Interview: Tifah

Born and raised: Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

Currently living in: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Age: 19

Find them: Instagram 

(Photo courtesy of Tifah)


This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself!

I’m in school for art education. I really love art. In high school, I was a theater major, but then I found visual art and fell in love with it. When deciding for a major for college, I love kids as well, so it just made sense to go to school for art education because I’ll just do art with kids. So that’s where a lot of my drive comes from, in terms of career goals.

I’m a visual artist, mostly. My work, as far as that, I haven’t really done anything too big. I think a lot of my work right now is surface level, in terms of I’m still figuring out myself and what it is I really like to create, or what I really want to say with my work. I mostly draw, paint, and I do a little bit of digital design. A lot of my work revolves around my identity and myself, which is a little narcissistic, but it’s what I know best right now, or what I can make the most sense of in relation to the world I’m around.

Q: What got you interested in art?

I went to Duke Ellington (School of the Arts in D.C.). I’d auditioned for singing and acting, and I got into both departments, and I decided I wanted to do acting. I fell in love with it my freshman year. My sophomore year…it kind of made me open up my eyes. I think theater was such a necessary process for me as a human, because it got me to be more self-analytical and more self-aware. After a while, it took a huge toll on my mental health. My parents were already separated — earlier, they were going through a divorce, so I was just struggling with that. What theater did for me was open up my eyes to my parents, and I saw them as people. So I thank theater for that.

Once my depression got worse and I was in the department, I was like, I hate this, and I took an art class toward the end of my sophomore year. I fell in love with it and I realized I was really good at it. I tried switching out of my department, but they wouldn’t let me. Junior and senior year, I kind of stopped showing up to my theater classes and showed up to the visual department.

Art became a more zen and personal thing for me, whereas theater was just too extroverted and vulnerable in a way that felt too performative, too unreal and overbearing to my spirit. But it did give me a moment to see people as humans, and stop idolizing my parents and adult figures around me and kind of just take them as they are. Art was a savior in that way. It taught me I could just be chill in my expression and that I didn’t have to perform all the time.

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

When I was younger, for me, I talk to my grandparents a lot on the phone. And throughout my childhood, I just remember hearing my mom talk on the phone with her family a lot. I think that’s how I really learned Indonesian, in a sense — I understand it and I can’t be as conversational, as good as I want, but yeah. My mom would just use Indonesian words around me. I mean, my middle name is Cinta, so that’s a conversation within itself, of me being like, “What does that mean?”

But I didn’t really connect with my Indonesian heritage until I went to Indonesia and I met my other side of the family. My mom was the only one who had come to America, so all of these people that I knew, I knew from the phone or from the DVDs they’d sent, these home movies of them around the village.

My dad, whenever I went to school, even as a child, he was always like, “If they ask you what your ethnicity is, you put black and Indonesian, or Indonesian and black, whichever is your preference. But make sure you don’t put ‘mixed’ or just one.” So, I think for me, that was a big thing, too; I knew off the rip, and my dad made it very evident and my mom made it very evident, that I was black and Indonesian.

Q: Tell me more about your first time in Indonesia.

That was the summer of 2016. It was my mom’s first time being back after 20+ years. That experience, ’til this day, is still a lot to unpack. It was probably one of the best and one of the worst trips of my life.

I brought one of my friends with me so I would feel more comfortable. My mom’s plan was to go for six weeks: spend one week in Bali, and five weeks in the kampung, in her village. In my head, I was like, fuck yeah, I can do that, that’s nothing. And I don’t think she even knew what to expect. It had been so long since she had been home, and the entire trip was more about herself than about me experiencing Indonesia for the first time. And I knew that.

It was my first time on a plane. We did a little layover in Dubai. Then, we got to Jakarta. It was nighttime. My mom lives in Karawang, so with traffic, we didn’t get there until the sun rose. I remember stopping at my first rest stop, and I remember having KFC for the first time in Indo, which was fucking fire, and I remember having to pay to use the bathroom and being like woooooow. So that was pretty interesting. KFC in Indo gives you nasi, which was mind-blowing to me because I was like yo, why don’t they do that in America?

