As a student growing up in East Asia, other regions in this continent always seem both mysterious and somehow connected to me. Therefore, it was a great pleasure to have Prof. Arnout van der Meer from the history department to come to our class and talk about the origins and history of national identity in Southeast Asia. Particularly, I found his onion model and his analysis on the relationship between world history and regional history very inspiring, both of which reflect the complexity of the origins of national identity.
In both the seminar discussion and his lecture, Prof. van der Meer used an onion to metaphor the Soemarsono identity: with all the developments and turmoils Soemarsono people underwent, they have developed multiple layers of identity, each of which is crucial to themselves. To understand the true one, one must peel off and consider each layer carefully. I think it is important to consider what the true core means for Southeast Asia. Intuitively, we might think the core of identity is to be authentic with the culture. However, in Lockard’s Southeast Asia in World History, we learned that Southeast Asian history is a story of borrowing and adaptation and a story of mixing and migration. Therefore, I wonder how we should define “original” to such a region. Meanwhile, it is because of the existence of this complexity and dynamics so that the Southeast Asian people could develop their national identity of multiple dimensions. Considering an onion’s most apparent trait – people cry when cutting it. Such complicated history embedded both the struggles and prosperity of Southeast Asian societies, making the origins of the Soemarsono identity not a single smooth path. One of my classmates brought up a point where Soemarsono identity contradicts the growth of onion. While different dimensions of a nationality accumulated along time and aggregated with historical events, onions actually grow their layers inside out. I am curious about how historians like Prof. van der Meer could better interpret such characteristic.
Both authors of our assigned readings talked about the relationship between regional history and world history. While Lockard stated that Southeast Asian history fits into world history and vice versa, Subrahmanyam wrote that “it is not to replace the history made on a regional, national or continental scale, but rather to complete it.” Prof. van der Meer drew attention on this relationship using the examples of religious idea transmission in Southeast Asia and the trans-regional trade network centering on the Melaka channel. Prof. Fleming asked in class whether we could make a world history if we have a book of every country’s history and similarly if we have a book of every region’s history. Certainly, the answers to both questions are no. Every national, regional, and continental piece of history contributes an important part of the larger world story. But those pieces are sectional individually. It is crucial to draw connections between regions and study the interactions and consequences between histories. And such understandings will be the process to “try to” complete the world map of history, although I doubt humans can eventually finish so.