Us + Them

(This is an excerpt of a story published in Exchanges Journal, “Hysterium” issue. To read the entire story, click here.)

(Baca versi bahasa Indonesia di sini.)


WEDNESDAY after class, Desti suggested going out for lunch together.

“Let’s go to the med school across the street,” said Julita. “My best friend said the kiosk behind the geriatrics faculty serves the best pecel ayam in town.”

Even though the day was much too hot for spicy food, everyone agreed, except Bowo, who had to go home and check in on his mother. The road in front of the cultural center shimmered from the heat, creating a mirage. Cars darted past like steel sharks in silver water. On the far side of the road, Julita saw police officers carrying billy clubs and shields. She was still watching when Bela pulled her toward the rushing traffic.

“Why don’t we use the bridge?” Julita shouted as a car sped by, blowing dust into her face.

“It’s faster this way.” With a raised finger Bela ordered each car to stop, like a schoolteacher scolding her unruly pupils.

Desti clasped Julita’s left arm. “Don’t be scared, the cops are too far away.”

“I’m not scared. It’s the Reformasi era, let’s be responsible citizens.”

“Too late for that!” Desti grinned as she pointed at Bela and Ibnu, who were jumping over the road divider like professional gymnasts.

They reached the campus’s main gate and walked under a banner proclaiming, “Welcome to the Campus of the People’s Struggle.” Julita remembered Rizky had told her that the banner used to say, “Welcome to the Campus of the New Order’s Struggle,” but three years ago, in ’98, students had torn down the old banner and replaced it with the new one.

A few minutes later, they found the chicken kiosk, which was packed with customers. The ground was bare beneath the wooden tables and benches that were arranged around the little kitchen. A plump woman was bent over a soot-covered kerosene stove that hissed each time she dropped a piece of chicken into the hot oil. Behind the counter, a man crushed tomatoes and chilies into a bloody pulp in a wide stone mortar.

Julita thought Bela, because she was wearing brand-name clothes, would hate to sit on a dirty bench like that, but she kindly asked people to make room for her group, and then she put her leather bag on the ground under her seat.

“Bel, can you get me some Chinese herbs that’ll help my husband gain weight?” Desti asked after they placed their orders. “He doesn’t like Indonesian food, so he’s getting really skinny.”

“I’ll have to ask my dad where to find them,” said Bela, “but I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

“Thanks, Bel. I’ll give you some eggs from our farm in exchange.”

“You have a farm?” asked Ibnu.

“We have an egg farm in West Java,” said Desti. “Adriaan used to run one back in the Netherlands. We met when I went to visit my sister who was in school there. When I got pregnant we moved to Jakarta so I could be close to my mother.”

“What about you, Ibnu? How did you meet your petit ami?” asked Julita.

“I’m a traditional dancer,” he said. “My troupe was performing in Paris, and after the show, some of us went out to this bar, which was supposed to be the meeting place for people of my kind. I was wishing and wishing for a Tom Cruise lookalike, but I got a daddy instead. Oh, well. Philippe’s good to me.”

Ibnu fished a photograph of a showgirl in a glittering, feathered costume out of his wallet. “That’s me at night,” Ibnu passed it to Julita, who squeezed between him and Bela on the narrow bench, “my stage name is Linda.”

Julita gaped. Ibnu asked her to pass the photo to their other classmates, but she hesitated. She eyed the sweaty strangers around them, tearing off pieces of flesh, crunching into crackers, red sauce dripping from their fingers. Every now and then a lone grain of rice or shred of onion would cling to the corner of their lips, like a lonely outcast or scapegoat, only to be obliterated with a swipe of their greasy hands.

Bela snatched the photo. “Oh, you look so pretty!”

Ibnu beamed. “How about you, Bel? How’d you meet your boyfriend?”

Julita had asked for a spoon and a fork, but Bela was eating with her fingers like everyone around them. “I met Anwar at culinary school in Kuala Lumpur. He sat next to me in class, and we started hanging out after school. He and his friends were the first Malay friends I ever had. My Chinese friends used to ask me, ‘Bel, what are you doing hanging out with them?’ So I’d say, ‘If you don’t wanna hang out with them, then you can’t hang out with me.’ Since my Chinese friends didn’t have any other friends, they started to hang out with us, and they ended up telling me, ‘You’re right, Bela, they’re good people.’”

