Indonesians stranded or choosing not to return during the pandemic….

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(Illustration: Alexey Hulson via Pixabay)

IO – During the past few weeks the Independent Observer has written about foreigners who chose to remain in Indonesia during the pandemic. Today we are writing about Indonesians who were stranded, or chose not to return before governments began closing their borders. The Indonesian government never closed its borders to its own citizens but, Indonesians abroad were not always allowed to leave or able to find transportation to return. Here are some of their stories. 

Jody Darmawan is a 54 year old former businessman whose family left Indonesia when he was 3 years old. His family moved to Hong Kong after 1965 as his father considered the situation no longer safe for raising a family. Jody went to school there until the age of 16 when he moved to the UK and studied economics at University College in London. Despite living abroad for so long and leaving Indonesia at a very young age at home his parents had always spoken Indonesian and he never gave up his Indonesian citizenship. 

Jody Darmawan in his biking gear set to enjoy a Singaporean sunset. (Photo courtesy of Jody Darmawan)

He graduated at a time when the booming economies of this region were known as the Southeast Asian tigers so he returned to Indonesia at the age of 23 to become an entrepreneur in the retail and distribution of jeans wear. “Returning at the age of 23 was a bit of a culture shock,” Jody admits. “But it was not difficult to adjust. It was quite different to what I expected. Much better actually! I was quite worried that being Chinese Indonesian I would marginalized. It was a perception that grew from my upbringing – but in fact I did not experience any discrimination at all. I was treated just like anyone else and I felt local Indonesians were interested in my upbringing abroad. There were things I learnt from them and they in turn also learnt things from me. It was the first time I felt that I had come home and I felt welcomed.” 

Jody’s business went well and in 2003 he married a lady from Hong Kong and had children. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and his wife took the children to Hong Kong where she divorced him. It was a difficult time. Four years ago he moved to Singapore, married a Singaporean and currently has 3 children with his wife who lives in Singapore with the children, “And I have been too-ing and fro-ing since 2015. Spending 2 weeks a month in Singapore and 2 weeks in other places but always on the weekends in Singapore,” Jody explained

Jody Darmawan’s son Julian playing and learning at home. (Photo courtesy of Jody Darmawan)

Jody is one of the founders of Entrepreneurs Organization Indonesia and last year he closed his business and began to pursue his passion for coaching and training entrepreneurs which he has been doing for 20 years. He moved to Singapore but returns at least once a month to Jakarta to visit his parents. In mid- March he was in Jakarta and had just flown back to Singapore when it closed its borders, followed by Indonesia closing its borders and now both countries are going through partial lockdowns with people having to remain at home except for essentials such as grocery shopping and exercise. 

Jody has had to change all his meetings and coaching to virtual ones which saves him the time, cost and tiredness of travelling however he finds conducting virtual coaching more taxing energy-wise. Also, the partial lockdown means that his children do home schooling and someone needs to help them which that uses up the time saved from travelling. Also everyone needs to find their space to work and play in the house where space is limited. Mostly though he finds it all quite pleasant and enjoys spending more time with his family. Jody’s only concern is his parents who in Jakarta, “If they get sick, there’s not much I can do. That gives me a sense of helplessness and I do miss them. My mother sends me photographs of her belimbing wuluh tree and the fish head gulai that she makes with the belimbing … but I try to turn worries and problems into something positive. I can still eat dinner with my mother at different locations by turning on the video conferencing That can also be done with friends. We create a happy hour through drinks and video conferencing.” 

And Jody’s final advice is to be careful and responsible about sharing information about the pandemic, “Don’t just forward information from God knows where. Do question the source of your information. There is just too much misinformation going around. So, be responsible.” 

Monique Soesman researching her grandfather in Holland. (Photo courtesy of Monique Soesman)

Meanwhile Monique Soesman is not Indonesian but she has lived here for 27 years, has permanent residence, is married to an Indonesian, has an Indonesian son and says, “I have lived such a large part of my life here I don’t know any more if I am Dutch or Indonesian. I am Dutch but I have absorbed Indonesian values and ideas.” 

The Independent Observer has therefore, included her in this pieces. Monique was born in Utrecht in 1956 but and lives in Indonesia since she began her first job working for a hotel chain. Then she worked for STUNED a Dutch scholarship organization for professional Indonesians. In 1999 Monique married her husband, Siswandi. Now she is a consultant for Dutch non-governmental organizations in Indonesia. 

During her years in Indonesia, Monique never returned to Holland for more than a week so this year she decided to stay in Holland for 3 months researching a book about her mother’s father, an interior designer and artist who created the interiors of several well-known buildings and managed the furniture section of Toko Van der Pol. 

Then the pandemic came along and in March the Netherlands went into lockdown. Monique comments, “Here everyone is convinced that health is more important than the economy. So, we all stay at home, only coming out for essential things and then we stay 1,5 meters. The borders were closed. It is very quiet. I am stay in a friend’s apartment and continue to work quietly on my book.” 

Monique originally intended to return earlier but extended her stay because she had not yet finished her research. Then Indonesia closed its borders too and Monique postponed her trip home to the 15th of May but KLM cancelled her flight and she does not know when there will be flights again to Jakarta. “In the beginning I was panicking because it was not clear how contagious the disease is and we were deadly scared in the Netherlands,” she remarked. “But now we know that with social distancing and the right measure we can stay safe.” 

