Long pause…“Give it a try.”
“No. It’s ok…(awkward chuckle) I don’t want to say this wrong.”
“You’ll say it wrong but try. I won’t die or explode… c’mon… just try it.”
“Ok….Saah joke ka gee?”
“See! I’m fine. (Smiling) Also that’s wrong. It’s pronounced ‘shoek’ya’”
This has been the beginning of every single conversation I’ve had with people since the moment I had to introduce myself.
There have been a few modifications to this dialogue over the years. I have spared teachers the agony by saying my name first… unless I didn’t like the teacher… then they can power through it. When people look at my name tag, I tell them “it’s useless… just call me Suki” a nickname I acquired after the 500th failed attempt ending with “Suki?” “Yeah ok… it’s Suki.” I was 6 at that time.
I learned early on that if someone can’t pronounce your name nor tries, you are either completely avoided or completely focused upon as the point of unwarranted attention.
But you know what? My name is very special as it holds a wealth of history that has allowed me to educate everyone in my path about Friesland, the Moluccan Islands, Dutch Indonesian people, the history of World War II (WWII) fought in Southeast Asia and about my ancestors who live through me.
My name is Sjoekje Frederika Sasbone.
“Shoek’ya? Oh! That’s not that hard when you say it. Shoek’ya… That’s pretty! What is that?”
“Sjoekje is actually a Friesian name. Friesland is a province in Holland. My mom is Dutch and my dad is Indonesian.”
“Oh…” (I know this look… the look of “you don’t look Dutch”). . Specifically, from the Moluccan Islands, known to you as the ‘Spice Islands’ where all your spices come from.”
My maternal Oma, named Sjoekje, lived to be 105 years old. She was born and lived in a town called Heerenveen, located in Friesland. On her 100th birthday, I asked her how long she lived there. Matter of factly, she said, “A hundred years.” I laughed and then realized it wasn’t an exaggeration, which made me chuckle even more. She was on the maiden flight of the first airplane flown in the city and she and my Opa Lucas owned and operated a restaurant. She was funny, personable and had friends of all ages until the day she died. Her last words to me were, “Sjoekje, don’t let anyone forget our name.” Oma and Opa had four children (one was still born). The middle child was my mother, Klaasje Anna, born in Leeuwarden, on her mother’s birthday, August 11, 1934.
One side of my family had their tragic experiences in Europe. My mother was 6 years old when WWII occurred, trekking between Holland and Germany with her family for survival and safety. My other side of my family was in combat clear across the other side of the globe. My father was a 19 year old prisoner of war (POW) in Indonesia proudly fighting for the Dutch army; captured by the Japanese right at the onset of their invasion in 1942 until the day the war ended in 1945. The war ended and so did the Dutch ruling over Indonesia.
My paternal Oma, Frederika died young but was known to be a very kind and loving mother. My Opa Joshua was a master of all weapons (including bayonet, rifle, pistol and sword), he fenced, he played the violin, he was a leader in his community, worked as a nurse in a prison and “everyone knew where he was in the village just by hearing his laugh”. They had six children (one was still born). The oldest son was my father, Alexander, born on The Moluccan Islands, on November 15, 1924.
Friesians have fought against the Vikings, negotiated with the Romans and have demonstrated ingenuity as evidenced by creating terps to prevent flooding due to the rising sea level. They are farmers from the North who are known for their stubbornness and strength. My great grandfather is on the books as previous owner of the windmill in Heerenveen. This side of the family has owned local businesses and restaurants dating back decades.
The Moluccan Islands are notorious for their warriors; fighting to the death for their families, justice and the honor of the queen. As aforesaid, it is also known as the “Spice Islands”, the origin of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, etc. This side of the family are not only warriors but they are explorers. My father’s true last name, Sasabone has been derived from my ancestors who traveled (hasa hasa: Sasa) along the Gulf of Bone, located within the island of Sulawesi (Celebes).
“Oh that’s a weird combo. Holland and Indonesia are so far away from each other. I’d never put those countries together. How unique!”
The “World War” part of WWII includes the battle fought in Southeast Asia. Not many people know that Indonesia was a Dutch colony, which meant Indonesians fighting for the Dutch against the Japanese, who fought with Germany.
One side of my family had their tragic experiences in Europe. My mother was 6 years old when WWII occurred, trekking between Holland and Germany with her family for survival and safety. My father was a 19 year old prisoner of war (POW) in Indonesia proudly fighting for The Dutch Army, captured by The Japanese right all the onset of their invasion in 1942 until the day the war ended in 1945. The war ended and so did the Dutch ruling over Indonesia.
Following the war, my mother worked in an office and lived in the Hague. At age 21, she flew to New York in 1956 with a friend, destination: California. She and her Norwegian girlfriend were having coffee in Beverly Hills and were approached by a wealthy woman who asked them to work for her. My mother was a nanny in Beverly Hills where she met different actors and other well known people. She eventually moved to Long Beach, as well as Belmont Shores and worked at both Memorial and St. Mary Hospital as a nurse. She decided to join the convent under the cloistered Carmelite order in Long Beach for a few years. When her sister came to the United States, my mother left the convent and they both moved to Buena Park.
