Reclaiming a Heritage: Aimee Dawis

Published as the Personality feature in PRESTIGE Indonesia, May 2010.

Communications expert Aimee Dawis has dedicated her life to teaching and improving education in Indonesia. Recently, she published an important book about the Chinese-Indonesian community, writes Yudith Ho.

“What happened to the Chinese-Indonesian community in May 1998 was terrible, but we should be more concerned about what happened after,” says Aimee Dawis. She sees the incident as a turning point for the community. For instance, after the riots, Indonesia saw the emergence of organizations like the Chinese-Indonesian Social Association (PSMTI) and the Chinese-Indonesian Association (INTI).

“Their cause is to avoid discrimination, and they’ve made a lot of progress in that respect,” Dawis says. “Now, the Chinese is recognized as one of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups. We’re no longer the Chinese, but one suku among the other 300.”

Speaking about efforts to unify the nation, Dawis mentions the victory that the United States achieved in electing their first African American president. “But hundreds of years passed before they reached that point. By comparison, we’ve only been an independent nation for 65 years. Even a country that is as free, as morally upright and as politically conscious as America is still fighting discrimination. It’s still an effort.

“But Indonesia is making great strides,” she says. “With Minister of Trade Mari Elka Pangestu, we finally have a Chinese-Indonesian woman as a minister.”

Dawis, like many other Chinese-Indonesian, believes that the riots of 1998 were more politically than racially driven. The day the riots took place, she was studying at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, but she recalls listening to an interview with Susi Susanti, a Chinese-Indonesian star badminton player.

When the reporter from CNN asked her if she would still compete for Indonesia, Susanti said, “Why not? I’m still Indonesian. I’m proud to be Indonesian.” And it is just as easy to picture Dawis replying with the same “why not?” when asked why she decided to return to Indonesia after spending most of her life abroad.

By 10 years old, she was already studying in Singapore. After graduating from high school, she went to Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, to study communication. She met her first Indonesian friends there, which led her to start thinking about her cultural identity. For her thesis, she studied the organizational culture of the Indonesians at Loyola Marymount University (ILMU) organization.

Dawis then pursued a Master’s degree in communication at Cornell University. Afterwards, she pursued her PhD, also in communication, at New York University. Her dissertation, which later became her first book, combined her interests in communication and Chinese-Indonesian cultural identity.

Despite having spent most of her years abroad, Dawis decided to come back and do her part for her country. She currently teaches communication at the University of Indonesia, knowing that her calling in life involves teaching and improving education in Indonesia. “Because the key to our country’s success lies in it, and people need to pay more respect to education,” she claims.

On top of being a communication expert, cultural researcher, university lecturer, wife and mother of one, Dawis is also the author of academic text The Chinese of Indonesia and Their Search for Identity: The Relationship Between Collective Memory and The Media, which was recently published in its Bahasa Indonesia edition by Gramedia. She is already working on a second book that will feature a set of portraits by esteemed photographer Indra Leonardi, chronicling the changing roles of Chinese-Indonesian women.

In the future, Dawis plans to keep writing more academic books and papers, and to continue giving talks at institutions around the world. In the buzz surrounding her book launch in Asia, her schedule has filled up with interviews for major media outlets from around the region, all on top of regular teaching, writing her second book and conducting research on the social impact of mobile communications in Indonesia. Yet her face shows no sign of fatigue.

“I just want to keep sharing my knowledge,” she says with a smile.

In the introduction of her book, Dawis discusses her reasons for devoting herself to the study of the Chinese-Indonesian and the media. “Perhaps,” she writes, “it is because I was searching for my own understanding of what it means to be a Chinese individual in Indonesia.”

But she was seeking for far more than just her own cultural identity; she was also trying to discover the cultural identity of her whole generation. “What they think about themselves, what they think about Indonesia, what they think about as the Chinese of Indonesia growing up in that era [between 1965 and 1998],” she says. “It’s a project of collective memory, so I asked them what they think of the past, how they grew up and how those experiences shaped their lives.”

As for Dawis, separation from her Chinese cultural heritage has left an indelible mark on her life. “When I go to Hong Kong and I see all these Chinese characters, it aches,” she says. “Why can’t I read them? My parents can read them. My ancestors can read them. How come I can’t?”

In her book, she also writes of a phenomenon that she names “imagined nostalgia.” That is, a longing for something that one has never experienced. Dawis has always identified herself first and foremost as Indonesian, but her Chinese heritage still forms a big part of her identity. Its absence has left her and her generation longing for an imagined heritage.

She understands that the government’s ban on outward expressions of Chinese culture was established to protect the Chinese-Indonesian from becoming the target of discrimination or violence, but Dawis believes that it went on for too long. “They should have revised the law after a few years, but they didn’t. Only until 33 years later did they revoke it, by which time our generation can’t speak Chinese,” she explains.

She fervently believes in the importance of language in understanding a culture, having once struggled with the Chinese language herself. “The way we think about the world is shaped by our language,” she says. “If you want to know the Chinese culture completely, you need to know the language, because it will unlock the mysteries of the culture.”

Despite it all, she has bright hopes that her daughter, five-year-old Putri Aimee Srijaya, will grow up in an environment that validates every part of her cultural identity. “My generation had no choice before, but now parents have a choice for their children, so I want my daughter to be able to read and write in Chinese. That’s my hope for her.”

Dawis fondly recalls how her daughter is endlessly curious about Chinese culture. “But I want her to know that, first of all, she is Indonesian.”

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