Birthplace: Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
Grew up in: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and then back in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
Currently living in: Jogjakarta, Indonesia
Find him: Instagram
Q: Why did you grow up in so many places?
It was part of my father’s job. He was a diplomat, an aid worker for USAID. So the family followed basically. That’s the main reason.
Q: What was that experience like?
Well, I was a kid at the time, so it was normal for me. It’s only in my adult life that I started to contextualize it and how it shaped me. It was…I’m thankful for the very privileged experience of seeing the world at a very young age, but being uprooted without a traditional sense of a hometown has raised a lot of questions for me in terms of cultural belonging and cultural identity. And maybe may have even been a major factor in me wanting to come to Indonesia, which is where I live now, and to add to my sense of home, even though I never even lived here as a child.
Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
I’ve always abstractly known I was Indonesian. We visited Indonesia maybe, well, not that often, maybe twice before I turned 18. And only one of them I remember — one trip that I took when I was 9 years old really left an impression on me. I loved that visit to see my family here.
So, I’m part Indonesian, but what does that mean? A major part of me felt like I couldn’t say that, “I am Indonesian,” because I’d never lived here and my family didn’t raise me strongly as Indonesian. Even though my mother made Indonesian food and spoke Indonesian. But, I couldn’t string a sentence in Bahasa Indonesia until I was 25 years old. I heard her speaking it to people around me, I heard her speaking Javanese on the phone constantly, but she never taught me that, so I wasn’t “raised Indonesian.” Yet, I really felt because of the way I look and because of the mother I had and just simply because I loved Indonesia, that I wanted to be able to say that I am Indonesian. And, for me, it wasn’t just reading books or watching documentaries or trying to get my mom’s stories; it meant that I had to go to Indonesia myself and figure out things on my own, like learn the language and getting to know family on my own terms without my mother, and just seeing how society here in Indonesia responded to me and if I could find a place. And I have. So now, I feel much more comfortable saying to people that I’m Indonesian, that I have Indonesian heritage.
Q: Can you tell me more about the term “blasteran”? I’ve never actually heard that term before we talked about it.
My family, my mom — nobody gave me that term. Nobody told me in my family. Nobody said, “Ardi, you are blasteran.” It wasn’t until I came to Indonesia that people said that term to me. Nobody spelled it out for me, but I came to figure out it meant mixed person. I don’t really know the history of the word — it doesn’t even sound like a Bahasa word — and I don’t think I ever found a good explanation for it. But it means mixed person, and it’s a commonly used word for mixed person, at least in Java. Maybe in Bali, they use “campuran” a little more. It kind of sounds like “bastard,” doesn’t it? I’m not entirely sure what the origin of the word is. I think I tried to Google it but I didn’t come to a satisfying answer.
Q: Did you want to seek others of Indonesian heritage out? What was that process like for you?
I did not know many Indonesian people growing up. I moved to the States until after high school started and was there through college and after college working in New York for a while. I didn’t know that many Indonesian people, but I was always excited on the rare occasion I met an Indonesian or even an American that had been to Indonesia. It would be an instant connection. A lot of things were calling me, in a sense, to Indonesia before I even wanted to move, and one of them was gamelan music. When I was in college, I was happy to see that there were gamelan groups that I could join and I immediately signed up. I thought there would be Indonesians in these groups, but there were never Indonesians in these groups. It’s all ethnomusicology nerds, of which I am one. Except for the teachers, who are Indonesian. So I joined these groups for the community and everyone thinks Indonesia is cool at least, in this respect. And through being in a group in Boston, I was able to go to Bali after 13 years and to actually perform. So the group raised money to go, so that was how I was able to actually go to Indonesia as a college student. That was really awesome.
And I always felt a little malu for not speaking Indonesian. When I had rehearsals at the Indonesian Consulate in New York for gamelan, there would be a group of young Indonesians doing something else there, and I was always kind of shy to approach them because I didn’t really speak Indonesian and, I don’t know, I felt like I should be able to. But now, after living here, I haven’t moved back to the States, but if I went to a restaurant in Queens or went to the consulate again, I’d be so much more confident. Now I can speak Indonesian, now I can joke around in Indonesian. I feel like I have the cred now.
Q: What is it like to connect with other folks of mixed Indonesian heritage? What kind of conversations would you like to see happen more among people in our generation who have Indonesian heritage?
It couldn’t be a more diverse group. Some people identify more with their Indonesian side for whatever reason, some people don’t, and even within the same family, like with my sister and I, we approach it differently.
Living here in Indonesia, I thought I’d meet more people of mixed heritage than I have. When I do meet someone, it’s still rare, and I want to talk to them about identity stuff, but not all of them do. Some mixed people here are just comfortable with their place here, maybe they grew up here, and they have no reason to question it. They may enjoy and benefit from the privilege that comes with certain mixed backgrounds, and there’s no tension there for them.
But, for me, the ones who I can find and talk to about the experience of being blasteran, that’s when it gets interesting. When you really get into it, it can get quite complex. In the case of myself, I definitely identify more as a marginalized person in the States, as a racial minority, because of the way I look and all the discourse that comes with that. But here, in Indonesia, yes I’m a minority in a sense, but there are certain privileges, so what am I? How am I both privileged and not at the same time? At least in this one lens of race and skin color. And that’s interesting to delve into. And the question of where do I belong — you can’t be a mixed person without wondering that, I think, because we never get to be in a room where everyone looks like us. It’s almost impossible to be in a room where everyone is mixed. Mixed people are always just a few of us at any given time.
