‘Of course you have a Chinese name,’ my Chinese-language teacher told me in middle school, when my knees were scabbed and my hair still short. ‘You’re a Chinese-Indonesian, so you must have one. Ask your parents, they’ll know.’
I never asked them, mostly out of defiance, partly out of fear of what would come. My Indonesian name was a portmanteau of my mother and father’s name – my mother, who left me for heaven when I turned fourteen, and my father, who tried his best but was never built to deal with adolescent volatility. I was told from kindergarten that a name was a gift, but the gift my parents gave me was a dedication to themselves, a title for an extension of their legacy. I carried my name like the Reog dancers in my culture textbooks carried massive masks by the strength of their teeth; mentally disassociated with it, though conscious of the fact that it was all anyone would ever see or think of me.
But the dancers gripping the dadak merak wore their masks with pride. There was no pride in my Indonesian name – only obligations. And I didn’t need any more obligations. I didn’t need another name to live up to.
I never learnt to speak Chinese. I changed my extracurricular language classes to German as soon as I entered high school, but I never learnt how to speak German, either. My Indonesian grew rusty from social anxiety, and I never learnt to truly speak Javanese. The only language I spoke and wrote fluently was English, and that was because I knew none of my family would know how to read anything I wrote in the dusty diaries I found among my late mother’s college supplies.
There were names written in those diaries – I obsessed over them, feigning interest in fiction and meaningful titles. In reality, I was looking for my own name. The nights spent on maternal forums, lulling over C columns, then As, and then Es, speaking the syllables aloud, as if saying them enough times would tame the feckless spirit within me.
For a while, I went by Lara. My hair grew past my shoulders and I moved to a new school, reintroducing myself by my new title. Though it was odd for a ‘boy’ to be called such a feminine name, they all figured it was a Chinese heritage thing and went with it. I was happy.
There was no pride in my Indonesian name – only obligations. And I didn’t need any more obligations. I didn’t need another name to live up to.
My family, though, was concerned, and wanted me to use the Chinese name my grandmother had given me. ‘We couldn’t call you by this name, out of fear,’ my grandmother, who I called Bobo, told me, ‘but we return it to you now out of a different kind of fear. There are no more consequences for embracing our heritage, as it was always meant to be. But there will be consequences for defying it. We must all remember where we came from.’ She gripped my hands, and whispered the names given to me – both of them. ‘You must remember who you are.’
I struggled to look up at her. Her fingers itched against strands of my hair, acting as if she were about to rip it off my scalp. ‘I will, Bobo,’ I told her. ‘I know I will.’
I don’t remember the new name she gave me.
‘You know, I thought you were a girl from afar.’
I nodded at the remark, acting as if I hadn’t heard it five times already. College orientation is a new beginning, they said – it applied to me more than anyone else in the campus quad. The new crop of people I’ve harvested know me by a different moniker than anyone else has. They know me as myself.
‘Aren’t you afraid of being…harassed?’ a well-meaning friend asked. ‘Your hair, the way you dress, the look on your face – you know how it is here. You should attempt to feign some form of masculinity, or you could get hurt.’
‘Oh, I know,’ I smiled at her, ‘but words don’t hurt as much as my old man’s knuckles.’
She had no more protests after that.
The name I chose for myself? Lake. It’s separate from Lara, less obviously feminine so that it may appease my family, though soft in a way that my first name could never be. Indonesians have a hard time enunciating the ‘a’ sound, and so roll calls were always a hassle for new lecturers, but for the longest time, it captured all of me in one syllable. Just a wide vat of still water, lying dormant, waiting for someone to send ripples down my spine.
The only person who’d ever done that was Ariel.
He had the funniest name. Everyone called him ‘Merman,’ and he smiled through the moniker, as if it were the easiest thing to be called something you’re not. Ariel was brilliant in every way – confident, easygoing, radiant. He was everything my family wished I was: the perfect man.
I wish I could say that I came to him first. In truth, I initially hated him from a distance. I envied his charisma and his well-to-do upbringing as much as I contemplated the veins of his hands when he patted his friends’ shoulders. There was little chance that someone like me could even think of seeing him eye-to-eye, let alone befriending him. But there were two common vices that united us; sleeplessness and cigarettes.
It was late at night, early in the morning. I had finished a long and insipid conversation with my parents over the phone, and I went down from my boarding house, deciding to sob it out between drags outside a Circle K. The cars that passed down the street were dark, like urban ghouls; the only light that shone came from convenience stores that disregarded the laws of physics and the hole-in-the-wall establishments that neglected their flickering signposts.
He smiled at me; the kind of smile that only exists in the purgatory between midnight and morning. It was more…dimensional.
‘You got any more on you?’
I didn’t recognise his voice, nor the look in his eyes as I turned to the stranger sitting beside me on the steps of the convenience store. But the dark hand with eldritch veins, requesting a cigarette like an old god demands sacrifice – that I recognised. ‘What are you doing up this late?’ I asked, masking shock with irritation. ‘What are you doing here?’
He smiled at me; the kind of smile that only exists in the purgatory between midnight and morning. It was more…dimensional. ‘It’s Lake, right?’ he asked. ‘Did you pick it for yourself?’
He made it seem like a sin. I huffed, throwing him my pack. ‘Yeah,’ I took a drag. ‘You have a problem with that?’
‘No.’ He said. ‘It’s just too pretty to be from your parents.’
My heartbeat filled the gap where incredulous laughter should have been. I smirked at him. Looking him in the eye, I blew smoke in his face, obscuring both our visions. Mostly out of defiance. Partly out of fear of what would come.