“Good for you, Bela,” said Laras.

“I bet their parents are just like mine,” Bela continued, “always telling me not to hang out with the natives, like you guys.”

“My dad likes to say the same kind of stuff about the Chinese—that they’re cheaters, that they’re a bunch of pork-eaters,” Julita whispered to Bela.

“That’s why I always tell my dad not to cheat our customers. Just like I told him it was wrong to stockpile rice back in ’98.”

“Were you here during the riots?” asked Laras.

Bela nodded. “I was supposed to start school in KL three months after they started.”

One question was at the tip of everyone’s tongues, but they stuffed their mouths instead.

“I wasn’t raped,” Bela said, “It was sheer luck. That day, a crowd had already gathered around the outskirts of our neighborhood by dawn. They were carrying crowbars and shovels. My dad and the neighborhood men made a barricade out of spare tires. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger, so my dad poured gasoline all over the barricade. He was going to set it on fire if the crowd attacked. Then we heard a couple of gunshots. My dad said the crowd was running towards the barricade, so he torched it, hoping the fire would keep them back. Then he rushed home.”

“Dad said that if the rioters caught us, they’d rape us. He thought that if we were wearing maxi-pads, they might get grossed out and leave us alone. So my mom, my sister, and I all put on pads. The rioters were just outside. They broke into houses and dragged stuff out, you could hear screams coming from every direction.”

“Dad told us to run to the car. Before the banks collapsed, he’d withdrawn as much as he could and put it in a suitcase. He grabbed that suitcase, and we made it into the car, but before long we were blocked by a crowd that had been waiting at the other end of our neighborhood. Rows after rows of them. They surrounded our car, rocking it back and forth, hitting and kicking it. Those faces—they weren’t men anymore, they’d turned into demons. Dad rolled his window down, just enough to throw out a couple bundles of cash. The crowd went wild trying to get their hands on the money and a path cleared for us.”

“We raced to the airport. We couldn’t get tickets going anywhere, so we camped out there for a whole week. When we heard that the riots had died down, we decided to take a chance and go back home. When we reached our neighborhood, we saw that our house had been emptied out and burned down, like a lot of the other houses we’d passed on our way home. The rioters had stopped targeting people—Chinese or Indonesian native, they burned everything to the ground.”

Everyone had forgotten to keep chewing during Bela’s story, now they forgot their words. But Bela’s eyes were still bright and dry. “Go on, eat,” she said, “We’re okay now.”

Not knowing what to say, Julita put her arm around Bela’s waist and rested her head on her shoulder.

Dear Rizky,

 After hearing Bela’s story, I decided to come home and see my parents. We were having tea in the living room when I told them about my French course and about Bela. When I finished talking, Dad looked me right in the eyes and said, “But they deserved it, didn’t they? They’re Chinese after all.”

He might as well have punched me in the gut.

I suspect he said it to piss me off, to put me in my place for daring to try to teach him something, but still … He knew I was talking about a friend, not some news story!

I stormed out of there so fast, but I know no matter how far I go, I can never escape him and what he is—my father, my origin. The seeds of hate run through my veins. A history of hatred runs through our country. What does that make me? What does that make us?


Juli, pick up the phone.

Please pick up.

Juli, pick up right now! I need to know you’re ok.

If you don’t pick up, I’m going to call Dr. Dhanita.

I’ll be all right, Riz. Don’t worry. It just helps me calm down a little.

Oh Juli, please don’t hurt yourself because you don’t like what you’re made of. Hatred is not some hereditary blood disease. If it’s any consolation, my father used to say the same things to me. I guess that just makes it worse. Sorry. Look, we’re going to be totally different from our parents. We’re the reformist generation, remember? We’re going to write a new history.



(This is an excerpt of a story published in Exchanges Journal, “Hysterium” issue. To read the entire story, click here.)

(Baca versi bahasa Indonesia di sini.)

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