Paragraph by paragraph I am piecing together the story of my Indonesian family—their trauma and struggle against colonial rule—alongside my dad.
November 13, 2020
Several months into COVID-19 lockdown, a package arrived in the foyer of my apartment building in Jersey City. I ripped open the plastic packaging in the kitchen with trepidation. I hadn’t ordered anything recently. The Complete Indonesian Cookbook by Agnes de Keijzer Brackman and Cathay Brackman tumbled onto the table. I stared at it for a moment before realizing that my dad, who is half-Indonesian, half-Dutch, must have bought and shipped it to me as a surprise; in one of our many email exchanges I had expressed a desire to learn to cook Indonesian food—a productive project while strictly quarantining during the pandemic.
A week later, the cookbook arrived. He found the book by searching for “Indonesian cookbooks” on Google and choosing the least expensive one. He wanted to demonstrate that he approved of my decision to learn to cook Indonesian food and would encourage me in any way he could. As soon as I unwrapped the cookbook, I searched for the author, Agnes de Keijzer Brackman,on Google. I immediately noticed that she also has a joint Dutch-American name, and our two names even share a similar cadence. For her, de Keijzer Brackman; for me, denHartog Sherman. In her photo on the inside cover of the book, she looks poised and content beside her daughter and co-author Cathay.
I thought, at most, my dad would feel indifferent to my quest to learn to cook Indonesian food, because we rarely discussed his childhood in Indonesia, or what he remembers of it. But a week after that, another unsolicited package appeared, this time containing two jars of sambal, spicy Indonesian chili paste.
I didn’t have much of a conception of my Indonesian identity growing up in Seattle, although I had the vague sense I wasn’t white like my mother and the majority of my classmates. I also knew that my dad wasn’t born in America but neither of my parents addressed why his qualities as a mixed race, non-white immigrant caused us to stand out from the rest of our homogenously white Seattle community.
I don’t think my mother even mentioned to me that I’m not white (I have no idea why; maybe she simply had no idea how to broach the topic, or maybe she wanted to uphold the illusion of whiteness in my life). I had to learn that from a drama teacher in middle school, who once handed me a yellow tone stick of stage makeup. And that empty space where the beginnings of an identity could have formed caused me a lot of confusion. I didn’t even begin thinking of myself as Asian until at least the age of 13, when I started finally meeting other Asians and mixed race girls in the hallways of my middle school.
But that identity would sometimes peek out in the food we ate: at home my dad cooked gado gado and babi kecap for dinner, and we ate rice doused in molasses-like ketjap medja, not potatoes, as a side dish. We had dinner at China First and the various pho restaurants (though never Indonesian restaurants) around our neighborhood in the North End several times a week. He always requested sambal—brick red, fragrant, chili flecked paste—from the waiter. Sometimes he even brought his own plastic bag of raw jalapeños to add another layer of spice. I usually avoided sambal, opting for sriracha instead, because he cautioned it would be too spicy for me.
But when I dipped my pinky figure into the tub of sambal he sent me and touched it to my tongue, I surprised myself: it has a wonderfully unexpected tang and a pungent fragrance from the fish sauce. The salty, umami flavor sneaks up on your taste buds and lingers there alongside the fiery chili flakes. The sambal tasted familiar and comforting, like reading a postcard from a much-missed friend you haven’t spoken to in years.
My dad has supplemented his unexpected gifts with mini remote history lessons. This summer alone, he has sent me dozens of emails dealing with the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. In one such email he wrote that he had recently checked out “4 books about that campaign and the ancillary events surrounding the Japanese 3 1/2 year occupation of the sprawling archipelago” from the library. Subsequent emails lay out a detailed timeline of how the Dutch ended up in Indonesia, starting with the Dutch United East India Company’s entrance into the spice trade in the 1600s. A long time World War II history enthusiast, he added to his previous knowledge with research that reaches even farther back into Europe’s history of colonization.
