I don’t know which language I spoke first: English or my native tongue, Indonesian. Even the phrase “mother tongue” itself is tainted for me because I don’t even know which language I said “mother” in first.
Growing up with my Filipino father and British stepdad, I was always two steps behind the language of my homeland. Being raised in an upper-middle-class household meant I had access to Western culture, entertainment, and education. My class privilege is what allowed me to explore English, and that’s important for me and other English-speaking Indonesians to acknowledge. To speak English isn’t something to be incessantly proud of—that feels elitist—but it isn’t something to be ashamed of either. Still, it’s been difficult not being familiar with my mother tongue like other natives are. In kindergarten, I struggled to count to ten in Indonesian but could speedily count to twenty in English; I watched Disney Channel religiously, memorized sentences from my Strawberry Shortcake books, and primarily spoke in English daily, even with my Indonesian mother.
Then, in elementary school, I realized I felt foreign in my own homeland. I didn’t recognize the songs my friends were singing, and to this day there’s a gap that separates us at concerts whenever their favorite childhood band plays. Music is supposed to be a bridge between different languages, but something in me shifted in those moments. As my friends stretched their vocal cords, screaming every last lyric and holding their phones up in the air, I’d just sway to the rhythm, feeling like a stranger around the people I loved.
Before becoming fluent in high school, I was frequently made fun of for stumbling in Indonesian. Even now, I feel like my pronunciation is a little strange with words I don’t know, and there’s much I have yet to absorb. I get nasty looks when I don’t recognize a restaurant or cuisine, having grown up eating baked beans and mashed potatoes. There are plenty of actors and public figures whose names are unfamiliar to me. The Indonesian side of my family used to call me white, and my mother would introduce me to her friends as an English speaker, a non-Indonesian—almost as if I was an impostor in both heritages.
Reading and speaking in Indonesian felt like following an unfinished map in a foreign land—so much so that for a long time, I’d subconsciously call it another language. I referred to music made by Americans and Brits I referred to as music. Rock. Jazz. Pop. When it came to Indonesian musicians, up until recently, it was always local rock. Local jazz. Local talent. It was almost like Indonesian talent couldn’t exist as just “talent” in my head because when I thought of talent, the first thing that popped up in my head was simply never Indonesian.
In my early teens, my anxiety was so severe that I would throw teary-eyed tantrums when my parents asked me to run errands that required me to speak even just a little bit of Indonesian. My speaking was fragmented, so much so that my mother would grow frustrated and hiss, “Jordinna, just speak to me in English, I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” I would practice saying “can I have an iced grande green tea latte?” while waiting in line at Starbucks. I had to ask a friend to go with me to get my passport photo taken because I couldn’t talk to the person at the counter. Sometimes, I’d ask somebody else to order my drink for me. I was always avoiding situations where I had to speak in my native language because I didn’t want to frustrate others. It was painful.
Once, I was ashamed of my country: this land of glamorized, blood-stained victories, a government that doesn’t care for its people, its people who often don’t care for each other, its music and literature that I couldn’t understand for so long, its cuisine that I only began to appreciate in the past few years, the loveliest communities I overlooked because of anger and spite. All my life I wanted to leave Jakarta because I couldn’t understand it, because I felt tongueless, because it was never kind to me. But as I grew older and started taking in every syllable, I began to embrace my mother tongue.
To this day, though, I still come across many English-speaking Indonesians who feel the way I did about my mother tongue before growing accustomed to it. From random people on the internet who continuously tweet “I CAN’T WAIT TO LEAVE THIS FUCKING COUNTRY” when something awful happens to some friends I know in real life, many English-speaking Indonesians seem to act as if their preference for English is something they’re oppressed and shunned for—instead of accepting that their fluency in a Western language is a clear sign of affluence. The fact that I feel more comfortable expressing myself in English is a dead giveaway that I’ve had access to a good education. I’m proficiently literate in a second language in a country that doesn’t even make reading in its own mother tongue accessible. We English-speaking Indonesians often forget that we have—to some extent—assimilated to the cultures who colonized us, and that’s something we all must acknowledge whenever we feel like foreigners.
I used to feel like I fell in love with my native tongue and hometown a little too late, but that’s not how I see it anymore. I think that, for some time, I’ll still find it easier to argue and read about difficult things in English. But Indonesian is where my feelings and passions live and dance and burn. The phrase “mother tongue” is so personal that I can’t use it to describe my Indonesian and feel like I deserve it. But it’s called a mother tongue because it’s the language that takes you in and makes you feel safest.
The label “English-speaking Indonesian” is, at times, a double-edged sword. My upbringing and education have paved the way for me to speak English like a native and write for publications abroad, but there’s so much I still can’t comprehend with my limited knowledge of my homeland’s language. But as the years passed, I’ve focused less on the first part of that term and became much happier with being the second half: Indonesian. Mother tongue, to me, isn’t just a label for what my first language is; it carries so much more than that. To speak in my mother tongue now feels like coming home.
By Jordinna Joaquin