“You’ll never know who you are unless you shed who you pretend to be…”
– Celestine Chua
During the holidays, I usually spend some time hibernating at my parents’ in my hometown, a small rural town in the middle of the Netherlands.
Here, I would often go for a jog across the typical Dutch landscape, stretches of green meadows, filled with cows and herds of sheep, a view I find familiar since childhood. I felt at peace, I felt at home.
Then I recalled how a few months before, my jogging view was completely different.
I was running across the shore of a deserted beach in Bali, passing palm trees and later rice fields with a volcano view backdrop, on the way home. The memory surfaced once more and I recalled what I felt – Yes, this was also home, my Indonesian home.
And I realized the privilege of acknowledging how both countries feel like home and feel that they ‘complete’ me. My Dutch and Indonesian sides are two fitting puzzle-pieces forming my identity. However, it took me a few decades and a pandemic-induced travel hiatus to finally see all that.
Growing up, I experienced what you could call a biracial identity crisis. Too Asian and exotic to be a Dutch and too white to be an Asian. In the small town I grew up in, I felt like a misfit.
My classmates were opinionated, narrow-minded, and couldn’t give a damn about my Hello Kitty-themed accessories. But once every two or three years, my summer holiday gave me a chance to have a sense of belonging. This is when we’d spend about 6 weeks in Indonesia, visiting my family.
With every trip, my world opened up. It’s as if a door was unlocked to a new universe with exotic smells, food, nature, bustling street life and most importantly, people who made me feel welcome. I experienced a sense of unconditional friendliness which I never witnessed in the Netherlands. When my Indonesian summer holidays came to an end, this reality always hit me hard.
I would lock away that part of me that flourished in Indonesia; the memories, the language, the longing for that unconditional warmth of the people.
They would only be resurrected during my next visit a few years later. Whenever I return to the Netherlands, I find that I feel the need to put on my Dutch ‘mask’ back on with the conviction that it was the only way I could fit in.
Alternating between ‘wearing’ my Dutch and Indonesian masks was my MO (modus operandi). This was still happening even when my worldview expanded when I moved to Rotterdam (the second biggest city in the Netherlands) to study.
I seldomly met Indonesians in my hometown but suddenly, as there were many Indonesian students at my university, whom I’m able to interact with on a regular basis.
I grabbed every opportunity to connect with them; an ‘invite’ for me to put on my Indonesian mask back on. We would bond over Indonesian food, traveling and culture. At around the same time, I also started traveling to Indonesia on my own or with friends, and my then boyfriend.
Once I started working, I couldn’t resist visiting Indonesia (almost) on a yearly basis. I longed for that rush of setting foot in my beloved country, being greeted by the tsunami of flavors, colors and sounds and most importantly, that most invigorating feeling of warmth and friendliness.
I found myself continuously switching my masks with every visit. This was, of course, until travels were put on a hold because of the pandemic.
Suddenly, I no longer have that yearly opportunity to put my Indonesian mask on. I was *stuck* with my Dutch mask. And then suddenly there was a lot of time and basically no ‘excuses’ to escape to and I felt ‘forced’ to do some really deep thinking.
By this time, I was so sick and tired of letting my surroundings decide what mask I *should* be wearing.
Because the irony is that I never wore any of those masks well.
I was still perceived as “too nice”, “too humble and sweet” at work, which I blamed myself for, a slip-up for not putting on enough of a Dutch mask. And in Indonesia, I often felt I came across too direct, too blunt, too forward, which was me slipping up the opposite way.
I finally realized something has got to give. I realized I would keep myself in this perpetual state of self-blame. because I did not play the adaptation-game well enough. I was losing a game I set up for myself and I was tired of playing it.
This past summer (2022), after three years of waiting, I was able to finally go back to Indonesia. I still felt the need to switch my mask again, abandoning my Dutch identity for a little while. But this time, I deliberately tried not to.
I worked remotely for 3 weeks, and I needed my punctuality, planning-saviness and assertiveness to be able to do so. These are traits that I had always associated with my Dutch side.
At the same time, my heart was touched once again by the warmth and the spontaneity of the locals. I was able to instil a sense of carefreeness and slow pace of living, inspired simply by being in Indonesia. I found that I was no longer curating my conversations (according to what mask I felt I needed to wear) and it felt liberating.
Coming back to the Netherlands, that attitude persisted. I was no longer distinguishing between these two fundamental parts of me.
I was no longer offended/ bothered when my manager told me I was “a bit too nice”. In fact, I was chuckling internally. That said, I still enjoyed bringing back Indonesian snacks for the people at the office. This was mostly driven by my innate need to feed people I respected and cared for, undoubtedly one of my strongest Indonesian features.
As the world becomes more global, culturally labeled traits become more of a mash-up. And inevitably, we will all need to define & decide on a new identity, formed by our own cultural roots and experiences. It takes practice to do this, to embrace all of our identities and not favor one over the other.
We need to learn to not let our surroundings dictate what part of our identity we need to lock away and what part we need to plaster on our face in order to fit in.
All of this led me to feeling more at home in both countries I call “home”. And that feeling represents so much more than comfort, it resulted in self-acceptance and self-respect.
It takes a lot of commitment & effort, but the feeling of giving up the need to wear different masks and showing my true self is so freeing, it’s definitely well worth the journey…
Read more: How to Let Go of Our Need for Validation
This post was contributed by Jacintha de Vrankrijker. Jacintha works in banking and is a Co-Founder of Kalung, a handmade jewelry brand which supports Bali Children’s Project, an NGO focused on building schools for local kids. She’s also fond of food, music, creativity and spirituality. Find more of her posts on Medium.