Then, we finally got there, and I remember seeing my mom cry a lot, and I was crying a lot. It had just been a long time. I remember being so shook that all her siblings look like her — she has seven other siblings. They all just look like different variations of her. I had so many cousins, and I remember I had cousins who weren’t even there, because they were in Saudi Arabia or Singapore.

Next week, we went to Bali, and we stayed at my mom’s friend’s place, I think in Denpasar. It felt like refuge. Bali was beautiful. Then we went back to the village. Then I was having a terrible time. My family was going through a lot; my mom was going through a lot of drama, a lot of family politics.

Eid was happening during that time, which was an amazing experience. Praying with everyone, praying with my mom — it felt so magical. I remember crying while it was happening, and I remember my mom and I looking at each other and crying because we just felt so overwhelmed with just how pleasant the experience was.

My last two weeks being in Indo were very hectic. I went home early; I just stayed three weeks, and my mom stayed longer than that.

So yeah, it wasn’t until I went to Indonesia and really experienced it that I got to see what it was besides videos and being over the phone. It made me feel like I was Indonesian for the first time. It wasn’t a distant theory or anything like that. It really opened my eyes a lot and humbled me out.

Q: Did you grow up within an Indonesian community in D.C.?

My mom was very involved; for a long time, she used to work at the embassy and cook meals. I used to do Indonesian dance, which I hated and only did because my mom really wanted me to. They had me doing tari piring and jaipong. The only one I really wanted to do was saman, because it looked cool and it reminded me of stepping. And that one I really wanted to do and I really enjoyed. Jaipong drove me insane. Tari piring, they had to stop me from doing it because I just kept dropping the practice plates. I really wanted to do silat, but no one wanted to support that. My mom just really wanted me to dance, because then that involved going to practice with all the moms and eating food together and gossiping. It was an event for them, and she wanted to be a part of that, and I peeped it so I was like, I’ll do it.

So my mom’s friend, they met when they were both single in America and both ended up having kids with black men, so I ended up getting close with the daughters, who are both black and Indonesian. So I didn’t feel alone. We would all call each other sisters, and we would go out together, and people would also assume that. So I had that little community. My mom had a lot of friends out in Virginia, as well as a sister, who I called nenek. I used to spend a lot of time in Alexandria, and there were arisans, a lot of parties in Virginia for a lot of random stuff. I think I had a good little Indonesian community. A lot of tante-tante. I kind of realized that I wasn’t close to any men in the Indonesian community; a lot of times, all the women just band together, so that was kind of interesting. I have a few uncles that I’m close to now, but I don’t know, it’s interesting.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It’s my identity. It’s really a whole other part of myself. Even now, I feel like after my mom passed away and I had so many people from the Indonesian communities within the DMV — it kind of amazed me how small the world really is when you’re far away from your homes, yet we’re still all connected. It tethers me; it keeps me bounded to the world and myself in the sense that I can place myself somewhere. I have a community, and it makes me feel less alone. To me, my Indonesian heritage is a way of bringing me back to earth and reminding me that there are so many people who share the things that I do and the same ancestry…although it’s so very different, it’s so alike. It gives me a different perspective of the world; it rounds me out as a person.

It gives me another lens to really analyze and look at life with, with being queer, Muslim, black, Indonesian, all these marginalized groups in one fucking person. It brings me back. It’s a reminder to myself that you are all these things and not one is bigger than the other.

My Indonesian heritage is everything for me now, even more so when I feel I’m the only one who can really pass it on to my kids. What I am working on artistically that I haven’t really talked about is that I’m trying to do a series of drawings and paintings of my mom. My Indonesian heritage is, wow, I can’t even unpack it right now. It’s everything. I feel like I’ve just touched the surface of my heritage and my culture.

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