Legacies I Wanted to Know Why the Ocean Ate My Grandfather
As a child of many cultures, I wasn’t sure I could lay claim to one. But I learned that identity can grow and stretch, widen and encompass more than a single country or language.
I was a year old when my mother made her decision to move to the United States. She left me in the care of my Mak and Ngkong—my grandmother and grandfather, her parents—in Indonesia, and for the next two years, they became my de facto parents. They were the ones who prepared warm milk for me at bedtime, teaching me words like ‘kura-kura’ and ‘semangka’—‘turtles’ and ‘watermelon,’ respectively—as I played with other children in our tiny neighborhood in Pekalongan, Indonesia.
In 2001, two years after my mother left, Mak and Ngkong shepherded me onto a plane and held my hand tightly as we crossed two oceans. When we arrived in New Jersey, they muted their sorrow and placed my tiny hand back in my mother’s. I had a new family now, and new parents. After just a few days, Mak and Ngkong returned to Indonesia. It didn’t take me too long to start forgetting the words they’d taught me and, in a sense, it felt like a part of me had fallen asleep.
Was I ever going to wake up?
There was no trace of Indonesian or Chinese heritage in my walk or talk, despite the fact that I’d been brought into the world amidst the churning racial tensions of 1998. A month after I was born, the economic crisis in Indonesia took a bad turn, causing large riots to break out on May 14th in Jakarta and other major cities .
When they gained momentum, people began to target Chinese-Indonesian people, businesses, and neighborhoods . Shops were burned, women disappeared, and my family had to run out of their homes to search for safe places to hide from the mobs. This was my world—one where a girl could be burned alive for the color of her skin or the slit of her eyes—and to this day, the tragedies and wrongful deaths still haven’t been officially recognized by the Indonesian government .
So this was how I survived in my new country: by forgetting everything that made me Chinese and Indonesian; by beating English into my tongue; by memorizing the topography and terrain of this language’s baffling sounds, with all of its confusing vowels and grammar rules and wholly different ways of pronouncing the same letters.
I made it my business to read old English literature like The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn , chow on fried chicken and burgers, and listen to 106.7 lite fm. I grew into an American girl, one who could fool everyone into believing that English was my first language.
All this despite my grandparents’ tender care.
Soon after my second brother was born in New Jersey, Mak and Ngkong made another trip to the United States. They burst into our suburban two-story home in with snacks I’d never seen, languages I could no longer make sense of, and the powdery, almost-familiar scent of a country I was sure I’d once known.
That year—2006—I moved from second grade to third grade. As a result, I finally gained access to the upper floor of my elementary school. I was reading new books and growing taller and becoming a big sister for the second time around. But despite these new changes, I still felt small and confused.
When I looked at the Italian surnames of my white classmates, I felt deep envy in my heart. They came back from holidays with pictures of their lavish Christmas decorations and rowdy Thanksgiving dinners; their libraries at home contained books of family recipes, and on the weekends, they’d have sleepovers at Grandma’s house. Their experiences seemed so compact and so loving, belonging to so many others who looked like them. I, on the other hand, often found myself asking: Who do I belong to?
For two short months in 2006, none of that mattered. My grandparents transformed our home with their incense, their words, their meals. My grandmother prayed in the mornings to someone named Dewi Kwan Im, and in the afternoons, the air would fill with the fragrance of thick mushroom soup and other dishes like lo mee and rawon. I realized, possibly for the first time, that there was an entire history out there that I could lay claim to; call mine.
When Mak and Ngkong went home, the acute sense of loss in my stomach worsened. Something was missing—rather, everything was missing. But I could not face the self-shaped hole in my life. Instead, I patched it up with more American food, American talk, American books.
Ngkong died two years later, in Pekalongan. Plane tickets to fly there were prohibitively expensive for a family of four, so we stayed at home and changed into white clothing and called relatives and wept and wept and wept and wept.
Come back, I wanted to say to him. There’s still so much I wanted to ask you. So much I wanted to talk to you about.
Photograph courtesy of Theodora Sarah Abigail
Early April, 2016. I’d moved to Jakarta, whether out of some misplaced desire to “find myself” or to simply run away from everything, I couldn’t tell. It’d taken months of being surrounded by Indonesian people, but, at last, I remembered the language I’d started my life with. My aunt and grandma could weave their stories in Bahasa Indonesia and I could understand them. Even better, I could respond with my own.