At 72, he frequently reflects on his “impending death” and seems eager to pass down his knowledge to me before he passes away. Perhaps because we never discussed these events when I was younger, he feels it’s his last chance to make sure the past doesn’t die with him. So paragraph by paragraph I am piecing together the story of my Indonesian family—their trauma and struggle against colonial rule—alongside my dad.
It’s not surprising that he discusses events that affected his own family from such a safe distance: he approaches everything in life, even casual phone and dinner table conversation, through an academic lens (he has two masters degrees, is just a thesis short of a PhD, and still audits classes at the University of Washington). I have a different kind of distance from our family history. There is more space between me and the generations that experienced colonization, in terms of time and geography, and along with my cousins, I’m the first generation on my father’s side to be born in America. In my case, that distance is a luxury—it allows me to have a more personal, intimate reconnection to my heritage without the fear of being triggered by resurfaced memories or the generational trauma of colonization that his parents passed down to him.
“The Dutch colonial system in the East Indies reached its apogee in the 19th Century when it introduced the ‘culture system’ that was a euphemistic term for an official policy of economic rapine and plunder of the Indonesian agricultural workers of rice farmers,” he wrote in one email. “The Dutch forcibly mandated that these rice farmers allot over 2/3 of their harvest to the Dutch East Indies Company which made huge profits for the Dutch government in Holland.” This was all new to me. I had the vague sense that as part-Dutch people, our family must have been entwined with colonial politics but I wasn’t aware of how much Indonesian people suffered at the hands of the Dutch.
While my dad takes the historical approach toward our shared family history, I have decided to cook. I ripped into The Complete Indonesian cookbook eagerly, sending pictures of recipes from the book to friends, scouring the aisles of all the grocery stores in my area for shrimp paste, stuffing my partner with stir fried pork. It was the push I needed to teach myself the intricacies of Indonesian cuisine.
The appeal is not that I simply feel closer or more connected to my Indonesian family when I’m cooking the cuisine of their home because that’s not really true. We don’t have pictures of them, so I don’t know what they look like and we don’t share a language; my dad’s immediate family spoke Dutch in his house, another way colonialism has crept into our lives. It’s more that I want to access my blood memory—a term I first heard while interviewing Taylor Keen, an Indigenous seed keeper who used it to describe how he felt eating Cherokee White Flour corn he grew himself.
When I prepared the babi kecap recipe from The Complete Indonesian Cookbook, I had a near-spiritual experience. First I sauteed kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), garlic, shallots, and julienned ginger. The house filled with a pungent, rich scent, the sweet soy sauce turned to caramel in the pan and I pulled out a few of the zesty spears of ginger to taste before I added the cubed pork. The ginger is chewy and sweet; coated in the molasses-like kecap manis it’s almost like candy. Once I added the pork and combined it with the toasted herbs, the aroma transformed into a luxurious, layered mix of acidic garlic and onions, sweet soy sauce, and the spicy, biting chilis. Once the pork formed a crispy maillard layer from the soy sauce, I popped a piece into my mouth and it tasted identical to the way my dad made it when I was a kid—endorphins flooded my bloodstream and I felt contented, satisfied, as close to bliss as I’ll ever get in the kitchen.
But there was also the feeling of recognition on my tongue, almost an inherent knowledge that surfaced when I cooked with these flavors, as though I am pre-destined to love them and find comfort in them. That is blood memory. My palette, shaped through generations of people who cooked with these ingredients, opened a door that leads me back to the land of my ancestors.
This is the best method I have landed on for recapturing a lost heritage. Lost because my dad didn’t make much of an attempt to initiate me into the Indonesian way of life, not out of neglect, but because he hardly knew much of it himself. My father’s family left Jakarta when he was still a toddler. The family resettled in Leiden, Holland. In Leiden, my father and his family might have spoken Dutch but they still ate babi kecap. Their food tethered them to the home they abandoned, and I like to imagine that it provided my father’s family with another layer of safety and comfort in the unfamiliar land where they decided, for the first but not the last time, to start over. I seem to know this in my heart because this food elicits the same feelings for me.