My father was in New Guinea for a little while during the war and eventually ended up in Haarlem, NL where he’d laugh and tell me, “It was cold, yo! We packed the snow to throw snowballs but didn’t know how so we hit each other hard with snow rocks!” In 1958, he played the stand up bass in two bands, “The Royal Hawaiians” and “The Silver Stars”; traveling through Holland, Belgium and Germany by bike. After working for KLM as a mechanic, at age 36 my father decided to sail to New York from France in 1960, “as an adventure”. In its final voyage, the USS United States was welcomed by fireworks as it sat idle next to the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July. It subsequently docked on July 5th where Alexander Sasabone set foot into this country. My father first lived in Claremont, Calif. and worked as a gardener for the Claremont Manor. His sponsor was unkind, he hated his job and was in a country that made him ride in the back of a bus due to his skin color. He later moved to Pasadena and negotiated his rent via his knack for intricacies. He had a Master in Watch Making, so he fixed clocks for his landlady. For the next 42 years, he worked in Anaheim, Calif., as a parts engineer for Circle Seal; an aerospace plant that also specialized in helicopters and airplanes. He never once complained about this job during his entire tenure.
“Oh wow! So your mom is Dutch and your dad is Indonesian!? How did they meet? Over there in Holland? Must’ve been so romantic!”
My parents met at a Dutch club in Anaheim, Calif, called AVIO. My mother was 34 and my father was 44. She said that he was the only Indonesian person there, laughing, joking and socializing with everyone. Yeah.. she was crushing on him. “Zus! Why don’t you go for Al?” said my Tante (aunt). “He’s so fun and so nice. Al would be great for you!” On one occasion, my mother passed by him on her way to the restroom, he stopped her (knowing she was on a date) and said, “Why are you with that guy? Get rid of him and let’s go out.” Thanks to my Tante Annie, and his suave charm, my parents dated and married in 1971.
Klaasje was 37 and Alexander was 47 when their only child, Sjoekje Frederika, was born on July 15, 1972.
“Wow… I didn’t know all that history with those two countries. Were you born here or over there? Do you speak Dutch? Have you been there before?”
In Artesia, California born and raised in the playground is where I spent most of my days. Okay okay… it’s not as smooth as the Fresh Prince but it was worth a shot. I am “first generation American”, born in Pioneer Hospital, which is now an Asian food strip mall in the city of Artesia, Calif. I took my first steps on a Dutch soccer field in Friesland. I picked up the language when I was 7 years old, after living there for the summer prior to my 3rd grade year. I remember not understanding a single thing my parents were talking about before that trip and returning home understanding every single thing they said. Mostly talking about me. By the way, I never told them I understood Dutch until I was about 10 so… joke’s on them.
Admittedly, it was not easy growing up biracial in America from two unfamiliar cultures and looking nothing like either. Furthermore, I had older parents, which was very uncommon for that time. I was without siblings or cousins nor local family members outside of my parents and my maternal aunt and uncle who lived in Orange County. My family was spread out all over the world: Holland, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. My father changed his last name from Sasabone to Sasbone right before he got married. I was unfamiliar with that side of the family until 1997 when my cousin located me, taking a chance on a “Sasbone” listed in the phonebook. I was listed hoping someone would be looking for me too.
I was raised Dutch in America. My father would tell me that he’s an American first, then Dutch and referred to the Indonesians as “natives”.
Most Americans weren’t familiar with Indonesia, so I would geographically explain its relation to the Philippines for others to understand. The Dutch I’d interact with would tell me that I wasn’t really Dutch because I was half. Growing up in elementary school was a fun time, sarcastically speaking. I was terribly ridiculed for my name, the way I worded things (inheriting the way my parents would phrase sentences when translating it into English), the way I looked, how loud my laugh was… you name it, it was all on tap for being teased, outcasted and put down. I told my parents a few times when it was happening but stopped after a while because I saw that it was hurtful for them to hear this. I didn’t want them to feel bad.
Imagine the challenge for two people relentlessly balancing home life while healing from significant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from WWII.
There was a lot of hurt from that era. That hurt would manifest into anger, sometimes appearing to be unprovoked in my eyes since I was just a little kid at the time being the spectator. There was a lot of anxiety due to so many factors, including not growing up in this country. Subsequently, this meant a lot of restrictions from things other kids were doing because it was unfamiliar, which meant unsafe. Ultimately, they were being protective. There was also an instilled philosophy of fighting for what is fair and honorable, never being put down by anyone and the expectation to demonstrate the fight was to be at a high intensity level in order to be heard.
Nevertheless, the basics must be honored and remembered by my mother’s poignant words:
“I came to the states with a trunk… a fun, happy girl looking for an adventure… helping a friend and looking deeper into what the United States had to offer a girl like me… my motto was ‘come what may, I came to stay.’ This is what it came down to: faith, hope and love. A husband from a country that spoke the same language as I did and a daughter sent from above.”
I know my parents loved me and they did the absolute best they could for me despite having to manage their own trauma and memories from the world’s unnecessary tragic events.