But there were still so many other lessons I hadn’t learned. What did Chinese New Year mean to our family, and how did we celebrate it? Where in China did we emigrate from? What did it mean to burn incense? Remembering the words was only the first part of uncovering the rest of my story, and I still didn’t have the courage to identify as a Chinese-Indonesian girl. When people asked me where I was from, I continued to say I was from the States; a large part of me still longed to return to the “home” I’d grown accustomed to, with its familiar food and music and sounds.
I was at the dinner table with Wa Ie, my first aunt from my mother’s side of the family. She was sorting through old mail when she looked at me and, in our family’s unique blend of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Jawa, said: “Do you want to meet your grandfather?”
“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“Tomorrow is Ceng Beng, so we must pray for Ngkong. We can meet him on the shores of Parangtritis.”
Though Mak and Ngkong were Buddhist, Wa Ie had converted to Catholicism in her twenties. I’d heard that Christians and Catholics weren’t allowed to pray to dead ancestors, especially not outside of a church, and I asked her about this.
“This is a family thing, not a Catholic thing.” Wa Ie looked up from the mail. “Do you want to learn or not?”
“I do,” I said. “But do I have the right to do this?”
“What are you talking about? Of course you have the right.” She scolded me loudly. “Our family—our people—have been doing this for generations. This is what Mak Cho and Ngkong Cho, your great-grandparents, did for their ancestors. They taught Mak and Ngkong, and Mak and Ngkong taught me, and now I am teaching you. How will you continue our traditions if you are too afraid to start practicing them?”
The mail sorted, she grabbed her car keys from the low table next to my cousin’s door and shuffled me into the car. After a few minutes of driving, I recognized the winding path we always took to Jalan Malioboro, the busiest shopping street in the city. A right turn into a small alleyway brought us in front of a tiny shophouse, illuminated by flickering paper lanterns. There, she purchased a pack of bright red incense and four stacks of paper money.
“We’ll need it for the ritual,” she said, answering the bright curiosity in my eyes. “When we get home, you should go right to bed. We have a long day tomorrow.” “This is a family thing.”
“Wake up,” she nudged me. I gazed blearily at the clock. Still five in the morning.
“Do I have to?”
“You were the one who said you wanted to learn. Wake up—we need to go to the pasar and buy Ngkong’s favorite snacks.”
She’d mentioned that last night in the car—that we had to sacrifice food for our ancestors. “Food is one of the most important parts of the offering,” she’d said. “But we have to buy it in the morning so that it’s still fresh from the market.”
At 5:30 a.m., the pasar wasn’t yet crowded, but I decided to stay in the car. “I won’t be long,” Wa Ie said. “Just stay here and make sure the water in the thermos doesn’t spill.” There was a hole near the lid; it was so precariously full that any sudden shift of the car could send a liter of water deep into the seats.
She came back with armfuls of food that our ancestors loved: kue bolu, so bright and colorful and sweet; crispy fried pastel, filled with bihun noodles and diced vegetables; chewy, red Ang ku kueh, so named for their tortoise-shell shape. These were some of my favorite snacks as well, and I wished that I’d been able to eat them together with Mak and Ngkong.
As we made our way towards Parangtritis, the sleek office buildings and cramped shophouses of Jogjakarta slowly melted away, replaced by small huts and poorly-constructed metal shacks. Their walls and roofs were full of holes, through which we could see the horizon, and we had to drive carefully to avoid the foot traffic—young men, dogs, grandmothers carrying traditional drinks to sell—crossing back and forth on the streets.
The road towards the beach was badly paved, our journey punctuated by abrupt stops every now and then as an errant rooster crossed the street.
I asked Wa Ie, “What’s Ceng Beng?”
“It’s the day when we go to the graves of our ancestors,” she said, “to pray and give offering.” My great-grandparents’ graves were in Pekalongan, she explained, which was too far away for a day trip. Besides, she told me, Ngkong was cremated and his ashes were spread into the ocean.
She paused. Then, “I believe that no matter which shore we go to, he’ll be able to hear us.”
I asked her why she chose Parangtritis, a beach an hour each way from Wa Ie’s house, when there were other, nearer shores.
She looked at me, then focused on the road ahead of us. “It’s like a pilgrimage. If it were easy, would it really mean anything?”
When we arrived at the shore, the sun was half-awake; so were we.
Wa Ie looked like a shaman as she made her way to the edge of the beach. Her hair hadn’t been combed; her arms were weighed down with heaving plastic bags, each one full with various gifts, offerings, and other essentials. Once we found a cozy spot on the sand, just a few meters from the water, she grabbed a damp, mottled stick and began digging a hole in the ground.
