Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; Australia
Currently living in: Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
(Photos courtesy of Isabella)
Q: Tell me more about yourself.
I currently work in the U.N. I graduated with my master’s degree this year. I’m a youth development activist — I look at a lot of youth development issues, especially through mentoring. I mentor in the Indonesian U.N. Intern Association, a global hub that I co-founded with former Indonesian interns. I’ve dealt with a lot of ageism in my life, of people thinking I’m too young to have a say in things. So, what I like to do is advocate for these young voices that are being marginalized.
My motto in life is ACC: Active, Creative and Contributive. It doesn’t take a lot to be active — be active in your own community, in a reading group, or whatever. And, you don’t need to be creative by making art, but even writing, or even in your social media feed. And then, try to think about how you can contribute positively to the people around you — start small. Start in your community. That’s what defines me now.
Q: Tell me more about your journey abroad.
I moved to Australia when I was 16 years old. My parents let me go to Australia because they said it was closer to Indonesia, and I studied there originally majoring in business. I realized that it wasn’t really my cup of tea, and I wanted to explore the world. I switched majors into international affairs.
Ever since I was 11, I’ve wanted to work at the United Nations. So, I understood that studying in the U.S. would bring me closer to that dream. Australia is beautiful, Sydney is great, but I didn’t see myself there long-term.
Q: How did you come to understand yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
My mom always says that no matter where you go, do not ever forget your roots, because without Indonesia, you wouldn’t be where you are today. And that’s why being in the U.S. and Australia and working in the U.N., I’m trying to be an ambassador of sorts, even just informally.
Growing up, I hated Jakarta. I kept telling my mom that I wanted to get out — it’s too much traffic, too crowded. But when I was abroad, I started to feel more appreciative of where I’m from, because when I’m back in Indonesia, I don’t have to explain myself.
I learned that your roots are your anchor. I see myself as a musk tree — its roots are very much grounded in the soil, but if it’s pulled out and placed somewhere else, it will still grow. That’s how I see myself: My roots are Indonesia, but you can put me in the U.S., in Sydney, wherever — I can still grow. But, I will never lose my roots.
Q: Has your family emphasized a specific suku that you’re a part of?
I’m a Bataknese born in Jakarta, but my grandparents are hardcore Batak. Because of that, growing up, I’ve learned to really embrace my heritage coming from a Toba Batak family. I’m the oldest grandchild in both families, so I bring the name. My grandparents’ name is Ompung Isabella. Because of that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to make them proud. In Batak culture, your success is not measured by how rich you are but how you can give back to your family, because community is everything. So, my grandfather says when you can give back to your parents, that’s when you’re successful.
Batak culture has always been entrenched in me and while I’m here in D.C., even more so. I’ve also started to feel that also, Batak women can rise, can succeed. For some time, my grandparents sided more with my cousin, who’s a boy, because we’re a very patriarchal culture. But, as the first grandchild, I tried to fight that. Even though it’s ingrained in our culture, I feel like I can break through it, and I want to show that while I may not continue the family name, I can still make my family proud. Tradition can be good, but there are things that can and should change. So, yeah, the patriarchy in Batak culture is something I have to push back against a lot.
Q: You mentioned that you have family members who are also here in the U.S. What is that like to also have your family here — does it make it easier or harder for you?
It makes it way easier for me because we go through similar things, such as homesickness, culture shock, even discrimination. It’s better to go through it together rather than trying to find some other group of people who might not really understand you. So this is why I feel like it’s so important to have that community here. And, especially having a group of Batak women here, we’re just showing that we can go far, despite being from a heavily patriarchal culture.
My father is the eldest, but when my youngest uncle had a son, the Batak community in my family actually suggested to my grandfather that, rather than acknowledge me as the eldest grandchild, he should change it to my uncle’s son, my cousin. My grandpa was actually considering it, to change his name to my cousin’s. But, in the end, he decided to keep his name as mine, and that’s why I feel so strongly about having Batak women excel. My grandma told me that story a few years ago — it happened when I was much younger — and that’s when I realized what I need to do.
Q: How did you get interested in international relations?
I grew up in a diplomatic family. I didn’t want to be in their shadows. It’s so easy to do that, especially when my grandfather has said, “Diplomacy is the family’s kitchen.” Initially, I wanted to work in the ministry of foreign affairs. But, a previous boss advised me that if I wanted to be a diplomat just because I wanted to travel, I shouldn’t do it. That woke me up, because if the only reason I wanted to be a diplomat was to travel, that wasn’t a good reason at all. I want to study international relations because I know the potential that Indonesia has, so I became more interested in how my country can be positioned in international affairs.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
My heritage goes beyond just my identity — it’s my character. It’s a character of community. I’m proud. But, without being placed in different soil, I don’t think I’d be able to tell you that I’m proud as I am now. So, for me to really see the value of my heritage, I needed to be plucked up so that I can see how well I can grow.
Q: Any thoughts you’d like to share about the upcoming Indonesian presidential elections?
I always vote. It’s the first time that my sister will be able to vote, and it’s an opportunity for this new demographic, this younger millennial, gen Z demographic, to vote now. As a youth activist, I’m looking at this demographic, and I want them to be informed and not pessimistic. So, I’m doing my research, I’m listening to different generations. Inter-generational dialogue is very important, especially leading up to the 2019 presidential election.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.