Category: November 7 (page 1 of 3)

Personal History and Deconstruction of the Onion Theory

Arnout Van Demeer’s lecture was titled “In Search of the Origins of National Identity in Southeast Asia” centered around Soemarsano, and sparked a particularly chord in me given my father’s ancestry in India, with much family in Southeast Asia. As Professor Van Demeer shared, the Southeastern Asian countries are often overlooked in the discussion of Asia, with primary focus being on China, Korea, Japan, and the previously considered “Oriental” nations. Having grown up in Arizona, but living in Hong Kong and Singapore for a year, with Indian heritage, my perspective of Asia has always been slightly altered comparatively. However through multiple different classes at Colby, this disregard for Asian countries has become aware to me, through discussion of the myth of the model minority and Asian-American history. The myth of the model minority is one founded upon the notion that Asians are more likely to achieve success in “climbing the social and economic ladders” of America due to their strong family values and strong work ethic. This idea was debunked as mythical, but certainly outcasted Southeast Asians, including Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodian communities. While they were unable to replicate the success of other Asian ethnic groups during this time period, it was not as a result of any cultural values or weaknesses, but rather geographic disparities resulted in poorer educational and work backgrounds. When Southeast Asians immigrated to the United States, they were thus unable to achieve the same success as “typical” Asian-Americans, much to the confusion and disbelief of American culture. While Van Demeer focused on a specific individual, Soemarsano, and Southeast Asian national identity, this model minority myth certainly ought to be accounted for in regards to affecting national identity, causing for outcast by Americans by a unifying among the Southeast Asian-American communities within the United States. Another key element of Van Demeer’s lecture was the Onion Theory, another topic I’ve faced in classes at Colby. By peeling back the layers of cultural identity, you are able to pinpoint the core and basis for the root one a nation’s culture. While in theory this makes sense, it is not a viable nor pragmatic way of identifying elements of cultural importance or relevance. It is simply not all-encompassing or detailed, rather focusing strictly on history rather than growth. Origins, though looking at history and foundation, requires understanding progression and transformation, for origins are not truly the origin, but the beginning of a transition.

Cultures and National Identity

I have previously lived abroad and have been exposed to multiple cultures for extended periods of time. I have been very lucky in that regard and believe that through this exposure I have learned about certain countries identities and how complex a country’s identity can be. Continue reading

going with the rest of my night…

In this week’s lecture we sat down with Arnott Van Demeer who discussed the Search of the Origins of National Identity in Southeast Asia. Professor Demeer focused particularly on Indonesia and how their culture has changed over time but also how common themes can be traced through the changes in history. Professor Demeer focused especially on the impact of Soemarson. Demeer’s lecture focused on two theories one of called the lamp lighting theory and the other is called the onion theory.

Demure touched on the influence of the marine trade and the way in way in which the outside trade cultures. However, the culture of Southeast Asia was able to remain in tact given all of the outside influences.  Through the rise in marine trade, Southeast Asia became more connected to the Southern and Western Asia, Europe and Africa. While the marine trade had a strong influence, the culture of the Southeast Asian people stayed in tact.

The lamp theory goes to explain each part of the Southeast Asian culture as if it were to be a part of the lap. The wick is hindu-buddist heritage. It is the core of the candle and is a main source of light. The lamp’s oil is describes as Islam and Islamic modernism and the lamp shade is the Dutch culture. Soemarsono explains that while all of the pieces need for the lamp is present, the lamp still needs to be lit. Soemarsono mentioned how Western cultures and colonialism allowed for the Indonesians to be able to actually light the lamp. In addition it shows how the culture does not complete change but instead comes together to build something new. In the case of the analogy what is built is the lamp.

Demeer brought up an analogy which he teaches in another class. It is that if you were to take a 3D map of the world and drop paint in the middle of the map, when moved around the paint would only spread out to reach certain points of the map. In other words no matter how thinly or well-distributed the paint is, not every area on the map would necessarily receive enough paint. If one were to look at this in terms of a countries economic prosperity, the center of the map could be viewed as the most affluent area and as you got further and further away from the center the socio-economic profile begins to change drastically. What this shows is that as people living in a society are further and further away from the view of those who hold power their well-being becomes less important. They are not in the focus of those who yield the power but rather in their periphery.

Deemer’s final theory is that of the onion theory. The onion theory, simply, explains how the history of the Indonesian country has many layers which need to be peeled back to understand. Similar to an onion which has many layers, each layer helps to understand the Indonesian society and how it has become what it is to date.

Pealing The Onion


Professor Arnout Van Der Meer had a lot of knowledge of the Southeast Asia and more so Indonesia and his research on Soemarson. Professor Van Der Meer said he is interested in continuity and change of cultures and wanted to see how it changed overtime. This was an interesting aspect of his study. He introduced us into Southeast by giving us the background information, back before the colonial time, into the struggle for their independence from the Dutch. His model of passing his information using pealing of an onion and lighting the lamp were great ways of communicating with the audience. What then makes a nation’s or world’s history? This were interesting questions that were going through my mind during the two sessions we had with him.


The identity of the region had a lot from the interaction of the region with the outside world, through religion and maritime trade. In the 1300s the two universal religions, Theravada Buddhism and Islam, got into the region. From the assigned readings, we saw that around the 14th century, Muslim merchants, mostly Arabs and Indians, spread Islam along the Indian Ocean along their trading routes. This period of trade and religious network, Southeast Asia became more connected to the Southern and Western Asia, Europe and Africa. All these interactions with the outside world lead into the European conquest in the region.



How is the identity of a nation made? Professor Van Der Meer introduced the metaphor of pealing the onion. It is evident from Southeast Asia that there are a lot of layers of each region or a country. To know much about any country or a nation, we need to peal each part of the onion and find out what happened at a given time. Pealing the onion of the Indonesian struggle for independence and its independence, we see that Soemarsono played a big role in it. There were a lot of layers that made Soemarsono an influential person in driving for the independence. From the pictures that Professor Van Der Meer showed us, Soemarsono got European education as he was the only non-white person in the school picture. This then made him an educated individual and could stay on the same table with the White because he could understand them better. He embraced the western knowledge and science but maintained the Indonesian identity. Through the Western knowledge that Soemarsono had, he lit the oil lamp for the Indonesian struggle for independence.


This brings me to how my country, Kenya, as well got independence. Kenya was colonized by the British from the late 19th century until mid 20th century. During the struggle for independence, people who had opportunity to learn the European education were at the front line fighting for independence. The British had provided education to these people with an aim of getting better governance of their colonies by using people who understood the language and cultural practices of the communities from all the Kenyan regions. The British choose educated people from the eight provinces to represent each province in the legislative council. These people, later lead in the struggle for independence and even the first president being one of the person whom the British wanted to help in heading their colonies. Like Soemarsono, Kenya’s independence was fostered by the colonialist themselves.







Arnout van der Meer – Origins of National Identity in Indonesia

On November 7th, Professor Arnout van der Meer focused our Origins discussions in on the national identity of Indonesia, and how the country’s history makes it rather difficult to nail down. He talked specifically of Soemarsono, a highly educated Indonesian youth who played a key role in the history of colonial Indonesia. In 1913, Soemarsono was transferred and began working in the countryside of Java, a very harsh environment where he was required to crouch in the presence of, speak with a certain manner, and present gestures of respect to his leaders at specific times. Being caught in this situation that he did not want to be, Soemarsono began to rebel, and he found himself in the middle of a movement against colonial rule. This mobilization of people against their rulers was so significant because it marked the beginning of pushback in a society defined by its peaceful tendencies until this point.

Continue reading

« Older posts