Interview: Teo

Birthplace and grew up in: Inland Empire, Southern California, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Bay Area, California, U.S.A.

Age: 21

Find them: Southeast Asians RISE 

(Photo courtesy of Teo)

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

So, I think similar to some folks, my Indonesian heritage was very much tied up with my religious background. I was brought up as Christian, particularly Seventh-day Adventist, and within the Indonesian churches, there would be cultural nights, food during potlucks that were Indonesian. So, ever since I was born, I guess I was always immersed in being Indonesian. My parents are first-gen immigrants, so I grew up hearing Indonesian. I unfortunately can’t speak the language now, but I can still understand it for the most part. And, my grandparents came from Indonesia to take care of me for a while. So, I think being Indonesian was just something natural and from the community that was surrounding me.

Q: Was that a community that you wanted to be a part of on your own? Or, did you find that it was something that was put upon you, if that makes sense?

As a younger kid, I don’t think I thought about it too critically. I was a super devout Christian, just super into things happening at church, so in that sense, I was a part of that community just because that’s what was given to me, in a way. But, as I got older and as I was going to college, and even high school at some points, I really started to question and think about the history of how our people got sucked into Seventh-day Adventism and really started wondering why folks just kept on building this Seventh-day Adventist empire in some ways.

My grandparents are the ones who were converted by missionaries, so I’m not too removed from that kind of instance of trauma and instance of colonization which they now dub as “being saved.” But, really, just thinking about how this community kind of creates almost a facade of safety, love, and comfort, when in reality, a lot of the times, they’re also spewing hate and being not accepting toward certain groups of people. I think for me that also was really key in realizing how there were certain parts of my identity, particularly around gender and sexuality, that I never was really able to fully explore or express because of the conservative nature of the community.

It was what I was given when I grew up and I didn’t question it. But, once I knew there was something beyond this space, I was super eager to think about how this community was also impacting me in negative ways and how I could go beyond the confinements of that space that I was presented with.

Q: How did you come into your political views?

The thing about being Seventh-day Adventist is that you were taught to not engage with the “things of the world,” so I never really was a political person growing up. I think I had inherently political experiences in that I grew up in a low-income family, an immigrant family, my parents didn’t speak English as their first language, we were mixed status so they were dealing with the immigration system — but all these things we never talked about in the lens of politics. We always just deferred it to God, like, “I know we’re going through this struggle of documentation, but we just gotta pray for it.” Not necessarily, “We should mobilize.” The mobilization that I was exposed to was religious mobilization.

In terms of politics, I didn’t start thinking about it until high school. I was in a college-access program where we would go to Pomona College every summer and would take classes and have this community. I was exposed to current college students who were studying these really cool things. Our curriculum in the college-access program was exposing us to all these different aspects of the world that I was completely misinformed about when I was growing up. So, I was like, wow, this is really important stuff, and if I really want to create change and better opportunities for the communities that I come from, I should pursue this. That’s why I applied as a public policy major, and I was particularly interested in education access, so I also had my concentration in sociology. Then, down the line, that became a double major in Asian-American studies, so it evolved.

As someone who has moved away from that religious space, I feel like I’ve really transformed into a different understanding of the world. It’s funny because I think about how I did so much in the church when I was younger — it’s almost like I grew my organizing skills in the church, then, as I left it, decided to apply it in a different way for a different cause.

Q: What’s your relationship with the term “Asian-American”? Was that a term you connected with early on, or was it something you had to grow into?

The first time I self-categorized myself was on an application for college or something. I was kind of confused because I was like, am I Asian-American? Am I Pacific Islander, because we’re islands? I was pretty confused about the category in general.

When I got to college, the first instance of intentional outreach to me — there was an Asian-American mentor program that the school had, which pairs up first-year students with older students and exposes you to social and political spaces around Asian-American identity. I wasn’t super involved in the mentor program because I didn’t feel that represented in some ways. But, there was an opportunity that came up in my first year to join the Asian-American advisory board, which spans across all the Claremont Colleges, so I joined that and started doing programming and really trying to make a space for myself, because I didn’t feel like that space was there.

I also heard about the Asian American Resource Center on campus, which was a really great home for a lot of AAPI students. They had a Southeast Asian committee that put on this event, and I went, and there was an Indonesian student there, and we talked, and there were other Southeast Asian students, and so I knew I wanted to be involved there.

The next year, I joined as an intern, and then I discovered Asian-American studies, and so everything just kind of came to me at once. Also, this was a period of heightened tensions around how colleges were treating their black students, so there was a lot of activism around Black Lives Matter, so for me, I came into my Asian-American political identity as someone who didn’t feel represented in the larger pan-Asian space and also as someone who wanted to work as an ally, actively in solidarity with other people of color. For me, “Asian-American” definitely wasn’t something I fully identified with until I learned about the political history of it. Even to this day, I think Asian-American as a term is not something that fully resonates with me. I’m more aligned with being Southeast Asian, as descending from indigenous Batak people who were displaced.

