Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 4

Bukit Peninsula, Bali (Indonesia) - Hanoi (Vietnam)

The producers of The Amazing Race seem to have concluded over the years that most viewers are uninterested in the details of how the contestants in the race, without advance reservations, find airline routes and schedules and get seats on flights between destinations -- even when the best routes are indirect and perhaps not obvious.

This week, for example, little was shown about how the racers got from Bali to northern Vietnam, beyond the fact that most of the racers went via Singapore and a few via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

What about direct flights? There are none. The only scheduled flights between Indonesia and Vietnam are between Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, and those aren't even daily.

Indonesia and Vietnam are two of the three largest countries in Southeast Asia, and as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) citizens of either country can visit the other without visas. In such circumstances, one might expect better travel links between them.

I've often said that airline routes tend to follow trade routes. But as with countries in Africa which trade more with China or with countries in Europe than with their neighbors, the main trading partners of both Vietnam and Indonesia are all countries outside Southeast Asia -- except for Singapore, which is primarily a transhipment hub rather than an original producer or end consumer.

Direct international flights require bilateral or multilateral international diplomatic agreements. So politics can sometimes trump trade, as it has in delaying for many years, and continuing to limit, direct flights between Taiwan and mainland China.

Indonesia has recognized and normalized diplomatic relations with both Vietnam and China, but the legacy of Indonesian anti-Communism and anti-Chinese bigotry continues to color its foreign policy, including aviation agreements that limit the numbers of Indonesia-Vietnam and Indonesia-China flights. The state-supported pogroms that killed as many as a million Indonesians following the US-backed coup in 1965 were ostensibly "anti-Communist", but in practice were at least as much anti-ethnic-Chinese. Those riots also had a class component, since the ethnic Chinese Indonesians who were attacked as suspected Communists made up, as they still do today, a grossly disproportionate share of the capitalist business and trading class at all levels from factory owners to village shopkeepers and money-lenders. As with Jews in medieval Europe, it's an economic niche that was open to them in part because adherents of the majority religion (Christianity in Europe, Islam in Indonesia) were forbidden by their faith from the practice of usury, defined as any lending at interest.

Ironically, the same ethnic Chinese commercial class that was attacked as "Communist" in 1965 in Indonesia was attacked as "anti-Communist" and counter-revolutionary in Vietnam after 1975. There are good historical reasons why "overseas" Chinese in Southeast Asia, like Jews in Europe and around the world, feel vulnerable to demonization no matter where they are.

Chinese-Indonesians have not forgotten their Holocaust. They remain wary. Those who can keep at least some money in foreign banks, such as those in Hong Kong or ethnic Chinese-dominated Singapore. Often they are more or less closeted, or at least avoid drawing attention to their being in any respect "Chinese". Most have taken Bahasa Indonesian names, and refrain from speaking Chinese in public even with family members. In some respects, their situation and attitudes remind me of those of white South Africans: They know that they are subject to the political will of the ethnic majority, and while they have been allowed (for now) to retain ownership of most of the national wealth, they feel the precariousness of their situation and live in some degree of constant fear of violent expropriation, expulsion, or worse.

How does this matter to visiting tourists? Many of the business people you are likely to deal with in Indonesia -- such as shopkeepers and guesthouse owners -- are likely to be ethnic Chinese, but not to advertise that fact. They might welcome discrete acknowledgement of their identity, and might be willing to talk about it with you when they are sure that nobody else is around. But they might not want to be "outed" and might loudly (and in English or Bahasa Indonesian) proclaim their identity as Indonesian if you greet them publicly in Chinese.

I once made the mistake of using two of my only words of mispronounced Mandarin in what I thought was a gesture of politeness to a shopkeeper in Bandung I recognized (from the small shrine in a discrete but visible corner of his store) as ethnically Chinese. He understood what I was trying to say, cringed visibly, and hastily shut me up and shooed me out of his store. I wondered, or course, what his memories of 1965 were to prompt such a reaction. But I didn't get a chance to ask him the way I might have if I had been able to talk with him behind closed doors.

If there's a larger lesson here, it's that identity is complex everywhere. As the US government forgot (or had not yet learned) when it imprisoned Japanese-American US citizens during World War II, ethnicity and "national origin" (ancestry) can no more be presumed to define current national identity or patriotism in any other country than they do for "hyphenated" Americans.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 17 March 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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