Known Among Universals

A grandfather is born in Jakarta.

His mother is Chinese.

His father is Belgian and Indonesian.

His wife will be British, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Scandinavian.

His daughters will be born in the Netherlands.

His granddaughters, New York, Los Angeles.

This grandfather gardens. I call him in the Dutch, Opa. When he is ten years old this grandfather is attending school in Indonesia when the Japanese occupation begins. To avoid the military presence during these three occupied years, most elect for the safety of home. The schools close and the stores shut. There are shortages of rice and crops, events that occupations throughout history always resemble: The cessation of living as it is formerly known. The cities halt. The villages give way to destabilizing forces.

During the height of the Japanese occupation this grandfather is an adolescent. Having lost his father as a baby, his skilled but uneducated mother tends to their small village. He is taught proper Dutch in school and Indonesian in the streets. The blending of these influences is normalized in his experience. For this, he evokes an unusual sense of balance and even advantage between the two. A kind of anomaly that would make it seem no culture was lost in the blending but both enriched. This story begins with a second occupation on top of the first: Indonesia as a colony of the Dutch, held captive by the Japanese. Where the colonization of a country meets the body also meets the mind. This grandfather is setup at a young age to incorporate others into himself. His daughters will do this. His granddaughters too. For all it will enrich. For all it will erase.

I have trouble telling this story linearly because it can only be told holistically. And if telling gives it scale, if reliving gives it gravity, then events of the past that sleep in another’s body also sleep in mine. I begin to realize that it has been telling itself all along, in the daughters born in The Netherlands, in the granddaughters born in New York, Los Angeles. The tendency to let environment so close as to soak up, so close as to drown out. A history spread as a chain of islands, structuring movement as varied and indefinite along the way. A lineage of disparate intensities. This grandfather reaches out in several directions, tangles emerge and the diaspora circles upon itself.

I ask him how he survives those three occupied years in Jakarta. Those years a series of moments when everyone is reduced to decisions of safety or resistance, and even the strongest of wills can be thrown from their path. He tells me he spends those three years gardening. He plants banana, belimbing, papaya trees. Waters tender shoots of orchids, jasmine, plumeria, nggrek bulan. He harvests dates hanging from palms above him. Kumquats and lychees start from seeds inside a tiny greenhouse. He learns what each small sliver of foliage needs. He transplants, re-pots, crossbreeds, nurtures, trims. Surrounded by makeshift watering cans, buckets, pots of clay and bricks, he examines the corners of the landscape. Tropical grasses rise up under banyan trees, beside ferns and bushes he cannot yet name. He fills the backyard to its brim with greenery and shade. Enmeshed in the roots of things that precede and survive him, the sun watches over. This grandfather is boy who gardens in wartime.

On a warm LA night I can see the thread of Jakarta. It reaches this coastline with him. It is a place I have never been to but know of what it produces. Everything that must grow must grow indefatigable. Flourish like a bright red hibiscus. This grandfather ultimately makes his way through several new countries, through three languages, and eventually to LA as a refugee in the sixties, following as a vine the sun. He fills the backside of his small Glendale house with numerous fruit trees, succulents, orchids, sage. Air plants and philodendron line the outer garage wall. His is the only house on an otherwise idyllic street with no lawn. It is also the house I was born into. A few times a year I visit and together we walk the garden growing over the fences in the backyard.

Photo courtesy of the author

This grandfather is a product of colonization enduring a second occupation yet heading towards revolution. He is a collection of islands constantly in flux. He is one who has the distinct experience of being both and neither. Which is to say, of bearing skin the color of the colonized and the colonizer. Not dark enough to be mistaken for the revolution, not light enough for the ruling class. By virtue of this, he is sifted through swells of power. At other times, he is left independent of them. The body finds its attributes on its own this way. The mind does too. He develops what can only be defined as both an invisible anxiety and ease about this middle ground. An ease that only costs as much as the relinquishing of desire to be otherwise. In essence, what I’m trying to understand about him is also about myself, and points everywhere at once. The Indonesian national motto not unlike its map: bhinneka tunggal ika, or, unity in diversity. What resonates is an indefiniteness of boundary or shape, a country not delineated by water but accumulating space by way of it. This grandfather is an accumulation of several tides. Setup young to consider all sides. To stand in between, to be unmoored. Even.

He will witness, as so many others, that wartime is no time for a body. In an encampment the food or lack of food changes digestion, changes the growth of cells, changes the ability to move a limb, to make a decision, the likelihood of positive outcomes or an ability to throw off the bad ones. The lack of food inside an encampment can rattle down the health of a child to their grave, but it does not stop there. The lack of food in an encampment that affects the child will affect the adult this child later becomes. It will also affect the child this adult gives birth to or does not give birth to. Down the line the experience has rattled the cells of the adult, the child, the child’s children and so on. So much so, that the experience of lack is a condition that presents when there is lack and also when there is not.

Namely, if I have trouble with abundance. If I know of what abundance is, for example, or safety, or balance, yet the rattle of a shadow of an experience I didn’t experience still makes for lack, then I know that the word generation is also a verb. If I can describe for you what it is to be overwhelmed, then I am getting closer. If I can retell events of the maternal line, women overcome by the invisible, the multitudinous, of dying young, then we are getting somewhere. Some bodies are held captive during wartime and others flee. Relatives born in Indonesia are held for a time before fleeing. They are held and flee, only to be held again. This affects also the siblings, the parents, the spouses. The daughters born in The Netherlands. The granddaughters born in New York, Los Angeles.

What comes behind a revolution comes also inside a stride. If I find myself lost, if I find myself between the margins of margins, if a multiracial child from Jakarta remembers the Japanese occupation as an impetus for the Indonesian revolution against Dutch rule, then I am reminded there are spaces inside the spaces inside the spaces from which we grow. This grandfather is naturalized and repatriated, accepted and refused, settled and uncertain and settled again. He is several nations on paper and even more below the skin. This grandfather may be a movement towards abundance. A harbinger of possibility by way of inclusion. What of him is any nation on the verge, a group within a group reaching out for a known among universals.

Newly planted trees in Jakarta and LA continue to grow wildly, resembling each other from similar yet different horizons. On a walk through the garden they are witnessed this way, while the foliage tends both upward and down.

My Mother's Name

When my mother said my name, not one of the three syllables was diluted or mangled, assimilated or Americanized.