When I cook one of my favorite recipes from The Complete Indonesian Cookbook, nasi goreng, fried rice, emotions hibernating in my soul rush to the surface, unlocked by the flavors of kecap manis, sambal, and rice. I feel more at home in my body. I feel loved and cared for. The meals my Indonesian family and I share in common, across time and continents and circumstance, bridge our similar, yet vastly different experiences. I too am cut off from the land of my ancestors, not because of any personal choice that I made but as a direct result of decisions my dad’s family made, or felt forced to make. They must have known that whatever choice they made—to stay in Jakarta or flee to Holland, to settle in Leiden, or emigrate to America—would have consequences that would ripple down the line for many generations to come.
Like them, I too am searching for a connection to a misplaced home that holds positive associations, in order to understand and process a complicated, traumatic past. Now the ingredients my family carried with them across oceans, that conjured memories of their home, have made it all the way to New Jersey, to my kitchen, where I carry on the legacy of joy and pleasure that they brought to generations before me.
The family ended up leaving Holland soon after they arrived there—my grandfather feared a second-coming of a dictator like Stalin overtaking Europe and decided to flee for America before another war, which never came to pass, broke out.
The erasure of my dad’s Indonesian heritage continued in America. He decided to fully assimilate into American society. He stopped speaking Dutch and learned English quickly. He joined the army and fought in Vietnam. He worked for Amtrak. He wanted his own family to act and look as American as possible. To him, absorbing and reflecting whiteness back to the world was how to stay safe, get a good education, and be successful.
His stance on embodying whiteness as a path to a better life has softened since my childhood, though. Perhaps he even regrets forcing us to behave strictly like Americans at home except for the occasional meal of babi kecap because he is now so eager to educate us both on the history of Indonesian politics and the internal history of our Indonesian family. He once even offered to pay for all my groceries if I went to an Asian grocery to buy supplies to cook an Indonesian feast (I declined to take his money).
Still, not only has he never returned to Indonesia, he has never expressed a desire to do so. If anything, he has suggested that he wants to return to Leiden, not Jakarta. But even if he isn’t necessarily interested in physically reconnecting with Indonesia, his support of my decision to explore that side of my identity shows that he hasn’t disavowed that part of himself and that he’s no longer interested in shielding me from it. I still remember what he said to my longtime partner after meeting him for the first time “You know Lizzie is Asian right?” It was a warning, You can’t love Elisabeth if you don’t also love that she’s Asian. But he also needed reassurance that my partner would accept me in a country where discrimination against Asian people is sill pervasive.
Now that he’s older, my dad gets to form a new kind relationship with his Indonesian ancestry. In his youth, repeated colonization and occupation of the land—Dutch, later Japanese, and then Dutch again—decided that his European side would always take precedence. During World War II his parents lived through the brutal occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, which resulted in the deaths of four million Indonesian people trapped in internment and labor camps, most of them from famine.
“Java was the main headquarters of the Japanese military government,” he wrote in another email. “It was the island where many Dutch and Eurasian citizens were interned. Anyone with White blood was considered European and treated as such. Your grandparents lived in a campoon which was populated by a mix of Indonesians and ‘Indos,” people of both Dutch and Indonesian extraction. Your grandfather worked for the Oost Indonesie Spoorweg (The Dutch East Indies Railways) under the supervision of Japanese civil engineers,” he continued. “He and your grandmother were not mistreated as a result and were given sufficient provisions to live a modest wartime existence until later when the war was turning against the Japanese. My dad was categorized as an essential worker and was left alone by the Kempeti, the ever vigilant Japanese police forces.”
Because his father had Dutch blood, he got a better job under Japanese rule, and therefore better treatment. But my dad’s grandparents weren’t so lucky. “Did I ever tell you that your great grandmother grew sick and died of malnutrition while she was in captivity by the Japanese,” one recent email read. “Indonesia demanded restitution for the surviving workers but the Japanese declined to provide any compensation for them.”
