Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia
Currently living in: New York, U.S.A.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You came to New York when you were 18 for college. What was that experience like in terms of navigating your Indonesian identity and being in America?
I think it’s really weird because back home — just to preface, I have Chinese-Indonesian heritage. My grandparents from both sides of my family immigrated to Indonesia at very different times. So when people ask me, “Oh, what generation immigrant are you?” it’s different from each grandparent. So, I don’t really know how to answer that.
My family’s been in Indonesia since the ’40s, so I guess we’ve kind of adopted that identity. I have an Indonesian passport too, so I’m very much removed from wherever in China I’m from. That’s still a big question mark, because we don’t really know.
So, coming here [to America], I guess I get coded as Indonesian more than I do East Asian. I’m not really quite sure why. So, when I moved into college and was navigating the whole college politics sphere, identity politics sphere, it was really weird because a lot of it was “Asian activism” and a lot of it was, like, Asian is still a big, blanket word for East Asian. And I was like, um, well I am East Asian, but my family’s been so far removed from East Asia, and we’ve all migrated off so long ago that it’s gotten to a point where I don’t really identify with that East Asian side anymore. Because a lot of it was lost. Also, due to Suharto-era policies, etc. My parents lost a lot of it too, so they don’t speak Mandarin at all. I definitely identify more with Indonesian; I speak Indonesian.
Just my grandpa came in the ’40s; my family mostly came around the early 1900s. That’s what I know from my dad’s side. My grandpa who came in the ’40s was from my mom’s side. But everyone on my dad’s side has been around since 1910s.
It was just navigating that weird space between Southeast Asian, East Asian. Because, yeah, sometimes I’m coded as East Asian, but at the same time, I don’t benefit from “being East Asian” because I don’t really understand…there’s a huge cultural disconnect between me and, for example, Chinese international students.
I’ve been so far removed from that heritage that I’ve sort of clung onto the Indonesian identity a lot more. That was such a long-winded answer, sorry!
Q: Was your Indonesian identity something you thought about before coming to the States?
A little bit. Mainly because back home, I grew up in — even though I grew up in Jakarta with a lot of Chinese-Indonesians there, there’s still that ethnic and religious minority aspect of it. So, I thought about it in that context a lot, how my ethnicity and religion operated within Indonesia.
But never really that deeply in a Western context, especially around whiteness, until I moved here. It’s been a long journey of learning to navigate white spaces.
Q: How much did your parents influence your identity-building? Were there any particular lessons or stories they shared about Indonesian identity or your heritage?
I don’t really know that much from my mom’s side, specifically. I know my grandpa arrived in the ’40s from some unknown place because he never talked about it. My grandma from my mom’s side is a third-fourth generation Chinese immigrant, so her family’s been in Indonesia for a long time, so that story got lost.
From my dad’s side, I know my great-grandma was the one who moved from south China-ish, like 1920s, 1910-ish, I don’t really know. Yeah, I don’t really know that much. I only found out honestly like two weeks ago where in southern China my great-grandma came from. I just found that out. But everyone else is like a big question mark. So, my parents don’t really know.
Also, the language and culture was banned [in Indonesia during the Suharto era]; my parents lost a lot of it. To compensate for that, I guess they were very much assimilated to “regular”/Indonesian culture. I guess that’s what they passed down to me.
They don’t really talk about their childhood a lot. Also, growing up with the policies that Suharto had, and the trauma of 1998 and being displaced for a couple of years, my parents don’t really like talking about that either. I was just a baby — so, I was alive but I don’t know anything. They don’t really talk about it too much.
It’s a lot of not talking about things and me kind of figuring out little bits and pieces randomly in conversation with my dad years later.
Q: How did you form your political views or perspectives?
This is really weird, but the first time that I visited America, I was 12, I think, and we were visiting my cousin who lived in L.A. She went to UCLA, and we were staying in her apartment for a while. It was winter, and I remember very clearly, we went through TSA and then the guy was like, “Oh, we’re going to need to ask you further questions.”
So, they took us into this room with other visibly brown families, families of color. They basically interviewed each one of us, asking us weird questions. I don’t really remember, but I do remember being asked where my dad went to middle school — really strange, invasive questions. It ended up taking two hours because we had to wait in line. They took the longest to interview my dad. My dad told me later on that it’s like a law, like every Indonesian male over the age of 18 who enters the United States for the first time has to go through this TSA screening thing. And since he brought his whole family with him — basically, they were trying to prove we weren’t refugees and that we had something back home.
And I think that moment was like whoa, I realized that as much as my parents wanted to reclaim that kind of East Asian heritage in a way, in the West, I’m definitely coded Southeast Asian more than anything.
I’ve run into so many encounters with TSA. A year ago, when I came back from Jakarta and I was flying in, they asked me about my school and the founder. They did a mini interview, but like how do you know about this? What is this for?
I have an Indonesian passport. And I have an Indonesian last name. Because of Suharto, my grandpa had to switch last names, so I don’t have my Chinese last name legally.
But airports…big source of anxiety. Big source of political awareness, I guess.
Q: Tell me more about growing up in Indonesia.
I guess I write about it a lot. Mostly, what I think about is — you know, I was born in 1997, the dictatorship fell in 1998, so as I grew up, as Jakarta kind of rebuilt itself, I kind of grew up, too. I’ve watched Jakarta grow up, and I’ve used that as a metaphor in a lot of my writing. It’s like, very different, very jarring.
