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Tempu dulu

Stumbled out of bed, missed my train, now nursing a big mug of coffee while staring bleary-eyed at my monitor: I stayed up way past my bedtime again, and on a weekday too, but I just couldn't put down Nan Dibble's excellent Enemy of my Enemy before I'd reached the tbc. That story packs a powerful punch, and draws you in completely. And personally, I think it's even better than its predecessor.

Went round to my Mum's before that, and had dinner. She showed me a newspaper clipping and after I had read it, asked "You don't think I'm being silly for wanting this, do you?"

The article was about a newly realised housing project for senior citizens in our town, and there already being more applications by people wanting to come and live there than there are flats available. The housing corporation has therefore decided to extend the project, and is calling for everyone who is interested and meets the criteria to apply. Mum meets those criteria. She's over 65, neither too rich nor too poor, still has her health, and most importantly, was born and raised in the Dutch East Indies (=presentday Indonesia). This housing project is exclusively set up to cater to the senior citizens of what we call our Indian community.
I looked at Mum, suddenly noticing how small and frail she looked; how Asian too: thin-boned, yellow-skinned...Although my colouring is dark, physically I take after the European side of the family, but I rarely really notice the difference. I think of myself as Indian too, although this identity doesn't come in first place with me as I realised long ago it does with my mother. "Go for it, Mum. I think you should," I said.

Mum then began to speak animatedly about the prospect of a pasar (=market) being organised on the terrain, regular kumpulan2 (=get together with lots of food and music and dance) and maybe a wajang theatre or a gamelan orchestra in the communal area, and none of the neighbours complaining of the smell of trassi (=a foodstuff, made of fermented shrimp) in the morning. People that she could speak to in Malaysian or pidgin, that she could share her history and experiences with, that would understand where she was coming from in any given situation. Because now, she said, all she has is her sisters, and they're both older than she.

Mum was born halfway around the world, in what used to be the jewel in the Dutch empire's crown. After the horrors of the Japanese occupation and the prison camps, in one of which her father was murdered, followed by the period known as the Bersiap in Indonesian history, in which Europeans and Eurasians were slaughtered wholesale by Suharto's revolutionaries, and as so many of the old colonials who refused to exchange their Dutch nationality and citizenship for the Indonesian, they were booted out of the country in 1950 and arrived in the cold and alien mother country with nothing but the clothes they stood up in. After a sojourn of some 300 years in the tropics, the Van Galen family were back in The Netherlands, penniless, against their will and with an immense heartache for the country and the people (and the fortune) they'd had to leave behind. It was 46 years before Mum went back...and then returned to Holland completely cured of the homesickness she'd carried with her for all those years. Third world conflicted Indonesia is not the prosperous well-ordered Dutch East Indies of her youth and memory.

So I understand why she might like to spend her twilight years among people who share her background, remember tempu dulu (=the good old days) and also celebrate Liberation Day on August 15 instead of May 5, when the Dutch have their national holiday. I hope she doesn't have to wait too long before her new flat will be built!


Jul. 9th, 2003 10:06 am (UTC)
Your post really resonated with me. My parents both turned 61 this year and all of a sudden I'm noticing how much older they look. Dad looks downright frail sometimes and my mother sometimes has a tremor in her hands that concerns me, as do the anti-cholesterol pills she takes. Both my parents are immigrants, coming to Canada in their 20s. Dad rarely goes back to his native England, although he'd still like to be buried there. (Mom, my brother and I protest about this; after all, we'd be the ones visiting his grave and making a trip to the UK would not be very practical. But the heart wants what the heart wants, so if he's really set on that, we'll probably end up respecting his wishes when the time comes.) My mother is German, but her family is actually from Gdansk, which is now a part of Poland. Until her mother died six years ago, Mom used to go back to Germany almost every year. Mom finally applied for Canadian citizenship last year; she'd held off until now because it meant forfeiting her German citizenship, something she was always loathe to do. A couple of things led to that decision. She was on a German bus tour to Poland with childhood friends when 9/11 happened, and it really struck home to her that Canada was now home, not Germany. Up until then, part of her always dreamed a little bit of returning to Germany for her golden years, even though it's not something that Dad, who can't speak much German, would ever have agreed to.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this rambling response. Only that I understand a little of what you're going through with your mother. Most of the time my parents seem to be 100% settled here, but every now and then there are cracks that reveal this yearning to reconnect to their roots, all the more poignant and strong as they age. Part of me sympathizes with that. I've lived in six different countries -- I even spent part of my childhood living in your hometown! -- and travelled to a couple dozen, but Canada is the one I think of when I think of home.

Anyway, it's fantastic that your mother has the chance to live in a community of people who share her background!
Jul. 10th, 2003 12:21 am (UTC)
I'm not sure where I'm going with this rambling response

That's alright; after all, I started this by putting up a rambling post about my mother. I must say, I'm quite a bit overwhelmed by all the positive response it's generated. And thank you for sharing a little of your own family history, too - that was very interesting.

Most of the time my parents seem to be 100% settled here, but every now and then there are cracks to reveal this yearning to reconnect to their roots, all the more poignant and strong as they age.

That's it, that's it exactly!

Since her retirement, Mum's never been more 'Indisch'; whereas before she always seemed fully integrated and at home in Dutch society. Of course, she did do some things differently, raising us on rice instead of potatoes, and the bedtime stories she told us spoke of jungles and tigers and water buffaloes e.g., but nothing too blatantly obvious or strange. So you sort of forget, or don't notice so much, that your mum has another, or extra, cultural background...until you're reminded as they grow older, maybe because they have more leisure time to indulge in remeniscing, or maybe they just become less interested in conforming to the norm of the society around them. I don't know. I do find it rather sweet that Mum shows so much interest in rediscovering her own cultural identity at the moment. I hope it will give her strength and keep her healthy and with us a lot longer.