Sun, 25 May 2003

Happy birthday, Siao Ying

Siswo Pramono

The yellow tulip was shimmering in my hand. I flew thousands of miles, back home to my hometown, to present this tulip to Siao Ying. I took the flower from the tulip garden in Keukenhof. And now it had become the most beautiful flower in Siao Ying's garden of stones.

Siao Ying was the name that I could not mention without a sense of guilt, anger and deep sorrow. Had I taken her to the Dutch Tulip Exhibition that day, it would have prevented the agony from growing inside me.

I used to write Siao Ying on her birthdays. The last time I saw her was five years ago. Nonetheless, I have never missed writing her ever since. Siao Ying, of course, never replied to my letters, but that was not her fault.

I left my hometown and Siao Ying for Europe when I was 16. I was just a boy and I was confused, distressed, vulnerable and ill.

After years of hard work and study, I completed a degree at Koln. But, still, my life went on just like driftwood. Five years abroad and I had no courage to go home.

My parents, who visited me every summer holiday, passed all the letters to Siao Ying on her birthdays.

It was hard to remember the first time I met Siao Ying. What I do remember is that we grew up together, went to the same school, were once neighbors before her family moved to the Chinatown area near the city-square, and we were both the only children in our families.

During our childhood, we were more than friends, more like brother and sister, I even called her moy-moy, which means "sister". In return, she called me ko-ko, which means "big brother".

As we grew up, the brother-sister relationship was shifting to a consenting one, reminding one of the old saying tresno jalaran soko kulino: Intimate friendship often ends in love. Well, perhaps, a cinta monyet (puppy love).

I loved Siao Ying, and for sure, she loved me even more. Her agape love -- care for another -- caused my love sickness to become incurable. I was so possessive that no one could think of dating her without calculating the harmful consequences. To that end, I fought many battles to keep the boys away from her.

However, there were problems that were hard to solve. The divine rule of society stated that pribumi (the indigenous Indonesians) like me are not allowed to date Chinese-Indonesians. Even in our modern society at the end of the 20th century!

Adding to this complexity was that she believed that kissing caused pregnancy. Pity me, our romance was a little bit dry. I never kissed her.

My parents did not object to my dating Siao Ying. As a businessman, my father had many connections, including linkages with the Chinese inner business circle.

However, I fully understood that my parents would be happy if I dated an indigenous girl instead. That was why they believed in the old saying bibit, bebet, bobot: the good talent, the nobility and the beauty of a natural person.

The Siao family was poor. Siao Ho-liang, Siao Ying's father, was an unsuccessful small retailer. He sold daily products such as noodles, rice and cooking oil. I thought, he could not cope with the economic crisis at that time. No doubt whatsoever that babah Ho-liang (that was what people called him) was a hard working father.

As the national economy was collapsing, and as the rich-poor gap was widening, the anti-Chinese sentiment was increasing. This was particularly true in my hometown.

The fact that the cukong, the Chinese financiers, controlled the distribution of the dairy products and other basic needs triggered the negative feeling. During such a hard time, the answer could be found in a simple supply-demand theory. I learned this at school.

It was hard nevertheless to contemplate why the cukongs made a lot of profit out of the scare. Daily products were badly needed by the people. People who found no explanation called the cukongs the pariah capitalists. They hated them.

I those days, something big happened in the city, in the palace. People demanded a political change; a "total reform", they said. Students organized rallies, some were killed as martyrs. And strangers started appearing in my suburb.

Eventually, the tide of resentment turned against the Chinese community. Older people told me that these racist things happened in the past, so why not now?

"Chinese account less than 10 percent of this country's population but they run more than 70 percent of our economy", said a stranger when he gave a kind of "political orientation" in the backyard of my high school compound.

Another stranger provoked us with a somewhat strange theory of center-periphery exploitation (now I knew, he was talking, inaccurately, about Galtung!). The Chinese, for him, should be blamed for exploiting the pribumi and for collaborating with the oppressive ruling elite.

They should also be blamed, he added, for poisoning the indigenous noble value system with bribery, monopoly and KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism).

I hated this propaganda. Although the speeches contained some elements of truth, but for me, they were not more than a blatant deception, which served no basis for explaining the marginalization of the pribumi in the national economy.

The rhetoric hurt me because it hurt Siao Ying. Nonetheless, the girl never responded to such a cruel allegation, but I did.

I rebutted those two speakers. I argued that partly, the pribumi had contributed to the creation of this minority- dominated economy.

Had the pribumi abandoned their scapegoating attitudes and improved their skill, knowledge and creativity, their lives would have been better off. And on the subject of corrupt morals, it was the pribumi who practiced most of the bribery and KKN. Examples were in abundance in our daily life.

