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The New Year: Welcoming the Water Dragon

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year, the year of the Water Dragon. This year I am thankful for all the amazing people I’ve met in Indonesia, especially my Indonesian tutor Niar. Niar, pictured below, was very kind and invited me to celebrate Chinese New Year with her and her family and go to temple with them after sharing a delicious meal.

Niar is Chinese-Indonesian, an identity that was subjugated under Suharto. Mandarin was forbidden and Chinese Indonesians were not allowed to openly celebrate their New Year. Under President Gus Dur, the first elected president after Suharto, all of Suharto’s anti-Chinese regulations were done away with and Chinese culture and identity began to flourish in the open. And now every mall in Jakarta is decked out in red and they host dragon dance performances. So much has changed in a little over a decade.

We went to the Ekayana Buddhist Center in the Green Ville Duri Kepa area of West Jakarta. This was an area of town I had never visited before. Because traffic makes getting anywhere in Jakarta an ordeal, there are many parts of the city that people don’t visit simply because it would take too long to get there. I’m always happy when I have a reason to go somewhere new. The Buddhist service began a little after 11 p.m. and ended after midnight — the new year. The service was full of beautiful chanting. I was able to follow the prayer book because the Mandarin characters were also written in Latin letters because not all Chinese Indonesians speak Mandarin.

At the end of the service everyone was given an orange, for good luck, a can of Chinese tea and some money. I’ve never gotten anything for being Catholic except guilt trips on why I wasn’t in church last Sunday…

Niar and her family are vegetarian, so we feasted on nine-plus dishes including delicious noodles, vegetables and pork for the meat eaters. At the head of the table was a bowl of salad, a Dutch inspired recipe. Niar’s mother is fluent in Dutch and knows many Dutch recipes, a vestige of colonialism.

Pictured below is jengkol, a new dish for me that Niar’s mother prepared. Jengkol comes from the Padang area of Indonesia. Jengkol was very meaty and the spicy sauce paired with it well. Jengkol is the bean that comes from a flowering tree and one of the English names for it is Dogfruit.

For dessert we had a fruit jelly cocktail. Jelly in drinks and desserts is very popular in Indonesia.

And for good luck and monetary success we had layer cake. It takes hours to bake these cakes, just look at all the layers.

So as a dragon myself, a happy year ahead to all. And here’s an update: a journalist I met was working on a story and came with me to Niar’s, read her piece in the Christian Science Monitor here.

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