Q: So, we first met because you were working on a film project. Tell me more about your film work and your relationship with film. 

I’ve always seen film as a platform for storytelling and uplifting the voices of folks who aren’t seen as people who have “legitimate” opinions or stories to tell. Film lies in your hands in that you can create tools for social change and advocate for certain causes without anyone stopping you because once you create that, you can disseminate it.

I think the process of film is something that I’m also really invested in; you really build relationships with the folks that are in your film, and you get to know their story and get to know their community as you film their lives. You get to be immersed in what their realities are.

I think there’s also a lot to be said about the ethics of film in that there’s sometimes a power dynamic between the filmmaker and the people in the film, or the fact that you’re immortalized in something that can be played everywhere is kind of weird. But, I think it’s important to bring these stories to the people who have never thought to listen to you or never even realized you existed.

I’m still doing film in different ways and trying to pass it on to folks through workshops and stuff. There’s a lot to be said about film and I really hope that folks who take charge of the skill and use film as their medium also think about the impact on communities, because I think it’s super important to not be extractive in filmmaking and to be mutually grounded in what you want it to convey and who you want it to serve.

Q: I wanted to ask your thoughts on how to address complex issues, such as anti-blackness, within our communities. How can we call in those in our communities who may be unfamiliar with these terms or don’t think that these issues immediately impact them? 

There’s such a multiplicity of identities within the Indonesian community. For me, as a former Christian and semi-brown Indonesian, who’s also queer, who’s also trans, who has these multitude of identities that exist within me, I feel like it’s always important to lean on your understanding of history.

Knowing that these weapons of anti-blackness and other oppressive tools are meant to drive us further apart and that if we want to come together in solidarity with each other across our different issues, we have to really think about how we can create a reality that is more livable.

I’m still struggling with how to explain this to immigrant parents or parents who have been immersed in certain ideologies for so long that it’s so hard to get across certain perspectives. But, I think maybe the best way to do that is to ground them in their history.

So, being able to communicate through that hurt and create this language of healing to create a better understanding and hopefully one day create a space where we can all thrive and not just survive. It’ll take a long, long time. It’s already taken generations. But, it will also take people who are dedicated to working with each other and learning from each other and not being hateful and harmful toward each other. It’d be super cool to have intergenerational dialogue where we don’t want to rip each other’s throats out, you know?

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It means that I come from this complex history, a tug and pull of hurting and healing, oppression and growth. I think it means that I’m coming from this legacy of folks who have been fighting for their own visions for their lives, whether that’s, for some people, it was a vision of Christianity, but I think it’s important to know that even though I may not agree 100 percent with the things that have come before me, I think that those fights and those moments where people struggle have laid this path for me that will help me in this fight for liberation. It’s important to know that there have been so many people who have made my life possible and made my dreams possible, even if they’re not aware of it.

It would be funny to go up to my mom someday and say, “Thanks for the Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. I’m now a fierce advocate for queer and trans people.” Just knowing that my current positionality, my current beliefs and values that I hold, that is intricately connected with my Indonesianess and how I was brought up and how I came to understand myself. It also holds so much promise for the future in that I have so much left to explore and understand.

I’m continuously trying to find community and spaces. There are spaces where I don’t feel reflected, so wanting to make those stories known and heard and, hopefully, being able to one day mobilize intergenerationally, because I don’t think that has happened in Indonesian communities.

Q: And, tell me more about yourself! What is some of the current work you’re doing, and what are some goals? 

In terms of the filmmaking stuff, if folks are interested, they can check out Southeast Asians RISE. It’s a film program that I started that works with Southeast Asian youth in Oakland, and we were able to finish our first cohort. We’re actually gonna be launching a new cohort in the next semester, so keep an eye out for that.

There are folks who are at risk of deportation: Their names are Danny and PJ, so #Stand4Danny and #KeepPJHome, those are two really important campaigns for me right now. We have social media for them and everything. Folks that really need widespread community support so they can get pardoned by [California Gov. Jerry] Brown so that they don’t have this risk of deportation.

I’m also working with different orgs here. Some really important orgs to me are APIENC (API Equality – Northern California) and APSC (Asian Prisoner Support Committee), folks who have really nurtured me and helped me grow. Those are orgs that I work with and that I would love folks to support.

On a personal level, I’m a musician, so I’m trying to keep the music up. I’m also just trying to figure out my life path, because I’m still in the stage of “what do I want to do when I grow up?” Also just trying to live a life that 70, 80-year-old me would be proud of.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A personal ask: If you’re also a former Indonesian Seventh-day Adventist person who’s trying to find ways to reconcile our past trauma, let me know. I think it’s a really important thing to talk about and isn’t talked about enough, and I wish we could talk about it more.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. 

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