On the year of the rat

citizenship watching the news on the plight of millions of Chinese trying to make their way to their village a few weeks ago, I thought bemusedly to myself “why is it so important?”

My family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year, despite having the right bloodline for it. I think the tradition died with my grandfather. When I was younger he almost obsessively hands out Angpau (red envelopes) to all his grandchildren. I suppose years and even generations of trying not to act or be too overtly Chinese made this celebration a non-event within my family.

This then made me wonder about where are my family from. After watching one too many episode of Who do you think you are?” made me just a little bit more curious. I jokingly said that with each generation we seem to be moving further down south, but I wonder to what extent is this really true?

I have no idea where my mother’s family are from, my grandmother refers to herself as Hakka, but ask her where her family came from and you’ll get a blank look. What I do know is they settled in Bangka island by the turn of the 20th century before migrating to Jakarta. Knowing my mother’s side, I can only guess that they were tin merchant of some sort, who threw their lot with the Dutch and prospered as a result.

My father’s side is a little bit more complicated, there are no records and even less photos to record who they were. I’m not too sure what the character for their family name is, but I do know it’s Oie and that it is a very common name within the central Java area. My guess is they are probably a poor relation of Oei Tiong Ham. The Sugar King millionaire of the area. With 18 concubines, the man must be related to at least half the Chinese population within the island today.

I’m not about to embark on a quest to find my family’s history, but it did made me question my sense of identity. Seven generation ago, my ancestors were Chinese, spoke the dialect and would proudly call themself as such. Three generation from now, half my grandparents are more fluent in Dutch than they are in Bahasa while the other half spoke the local dialect and left their Chinese with their parents.

In my generation, no one speaks Chinese, we all speak English and some of us are losing our Bahasa. Our background is Chinese, Indonesian and now Australian. A lot of the traditions are no longer being practiced and yet we keep adapting.

On Saturday I finally took the plunge and claimed Australia as my home country. A few events that happened recently made it easier for me to feel happy with the choice. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like I have given up a part of my identity, but rather following the footstep of my own family by moving on, hoping for the best and trusting that a new land will bring new opportunities.

At the same time the ceremony itself was a bit of a let down. Usually the citizenship ceremony is held at your local council, apparently most councils are months behind and DIMA decides to hold quickie versions to alleviate the wait. No plant, no refreshment and definitely no fancy speeches. In between all the screaming children in the background, the 1 guest policy (thanks Mum!) and the fact that Saturday was Mardi Gras, I can’t help but think that’s it’s all a little surreal.

4 thoughts on “On the year of the rat

  1. Hey, congrats on finally getting that little piece of paper. Pity about the lack of plant or sandwiches, but believe me, it’s all overhyped anyway 😉 By the by, I feel totally Australian and am proud to be one, but I think there will always be a part of me that will never forget that I’m Malaysian too. Usually the stomach part!


  2. Yeah, I did the quickie ceremony too. A small room with a picture of the queen and a stereo in the corner playing Advance Australia Fair. Did you sing along? 🙂


    1. Yes, but a little surreal to do anything else. Remembered looking at the tiny picture of the queen and the stereo and thinking that it feels like a strange play unfolding before me.

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