In 1945, the year World War II ended, Indonesia declared its independence, and then president Sukarno offered my grandfather and his family full Indonesian citizenship. My grandfather declined, instead opting to move to Leiden. In another email my dad said he never asked my grandfather why he decided to leave Indonesia even though he could have safely remained. My own speculation is that his trauma was too great to live another moment in a place where the memories of torment, struggle, and death (the death of his mother especially) lingered on every street corner.
I won’t ever be able to talk directly to my paternal grandparents about their experiences but the information is nonetheless useful. It filled in gaps in my psyche where there had been long standing questions about why we never discussed my Indonesian heritage, why it felt hidden or even shameful. The trauma of subjugation and colonization, and the shame of surviving Japanese occupation even when it killed so many others, including some of own family members, must have created a heavy curtain of silence that probably prevented my father from ever speaking about his family’s suffering.
Still, I felt frustrated about receiving this information so long after the process of becoming the woman I am now had ended. Now, so much will have to be recalibrated. Placing my family’s experiences in a historical context is grounding and reaffirming, but I wonder if my path in life would have been clearer if I heard these stories as a confused adolescent, when I was disconnected from the conventional—and seemingly desirable—whiteness of my peers, without fully understanding why.
If we had been able to talk about my family’s past, perhaps that would have been an opening to eat more Indonesian food at home, food that might have tethered me more reassuringly to my Indonesian heritage and brought me more clarity and confidence. By discovering it in my thirties, I sometimes feel as though I will always be playing catch up as I try to unravel the most fundamental questions about my identity, and I feel a twinge of envy toward other Asian people who grew up eating the food of their or their parents homeland, who feel a much more stable—but no less complicated—connection to that land.
Over the phone my dad once said to me, “You are the product of colonization.” He was delivering another lecture on the history of Dutch trade in Indonesia. Not a victim but a product, because I have benefited from my Dutch heritage in many ways. Along with a white mother (of vague European origin), I pass for a white person, which has certainly shielded me from experiencing overt racism. Being white-passing has opened up many doors and opportunities to me that are closed on most other minorities, especially those with brown skin. None of those privileges are lost on me, but I am capable of holding all the complexities of my situation at once. My dad and I are the products of a violent system of oppression that ended up garnering unexpected and unintended advantages for the children of the resulting diaspora.
I don’t insist that food is a supernatural conduit that can bridge space and time, delivering me seamlessly back to the history and culture of my ancestors. Still, I do think that food can be a starting point—a way forward. It set me down on the path of reclaiming the Indonesian heritage that colonialism suppressed and that immigration and the pressure to assimilate in America stripped away further. That process of reclamation began even before I began cooking from The Complete Indonesian Cookbook, with lunches with my dad’s Chinese-Indonesian church friends when I visit Seattle and Indonesian ingredients stocked in my cabinets here in Jersey City, and has led to history lessons, revelations about our family, and a clearer picture of their path to America, over the phone and email with my dad.
There is no final step in the process that will make me feel as though I have fully earned my Indonesian side. Regardless of whether or not I decided to do any meaningful, concrete work to connect with the culture and cuisine of Indonesia, I will still be Indonesian.
But in chasing after the stories and flavors of my Indonesian ancestry, I do feel fuller, more anchored in this body I carry everywhere with me, more confident in its purpose to carry on the legacy of survival and endurance passed down to me from my father’s family. Food provides nourishment, increases our physical strength and resilience, but it can also access those less easy to pinpoint regions of the body where the soul resides. It can rouse not just physical energy but a lonely spirit, too, which longs to be reunited with pieces of itself torn away by war, colonization, and immigration. There is a spiritual element to the Indonesian cooking I do now, a prayer that invokes not a god, but a forgotten legacy, resurrected with each tablespoon of kecap manis and sambal.