William Arie Johannes Vroegop
Western men who fall in love with Indonesians are usually warned by their mates to beware a cultural trap: ‘You think you marry one woman, but in truth you marry her family.’
William Arie Johannes Vroegop, better known as Pim, understood that well. He’d been there, done that.
So when the Dutch entrepreneur wed Malang social worker Pipiet Sulistyowati eight years ago, Pim knew he’d also have responsibilities towards her immediate relations, particularly children.
At first that was just eight people - manageable. “I haven’t got many resources, but I’m a trader in the Dutch merchant tradition so thought I could handle that,” he said.
“But Pipiet’s extended family got involved. Then the neighbors as many were related. Suddenly it was 200 kids. For that I needed help.”
On a trip to Holland Pim spoke at a public function in his hometown of North Voorburg. He told of his wife’s relatives and neighbors in the Malang suburb of Sukun.
Many in the audience had physical and emotional ties to Indonesia dating back to colonial days. They offered money, so he set up a foundation to pay schools for the children’s books and uniforms.
“Donors aren’t driven by guilt,” he said. “They just wanted to maintain links. Even a few Euros can go a long way here.”
It’s an arrangement that carries heavy ethical baggage.
Indonesia is no longer a poor dependent country but a stand-alone democracy with a robust economy. Shouldn’t charity begin at home?
“There are poor areas in Holland where life can be harder than in Indonesia, even though there’s government welfare,” Pim said.
“Indonesians are resilient. There are many social problems in the kampong but the people are better organized, and nicer.
“There are millions of fabulously rich Indonesians. They’re not interested. We’ve had just one donation from a local – twenty Australian dollars (Rp 200,000).”
When foreigners give money the pressure goes off parents to provide, and governments to follow their Constitutional responsibilities. Why bother to work if a Dutch ATM has been installed and everyone has a withdrawal card?
“I resent seeing men sitting around idle, smoking, gambling and making babies,” Pim said. “But we can’t ignore the realities we encounter.
“If we stop funding the kids suffer. The sad fact is that too few care – and that includes religious groups.
“These kids deserve a better world, to break out of the poverty cycle. It’s not patronizing – it’s caring for each other.”
Born in 1949 the son of two war resistance heroes, Pim rapidly realized that the Netherlands was too small to contain his energies and fantasies of life in the tropics. Of these he knew little, apart from what he heard from an Indonesian beauty. .
She’d gone to Europe to study tourism and hospitality with the idea of returning with new skills to be used in the family’s Jakarta hotel.
Instead she came back with a baby daughter and a husband, and neither was in Dad’s plan. “He didn’t like me,” said Pim, “but what could he do? We stayed in his house. I had no qualifications, no money and couldn’t speak the language.
”I was still a teenager and so stupid I expected that everyone had been happy under the colonialists.”
But he had youth, energy and a friendly nature to offset the naivety, plus one more thing: Pim collected stamps and had been into music in Holland.
He knew there were thousands of unsold magazines and posters available in Europe, though not in Indonesia. Beatlemania had swept the world and the Rolling Stones were rocking.
Through his in-laws and philately connections Pim scored a permit to import music magazines from Europe – provided be blacked-out bra ads.
When he wasn’t doing that he was on radio, spinning vinyl and broadcasting in Dutch
“It was a gold mine,” he recalled. “I was just so lucky. The magazines sold as quickly as we could distribute.”
By then his family had grown to three children, and so had his contacts.
“There was a nostalgia among the older and better educated generation that spoke Dutch. I was a nothing, but they made me welcome.
“Jakarta was much smaller. I met Soekarno, then under house arrest, though he was a sick man. There was discrimination, but it was all positive towards me.”
Not so welcome was Europe when the young family went back for their children’s education. Pim’s wife was in tulip heaven. Although working as a tour guide he was in a spiritually arid zone.
“I realized I couldn’t live in Holland again,” he said. “I had been changed by Indonesia. I was a different person.” After a year the couple split and Pim was back in the Archipelago, swearing to remain, free though penniless once more.
This time he found work managing an upmarket Bali hotel, but having to wear a necktie and behave in ways that didn’t affront staff and guests was too restrictive. So he went back to running tours – which he continues.
He’s already staged a cultural trip to the Netherlands by dancers from Sukun and now wants to bring the Voorburg soccer team to play against Arema, the first grade Malang team, to raise money.
“We haven’t had anyone claim we’re trying to ‘Christianize’ the children because we’re not and my wife is Muslim,” said Pim. “We just want them to continue at school.
“There have been jealousy problems, particularly when Dutch donors visit Sukun to see the kids they’re sponsoring and bring presents.
“We live away from Sukun. I’ve built an emotional wall – we can’t handle any more. I don’t want the community to become dependent on us so we’re planning to help young women go to Holland as healthcare workers so they can earn to support their families.
“I’ve been lucky and had a good life. The older generation of donors with Indonesian ties is dying, but there’s revival of interest by the young. I’m optimistic the links will survive.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 December 2013)