For Monique, the greatest difficulty is being separated from her husband and not knowing what the situation is in Jakarta. She worries about the medical support available if he catches the virus as it is not as good as in the Netherlands and even there the hospitals were overwhelmed. What has made it easier is that her mother and sister are in the Netherlands and her son Addy is studying there although in a different town. So she cannot meet him either. Nevertheless, there has been a gradual loosening of the lockdown and for the first time in 3 months on Mothers’ Day, Addy was able to travel to Monique’s town and meet his mother in a park and walk with her, although they had to keep 1,5 meters apart – so no hugging! 

On Mother’s Day, Monique’s son, Addy was able to take this photo of his mum but they had to keep their 1,5 meter distance.(Photo courtesy of Monique Soesman)

Meanwhile, her husband is living quietly in Jakarta avoiding exposure. “So, I started to feel safer but still worried because what if something happens and I am so far away. So, I have to just be stoic and pasra (leave things in the hands of God). One has to tuck the fear away and try not to think about it. Release it to the Universe or God. It is outside of our control and we just have to accept it as it is and start enjoying life day by day. Go into yourself like a retreat- and realize what are the most important things in your life and that life is a gift and we have to be happy with what we have.” 

Monique says that her grandparents went through the depression, the Japanese Occupation, were Japanese prisoner-of-war, her father was on the Burma Railway, they starved and almost died and then lost nearly everything when they returned to Holland. They never told her this but she found in one of her grandfather’s letters the words, “But all of that is not important. What is important is only that we have each other. We shall just have to build up our lives again…” 

Going through this pandemic has helped Monique to truly understand her grandfather’s words and all the things her grandparents went through, almost as though the Universe had arranged her research during a pandemic to better understand what she was researching. “Every time I open a letter there is a message from my grandfather which is relevant today. He liked to document things and I began to realize that he must have thought that this is important for the next generation. So yes, I needed to be here exactly at this time to research and work. I feel it is my destiny…” 

Trita with her beloved dogs Yuki and Royce in Jakarta. (Photo courtesy of Trita Amahorseya)

Trita Amahorseya Ng was born in 1963 in Jakarta. She went to Japan and studied Japanese language at Tenri University and later studied comparative education at Tokyo International University. She liked Japan and says that the Japanese are a very sincere and disciplined people with whom one can really become close friends. While doing her Master’s degree Trita had a part-time job at a language lab where Princess Kiko the sister-in-law of Japan’s current emperor was studying Indonesian. Trita came to know the intelligent and sweet princess who was learning Indonesian and who became a friend. 

Nevertheless, Trita prefers to live in Indonesia. “It is very tough working in Japan with very late hours and no one goes home until the boss does. Also going to work is not pleasant. The commuter trains are so crowded with everyone pushing. I once fainted on one of the trains.” 

So, after 6 years Trita returned home. She worked for IBM Indonesia and then for IBM Singapore. In 1999 Trita married fellow Indonesian Johnny Ng and returned to Indonesia. As she suffered from endometriosis it was expected that it would be difficult conceiving a child but she had a son but later named Amadeus which means ‘love of God’. “It was because of the love of God that I was able to have a son and such an easy birth,” Trita says. 

Since childhood she has also suffered from a rare disease known as Marfan’s syndrome. It manifested as aortic aneurysms and as a result Trita has already twice undergone open heart surgery. This places her in a position of having serious preconditions and makes it very dangerous for her to catch COVID-19. 

When the pandemic struck Southeast Asia Trita and her family went to Singapore so that she and her elderly in laws could be close to good hospitals. Also Deus was studying there. They thought they would stay two weeks but the situation worsened both in Singapore as well as Indonesia and currently she has extended her visa until June. 

“In the beginning it was not too bad. When Jakarta enforced large scale social restrictions here in Singapore it was still possible to go to the gym, restaurants and malls but after 3 weeks Singapore enforced its own large scale restrictions called the Circuit Breaker. It’s much better to self-isolate at home where there is the food one is used to and I miss my two dogs Yuki and Royce. I am so worried that the staff may leave and that there will be no one to fed them. 

Trita Amahorseya Ng with her family during happier times in the Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Trita Amahorseya)

What makes it easier for me is that I have my family with me. I was so afraid that I might not be able to return to Jakarta for 6 months and I felt that I would not be able to stand it. I am just a visitor here. My home is in Jakarta and I want to go home… 

I know I am lucky to be in Singapore with its good medical care. A friend of mine and her child died of the virus whereas my biggest challenge is only finding a decent sambal in Singapore. None of the grocery stores or restaurants here have a truly good sambal so I made my own and that led me to start cooking. I look for recipes on the internet but sometimes, I find myself trying to cook the simple things that my German grandmother used to make…,” she says thoughtfully. 

Trita has lost weight so perhaps those old recipes from when she was young are a form of comfort. She says that it is very important to stay busy and positive. “Try to see the good around you. It will lessen your stress. I do Bible study with my friends via zoom and we also exchange recipes. So, I continue to learn new things even during this time…” 
(Tamalia Alisjahbana)