Interview: Nat

Birthplace: Southern California, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Southern California, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.

Age: 33

Find Nat: Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Nat)

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I am a social worker. I currently work for an anti-violence program working with youth, where I do trauma therapy and I provide workshops for young people, and also trainings for adults working with young people, on healthy relationships, gender and sexuality, race and racism — just anything around developing healthy relationships with yourself, with a partner, or within a family or community network even. The program is centered around relationship abuse prevention and healthy relationships. That’s my career path. I’ve been a social worker for about a decade.

I’m also an apprentice of spiritual herbalism. I started my apprenticeship a little over a year ago here in Brooklyn. I study under Master Herbalist Karen Rose. She’s a business owner of Sacred Vibes Apothecary here in Brooklyn. It’s a black-owned business. She’s committed in teaching herbalism that centers indigenous knowledge and marginalized identities. I feel really lucky to be in her program.

Q: How did you get interested in social work and herbalism?

I think initially I came to social work as a young person in my early 20s probably seeking my own healing, but not knowing that. I wanted to do something where I was connecting with people and feeling like I could help. So, I think initially, I was drawn to the field searching for some sort of healing.

Over the years, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been to therapy and I’ve seen my own relationships shift and change, I think now I’m drawn to this field to help support other people in this field. I think taking herbalism last year was a step in that direction, because herbalism is all about healing yourself first and tapping into your stuff, your family stuff, your community stuff, your ancestors — it’s not just sitting down one-on-one with someone for 12 sessions and then calling it a day.

This is a huge undertaking. And I was super burned out, too. I felt like I wasn’t being seen or heard in the field, and social work is also incredibly problematic and is based on a really violent system in this country. Herbalism has allowed me to heal and have a different outlet, and has also allowed me to revisit my work with a different lens.

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

I think it was something I knew from a very young age, but something that I didn’t necessarily interrogate until I was older. So, my mother is Dutch-Indonesian. Her and her family had to leave Indonesia in the ’60s, and they went to the Netherlands. They were only there for three years, and left; they had a family friend who sponsored them to come to California. So, she grew up in L.A. My father is not Indonesian. So I have these two sides…from my understanding, part of the internalized colonialism in my family, out of survival, has been about shrinking identity in order to integrate.

So for me, thinking about what it means to be Indonesian, I think I grew up thinking like, “Yeah, I’m Dutch-Indonesian, I don’t know, I eat nasi goreng and I wear cute batik clothes I’ll wear every once in a while.” But I grew up very much feeling like a generic brown kid, where I understood this level of oppression that my mother faced, and by proximity, I was judged on how I looked, but, I think, specifically identifying as Indonesian or Dutch-Indonesian, that started in my 20s, and it’s a journey I’m still on and that I’ll always be on, because I’ve never been to Indonesia, and don’t speak my mother’s language.

Due to a lot of trauma and family history, there was a lot of stories that weren’t passed on. So, I’ve had to do a lot of gentle excavation on my own, because I feel like, specifically with my mom’s side of the family, there is a lot of pain surrounding the fact that they were forced to leave two countries, both of which were technically “home.” So, that was something I sort of grew up with, but every time I would ask questions, there was no other information to be met with. I had to do a lot of searching on my own to get answers. When I was a teenager, I think I was more frustrated, but now that I’m older and did more work on myself, I think I understand more about why all that is.

Q: Were there any stories that your family shared with you?

One thing that I had heard a while ago, but I didn’t know if there was any truth to it, and then I asked my aunt, who confirmed it. I didn’t know my grandfather; he passed when I was 2 or 3. But he was a palm reader, but I didn’t know any of the details of that. Because, upon immigrating here, my mom and her siblings adopted western religious beliefs, so hearing that there’s more of indigenous spiritual connection in something like palm reading was very interesting to me, because I didn’t picture my family like that.

Him and my grandmother were both in Japanese concentration camps in the ’50s. My aunt said it was a skill my grandfather ended up using for the Japanese soldiers, so it was a form of safety, or a tool for resilience. And she shared that when they came to the U.S., he was still reading palms every once in awhile; it wasn’t something he forgot as soon as they left. That was a special story for me to hear, because I think the religious aspect of colonization has been a really painful thing for me to experience. So it was interesting for me to hear those stories of my grandfather, because it feels like I’m in that journey right now, about going through a more spiritual journey. So, that was a story that’s been with me that I’ve been coming back to.

