Being Lim

After standing in line for hours, it was finally my turn. I was one of thousands of high schoolers who were queuing to register for the national entrance examination for public universities. I wished to be admitted in the best technical university in Indonesia. My very smart eldest brother, who applied to the same university a decade earlier and wasn’t admitted, already warned me not to keep my hope too high. He said, “I know you’re smart and everything, but remember, we are classified as ‘non-native’ (non-pribumi). While others just need to score around 80 (out of 100) to get in, we need to be near perfect”. It was only later in my life I learned that during the Suharto’s New Order era there was indeed a very narrow quota for those who were classified as “WNI Keturunan Cina” (people of Chinese descent in Indonesia or Chinese Indonesians)  to enter state universities. Having said that, my brother encouraged me to try anyway.

The admission officer checked my documents and asked, “Where is your proof of citizenship? Where is your change of name document?” “I am Indonesian and never changed my name,” I replied. The officer checked my birth certificate (which, of course, bears the one and only name I have ever had, Merlyna Lim) but still insisted that I needed the proof of citizenship to be able to register. No matter how hard I argued, I was denied. Tears were flowing down my cheeks; I was upset but had no other option except to get out of that place and checked whether my parents had these documents. We had no phone at home, so I had to get on public transportations (angkot); it took me more than an hour to get home. At home, I found out that my father had a proof of citizenship but my name was not listed because I was not born yet when he obtained it. Nevertheless, I made a copy of that document. I also found out that my father had officially changed his Chinese name into an Indonesian-sounding name, so as a precaution I also brought a copy of this document along.

It was my turn again and this time I had to deal with a different officer. Same questions were posed: “Where is your proof of citizenship? Where is the change of name document?” I showed my father’s documentations to the officer who was quick in expressing his dissatisfaction. He demanded mine, not my father’s. “I was not born yet when he obtained the proof of citizenship. This means I was born after it was proven that he was indeed an Indonesian citizen. Thus I was born as an Indonesian,” I explained something that was very obvious. The officer did not say anything. He looked visibly upset but seemed to accept my logic. Immediately, however, he found a different problem. “Your father has changed his name, including his family name. He is no longer Lim, why are you still Lim? And here in the document it says that Lim no longer exists. You cannot bear Lim as your last name,” he said. I sighed. Honestly, I did not know how to respond.

See, the truth is the big Lim family — my father’s, my grandfather’s, my great-grand-father’s (he was Sundanese!), and even my great-great-grandfather’s — had been living in the same area, Dayeuhkolot, for more than 300 years, following a big move from a small town in central Java. How long have the Lims lived in Indonesia? Possibly more than 1,000 years before I was born. And, yet, ironically, there I was, powerlessly had to prove that I was Indonesian while at the same time was forced to deny my being Lim.

Helpless and frustrated, I almost cried when I said, “Lim has always been attached to my Merlyna. It is in my birth certificate and all of my school certificates. I don’t have and never use any other name. Please, I just want to get into a public university. This is my only hope.”

This was an honest and genuine plea. Unlike most of my high school mates who could go to private universities or universities abroad, this was really my last line. I went to a private high school with a full scholarship. So, unlike me, my mates predominantly came from Chinese Indonesian middle and upper-middle class families. Most of students in my high school didn’t even bother trying to enter public universities — I remember being ridiculed for going to a public university.

To be discriminated based on race or/and religion is difficult, but to also be economically disadvantaged leaves one not-so-many (no) choices in life. In other words, to be categorized as “Chinese Indonesian” in Indonesia was difficult enough. But to grow up as a low-income non-Muslim “Chinese Indonesian” teenage girl in Dayeuhkolot was something else; I had very little to no choice.

To make a long story short, in the end I was able to register. It was a happy ending — I was accepted at the Institute of Technology Bandung and the rest is a history.

Now, looking back at that moment, what would happen if I couldn’t register? What would I become? Where would I be? Would I be where I am now?

But, more importantly…. what is the state of equality and justice in Indonesia today? Does every single little girl in the country have equal opportunities?

merlynalim, ottawa, may 2016

#iamthelastandonlyLim #beingLim #Reformasi@20

2 thoughts on “Being Lim

  1. I read this story on the edge of my seat, even though I already know the happy ending of course (since you’re the Research Chair at Carleton University and one of my most valued academic mentors) as you shared the story in such an interesting way. I still feel sad, though, for that girl who stood in the line and cried, not knowing then whether she’d ever make it in. The world is a better place for all of us that she did.

    1. Kathy, thanks a lot for your wonderful and thoughtful comment (and thanks for reading the story). We both know so well that we can’t take any achievements in our lives for granted. If that little girl didn’t make it she’d not meet the great Kathy Dobson! Oh, how sad.

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