Why are Indonesian Chinese unable to speak Chinese?
In Singapore, many Indonesian students are Chinese descent. When the first time they come, most of them expect English speaking environment, which is true in academic world. But outside it, other languages are widespread, especially Mandarin Chinese. Many of the Indonesian Chinese do not expect such a counter when, for example, some of the canteen aunties cannot speak English and only speak Chinese to them. When they meet Malaysian or Singaporean friends, many of them also speak in Chinese among themselves. Indonesian Chinese feel alienated, although they are also considered as Chinese.
I remembered there was Malaysian girl asked me whether I can speak Chinese. I answered just can say a little, then she asked me whether my parents can speak Chinese, I said “yes, they can”. She answered, “Why don’t they teach you?”. That query made me ask to myself. Actually my father speaks Chinese not so fluent, at least not as fluent as my mother. And also my parent’s working environment is not in Chinese, not even Indonesian, but in Javanese. In fact, many of my Chinese friends in primary and secondary school, if not most of them, even their parents are not able or only speak little Chinese.
One easy answer to Chinese Malaysian or Singaporean or Chinese mainlander is by stating that speaking Chinese is prohibited in Indonesia. But I encountered one China guy asked me if he comes to Indonesia, is it against law if he speaks in Chinese? Maybe he thought if speaks Chinese, there would be a fine or maybe even imprisonment. That question shocked me. In fact in the past, Chinese language is banned in formal situation. There was no radio, TV, or newspaper in Chinese language. Actually there was no law that if somebody speaks in Chinese then he/she will be jailed. It was just a kind of suggestion. But some officers/local people will dislike or give difficulty in obtaining license or such if someone is caught up speaking Chinese. But it is not for the foreign tourist, just for local Indonesian Chinese.
Although having various nationality, overseas Chinese still consider themselves as Chinese. Do they have the same culture? Actually no! They have been living long enough in different countries to develop different custom and habit. In fact there are stereotypes about Singaporean, Malaysian, or Chinese Mainlander. There was one of my non-Chinese friend who told me that he surprised that many Indonesian Chinese dislike Chinese Mainlander. He thought Chinese mainlander is ‘purer’ or ‘more genuine’, or something like that. So Indonesian Chinese should well accept them or a kind of adore them. Apparently the culture difference is big enough, so it wouldn’t happen. Another fact is that most of Indonesian Chinese or South-East Asian Chinese are from Southern provinces, mostly from 2 provinces: Guangdong and Fujian. Whereas many of Chinese mainlander are from other China provinces.
Back to Mandarin speaking. In fact as far as I know in South-East Asia, Chinese schools are only available in Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam, countries where Chinese population have quite a big percentage, 75 % in Singapore and about 50% in Penang, the rest of Malaysia and Brunei is lower than that. In the rest of South-East Asian countries, Chinese is just a small minority and government tends to assimilate the Chinese to local population through for example, changing their name to local name, a practice that happens in Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar; closing Chinese speaking school; banning Chinese newspaper, etc. With the resurgence of China economy recently, some Chinese schools re-established in the past decade. Malaysia government doesn’t encourage assimilation like in Indonesia, that’s why they still retain their Chinese name.
Another reason Indonesian Chinese cannot speak Mandarin is because many of them have been living in Indonesia for generations or centuries, make them lose Chinese speaking ability. It’s called peranakan/baba in Indonesia/Malaysia/Singapore. Many Chinese overseas who live in Thailand, Australia, USA for generations (not recent/second generation immigrants) also cannot speak Chinese. Because Chinese is minority, many of them don’t have much chance to speak Chinese in daily life. That case also happens in Indonesia. In the past, in area where many Chinese are no longer speak Chinese, the recent immigrants from China tend to assimilate with them, therefore their children cannot speak Chinese.
Until 1966, there were Chinese language schools in Indonesia. After its closure, there is no Chinese school or Chinese newspaper until around year 2000. Many people become less accustomed to Chinese language because of that. But some people who previously studied in Dutch/Indonesian school had been less accustomed to Chinese language long before 1966. And also even if their family still maintain their ancestor’s language, the language would not be Mandarin, but Cantonese, Teochiu, Hakka, Hokkian, etc. Mandarin school was just started in the 20th century. In fact in China itself, Mandarin Chinese (bai hua) started to appear in books and official documents after May forth movement in 1919. National language was established from Beijing dialect pronunciation, and the grammar is based on mostly northern Mandarin Chinese.
There are still some Indonesian Chinese who are educated in Chinese language who still preserve Chinese language, but they are minority. In some parts of Indonesia, such as North and East Sumatra, as well as West Kalimantan, most of the Chinese there are able to speak Chinese ‘dialect’ such as Hokkian, Teochiu, or Hakka. For the rest part of Indonesia, most of young generations unable to converse in Chinese. Although I know there are some families in Java/Sulawesi/East Kalimantan who still maintain speaking Chinese within their family. Based on 2010 census, 24.07% of Chinese Indonesian speak Chinese at home. source
That is why Indonesian Chinese form their own community, which usually does not mingle with other Chinese from different nationality. Even from their name, people can tell whether they are from Indonesia, except for some of them whose name is undistinguishable with other Chinese or Western name. Some of the names can be easily recognized whether they are Indonesian Chinese or indigenous Indonesian. But there are some of them who are difficult to be recognized, even after meeting the persons themselves.
In Singapore people tend to be classified into the race they belong. Such case does not happen in Indonesia. Or if it happens, it’s not stated clearly. Application form in Singapore is frequently asking race, name in Chinese character, and even dialect. I’m sure it make some Indonesian-Chinese think about themselves, “Why I don’t know anything about this?”, “Am I really Chinese?”. If they state that they are ‘Indonesian’ race, it will be frowned by other people, since they have a chinese-looking face.