I’m pleased to introduce this month’s guest, Ronny Herman de Jong, whom I met through the wide net of social media. Ronny has a particularly unique history that I thought would fit nicely here at And So It Goes. First, her bio.
Ronny Herman de Jong, a member of the Society of Southwestern Authors and the Professional Writers of Prescott with a BA in English Literature from Leiden University in the Netherlands, the author of two books and featured in a 2013 Anthology, is a survivor of the World War Two Japanese concentration camps in Asia.
Now her fascinating story
I was born on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, a tropical island empire nicknamed “The Emerald Girdle.” My father was a pilot with the Dutch Naval Air Force, based in Surabaya.
I learned Malay from our servants and the official Bahasa Indonesia in school. We had a cook, “Kokki”, a baboe to do the laundry and clean the house, and a boy for gardening. The tiled bathroom contained a large, square, deep basin with cold water and a dip bucket, with which we had to shower ourselves. The WC was outside the main house in the breezeway.
From the time I was three until almost seven I suffered with my mother and little sister under the brutal regime of the Japanese in concentration camps where they slowly tried to exterminate us by withholding food and medication after they had confiscated all our possessions. You can read all that in my book, Rising From the Shadow of the Sun.
After the war I grew up among Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese, and Indos (European/Dutch), all with their own language, religion and culture. It was a peaceful co-existence. People respected each other’s religions. My Chinese fellow students were always the smartest, and the best in math and science.
On Sundays Kokki made rijsttafel, a delicious, spicy Indonesian meal consisting of rice and vegetables with about twelve side dishes. Indonesians eat with their right hand, but I learned early in life to manipulate fork, spoon and knife according to proper European etiquette. We always took a nap after lunch, kids and adults alike; we played in the street with friends and in later years did our homework in the afternoon.
Because of the political unrest after the war we stayed close to home and I didn’t see the beauty of the countryside until I drove through Java and Bali in 1993. I loved the green terraced rice fields, the misty highlands, the age-old Hindu and Buddhist temples. Along country roads we stopped to hand out gifts to children while a crowd gathered around us. When I talked to them in Malay, they knew instantly we were Belandas (Dutch) and responded with happy greetings.
In Holland, where I went to college, I found people to be reserved. Dutch cheese, stroopwafels, croquettes and French fries with mayonnaise became my favorite snacks. For a year I commuted from Leiden to The Hague on my bike for evening classes in Greek and Latin, a distance of about 14 miles. A bike got you everywhere, and in those days biking on your own was still safe. One summer I bicycled through Holland, loving the flowers, the green-ness of the meadows, the smell of manure, laundry flapping in the wind at every thatched-roofed farm house, the waterways with quaint bridges, cobblestones in small towns, crow-stepped gables and trams for public transportation in the cities. The countryside is flat and everyone spoke Dutch!
A totally different world awaited my husband and me during a business training program in New York. The Statue of Liberty, the skyscrapers, the Broadway shows, the subways, were so amazing! A secretary in Rockefeller Plaza, I went to work dressed like I would go to a party in Holland. Posh! New horizons beckoned after a year and we trucked all our belongings from the east coast to the west coast in an old Plymouth station wagon we had purchased from a friend. We crossed majestic countryside, mountains and deserts, prairies and vast Indian reservations. When we went back to Holland I vowed that one day I would return and become a United States citizen.
Ten years later we moved from Holland to California with three kids and a dog. We enjoyed the wonderful climate, mountains and ocean, Mexican food and customs. Spanish was taught in the schools as a second language, and our kids learned English! Because we were totally unbiased as far as races was concerned, our children had no problem integrating into the school system with a minority of Caucasian students and the rest African American, Asian, and Latino.
Early retirement took us to the Big Island of Hawai’i, Hilo side, where it rains almost every day. Tropical rain forests and sugar cane fields, bountiful flowers, delicate fragrances and brown-skinned people reminded me of my childhood. What a wonderful world!
As a shock came the realization that the island was full of Japanese! I felt reserved and anxious as I remembered the cruelty of the Japanese I had experienced as a child. Not until we joined a little church up the coast did we discover that these Japanese, most of them retired sugar workers, were Japanese Americans, many of whom had fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment in Europe during World War Two, and among the friendliest people we ever met.
Soon we adjusted from the hectic life in the big city to the laid-back, sharing way of life in Paradise with its underwater treasures of the ocean, the paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) on the plains in the north, and the active volcano Kilauea from where Goddess Pele still keeps pushing her molten lava out and down to the ocean.
We immersed ourselves in the Hawaiian culture and after a couple of years I joined a Halau, a hula school, where I learned the art of dancing hula and some of the Hawaiian language. Hawaiian food is bland, but I learned to eat poi with the two fingers of my right hand!
I visited other Hawaiian Islands and experienced the special, deep spirituality of the former leper colony on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Moloka’i, where I stayed for a whole weekend in 1998. Kalaupapa is now a national park, accessible only by a bus tour. On Palm Sunday in Siloama Church, dating back to the days of Father Damien, I sang He Nani No “How Great Thou Art” together with a few of the remaining resident-patients. One of them sang harmony and it moved me to tears.
Currently Arizona, with its own culture and beauty of mountains, canyons, deserts and Indian ruins, is my home. I have never been able to learn the Navajo language, but that is no surprise! The Navajo Code Talkers helped end WWII with their undecipherable code and saved my life.
Because I grew up in such a melting pot of races, cultures and languages, all peacefully coexisting (except during the Japanese occupation), I always felt that people everywhere I lived were essentially sociable, except perhaps in Holland, where they were reserved and set in their ways. I could adjust to different climates, customs, food and languages easily, and I believe that when you want a friend, be a friend.
Here are the various links for contacting Ronny
Her book is available from Amazon.com
And here is a gripping YouTube Book trailer
Then, I hope you’ll join our conversation here.
Ronny, thank you so much for joining us here this week and sharing your story with us. Your story emphasizes to me both the resilience of the human spirit and the power of forgiveness.
Your first book, From the Shadow of the Sun, was published in 1992 and was based on the secret journal that your mother kept while in the prison camp. Do you have any plans to bring it back to print?