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Café Au Lait: the Favourite Flavour in the Glam Industry

Bringing a toddler to the bank on Monday morning was a big mistake. I realised that when I saw the never-ending queue, full of people from different backgrounds. A street guy with his dusty flip flops, a servant with her overloaded shopping bag and what looked like a mentally disturbed white collar worker who managed to stand way too close to the attractive looking lady queuing in front of him. Positioned myself at the end of the line, while trying to tell my two-year-old daughter that sticking a strawberry flavoured candy on the back of somebody's pants is not acceptable, suddenly I felt a light tapping on my left shoulder. A woman wrapped in a black executive dress stood beside me; she held her hand out, trying to introduce herself.

"Hi, my name is Anna, from 'Young Model Stock Agency'. I've been watching your daughter. She is very pretty. She's mixed, isn't she? You are a very lucky mother. A lot of parents would do anything to have their kids on TV. But your kid has a natural look about her. You know that mixed blood actors and actresses are highly favoured on TV, don't you? I can make your kid famous, like those kids in the commercials or sinetrons," said the woman. Her attention didn't leave my daughter's face for even a second - then she continued.

"I'll give you my business card. You just think about it for a day or two. Ring me later, then we'll arrange a time for the shooting and screen test for your daughter."

The woman from the agency left me frozen - standing with her name card in my hand. The way she stared at my daughter made me shiver. It was the look of a vulture over her prey. Was it the right feeling? Should I have been proud that a complete stranger praised my kid as somebody with natural skill just by looking at her light skin and high-bridged nose? Did I just witness the opening of a gate glimmering with success ahead of my two-year-old daughter? Or was it a gate toward the end of her innocent childhood happiness?

I remember a couple of years back when my husband - a white Australian - and I - a truly Javanese woman - were gifted with our first baby girl. We trusted a local hospital run by an international company in West Jakarta to have our baby in. After an hour long Caesarean operation performed on the frozen operating table inside a frigid theatre, all the pain and discomfort was forgotten at the moment I laid eyes on our newborn. She had a pair of big brown eyes, wavy hair and very pale skin - too pale, especially compare to local babies. I had to argue with my doctor to be sure that she was not suffering from jaundice.

There is absolutely no privacy for people who gave birth to a mixed race baby in the hospital. The absurd rules must have been written somewhere on the wall in a tiny font that we were the latest free exhibition! The nurses came in and left my room as they pleased with no particular reason, without even knocking on the door, to check on my baby. They made comments such as: "What a cute baby, just like her Dad!" Of course, they all considered foreign faces as 'cute' and Indonesian faces as 'plain'. What a bunch of small minds!

The most unbelievable comment I heard was from a co-worker in my office. She said to me: "With a face like that, you must consider your daughter as a very valuable asset."

To be or not to be, that's the question.

"Nothing that we do, in our production company, could possibly traumatise the minors in the slightest, in fact we go to great lengths to ensure a positive experience. As soon as they come into our studio, the staff will prepare them - the shooting process usually takes less than half an hour. We're sure that the young models also have fun while they are working," said Harry, who asked that his real name not to be revealed, a long-term American veteran of the Indonesian TV commercial and movie industry.

But John, again - not his real name, another expatriate who has been working with Harry in the same industry and residing in Jakarta for more than ten years, quickly added. "Of course, we don't speak on behalf of all producing companies in Jakarta. We all differ in our business' ethical standards. Lots of less credible companies ignore the correct procedures and let the parents or the nannies of the toddlers take charge. Some of the parents scold the kids, some of them stuff chocolate candies into their kids' mouth - to give them more energy to perform basically. Some producing companies also provide 'substitute star wannabe kids' who are ready in line - waiting for their turn if the previous kid doesn't want to perform. The sight of these substitutes usually encourages the parents to do whatever they can to make their kids willing to carry out the tasks. All parents think that their children are the best. To have them perform on TV is such a huge ego boost," said John.

Now, after considering the facts, the pros and cons, would I elect myself as the promoter of my own flesh and blood - to ensure she would perform, most likely against their will, in front of rolling cameras? All for the sake of my ego - while ignoring the basic needs of my children?

To build the child's dream or to destroy it, that's the question. Or not.

First published in the Jakarta Post