Well, that was not a bad argument for a high school student like me, was it?

My advocacy, in fact, cornered me to a very unpopular position. The anti-Chinese groups called me the collaborator of the Chinese.

"Ko-ko" said Siao Ying; "You are digging your own grave."

No, I was not digging my own grave. I did not defend the Chinese or any other groups. I was striving for something that I believed to be the truth: My truth.

I knew that I was not alone, but no one, even Siao Ying, my girlfriend, was bold enough to support me in public. Siao Ying was very much "apolitical".

I, myself, never touched upon political subjects when speaking with her (After all, most teenagers at my age and did not really care or know about politics). Such a conversation would, I was afraid, build a great wall between us.

Actually, the wall was already there. The anti-Chinese sentiment and its spreading hatred in the community had made the wall grow even faster and I was restlessly trying to bring it down.

Let us end this political nonsense and talk about something else, about Siao Ying.

I found the beauty of Kwam Im Pauwsat, the goddess of mercy, whose statue I saw once in the abandoned Chinese temple near Chinatown, in Siao Ying's face and heart. Of course, Siao Ying was not crowned with a halo. I used to sit in front of her and observe her face intently, ignoring her complaints about my childish attitudes.

She asked me to take her to the Dutch Tulip Exhibition in the neighboring city for her 16th birthday. She promised me; in return, that I could kiss her -- that would be my first kiss -- in front of the yellow tulips.

However, my ego dictated to me, that, ignoring her birthday business, I must be the one who decided upon the place to kiss her. I wanted my kiss to be the special gift for her birthday and this had to be done in front of the Kwam Im statue in the Chinese temple.

Frankly speaking, the Sin Tiauw Hiap Lu, my favorite TV series, inspired me. The tulip exhibition could wait one day longer. As usual, the good girl would never argue with me for she knew how stubborn I was.

The day was May 16: Siao Ying's birthday. I felt as if I had a hangover because I could not sleep the whole night before, thinking about the best way to kiss her.

I left the class earlier that day to pick her up. By that time, her father would not be home. Here began the episode that changed our lives.

I noticed that something was strange as I approached the main boulevard of the city. No one was on the street but me. The day was a bit dark and foggy, which was unusual for high noon.

Then I realized that a thick haze was coming from the city center causing the gloomy day. The smoke smelt very bad.

All of a sudden, explosions and sporadic gunfire retorts tore the long silence. After a few moments, I saw two or three men run down the street. "Go away, kid!" one of them, who was wounded in his face, shouted at me.

"Run! They've burned Chinatown!"

I was shocked, and wanted to get more information but they had already gone.

Chinatown was burning. Siao Ying lived in a Chinese complex there. I raced my motorbike like as quickly as possible to her house.

I thought my motorbike had hit some one or something as I found myself suddenly rolling across the paved road. I was in the middle of a bloody riot.

Houses were burning. Bodies were on the street. I could not count the numbers but my sight spotted Babah Ho-liang as one of them.

Soldiers were blocking sections of the street; their helmets glowing in the smoky air. Overwhelmed by the mob, they did not do anything but wait for reinforcements. The rage was out of hand.

Babah Ho-liang's house was not burnt, but heavily damaged. I poured into the house and found Siao Ying, soaked in her own blood and laid stretched out on the backyard. I could not find the wound but it must have been very bad. She was still conscious.

I carried her to the nearest clinic, which was located a few blocks away from the house. People were yelling at me as I rushed her along the police barricades. My back was beaten by the mob and I felt half dead when I reached the clinic, only to find the door was slammed in my face.

"Take her away," cried the terrified old nurse, "you bring her in, and they will burn the clinic."

I kicked the door unsuccessfully, and pleaded for her mercy - unsuccessfully. The old woman might have been dead herself.

I cursed heaven for letting this madness happen. I love this country and I was proud of our noble culture, but that day I hated being a pribumi and was ashamed of being born in this country.

I laid her down in the abandoned Chinese temple. The light of the candles fell on the face of Kwam Im the goddess of mercy.

Siao Ying observed me intently, just like the way the Kwam Im stared at me with her merciful eyes. She tried to move her lips, calling my name but the blood in her throat caught her voice.

Her trembling hands wiped the tears and dirt off my face. She smiled at me, the smile of peace and forgiveness, and then she fell into the eternal silence.

And now, five years later, I am struck with the same silence.

The yellow tulip shimmers in my hands. No one has wiped the tears off my face. My long shadow falls upon the gravestone as my water-logged vision spots her name. A small letter box was hung on the stone; there my mother keeps all the letters I sent to Siao Ying.

"I brought you the tulip of Keukenhof," I whispered, "Happy birthday Siao Ying."

Note: * babah: father