All of the official religions in Indonesia are either implicitly or (more often) explicitly against what most people would call the ‘practice of homosexuality.’ This is not restricted to homosexuality, of course – transgender people, for example, are also considered sinful. If you squint, the first verse of the Pancasila, the philosophical basis of the Indonesian state, seems to validate this belief. Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa: A Belief in the One and Only God. Religion has always been our engine, cigarette taxes will always be our fuel and suffering may remain the eternal driver of our era. Well, my era, at least.
Ariel and I would go to cinemas late at night, and he’d book us the farthest and loneliest seats in the theatre. It’s the only time I felt safe holding his hand, and it was the only time he felt safe leaning in to kiss me. When we weren’t busy fulfilling all the bases we’ll most likely never fill again in our futures, we’d simply sit by each other, my head to his shoulder, talking about anything and everything.
‘Can you speak Chinese, Lake?’ he asked me, once, while a girl was chased down by a ghost on screen.
Ms Ana popped back in my head just as the ghost caught the girl, the cinema trembling with her screams. ‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I was never taught. My parents were traumatised by the Soeharto era.’
Ariel nodded over my hair. I glanced up at him in the dark. ‘Why do you ask?’
His eyes reflected the screen – dark shades flashing red, then black, then red again – and he blinked. ‘Taiwan just legalised gay marriage,’ he said. He opened his mouth to say more, but the follow-up was clear enough. We were together. The people of our country would have us punished if anyone found out. The fantasy was obvious.
I dug my hand in the popcorn basket. ‘I’m not gay,’ I said.
Ariel nodded. ‘I’m not either,’ he said. ‘But they don’t care what we call ourselves. They won’t even call you by your name.’
The words seemed to summon an old bruise on my wrist, from when my father clutched me hard enough to crack my hand. Regret twisted in my chest. I thought of Ms Ana and my grandmother, my heritage and my names. What bitter irony – the obligation I so obstinately rejected could’ve led me to the future I so badly needed.
‘Do you speak Javanese, Ariel?’ I asked, attempting to lick my wounds.
Ariel shook his head. ‘Not anymore.’
Time seemed to stop just as the murderer carried his newest victim’s body back into his car, and the cinema rustled and faltered, as if playing by the beat of his heart. ‘We’re not really Indonesian, Lake.’ He whispered his words, as if God Himself would come down and strike him dead if he were only a decibel louder. ‘There aren’t Indonesian people like us.’
He was wrong. Logically, mentally, physically, I knew he was wrong. Yet my spirit jolted in a way it hadn’t in years; it woke at his words, as if it had known for an eternity, but was only now validated. I was not an Indonesian. I spoke Indonesian only out of habit, claimed to be Indonesian out of birthright and responded to my Indonesian name out of obligation. In a country that boasted its diversity like a familial crest, here I was, a great grandchild of immigrants and an abomination before God – as diverse as it gets. But I was not to be accepted. I do not have my name included in their rights.
There was another scream on screen, and then blackness. The movie ended, the two or three other people in the theatre got up and went home. Ariel and I sat there in the dim light, knowing that even as he’d drive us back to our respective houses in our soundless country, we wouldn’t be at home. We had no home to go back to.
He left me for Taiwan before we graduated.
My bruises got bigger and my hair got shorter. I moved out of my parent’s house, quit cigarettes, got a job. Ariel married another woman, and from time to time I stare at his social media platforms like Narcissus stared into his lake. His wife looks so much like me. At least, she looks like who I used to be.
I took the gift I was given at birth and bore it like manacles. There was little ambiguity left in who I was. I wore a pair of spectacles and slept at worldly hours, knowing that I would be repaid for my conformity with some semblance of physical peace.
I took the gift I was given at birth and bore it like manacles. There was little ambiguity left in who I was.
Sometimes, God would hang hope over my head, yanking it away the moment I leapt up to hold it. In one of those instances, I came by the same convenience store I met my first love in – I took my time staring at Marlboro packs, before picking a pack of bubblegum instead, slapping it on the cashier counter.
The cashier looked at me, smiling. ‘Will that be all?’ she asked. I only nodded.
She squinted at me, bending over the counter. ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think I’ve seen you from somewhere,’ she started. ‘May I ask for your name, ma’am?’
My lungs shrunk. My heart pounded.
‘Uh,’ I started, suddenly aware of the heat of my cheeks, ‘My name is – ’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir!’ the cashier laughed. ‘I’m not wearing glasses. You looked like a woman in this light.’
My shoulders sank. I smiled.
‘You know what,’ I leaned down, taking a pack of cigarettes from below the counter. ‘I’ll get this along with the bubblegum.’
I went back home and leapt off the wagon, finishing the pack by midnight. The question hung like smoke, clouding my mind, polluting my judgment.
What’s your name, ma’am?
In that moment, I remembered the name Bobo gave me. It was Guoliang – ‘May the Country Be Good’. May this country be good to me. May my family be good to me. May Ariel be good to me.
I laughed, choking on the smoke. Did my grandmother know? Did any of my family know? A name was an obligation, after all. Did they think that my name would protect me? It was all so funny. Protection is too much to ask. I couldn’t live up to any of my own obligations, after all. I couldn’t even choose a name to live up to.
What’s your name, ma’am?
The windowpanes shook. I looked at my hands, counting the veins by the knuckles, thinking of the woman I was. Thinking of the man I loved. Thinking of the coward I let myself become.
Your name, ma’am?
I mouthed the answer. It died on my tongue, like most things did, and I tried to be content with that. Mostly for the sake of acceptance. Partly out of regret for what has come.