by Dominique Lie
A familiar routine would follow roll call when substitute teachers showed up in class or a nurse called me in to the doctor’s office.
Coming to my name on the roll, they would look at me with skeptical eyes as I reluctantly corrected them, and I would imagine they wondered if I was mischievous or confused about spelling.
It was natural that anyone who was not Chinese-Indonesian or Malaysian would read my name and think that my last name was synonymous to that common word, which according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary means to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive or to create a false or misleading impression.
However, it felt easier to assume they could pronounce my name, and subconsciously, I hoped that I could have a normal name that could be pronounced correctly, without thought.
So, one day I decided I was tired of correcting them and decided that I could endure a couple days of injury to my pride or a day of triumph if the substitute did pronounce it correctly. After all, this was coming from the perspective of a girl didn’t know how to pronounce her first name until the first grade.
I kept quiet while the next substitute teacher read the roster, as she mispronounced both my first and last name, and saw the way my classmates looked as they expected me to correct her.
I was afraid to assert myself and correct her pronunciation, which resulted in more embarrassment. I felt disappointed in myself, but most of all, I felt betrayed by the name that caused all the trouble.
I never told my parents what happened that day, but I felt the effects every day. Occasionally, I would find myself offended by a light-hearted joke that made fun of my name, but I hadn’t realized my parents’ own struggle with their respective family names that ultimately overshadowed my own humiliation.
Both my parents’ families moved to Indonesia during the 1900s, amidst Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, and the fight for Indonesian independence. This period of political unrest created violence and discrimination against the ethnic Chinese.
Due to policies that prevented Chinese-Indonesians from attending school and starting businesses, my mother’s family changed their last name from Oei to Moniaga. Although this would not completely avoid the restrictive legislation, it helped them to avoid the violent riots that broke out.
However, my father’s family did not do the same and decided to keep their last name. Due to Dutch influence, the Indonesian language uses the Latin alphabet and derives many of its words from the Dutch. This meant that the Chinese last name, which translates to “Lee” in English, is translated to “Lie” in Indonesian or Dutch.
After years of listening to my parents’ stories and researching their background, I started to understand that our last name meant more than a dictionary definition. It was narrative of my family history and, ultimately, my responsibility to keep alive. So, to help me understand our history and rekindle relationships with relatives, my family and I decided to take a trip to Indonesia.
Just after touching down in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for the first time in 10 years, I was immediately greeted with the foreign sounds of Bahasa that flooded my ears. Large red and white flags and colorful posters of popular tourist destinations spread throughout the terminal with the words “Selamat Datang” (Welcome Home).
During the trip, I connected the Chinese, Indonesian and Dutch influences that came together to create the multicultural group of which my family is a part of, through the stories I heard and culture I experienced.
With my grandmother, I linked my family’s immigration to Indonesia from the Fujian province. In Manado, I found Dutch influences through the Klappertaart, a coconut custard tart. And throughout Indonesia, I ate traditional food from street vendors and restaurants.
I’ve accepted the reality that my last name may cause people to form the wrong impression of me; it reminds me to prove those expectations wrong and remain honest.
And overall, I’ve learned that it’s dangerous to assume and hope that people will automatically know my history or understand me. I shouldn’t have been reluctant and afraid to correct my teachers and peers, but that I should have been enthusiastic to explain my family’s history and demonstrate the correct pronunciation.