“You are so exotic looking. I totally Thought you were Mexican when I first met you ! And an only child, how lucky” !
Understand, I’m no victim.
I certainly was though. Years of daily bullying from other kids at school, then coming home to residual conflict stemming from PTSD, felt unyielding to navigate through. I don’t know what my peers’ domestic narratives were for them to choose to interact with me in the way they did, nor is it any of my business. I honestly blame no one. I was simply just a kid trying to be a kid, do my homework and experience life the way it was portrayed on TV. I had to move forward.
Even though I was an only child, we were in no financial state to spoil me. My parents worked extremely hard and lived an honorable, selfless life to ensure I had a good education, which meant sacrificing most popular toys and the trendy clothes my classmates had. In that sense, I can say I was spoiled with the love and opportunity to have a strong educational pathway.
What’s it like specifically growing up as a “SoCal Indo”?
As a child, I experienced feeling ignored, outcasted and isolated with children and other non related adults telling me what I was and what I wasn’t. For example, census time in the classroom… There was no way I could just pick one ethnicity because I was exactly two. What a relief when the “other” category manifested. At age 11, my mother took me for my social security card. I was instructed to pick one ethnicity on my application. I wasn’t doing it. I am exactly two. With my mother’s patience and support, (and my inherent stubbornness) we were there for 2 hours until the employee finally got their supervisor’s approval to put “Dutch Indonesian” on my card.
That day I learned two things after being completely done with the debate, argument, explanation and fight: (1) there is always a way and (2) I am no longer ignored and my voice of conviction finally mattered.
I went from victim to warrior.
Although there were a handful of peers who were unkind, I was very fortunate to have peers who weren’t cruel and were also “first generation American” from Portuguese and Filipino descent. We had our own unspoken understanding should any of our parents act or react a certain way. My mother was very much connected to the surrounding Dutch community so the traditions were very much intact. I had significant mentors in the form of teachers who helped me more than they would ever know. I had very close childhood friends who became my family, my siblings and my foundation which helped me foster more meaningful friendships later in life. I also had other cultures who unconsciously adopted me.
I am a chameleon. A cultural illusion.
Cultural diversity is very indicative of Southern California. First of all, I am mostly asked in Español, if I speak Spanish from someone in need of help. Thus, I took Spanish for 8 years (4 in high school and 4 in undergrad) so I could try to be of some help; actually becoming a bilingual tutor at a middle school for a few years after undergrad. Here’s my personal census integration tally: in Long Beach I’m mistaken for Samoan, in Hawaii I’m mistaken for a local, in the South I’m mistaken for half black, in Mexico I’m Mexican, I’m Italian in Italy, in some settings I’m Arab and during the World Cup events, I’m Brazillian. What an honor to be associated with such an array of beautiful cultures.
My mantra is to live a meaningful life and help as many people along the way. I did not want the recounts of my parents’ ambition to survive, ultimately result in vain… their only child becoming an unproductive member in society. There is absolutely no way I am going to leave the earth the same way I was introduced to it. Not with the tenacity of my Dutch and Indonesian predecessors running through my veins.
Every experience I have had has shaped me into the woman who stands here before you.
I have fostered compassion and empathy due to world circumstances that predates my birth. By being nonaffluent, coupled with the challenges I faced during my formative years, I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), a healer and a protector. I became culturally and historically insightful in order to taper down my volatile responses in the name of advocacy. I must still practice transitioning from, “Hey that’s just me. It’s how I ethnically respond to these things. We are passionate people!” to my thought bubble of “Not everyone deserves me at this high intensity level. My family’s trauma response is not mine and I need to dial it back a bit within the context of my own surroundings so I can be heard.” Finally, I bask in reflection of initially feeling as if I belonged to nothing, now accepting that I genuinely belong to everything. Due to the welcomed embrace from those around me, I’ve grown to be relatable, sensitive and awoken. Without reservations, I am invited into various cultures to learn more and more about my fellow brothers and sisters from other mothers and other misters.
At 91 years old, my father told me, “Life is too short Sjoekje.” “Even after 91 years, daddy?” “Yes. After 91 years, life is too short.”
My father passed away just shy of his 92nd birthday on October 23, 2016. He literally had a peaceful smile on his face, “no kidding” (as he would say). He was in the comfort of his own home, cared for by his wife of 45 years and was buried in the Artesia Cemetery.
I am fortunate to have the last surviving members of that generation with me in California, my mother and her sister whose husband of 42 years passed away last year. I am also fortunate to have established a connection with my family throughout the world for this legacy to carry on.
I will end with this:
I am my father’s daughter in that I love intricately detailed projects, I follow the urge to teach myself several different musical instruments, and love to joke with a loud hearty laugh.
I am my mother’s daughter in that I am spontaneous, generous and considerate of others while taking every opportunity that comes my way no matter how radical they seem.
I am the product of my parents and ancestors in that I am artistic, creative, unafraid, unstoppable when broken, unintimidated, adventurous, a knowledge seeker, a protector, a warrior and I command a presence even when I am unseen.
I am SJOEKJE FREDERIKA SASBONE.