Birthplace: Adelaide, Australia
Grew up in: Singapore; Adelaide, Australia
Currently living in: Adelaide, Australia
Find her: Instagram
(Photo courtesy of Mira)
Q: You were recently in Indonesia. Why were you there?
I was there on a study and internship scholarship, actually. I applied for it with the personal goal of deepening my connection with Indonesia because I’d never lived there, but had visited every year since I was a child. As a kid, I had really passive engagement with Indonesia; it was where we had our holidays and visited family. But, as I got older and older, I started to develop my frame of thinking around Indonesia, and I became really self-motivated to understand what the hell was going on in my fatherland.
Q: So, did you live in Jogja, or were you in Sulawesi the whole time?
I went to Jogja first because my Eyang is there. I wanted to spend a lot more time near where she was, and Jogja was the city that I felt like I knew, although the more time I spent in Jogja, the less I realized I knew about the city and all of Indonesia.
I went to Sulawesi for my final couple of months of the scholarship, when I felt like I had set foundations deep enough that I could comfortably leave Java. Growing up, I always used to say, I’m Indonesian-Australian and leave it at that, but in recent years, I’m understanding more about what it means to use the qualifier Javanese, what it means historically and what it means socially and politically as well. Living in Eastern Indonesia for a time gave tangible evidence to that well-known idea that the Javanese are the privileged Indonesians.
Q: How did you recognize yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
It’s definitely been, and continues to be, a tumultuous journey. As a young girl, I had a subconscious erasure of that side of my identity. The things that you see in the world around you really send you those signals about what is deemed cool and what isn’t by other kids. And, it was pretty clear in the areas that I grew up in that it’s not that cool to be Asian. The hierarchies start at the youngest age. But, I think as I grew older and just a little wiser, I began formally learning Indonesian. I saw just a few other dedicated young Australians learning Indonesian, and I think that was hugely validating for me, to see Asian heritage as something that I could access without feeling shame about. After that, my brother started learning Indonesian as well, and he was the first one to go and live in Indonesia for a time. So that really allowed me to see that it is a wonderful thing to deepen connections with that side of our heritage.
I remember before I went to live in Indonesia, I was 17 and pretty hyped up talking to my dad about it a lot, and one day, he just calmly said, ‘Mir, you know, you’re never gonna be an Indonesian.’ I was like, What?! That’s so heavy! I was so clearly shocked and offended. But, he said, ‘No, you and your brother, you’re international citizens. You’re a third kind of thing.’ He was essentially saying what we know, that we’re third culture kids, without using that phrase, but after a while, it kind of made sense. I think he knew that I would work really hard to fit in, in Indonesia, and he’s right. I would inevitably fail, because I didn’t grow up there, I didn’t grow up fluently bilingual, I haven’t experienced all the different things that someone who had lived in Indonesia since they were a child would have experienced. He was right, but I don’t know if it needed to be said like that. I’ve definitely felt closer and closer to my father the more that I’ve come to connect with and understand Indonesia and Java, particularly.
Q: What is it like having conversations about being of mixed heritage in Indonesia vs. in Australia?
Being labeled blasteran is just a mixed bag, because you have the privilege that comes with being white, but then you also have the ‘relatableness’ that comes with having Indonesian heritage. In my experience, it’s taken quite amount of ‘evidence’ before people believe that I belong there in any way. So, speaking enough Indonesian, talking about my grandmother, my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, explaining the story of my parents, sitting down at a meal with somebody and knowing what the basic elements of the meal in front of you are. Ticking enough boxes to be considered Indonesian enough is always fun.
In Australia, it’s pretty different. I think because of my accent, the way that I talk, those are all dead giveaways that I’ve at least lived here for quite a while. And I think that discussing mixed heritage in Australia is a little easier. Indonesia, while it’s widely multi-ethnic, it’s not multicultural in the same ways, at least not in many cities beyond Jakarta and in Bali. Within Bali, Jakarta, and sometimes in Jogja, you can slip under the radar being blasteran and it feels like that being mixed-ethnicity in Australia as well, because there are already a lot of Australians with Asian heritage that it’s not a wild story. You might be an alien, but at least you’re a familiar alien.
Q: Tell me more about yourself! I know you also had an art exhibition this year — tell me more about that.
It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. I think just off the back of my time in Indonesia and the really intense learning and the re-connection with my family over there just kind of pushed me to think out loud around those kinds of ideas on social media. And through that, an old acquaintance of mine shot me a message, and she said, ‘I’ve been relating a lot to the things you’re saying, and I’m a third culture kid, and I was wondering if you wanted to collaborate in an exhibition.’ It was pretty wonderful of her to have that faith in me, so I was very excited. And yeah, the ideas just blossomed after a while.
We named the exhibition ‘Between House and Home’ to allude to that idea of not knowing exactly where your home is, or what a home is, if you feel like you’ve had many in your time growing up. It was a huge learning process, and almost quite confronting to reflect on our own histories, identities and connect those threads with their wider social context, but also just learning about the process of developing actual work for a visual arts exhibition. I’d love to do something like that again.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
Having Indonesian heritage has shaped so many of my decisions, particularly as a young adult, deciding where I want to be geographically in the world and where I want to be in my career, in my interests, and, recently, in the art I want to make. It’s something that I haven’t always felt connected to and it’s almost through that absence that I feel heavily motivated to continue uncovering this whole idea of Indonesia.
Then, it comes down to being able to have relationships with family who I see less often and who I can speak less fluently with but still connect with. I get caught between mindsets, though, because I have a lot of internal conflict about Indonesia as well. In many ways, it doesn’t matter how much you can convince yourself that you belong because you ‘tick this many boxes’ if the in-group that you’re trying to be a part of doesn’t see you as one of them. I think that idea of acceptance has been one of my little conflicts.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The thing that has typified my understanding of what Indonesian heritage means to me is the conversations that I have with other mixed Indonesians. I think that community is just one of the most wonderful parts about being mixed. And then, it’s just hard to acknowledge that anyone’s identity challenges never really end, and some questions stay with us for life. At the moment, I feel like I’m less conflicted about where I sit and perhaps, despite the fact that it was slightly cruel what my dad said, I think I’ve come to a lot of acceptance about that idea that mixed Indonesians aren’t Indonesians and they aren’t not Indonesians, and it’s pretty nice to carve out your own space.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.