Interview: Jennifer

Birthplace, grew up in, and currently living in: San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Age: 24

Find her: Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer)

Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I grew up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. It’s a neighborhood that outsiders don’t want to go to because they hear it’s dirty, and tourists are always afraid to visit. It’s a low-income community and has a lot of homelessness and drug dealing. I agree that it can be intense, but it’s such a unique place. It’s very diverse, and it’s a district with a lot of families, and it’s really dense. My extended family lives in Indonesia, and my immediate family — my mom, dad and sister — we’re the only ones out here, so to a lot of our family in Indonesia, they’d never been to America, so they think we’re living some grand, “American dream” life. But we live in the Tenderloin, which is somewhere they’d be surprised to visit.

During the day, I work for this community organizing program in my neighborhood around healthy food access, just because I like to look at social justice through a lens of food. I see food as a tool to educate people, to empower people, and for people to heal from a system that’s been marginalizing people for many generations. In my neighborhood, there’s no full access supermarkets, but there are around 60 corner stores, and one or two corner stores or liquor stores on each block. Because of the lack of access, there’s a correlation to high rates of chronic diseases, so it’s really hard to find fresh produce and healthy foods in general. So I do work around trying to increase access to healthy foods. When I’m not at work, I am in school for pre-nursing classes because, eventually, I’d like to be a nurse.

Sometimes, both living and working in the community can be overwhelming. So in my free time, I DJ, and that’s pretty therapeutic for me; I’ve been DJing for about a year and a half. I’ve been having a lot of fun DJing at art events and bars because it’s a blast picking songs for people to groove to. I like to do Zumba and yoga, because it makes me feel more balanced.

Q: What has it been like growing up in San Francisco as a person with Indonesian heritage?

Growing up, it was interesting. People would mistake me for being Cambodian or Filipina. And then, whenever I tell them I’m Indonesian, they always get surprised. That still happens to this day.

When my parents moved to the U.S. in the ’80s, my mom became friends with five or six Indonesian women who were around the same age as her. I don’t know the story behind it, but somehow, they all had a pregnancy pact type of deal where they all had kids around the same time. So when I was born, I was surrounded by other Indonesian babies. I consider them my cousins, and there’re like eight to 10 of us, and we’re still pretty close to each other to this day. I’d grown up with them, and we could really relate to each other. I don’t know what I’d do without my cousins.

All throughout my school years, because I was getting mistaken as other Southeast Asians, I felt like I couldn’t connect with anyone culturally. So I joined these Fil-Am clubs in high school and college, because joining those clubs made me feel more comfortable in finding community. I never felt like my culture was accurately represented in school, so it made me feel like a part of my identity was hidden. Joining these clubs really made me feel at home, and learning about Filipino culture was really awesome because I got to think about different parts of that culture and connect it with my own Indonesian heritage.

More reading on the Tenderloin district: 

Q: How did you start recognizing yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?

My parents never really told me much about what it means to be Indonesian. They would tell me stories about their upbringing in Indonesia, but it was hard to take that in as something that I am. My parents are both from Central Java; my mom is from a small village near Jogja, and my dad is from another small village near Semarang.

For me, being Indonesian, it’s been learning about a culture of being welcoming and making others feel at home. Indonesian people are really resilient, and that’s another thing I think of when I think of my heritage.

Q: Do you identify as Asian-American? Do you feel comfortable using that term?

I definitely identify as Asian-American. I’m proud to be Indonesian. But I’m still learning about what it means to be Indonesian. I also really love learning through food, not just Indomie, but with the tante-tante, watching them cook different types of food. You can learn a lot through that, and a lot of aunties have different styles of cooking, so it’s fun to hear their stories and how they grew up. I think that’s a way I try to learn, through conversations around food. I love Indonesian food; I love watching people cook it.

Q: Can you speak Bahasa Indonesia?

Usually, my parents speak to me in Indonesian, but I respond in English. I understand it because I listen to them speak to each other at home, but since I respond in English, I can only speak basic Indonesian. I was just in Indonesia for a month not too long ago, and I spoke only Indonesian during my time there, so I’d say it has been improving.

Q: So, you’re learning about your Indonesian heritage, but you’re also watching all this change happen in San Francisco. What has it been like for you navigating all of that?

Growing up in San Francisco, the different heritages that make up this city are so important to me. But now, it feels different. As an Indonesian-American trying to find my identity, it feels harder, in a sense…I don’t know…

Editor’s note: Jennifer sent a longer response via email. 

As much as San Francisco is diverse, there are some Indonesian people here but not an abundant amount. Indonesian people in San Francisco are scattered and rare. People in general out here don’t know much about Indonesian culture. It can get challenging to try to find new Indonesian friends.

Growing up in San Francisco, I remember as a child it wasn’t only my parents that worked multiple jobs and never got to spend time with their children, but it was a lot of my classmates’ and friends’ parents as well. The San Francisco I know consists of neighborhoods filled with working-class people from different parts of the world. People are always accepting in the San Francisco that I grew up in.

Living in San Francisco now, I meet a lot of people who recently moved to the city who are trying to take space and have little to no care for the diverse communities that already exist. It’s frustrating. As a woman of color and San Francisco native, I think it’s imperative for me to speak up and to be in solidarity with folks in the struggle with many barriers.

Q: How did you come into your political beliefs? How did you want to become more involved in social justice and food?

I went to college in Sonoma County and although it was a hard transition to live in such a different place from the Tenderloin, I learned a lot from some of my professors in my ethnic studies courses. The things they taught me made me feel like I had power to take action. And also, because of gentrification in San Francisco and hearing stories from people who grew up here but can’t afford to live here anymore or don’t expect to live here in the future, that issue irritates me. The services available now seem like it’s not for the people who made the city what it is.

Editor’s note: Jennifer sent the following response via email. 

My parents don’t talk much about politics but I became aware of it just trying to navigate as a second-generation American with Indonesian parents who came to America with nothing and no knowledge of the English language. Growing up and seeing my parents work 9-5 then 5-midnight shifts at their labor-intensive jobs and still be considered “low-income”…of course I had to start paying attention. Also, my upbringing in the Tenderloin plays a huge role in the start of my politicization because of the poverty that I witnessed growing up and ’til this day. Housing, health care, healthy foods are basic human rights that people need in order to survive, yet it is still hard for many people to access in America.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

Indonesian heritage means coming from a huge archipelago of thousands of islands and people speaking different languages. There’s so many ethnic groups. An ancestry of resilient people. My family in Indonesia lives in small villages where there aren’t a lot of resources, yet they make the most from what they have and be happy about where they are at. Coming from a heritage of welcoming others and sharing comfort with others. And I love being brown. I’m proud of being Indonesian.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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