Indonesian in China: My story

Yessica on holiday in Lombok, Indonesia, during the Chinese New Year period.

By Duncan Gordon

Yessica Sie has been living in China for three and a half years. The Jakarta native currently works for design magazine Interni in Beijing. Yessica shared a cup of tea with China Report ASEAN to chat about moving to freezing Harbin, studying Chinese and finding time to chill in busy Beijing.

China Report ASEAN: How did you spend the Chinese New Year holiday earlier this month?

Yessica: Last year I stayed in Beijing. There were non-stop fireworks for 5 days, so this year we were happy to go somewhere quieter. I went to Lombok, an Indonesian island to the east of Bali with my boyfriend, Liam, and his parents. Every day we got up, had breakfast, hit the pool, ate lunch, hit the pool, then it was time for dinner. Very relaxing. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t come because they were busy working. They run their own clothes manufacturing business in Jakarta.

I’m Chinese-Indonesian so Chinese New Year is an important celebration in my family. Two years ago I spent Chinese New Year in Guangzhou with relatives at their house. My grandpa’s younger brother moved to Guangzhou a long time ago, before my dad was even born. We watched TV, had a big meal together, and visited my grandfather’s younger brother who lives in a nursing home.

This year we spent the two day New Year holiday with my family in Jakarta before we headed to Lombok. In Indonesia the celebrations are more traditional because most Chinese-Indonesians moved to Indonesia from China hundreds of years ago so the cultural part hasn’t modernized like it has in China itself.

We spent the two days going from one relative’s house to another. From the eldest relative, to the second eldest, and finally the third eldest. The healthy old people can still visit each other but we had to go three different houses because the three eldest people in my family can’t walk so we had to go to all three of them in turn. They each put snacks out on the table for the guests to eat.

When you get to the first house you feel excited but by the time you get to the second house you start to feel full and by the time you reach the third you’re completely exhausted. Nonetheless my aunt and great-aunt were still very enthusiastic. It was the young people who were flagging!

China Report ASEAN: Why did you decide to move to China?

Yessica: I had graduated a year earlier, receiving a degree in graphic design from Unisadhuguna International College in Jakarta. I had been working in Indonesia for a year and at that time I didn’t feel like I was moving anywhere. I was still dependent on my parents. I was juggling between multiple jobs every day, between graphic design and photography, and making no money. I decided to do something new, move to a new place, and see what happens.

I chose China because it is still foreign to me but not too far geographically. Also, I had been hearing all the news about China’s economy booming and how fast it was developing so I was excited about that as well. Also my sister was studying in Guangzhou, so it just seemed logical for me to come to China.

That’s when I came to Harbin, in August 2013.

China Report ASEAN: What were your first impressions of Harbin?

Yessica: When I first arrived it was fall. It was probably around 15 degrees. And that was my first ever experience of being in a place that’s under 24 degrees. I had never travelled anywhere cold before.

I really enjoyed it. I was like “wow, this is like air-conditioning but free!” I was to experience much colder weather though, as China’s far northeast is one of the coldest parts of the country in winter. My Chinese level was almost non-existent when I arrived in Harbin. I could say wo (I), ni (you), and wo ai ni (I love you), but that was about it.

China Report ASEAN: Didn’t your family speak Chinese at home?

Yessica: Some family members speak putonghua (standard spoken Mandarin), like my aunt. The rest of my family speak kejiahua, or Hakka, (Fujian province dialect widely spoken by Chinese communities in Southeast Asia) and Indonesian. When I was growing up we spoke both Indonesian and Hakka at home. I can speak a bit of Hakka but when I was a kid I didn’t understand why my family was speaking this old language. When I went outside in the neighbourhood or at school no one spoke that language so I rejected the idea of learning it and now I regret that. But I can still speak a bit and understand it too.


Yessica hiking with friends near Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

China Report ASEAN: How was studying in Harbin?

Yessica: I studied Chinese at the Harbin Institute of Technology. It was great. The teachers were fantastic, the curriculum was really good and there were loads of international students to hang out with. They were mainly Koreans and Russians. Not many of them spoke English so that was really helpful in studying, although trying to make friends was difficult. For example, my first two friends were two Russian girls, but we could only communicate using very basic Chinese. We were trying so hard to talk, but after saying xia ke (finish class) and chifan (eat), we were running out of words. Trying to actually make conversation had all three of us using Google Translate at the same time. I think it took me about a year and a half until I could hold a decent conversation in Chinese.

China Report ASEAN: What did you do after studying in Harbin?

Yessica: While I was still at university in Harbin I got a job offer in Beijing. I stopped studying as soon as I got the job.

The first few months in Beijing were difficult. I didn’t know anyone here and I didn’t speak to my colleagues much because I got nervous speaking Chinese. My grammar was good but the vocabulary you use for work is nothing like what they teach you at University. Also, I sometimes forgot to use the right tones and that could be embarrassing.

So I spent the first few months just listening and I would only talk to people when I had a question I really needed to ask. I never tried to start a conversation because I might not understand the reply. It’s a big difference speaking Chinese to other students compared with speaking to people at work. I find it easier to speak Chinese in social situations rather than work situations. Nevertheless, I overcame my fears, started speaking more and I got a lot better.

Now my work involves layout design, graphic design, Indonesian translation and English proofreading for a design magazine called Interni.

China Report ASEAN: How do you compare living in Beijing with living in Harbin?

Yessica: This will be my third year in Beijing. I think the biggest difference between living in Harbin and Beijing is that life is more difficult in the capital city. Everyone is more competitive here, compared to Harbin where people are more laid back. I think people in capital cities tend to be more careful because they worry someone will try to take advantage of them in order to get ahead.

Having said that Beijing has a lot going for it. In my free time Liam and I like to chill out and not think about work. There are lots of places to find tasty food in Beijing. Beijing kao rou, barbequed meat, is really good, and of course I like Beijing duck, but my absolute favourite is yang xie zi, sheep spine.

Apart from eating, we hang out with friends and enjoy Beijing’s nightlife. We spend a lot of time planning our next travel adventure as well.

China Report ASEAN: Have you visited other parts of China?

Yessica: During my first winter holiday I travelled to Mount Song and the Shaolin Temple (the home of Shaolin Kung Fu) in Henan province, as well as Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes (thousands of ancient Buddha figures carved into cliffs). The grottoes are so beautiful but also it is a huge site so it is really tiring to walk around.

That was the first time I took a train in my whole life. I just bought the tickets a few days before I left and the only available tickets were for the 24-hour slow train. I went for it and the moment I got off the train I caught a cold straight away. I had spent the whole time sitting upright. I made a mental note to buy tickets in advance next time.

I’ve been to some unforgettable places in China, including the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, but the most impressive place I’ve been is Yangshuo, in Guangxi province. The area is famous for its beautiful mountains. It looks like somewhere from another planet. We were biking along the road and we could almost touch the mountains as we cycled past them.

One of the things I like most about living in China is the transportation. The bus and subway, even in smaller cities, is really impressive. In Indonesia, Jakarta develops a lot but sometimes other places are ignored. In China everywhere seems to receive support.

All the famous mountains here have stone steps built into them which makes them very accessible. So it’s nice to see elderly people who might not otherwise be able to climb a mountain enjoying the scenery with their family. But of course it means there a lot more people climbing the mountains when you visit than there are in Indonesia.

If I had piece of advice for other Indonesians considering studying or working in China it would be this: Just do it! I only wish I had come earlier.

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