And some mixed people really have the desire to be able to claim, “I’m Indonesian,” and Indonesians are telling us all the time like, “Oh, bisa bicara Bahasa Indonesia?” Like, “Oh, you can speak Indonesian?” Do you know how many times I hear that? Like, can I just speak it? Do I have to explain why I speak it? And, you know, I’m 36 years old, I have an Indonesian mother who my family knows, and to this day, every time I eat with my family, somebody asks me if I can eat sambal. I’m like, you’ve seen me eat sambal because you’ve asked me this before. And, your sister is my mother! And, it’s delicious! Who wouldn’t think that? There’s just these stereotypes that just…forget that I actually make sambal myself, that’s just a symbol of how as a mixed person, we want to be seen as not a foreign or strange concept in Indonesia.
Another question I get is, “Oh, you’re still here?” “Masih di Jogja?” It’s like, yeah…is that weird? I’m thankful I have the choice to be here, and I’m choosing it. Part of what’s behind that question is that everyone wants to go to America, or abroad, but why are you here?
So, about my name: I have an Indonesian first name. Comprable to John. And here, people’s eyes pop out of their heads when I tell them my name a lot of the time. “Kok punya nama Indonesia?” They somehow think it doesn’t fit a lot of the times. My job for the past five years — I just stopped doing it — was teaching English here, and I tried teaching English in a bunch of different places to see what would fit, and I like teaching English because of the cross-cultural dynamic, as a way to learn from my students to learn about Indonesia and what goes into growing up as an Indonesian and how you get enculturated. I got a really cool insight into that. So, the first school I was teaching, the kids were calling me “Mr. Ardi,” and two weeks into the job, the principal calls me and asks, “Is it alright if we call you Mr. Robert?” That’s my middle name, and nobody has ever called me that in my life. I’m not about to start calling myself that now. Especially since I introduced myself to the kids in another way; what lesson would that be giving the kids here? They wanted me to change my name, and I didn’t, so that was that. I got another job at another school, and before I introduced myself to the kids, I got pulled to the side and asked, “Is it OK if we call you Robert?” The compromise was, OK, you can call me Mr. Kuhn, which is my last name, and it’s more conventional to English, I suppose. I was OK with that. But, it’s like, there can’t be someone like me — I don’t look white, but I do look “foreign,” but the desirability of having an “authentic bule” be an English teacher is a thing. And I didn’t want to live up to that, but I definitely felt pressure to perform that. #mixedpeopleproblems
Q: Was there an adjustment period for you moving to Jogja?
I love Jogja. When I first went back to Indonesia with the gamelan group, I thought, “Why haven’t I been doing this more?” So I came back again and again in my 20s. And every time I came back to visit, I never wanted to go back to the States, I was like, dang my visa’s expired, I’ve gotta go back. Why don’t I stay longer? Finally, I built up the courage to do it, and I love it. I was ready for whatever adjustments, like navigating religious doctrine, within my own family, they understand my position on that, and I feel respected. I feel like I already made my stance on that, and even though society at large is getting pretty intense about religion right now, I feel OK. I guess I was prepared for that.
All the things that people think are too difficult to deal with, like the mosquitoes, the food, the infrastructure, the traffic, none of that is an issue for me at all. I have just jumped right into it. So I didn’t struggle at all. Besides, GoJek, makes life easy here.
Q: So, you have Javanese heritage. Do you connect with your Javanese heritage as well?
Javanese is the next project for exploring my identity. That’s another can of worms. Every time I’m with a group of people, at work or wherever, and the Javanese gets going, everyone seems to have a better time in Javanese. The jokes are funnier, everyone feels way closer, and people are just way more relaxed in Javanese. That’s when I’m like, OK, note to self, it would be cool if I could get to that level one day.
But I also love getting out of Java, because Indonesia is so Java-focused. The minute you get to East Indonesia, it’s just like, wow, this region isn’t even in the media.
I do think I’ve gotten some Javanese values growing up, without even knowing that they’re Javanese. Not saying things directly, deferring to others, not being so pushy, these are things that even within Indonesia, people will say, “Oh, that’s very Javanese.” But, you know, what is being Javanese? People seem to think being Javanese means “looking Javanese.”
Q: What has it been like learning about Indonesia in-person vs. just reading about it?
So, I wanted to move to Indonesia first and definitely get an insight into these things. West Papua, censorship around 1965, LGBT issues…experiencing these things first-hand, there’s a lot of complexity. A New York Times article won’t get the nuance necessarily, unless the writer has really been here and actually devoted themselves to the community.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
It means everything to me. I think I’ve found that having an American passport, never having grown up in Indonesia, I can’t deny that I have a connection to this place. And not just because it’s in my blood. The process of me becoming comfortable with saying “I’m Indonesian,” has been a really interesting journey, and seeing people respond to it and finding community, belonging and home here, even as an adult — I just spent some time out of Indonesia, and people were saying, “Come home,” and that’s affirming. Like, you’re Indonesian, and you recognize that this is home for me without me making a huge thing about it. And I really appreciate that. I don’t have an Indonesian passport, I don’t speak Javanese, but it is home. I get the confusion from other people, but I do hope that it can become normal for someone with mixed heritage to want to live in Indonesia. That’s been a very fulfilling process for me.
(Photo courtesy of Ardi)
This interview was edited for clarity and length.