Interview: Aisha Pegley

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Surrey, England

Currently living in: London, England

Age: 24

Find her: Website | gal-dem | Read her phenomenal piece on gal-dem: A Thank You Letter to My Mum, whose Indonesian-ness I Tried to Hide

(Photo courtesy of Aisha)

Q: Tell me some of your interests.

Reading, writing, music and photography. And food is my main interest.

Q: Eating or cooking?

Eating, cooking, sharing, talking about, buying — all of it. I fucking love food.

Q: What do you like to cook?

Anything I can! My mum loves cooking and started her own catering business while I was young, so growing up, I would watch her in the kitchen. She’d say, “Let me show you properly how to do this,” but I was always more interested in the eating… My way of cooking now is erratic: I tend to throw together anything I have, but I love that process. Since moving out, I’ve been so desperate to learn how to cook Indonesian food in particular, because I’d been eating it all my life at home and I miss it. I have masterclasses every time I go home to see my mum now.

Q: What was the story behind your piece for gal-dem? Did you talk about it with your mom?

A few years ago I had this awful fight with my ex-boyfriend, and I immediately sat down and wrote about it. It was just impulse, but it turned into a poem…and it was so cathartic. Although writing about the situation was sort of instinctive, as the piece developed, it also became a useful way to organise my thoughts and feelings. Writing as a response to things rather than just writing creatively became a pattern for me. Then, when the theme of ‘home’ came out for this print issue for gal-dem, I thought straightaway, “I want to write about my mum.” There were lots of thoughts there…all positive ones, but I’d never actually articulated them to her because they are so emotional! I didn’t tell her much about the piece while I was writing it though, just mentioned it in passing and she was like, “OK, whatever!”

Q: So she’s read it then?

She has read it now. We were filming a teaser video for the print issue, and I read it to her out loud. We’re so close, but we’re not really soppy, though she shed a little tear…we had a cuddle and it was very sweet. I think she knows that I’ve changed over the years and matured and become more grateful, but I’ve not really expressed it, I’ve just kind of shown it by, I don’t know…not being a dick like I was in my teenage years, basically.

Q: What was it like growing up as someone with Indonesian heritage in Surrey?

It was fine. I grew up in a white-majority area, but it wasn’t a big deal most of the time. I had a very nice childhood, went to really good schools, had great friends and my parents are amazing. I have some feelings about the area now, but all in all, it was a good upbringing. But when I moved to London and became exposed to so much diversity — ethnic diversity being the most immediate and significant for me — I was like, ‘Oh!’ you know? I was prompted to think more critically about myself, my childhood, and where I grew up. I started reflecting on things, like…I wish I’d come to terms with who I am 10 years ago, because I could’ve been a much more developed, or emotionally developed, person a lot earlier, if that makes sense. Surrey was fine. But certain things about my behaviour (and others’) have become clearer to me as I’ve moved away and grown up a bit.

Q: Did you grow up with other Indonesian people around you?

There was one Malaysian family that lived nearby, and I was friends with the girl for a few years when we were young. But apart from that, no one.

Q: How did you understand yourself as having Indonesian heritage? How did you recognize that?

I think it’s since coming to London. Some of the people I became friends with were really proud of and vocal about being different (in a multitude of ways). So I wanted to explore my differences, too. It suddenly became an acceptable thing to do, in my mind, whereas before I’d never considered myself properly like that. As if coming to London and meeting these people gave me a sort of permission to find myself interesting and acceptable and multi-layered. I started talking more about being Indonesian. But whenever people would ask me about it in detail, I wouldn’t have anything to say because I haven’t educated myself enough, you know?

Q: Did your mom impart particular lessons about Indonesian heritage?

I’m adopted. My birth mother is Indonesian, obviously. But my adoptive mum is Indonesian as well. I literally have no idea how they did it, my parents, but they’ve always been honest to me about it. And I don’t know how you have that conversation with a toddler or young child, but I’ve always known I’m adopted and that we’re not related by blood. Maybe I’ve blocked something out because it was such a traumatic memory, but I don’t think it was. I’ve always known, and my mum used to say to me on my birthday, ‘Just think about ibu today, she sacrificed a lot.’ She’s always said, ‘If you have any questions, ask me,’ and my dad is the same. Because I’ve never, not until maybe four or five years ago, really asked any detailed questions. But just knowing that I could was helpful. I don’t think there were any particular lessons about Indonesian heritage, but as I’ve got older and more curious about my situation, our family, Indonesia, and my mum’s thoughts on all of it, she’s always ready with the answers!

Q: How did you get into the creative field?

