Professor van der Meer visited our extended afternoon seminar on November 7th to discuss the story of Indonesian nationalism. Arnout suggested that we project a map of South East Asia to illustrate the points he would present throughout our discussion. He detailed colonial regimes in the Philippines and Indonesia, trade routes, and the subsequent religious affiliations which followed. Van der Meer explained how the narrow channel between Malaysia and Indonesia, which allowed access to Borneo and the Philippines from the West, turned areas bordering the Java Sea Sea into a multicultural trading mish-mash. The geographical overview, shown behind Arnout, was key in contextualizing the impact of external cultural forces of South East Asian nations.

Arnout, baiting the room, suggested the Onion Theory as a model for explaining Indonesian culture. The Onion theory hypothesizes that layers of cultural identity can be peeled away, much like the layers of its namesake, to reveal the core/essential identity of a people. He continued, elaborating on how Dutch colonialists, Muslim faith, and frequent external cultural influences could have formed layers atop the core Indonesian identity; which could be distilled to it’s purest form with some historical insight. Needless to say, the room flared up with discussion mostly critical of the proposed model. The notion that a core identity would lay undisturbed throughout time was not very popular. It seemed to suggest that additional layers ‘added on’ were not relevant or essential to the Indonesian identity, simply later add-ons.

Much like my peers, I disagreed with the bait-theory and quickly began pointing out its flaws (some of which eventually devolved into some degree of nonsense, as I began taking the onion analogy too literally). Considering the subject ex post facto, I would propose an alternate analogy (perhaps more ridiculous): The Oyster Theory, which in my mind aligns much more with Arnout’s deconstruction of Indonesia’s constantly fluxing national identity. The (/my) Oyster Theory postulates that Indonesia’s national identity is a product of continual ‘filtering’ of externally introduced cultural substance. Over time, the substance is converted to the flesh and shell of the oyster, building a national identity fed by selectively used foreign substance. The Oyster can never be separated back into the egg and sea-gunk that formed it. Tides change, the oyster is fed with fresh water and continues growing. The oyster exists in flux, just like the soul of the Indonesian people.

Additionally, during the evening lecture, van der Meer introduced Soemarsono as a means of linking the rich history of Indonesia to a story of a person. [Arnout argues that contextualizing history through a narrower biographical approach allows a deeper insight into developments of the time, rather than a surface level timeline of discrete events.] Soemarsono’s experience and political movements very much embody the notion that Indonesia holds pride in its many cultural influences and believes that their identity is owed to careful selection of cultural substance offered to the nation throughout time.