Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Imlek - Chinese New Year in Indonesia

I thought that my decision to spend my winter vacation in Indonesia would mean a temporary hiatus from all things China. I didn't quite do my homework, however, and was surprised to find out that Indonesia actually harbors a rather sizable Chinese minority, about 5% of the total population. I was surprised to see Chinese architecture and Chinese characters throughout Jakarta. In addition, the government of Indonesia recognizes six official religions, one being Buddhism and one being Confucianism (yea Qufu!)

I am currently volunteering in Jakarta at an orphanage/free education center. Because it is volunteer run, underfunded and serving over five hundred students, there is not a lot of free time to explore the world outside the center. However on January 26, the Chinese New Year, we happened to have left to go to a technology mega-mall in search of a wireless router. We took a forty-five minute bus which allowed plenty of time for me to peer out the window and soak up the sights. Street after street I continued to notice red banners with Chinese writing and red Chinese lanterns filling the sky. I turned to one of the boys who lives at the center and asked him what this was about. "Imlek," he said, and then told me that this is the name for the Chinese New Year, a public holiday in Indonesia. Curious to learn more, I asked "why is Chinese New Years celebrated here?" His answer was to the point but sufficient, "we respect the Chinese people." Why didn't I think of that?

Intrigued, I did some research when I got home and learned that Chinese New Year is celebrated here very similarly to how it is celebrated in China, with a large family meal, gift giving, firecrackers, decorating with banners and more. On the holiday, all schools and offices are closed. Street parades are held and singers and dancers flood the roads, making their way from one temple to the next. Something unique to Chinese New Year in Indonesia though, is the TV programming, which includes hour after hour of celebratory Imlek themed variety shows with Indonesian actors dressed in traditional Chinese garb. I was not lucky enough to catch the shows first hand, but when I asked another Westerner here to describe her impression of the shows, her words were "entertaining" and "less than politically correct."

Before I left, my students made sure to remind me what a pity it was that I was not spending New Years in China. I agreed, but am happy with my decision to come volunteer. It seems that today I was fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds: Chinese New Year celebrations and a tropical climate. :)

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