“We’ll burn money in here,” she said. “We have to send everyone money so that they can live comfortably and happily. Without it, they won’t be able to buy what they need in the afterlife.”
Did I really believe that burning paper money would somehow make Ngkong’s spirit happy? I don’t know. But he believed so—what we were doing was a part of a ritual that he’d taught Wa Ie so many years ago. It was only right that we paid our respects according to his beliefs.
She placed three plates on the sand in front of the hole. One was for Ngkong, she explained. The other two were for Mak Cho and Ngkong Cho. She divided the food—fried pastries, candies, snacks—equally onto the plates, explaining that they were their favorites.
Photograph courtesy of Theodora Sarah Abigail
“Here,” she grunted. She lit two sticks of incense, pushed them into my grip. “Pray.”
She told me to tell Thian Kong my full name and my requests—permission to see Ngkong, Mak Cho, and Ngkong Cho, and blessings for them in the afterlife. Thian Kong, she said, was our title for God.
I stared at the incense and asked her why there were only two sticks when we had three people to pray for.
“Three and nine are for God,” she explained. “Two are for the dead, no matter how many.”
After our prayers, she stabbed the sticks into the sand. Mystified, I followed suit. This, I suspected, was so that the smoke from the incense would cover our offerings, and in doing so, shower blessings upon them.
She lit the fire with a lighter she used for her own cigarettes and began placing the money in the large hole in the ground. After showing me how to twirl the stacks of paper into rosettes, she grabbed her stick again and began tending to the fire, ensuring that the money was properly burnt away.
We watched the fire in silence. When we were all out of paper, she covered the hole with sand and poured water over it.
The incense had not finished burning, but we walked past it and towards the ocean, carrying baskets of rose petals at our hips and the plates of snacks in our hands. Wa Ie instructed me to throw the cakes into the ocean. “Let the waves take them to those we love.”
I felt silly for throwing a perfectly good pastel goreng into the water. It didn’t help that I hadn’t practiced an overhand throw in months; as the pastry landed not two feet in front of me, I wished I could shrivel up and disappear. How silly we must look . I marveled at Wa Ie’s resoluteness and firm conviction that this was a tradition worth practicing.
She walked up beside me and handed me a basket of rose petals. Her hands were stained pink, and the water was so dark I could no longer see my feet. As I stared out at the horizon, something that felt like reconciliation began unfurling inside my lungs—I’d been holding my breath all morning.
The truth: I wasn’t afraid of looking silly. Rather, I was afraid that I was out of place. A part of me wondered what might happen if a real Chinese-Indonesian was there on the beach that day looking at me. Would they point me out and call me a fraud? Say I was being presumptuous?
Did I have the right to burn incense and spread rose petals into the water? I don’t know. I don’t know. Yes, I want to say. Can I allow myself to be guided by my elders in reliving these old traditions? Can I shape them into new ones that I will carry at my own hip?
In this way, can I call them mine? Can I allow myself to be guided by my elders in reliving these old traditions?
I want to say that I have always been Chinese-Indonesian, even if my own experience has looked markedly different from others’. I can discover this. I can discover this part of myself. I can wake this little girl up.
Standing calf-deep in the cool waters of Parangtritis, I welcomed the ritual’s temporary magic. Perhaps a hundred years ago, my great-grandmother and her own aunt or mother or grandmother stood on a beach much like this one and prayed and cast rose petals into aching water. What a wonderful idea; what a beautiful image.
Once our baskets were empty, we walked back to the beach and sat down once more, watching as the waves carried our prayers to a different, unseen land. After they disappeared from view, she stood up and pulled at my arm, signaling that it was time to go.
Will I ever return to the United States? I don’t know. In 2016, I married a Chinese-Indonesian man; we had a daughter a year after. After three years of living in Indonesia, I’ve finally found a voice. I want to prove that the wounds my people suffered were not permanent; I want to learn more about the others who share similar stories to me, those whose histories have not survived as well as mine; I want to write poems and essays and songs and books about my people so that we can never again be erased or denied.
Here, in this country, I have put down roots.
Who I was; who we have been, and most importantly, who we are becoming—all these are never finite; identity can grow and stretch, widen and encompass more than a single country or language.
That day, after our ritual at Parangtritis, I clutched the final rose petal in my palm as we drove back past the shacks, the half-empty stalls, towards our next destination. Each turn of the wheel brought us further and further away from Mak Cho and Ngkong Cho and Ngkong—but I continued to look at the sky and remember the sea, guarding the past in my hands like a pearl, polishing it anew, breathing my own life into my family’s aging core.
Photograph courtesy of Theodora Sarah Abigail