The day we have all been waiting for has arrived. Oma Doortje has landed in Semarang. Her journey back to the place of her childhood is the catalyst for my trip. Her coming here prompted me to change my flight home from Korea and book return flights to Semarang. She is the reason that Java is the island I have chosen to explore and the reason I have discovered the joys of family, Indonesia style.
My grandmother, Oma Doortje, was born in Semarang. This city is the place of her youth. It’s where she played as a child, attended school, had her youthful romances and met my grandfather. My grandfather was a Dutch soldier who came to Indonesia to fight the Japanese. Mum says he came for adventure because there was a big famine in Holland due to the end of the second world war. From the photos I have seen, my grandfather liked Indonesia. He is always smiling and looks happy for the camera. I guess a young man from Holland would enjoy the tropical island life with sunshine, pretty girls and plenty of good food.
I am unfamiliar with all the details of my grandparents’ lives here in Semarang. My grandfather had a child out of wedlock with another woman and that this child (my uncle) was raised by adoptive parents. My grandfather went on to marry my grandmother and together they moved to Holland where my grandmother still lives. My grandfather passed away when I was a child but not until after his son managed to find him. In the times before the internet and mobile technology this was something of an achievement. Back then letters still needed to travel by snail mail, taking weeks to arrive and then there was no guarantee of a response or that the person you sent the letter to actually lived at the address to which you sent it. I cannot help but wonder how many letters my uncle sent before he found his heritage.
And now my grandmother has arrived. She is Oma to everyone. And we are all excited to see her. In true Indonesian style the whole family attends the tiny Achmad Yani International Airport. We had hoped to arrive and be ready for her but her flight was early today so she is already waiting for us. At 81 years of age she has done well to fly all the way here from Holland. The airline assist her with a wheelchair so she does not have to walk through the small but crowded arrivals hall and she is sitting on this throne as everyone takes turns to give her a kiss and hug. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. My family here is not small. I have five cousins of whom four are married and three have children. Add to that my mother and me, and you have a whole production.
And what do you do when the matriarch comes to town? Why you hold a feast. And feast we did. I don’t even think my grandmother has dropped her bags at her hotel before we are seated at a long table in a local restaurant eating the most scrumptuous food. Cameras are flashing everywhere as we all try to capture this magnificent moment when everyone is together again. This is my grandmother’s fifth visit to Semarang so the family are all familiar to her. She moves comfortably between Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia and Dutch depending on who she is speaking with. It’s a magnificent family reunion and I am so grateful to be here.
The feasting does not end with lunch. Later that night we all head out again to Kampung Laut where we feast again. A cousin’s son brings along a guitar and after the feast my uncle starts to strum. A sing-along ensues right there in the restaurant. This is everything a party should be: good company, food and fun.
Over the week that follows I will stay in Semarang getting to know my uncle and cousins. As a migrant child who was born in Holland and moved to Australia at two or three years old, I think I coped with the tyranny of distance by blocking out my overseas family. They are spread over the globe in Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Indonesia and New Zealand. And I took the view that you cannot miss what you do not know. I have some family with whom I am close. But I can probably count them on my fingers and toes while my actual extended family number in the hundred.
Now that I am traveling and live in the technological age, I think it’s time for that to change. Because I don’t want to miss out on this closeness anymore.