciously absent. Although this violence was targeted at people who were ostensibly Indonesians of Chinese descent, they weren't the only victims.

PURDEY: Most of the victims were actually urban poor non-Chinese, and that's also quite ironic. So these were - even though they're called - we can call them anti-Chinese riots, the riots were not only attacking ethnic Chinese. But it was indeed women - and not only ethnic Chinese women - who become victims

MERAJI: Purdey says that that anti-Chinese sentiment was pretext to go after all kinds of political outsiders. She says ethnic Chinese are convenient targets for resentment. They're mostly Christian in a majority-Muslim country that's becoming increasingly conservative. On average, they're much better off financially, and they're ethnically distinct.

DEMBY: All of these factors make ethnic Chinese anxious today. And as Ari Shapiro says, that violence still looms large in the collective memory of their community.

SHAPIRO: This happened in Glodok, where I was interviewing Alldo Fellix J. and other Indonesians of Chinese descent. And they all talked about 1998, 1998. It was fresh in their mind and such a signifier - in the same way that we might talk about 9/11...

DEMBY: Sure.

SHAPIRO: ...Like before and after.

And people in Glodok, this Chinese neighborhood of Jakarta, today are still afraid that these ethnic tensions that haven't gone away are going to break out in the kind of violence that they saw back in '98.

Do you think most Chinese-Indonesian people here in Glodok live in fear to some extent?

ALLDO FELLIX J.: I believe so because I live in this community. And they talk about it every day in family WhatsApp group, high school friends WhatsApp group or when we have a informal chitchat like this.

SHAPIRO: And then what do they say?

ALLDO FELLIX J.: They all say that I believe that somewhere - at some point, we will be going back to the 1998.

SHAPIRO: That there will be another massacre?

ALLDO FELLIX J.: That there will be another massacre towards Chinese minority in Indonesia. I disagree with them. But seeing their concern, I think that there is still something to be done by the government to at least neutralize the racial discrimination issues towards minority.

DEMBY: All right, I'm curious. Like, how did 1998 and what happened then affect what Alldo chose to do with his life professionally?

SHAPIRO: I think a lot of Indonesians of Chinese descent took the lesson from those massacres that you need to keep your head down and you can't make waves. And Alldo is somebody who decided not to take that lesson to heart. And he wanted to be the superhero, and he became a human rights lawyer.

And as a human rights lawyer working for an organization that is similar to the ACLU - but in Indonesia - he represented Muslims who were evicted from their homes in a case against Ahok, the Christian governor of Jakarta.


SHAPIRO: And then, when Ahok was imprisoned, his organization went to bat for Ahok. So in this guy in his 20s, Alldo Fellix J., representing the young people in this young country, you have somebody who refuses to be boxed in by what his own community and the people outside of his community tell me has to be. And yet, at the same time, those pressures to be the thing he's told he must be - those pressures haven't gone away, and they're real.


MERAJI: That's Ari Shapiro. He's the host of All Things Considered.

Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It's been great talking to you guys. Thanks a lot.

DEMBY: Thank you, man.


DEMBY: That's our show for this week. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Leah Donnella produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun, and we had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Steve Drummond, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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