Illustration by Ilham Kurniawan

The Uniquely Indonesian Pains of Having Only One Name

Think your life is difficult? Try going through life with only a first name.

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Jun 6 2017, 7:23am

Illustration by Ilham Kurniawan

"Alice what?" I can't even begin to recall the number of times I've been asked this question. I'm from Indonesia, a country where many Javanese people only have one name. But they often have cool names like Supardi or Sarinem. Mine is a saccharine, over-prescribed Disney name that's neither "exotic" enough or long enough to sustain itself abroad. And I'm Chinese Indonesian, not Javanese, so when a lot of immigration officers see my face, and my foreign passport, they expect a long, difficult-to-pronounce name. Instead they get... Alice.

My life is waiting twice as long at the airport, carrying multiple forms of identification to back up my claim. Facebook thinks I'm playing a prank when I write "No Last Name." Others decided to take it upon themselves to register me as someone else. I've been "Alice Alice," "Alice Not Applicable," and my favorite "FNU Alice"—the US Department of Homeland Security taking it upon itself to call me "First Name Unknown Alice."

"Alice...?" countless immigration officers have said as they eyed me suspiciously after opening my passport. My name always has a way of just hanging there in awkward silence for a bit. Then I hear it again. "Alice what?" "Just Alice," I reply, usually somewhere between boredom and annoyance. But when I'm in the mood, I launch into a memorized 30-second monologue about Suharto-era assimilation policies for Chinese Indonesians.

Way back in 1967 Suharto mandated the assimilation of "alien individuals" (i.e. those of Chinese descent) into the dominate national identity (i.e that of Javanese descent). Among the brilliant initiatives under this mandate were the prohibition of Chinese-language publications, Chinese-language schools, Chinese script in public places, all forms of cultural and religious practices that could be traced back to mainland China, and, ultimately, the forced adoption of Indonesian-sounding names to replace our original Chinese surnames.

The anti-communist purge was only a few years earlier. As many as a half-million people were killed over alleged communist ties, no matter how real the allegations actually were. So of course, many Chinese Indonesians rushed to register their new "Indonesian" names as a sign of national loyalty. So Lim became Halim. Tan became Sutanto. Wong, Wongsodirejo. You get the idea.

But the country was in the midst of a total change of leadership at the time. So of course the new bureaucracy was in complete disarray. There were no clear guidelines to regulate how, exactly, Chinese Indonesians were supposed to change their names. Some Chinese Indonesians adamantly insisted on keeping their original Chinese last names, often resorting to bribery to slip through the cracks. There was no penalty for keeping you original name back then, aside from the shame and moral pressure from the rest of the country.

Corrupt officials took advantage of the confusion and started extortion schemes targeting Chinese Indonesian families. You now had to change your name, and pay a bribe for the privilege of losing your ethnic heritage as well. So suddenly it cost a premium to register a last name with the local government, regardless of your ethnicity. Birth certificates suddenly became expensive. Some really poor mothers didn't get a birth certificate for their child at all. Others were forced to register only one name for themselves or their children. One name like Alice.

So what's in a name? A whole hell of a lot, according to Charlotte Setijadi, an anthropologist and visiting fellow who studies Chinese Indonesian heritage at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Patrilineal kinship and surnames are the cornerstone of tradition for most human civilization. A family name is not only fundamental to one's sense of identity and belonging, it stores generational data of values and honor, is therefore sacred and supposed to be protected. Denying one's right to pass on his ancestral name is a soft form of ethnic violence. It's how you murder a culture.

"One of the saddest implication of assimilation policies for many older Indonesian Chinese is losing their ancestral names," Setijadi told me. "The silver lining to this whole ordeal is that many families eventually take ownership and pride in their adopted Indonesian surnames, seeing them as hallmarks for overcoming immigrant challenges through courage and tenacity."

So what about individuals with no last name at all? People who have to live with one name, not because of tradition or choice, but because of unfortunate historical and political circumstances? What about me? How does this shape my conception of self? What affect does constantly being questioned about my identity have on a child growing up?

There is an existential crisis that comes along with not knowing where my affiliation truly lies, whether it's familial, cultural, or national. I'm forced to navigate through transnational waters like a lost ship without an anchor, developing an unhealthy obsession towards choosing romantic partners based on their last names. If this is going to be the first surname of my life, it better be something cool.

I try not to go Freudian on myself, but perhaps my lack of last name can explain my stubborn rootlessness, my troubling aversion to commitment of all kinds, and my chronic predilection for nomadic existence. Perhaps the cure to all these "issues" is applying to the district court for a last name, especially now that one's "Chineseness" is no longer as vilified as it was in the past. But what last name should I pick? My ancestors' familial name, Huang? My parents' chosen name, Wijaya? My dream husband's last name, Musk? There are too many options, too little time. I have been too spoiled to choose.

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