I always liked writing in school, because it was easy for me. I did photography at A Level; I was going to do art, but I hadn’t done the work over the summer so I switched at the last minute… I loved taking pictures of people during the course, and just carried on throughout university but on my own terms. It’s a great excuse to spend time with people and explore. I work full-time for a brand development agency now, but I always find time for extra writing projects, because, as I said, it’s like a compulsion.

Q: You mentioned you went back to Indonesia. What was that experience like?

The first few times I went back, I was really young. It was like a massive adventure. I’m an only child, but we have a really big family in Jakarta and life is different. It was fun! But as I got older, I became more conscious of the language barrier. The conversations with family members would go, ‘How’re you? How’s school?’ And that’s pretty much it. But I’m like…I’m here and I really want to communicate with you, but I can’t…so we’re just touching each other’s faces, and hugging, and they’re feeding me and I’m nodding in delight… You know how you just try to say things with your eyes? A lot of that. I’m going back in November, so my plan is to learn how to say more things than just the food I want to eat, by then. Seriously.

Q: Can you understand Indonesian?

Well, no. A few words. A shameful anecdote is that a woman from BBC Indonesia messaged me on Instagram following the gal-dem article, and I had to ask my mum to translate what she’d said. I felt stupid, and had to question my motivations in writing this self-satisfying article about no longer being embarrassed about being Indonesian, when I hadn’t been doing much to actively embrace my heritage either, really. Both my mum and I spoke to the woman from the BBC over the phone, and she published her take on what I’d written for gal-dem. I had loads of Indonesians trolling me online after that. I didn’t know what they were saying, so I showed my mum, who wasn’t pleased! They were commenting on my ‘dark’ skin, my displeasing Western style, and the rest…

Q: People commented that about the gal-dem piece you wrote on your mom?

The messages from people in Indonesia came following the BBC piece, which I think lacked a bit of nuance…but I would say that! Some of the messages that I could understand were nice, but most were not! My mum was a bit upset, but I think it helped that I couldn’t actually read most of them myself, and would have to actively go into Google Translate or ask her if I wanted to know what they were saying. The messages I received in response to the actual gal-dem article were super touching and positive, though…and from people in the U.K.

Q: How has it been now after writing the article? How do you feel about your heritage?

I literally just want to learn everything about Indonesia and spend more time with my mum. I’ve been going home more recently; I just want to cook with my mum and be with her. Because when she goes…then what? I don’t have any Indonesian friends or family here that I can connect with. But I’ve felt very empowered since moving to London and being encouraged, in different ways, to learn more about myself.

Q: What are your plans in Indonesia?

I’m going for a month with my mum and dad, because it’s my cousin’s wedding, so I’m really excited about that. We’ll spend some time with our family in Jakarta, and then leave them and explore Jogja. Then my parents are going to do their own thing, and I’m going back to Bali for a week or so, because I just loved it last time.

Q: Has your mom ever shared if she has a specific ethnic heritage?

My mum is Javanese, but let me triple check that because she will literally cut my head off if I get it wrong.

Editor’s note: Aisha confirmed via text that her mother is “100%” Javanese. She also shared how her mom is connected to Sukarno through her Eyang Uti, who was his cousin and adopted by his parents and even used to live with his family.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

Editor’s note: Aisha sent the following response via text.

So, for most of my life, having Indonesian heritage meant only ‘difference’ to me — and that’s it. And people wanted answers from me or about me that I didn’t have myself. So, over time, I’ve come to see my heritage as a personal responsibility — as in, I feel a duty to ask more questions of my mum and educate myself about Indonesia…To find ways in which I can/want to belong and vice versa. And then be able to educate other people and give informed answers about the motherland beyond a ditsy wowowo you like nasi goreng and partied in Kuta wowow yeh Indonesia is beautiful wowow yeh isn’t the traffic in Jakarta bad yeh wowow hot rain.

And beyond creating a desire to learn, having Indonesian heritage (in my personal context…maybe for you too, with everything you do?!) means I also feel a drive/responsibility to document my existence. I’ve felt this from young. As an Indonesian (or, maybe I feel more comfortable just saying ‘from Indonesia’) living in the U.K., adopted from and by Indonesian women and existing in this strange space that I’ve only really recently realised I occupy…I think it’s really important to engage with your story, whoever you are. Being creative and enjoying/needing to use pictures and words and music to express myself really helps (regardless of whether the output is public or private). And this whole thing about documentation is why I think what you’re doing is so valuable, like you are creating this important and unique archive!!!!…But regardless how each individual you interview sees it (for some, it might be more significant than others to have the chance to talk/connect…) like you are creating your/our own picture of Indonesia and that is soooooooo worthwhile and amazing, power to you

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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