Indonesian Culture and Diaspora: Forget Me, Forget Me Not?

Created by Kolom Remaja Interns
Author: Annisa Adnina
Illustrator: Yanuwar

From the former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie to a student like Neva Toferry, there are many figures that identify themselves as an overseas Indonesian. Since Neva is the daughter of a diplomat who was a general consulate assigned to Frankfurt, she has been living in Germany for a couple of years. While adapting to a new environment,  it wasn’t a smooth-sailing journey. Throughout her experience, Neva was faced with a variety of struggles, from having to socialise with people who are very different to Indonesians (in terms of language and mannerism), finding places to go and where not to go,  to adjusting with a new school curriculum. However, there is  one  problem that many others might face yet is usually made light of: cultural identity crisis. While such a problem tends to occur among the Indonesian diasporas, how does one go through it? Neva’s story may resonate very clearly with other members of the diaspora group.

But first, we need to define what exactly is a diaspora and an overseas Indonesian. The Indonesian diaspora consists of Indonesians by birth and ancestry who live outside of Indonesia. By this definition, the term is often used interchangeably with ‘overseas Indonesians’ (Muhidin and Utomo, 2016). The start of Indonesians migrating abroad dates back to historic times, with the Minangkabau culture of merantau (to leave one’s homeland to chase education or establish a business) especially notable in the 14th century. By 2015, you’d be surprised to know that there are as much as 8 million overseas Indonesians, as estimated by the Indonesian Diaspora Network (IDN). That’s 8 million different people, origins, and aspirations. Among the 8 million, whether you are a student, a second generation immigrant, or a labour migrant, what binds these communities together is not only Indonesian blood, but Indonesian heritage. 

Oftentimes, Indonesian diasporas are labeled as people who lost their sense of ‘Indonesian-ness’ or becoming more ‘westernised’. Losing touch with your culture may give a path to cultural identity crisis. Being able to relate to your roots as well as the people who share the same cultural background can bring individuals the feeling of belonging to a certain community. By lacking that sense of togetherness, it can trigger confusion and the feeling of  being lost. 

Therefore, there are some principles that should never be overlooked, no matter how geographically distant you are from your motherland. These principles include embracing your cultural identity and staying true to where you come from, which are very essential to always be reminded of. It’s not inherently bad to adapt and assimilate to the country you reside in, but loving your roots is an important measure to embrace diversity and have a personal sense of identity. 

Being able to love your culture does not only make you come in terms with your own differences, but also promotes other people to accept their own unique features as well. Acceptance of your culture sparks important conversations about the heterogeneity of customs and traditions, which paves way to overall open-mindedness to other cultures. Many forms of discrimination and aggression towards minority groups stem from individuals who are not being able or refusing to accept that other people may not share similar ideologies or customs. Hence, not having enough many-to-many dialogues regarding different cultures usually has adverse effects. Therefore, it is especially crucial to foster individual consciousness about your culture, because who else is going to love, nurture, and defend your culture if it weren’t yourself. 

Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge that to genuinely love your culture is truly easier said than done. Upon residing in the host country, blending in and conforming to these places often comes with setting aside your own culture, especially when the Indonesian community in the host country is smaller in size. It would be difficult to eat local cuisine, speak Indonesian, and discuss local affairs in the lens of an Indonesian.  Although they may seem as something that are of little to no importance,  these things are the same factors that perpetuate dissociation with your culture. It may start off as missing your grandma’s rendang, but it can eventually lead to not liking or even hating Indonesian food as a whole. While the issue can be boiled down to personal preferences, hating your traditional cuisine can also contribute to harmful connotations that come with ethnic food, such as  being ‘smelly’ or unappetising. 

That’s only the tip of the iceberg, as forgoing your culture has many other detrimental impacts. While becoming a global citizen is anything but bad, there might be a time where individuals feel as though western culture is superior to their own. From mannerism to ideologies, individuals may start to disregard the viewpoints of their own people. Norms such as using honorifics to refer to elders are ridiculed and dismissed, and values like modesty may be seen as something too conservative. As individuals further internalise the western values surrounding them, it may then result in looking down or having a cynical view on their own traditions. Having to experience a new, strange wave of cultural shock upon returning to one’s own homeland is the bleak reality of some overseas Indonesian. Not being able to understand the context of dialogue with Indonesians, not being able to speak it as a whole, being called “too bule” or ‘western’ to fit in. The list of phenomenons may be endless and unique to everyone’s experience.  

Having said both the benefits of embracing your culture and the drawbacks that come to forgoing it, it is of the utmost importance that Indonesians across time and space should stay connected to one’s culture. Not only will indonesian’s cultural heritage be passed on from generations to generations, but problems like cultural identity crisis will not be so prevalent among the Indonesian diaspora group.At first, staying connected to Indonesian culture might seem challenging, especially during periods of self isolation in some countries with Covid-19 regulations, it’s not an impossible task. Simple activities such as  staying in touch with your family through video calls, learning how to cook Indonesian food, and talking to your Indonesian peers actually count as a huge opportunity. In Neva’s case, she shared that she kept in touch with her culture by surrounding herself with an Indonesian community, such as Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia (PPI). With communities like PPI, she went to events and gatherings, from traditional dance recitals to holiday celebrations, like Eid al Fitr and Independence Day. However, the key takeaway here is to keep feeding your knowledge on your culture and stay curious. By the end of the day, ‘being Indonesian’ can’t be merely measured by legal aspects like citizenship or passports, but by how you embrace and nurture your culture. 


Muhidin, S. and Utomo, A., 2016. Global Indonesian Diaspora: How many are there and where are they?. JAS (Journal of ASEAN Studies), 3(2), p.93. 2015. IDN Global. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 January 2021].

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