I felt like I was very — more than other Chinese-Indonesians — I felt like I was not as removed from Indonesian culture. Mainly because a lot of the Chinese-Indonesian families that I grew up around were more upper-class; they had more grounded family structures, been here longer, etc. Because my family’s such a mix of things; my dad’s family is much more lower-middle class than — I feel like a lot of the popular imagination around Chinese-Indonesian people are like, “Oh yeah, they’re very upper-class,” but my dad very much grew up poor in the slums of Surabaya. Coming from that, because of that upbringing, I felt like he raised me slightly differently. I’ve always felt a huge disconnect growing up in Jakarta; I felt much closer to being Indonesian than to being Chinese-Indonesian. I don’t know. Because class in Indonesia is such a complicated thing.
Q: What’s your knowledge of Indonesian history?
I feel like I should know more, especially since my parents grew up during the dictatorship, like very much in the dictatorship. Because I feel like I owe it to them, not in a bad way, but I feel like it’s only fair. They grew up in really shitty times where a lot of their culture and identity that comes with being an immigrant, especially with my grandparents, was lost.
I know the skeleton of what happened and I know about local politics, because my dad is really into politics just in general. I guess that kind of rubbed off on me. But I don’t know nearly as much as I should, especially for someone who has lived there for most of their life.
But I think it’s so important and I want to know more.
Q: How is colonialism taught at your school in Indonesia?
I went to international school and I took history, but I remember very clearly we only did European history. Not until two years after I graduated, they switched to doing Asian history. It was interesting because why wasn’t this the logical thing? We’re living in Southeast Asia. A lot of these students are Asian students. Why are we doing European history? I can recite 70 years of Soviet history, but I know close to nothing about what happened in Indonesia at that time. And I’m like, this is so fucked up, because I live here, I’m from here, how do I not know?
So, I don’t really know much about colonialism to be honest. The last time I was back in Indonesia, in Taman Mini in Jakarta, they just opened a Chinese-Indonesian heritage museum. It’s really small, but I went and learned so much. They talked a lot about how the Dutch zoned Jakarta into ethnic zones. The reason why all the Chinese-Indonesians lived in the north was because they were literally zoned off. There were borders and passes and permits to pass between racial zones. So, the reason why the center and the south of the city is so affluent until today is because that’s where all the Dutch people live. Because they owned all the plantations and everything else, and the Chinese people worked at the docks — so they zoned everyone off in order to prevent a national uprising to overthrow the Dutch. And I thought that was really interesting. I just learned that. It never dawned on me ever that that was a part of the city’s history.
Q: Tell me more about yourself. What are you studying? What do you like to do?
I’m a junior in college. I’m a media studies and political science double major. Initially, I thought I’d be an English major and write because my whole life I’ve been writing. Stories, poems, sometimes song — I’ve always been a writer. Not until sophomore year of high school, I discovered public speaking. I figured that I was a pretty good speaker and I can write, so I just did both and started spoken word my freshman year.
I write a lot about history and, I guess, what I know, especially with what happened to my parents in 1998, around when I was born, and onwards. My parents don’t really talk about it but I know it was tough for them financially, socially, navigating the riots.
I’m very much a media studies nerd. I’m always reading stuff, watching stuff, listening to music. I also play a lot of video games.
My political science side, my focus is on post-colonial, colonial studies. The thing I was reading before I got here was for my post-colonialism seminar. I know a little bit from what my grandpa told me when I was younger about living in colonial times. He was born in the ’30s, ’40s — right before World War II. So he lived through a lot of that. Like, the end of Dutch occupation, World War II, and what happened after. He very much knew a lot about that, but a lot of that is lost because he’s very old and I don’t go home that often. It’s hard to communicate with him sometimes. He lives in Surabaya so he speaks better Javanese, and I can’t speak Javanese at all. So I’m just trying to piece together what my family can’t talk about, that’s what I’m doing in political science.
I also sing, a lot. I do a cappella. My dad did a cappella when he was in college in Bandung so when I told him I was doing that, he was like, that’s so weird. Because I had no idea!
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
First and foremost, it’s to acknowledge the breadth of stories there are.
Because there’s so many people in the country, there’s so many people outside the country. Acknowledging that the Indonesian story isn’t one story, because everyone comes from very different places, with race, class, ethnicity.
Especially a lot of politics now from what I’ve been gathering from my parents is very racially and religiously charged. In a time where there’s trying to be one national identity, keeping in mind that Indonesia has always been a collection — just how it’s a big collection of islands, it’s also a big collection of people. Just as realizing my story’s valid, everybody’s story is valid. Everyone’s Indonesian-ness can’t be negated by one dominant narrative of Indonesian-ness.
It’s such a diverse and big country. People come from everywhere. And so much of it gets lost when people are like, “Oh yeah, this is the Indonesian story.”
Q: Anything else to add?
There’s an election next year, and I am so anxious about it, because it just doesn’t look like it’s going well for my family or just in general. The election is during my graduation month, May 2019, so I hope it goes well. I don’t really know much about it but my parents say it’s looking very bad.
I’ve been thinking a lot about displacement and diaspora, and how my family has moved from all over China down to Indonesia, and how I’m dispersed and here. How we’ve moved around a lot and trying to find a sense of groundedness and identity. Hopefully, that doesn’t mess me up too much.
Read a brief overview of anti-Chinese policies and violence in Indonesia. Content warning for mentions of violence and r*pe.
Also, read more about the U.S. government’s knowledge and involvement in 1965 from recently declassified documents.