I asked my aunt on a recent trip about whether she remembered using any plants or herbs for illnesses. She brought up the usual ginger and turmeric, but she said my grandmother used to use papaya for contraception. She couldn’t remember if it was a leaf or if she ate it, but she just remembers the word papaya. So I looked it up and sure enough, young papaya is an ancient form of birth control used all over Southeast Asia.

Q: And growing up, what sort of lessons did your family pass down?

Definitely food — and, honestly, maybe the only thing that’s passed down. I don’t speak the language, but food has been a big constant for me, since I was a kid. When I was younger, folks on that side of the family got together more. Just gathering around the table and eating a lot. That didn’t happen a lot after my grandmother passed away, but I do remember having a ton of stuff on the table and having people eating and talking and laughing.

Looking back, as an adult, I wish I still had that now. But it’s hard for me to talk about because I struggled with this growing up, like well, I’m not even Indonesian. I’m barely Indonesian, I’ve never been, and I went through this period, because I’m queer, I had this false idea that oh, I’m queer, that makes me more white, or more American. So there’s this whole idea that queerness is an American thing, that it’s a white people thing. But the older I get, I’m like no, it’s very much the opposite. And that’s what I’m trying to reconnect to.

And even though I haven’t been to Indonesia and met that family that’s still there, there are ways of being inside of me that have existed before me. When I was younger, I felt like maybe I was claiming something that wasn’t even mine, but now, I think I just have to be very intentional about claiming my cultural identity, because I am also of European descent and I do have other ethnic backgrounds in my lineage. But I also can’t use that as an excuse to abandon that part of myself because, I don’t know, I think that’s what colonization is, just erasing people and erasing people’s history. It’s very important to me that it’s not erased. I think about that a lot.

Q: I want to ask more about your journey learning more about Indonesian history and politics. What has that experience been like for you?

I think it’s been cool moving to the East Coast because, where I grew up in San Diego County, there wasn’t any other Dutch-Indonesian or Indonesian people around. I feel like being in New York, there’s a place to buy Indonesian food, there feels like there’s more access here.

So, when I moved here, I reached out to an Indonesian dance group because I was interested in learning about dance. That was really hard…I had a lot of my own internalized stuff to go through. So I tried that.

But it was also just connecting the dots, of what my mother would say, and then when I was in grad school, using the resources to learn more. I spent a lot of time researching, and I started to develop a sense of like, OK, it’s not necessarily that narrative of, “Oh, your family just moved for better opportunities.” Being of mixed descent gave my family a lot of privileges in some ways, but also put them in a lot of danger, too. That was harder for me to piece together — I feel like I couldn’t piece that together when I was younger because I didn’t have a developed understanding of being a mixed race person.

But yeah, it’s been a lot of Googling. And now, all of these documents have been released, and how the United States played a role. That’s something I’m hoping to learn more about.

Q: Now that you’ve learned more and you’ve come up with your own perspective, what has the conversation been like with your family?

Basically, I have been able to have conversations with my family that I haven’t ever had before.
I think what a lot of elders want is for us to put in more time, so me being more open and with that energy has helped our communication. People in my family have been more willing to answer more specific questions, and our conversations are longer.

I remember asking my mom about their time in the Netherlands, like did she face racism? And she just said, “Oh, it was just really cold there, so we had to leave.” But my aunt was like, yes, it was cold, and oma had arthritis, and we were treated really poorly. So those things started to come out.

I think the conversations have felt a little more tender, because I’m trying to be more open and vulnerable and, hopefully, they can see that so they can be more open and vulnerable as well.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I guess right now what it means is it’s something that’s constantly changing and shifting and evolving. But in other ways, it’s very much withstood and has been resilient and continues to be, despite all this complicated history, all these horrible things that were done to its people. It’s something old and something new.

I think to me, my Indonesian heritage feels very queer. It’s something that can’t be defined. We have such varied experiences. People feel a lot of types of ways of being Indonesian. So to me, it feels queer, because it can’t be defined, and it hasn’t stayed the same. I think right now, I’m learning that I don’t have to quantify it. It’s already in me. I just have to make space for it.

Q: And what has it been like for you connecting with other folks of Indonesian heritage?

It’s something I’m super interested in and it’s something that’s been difficult for me. I have met some Indonesian people my age, and that’s been really great. I’m interested in meeting more queer Indonesians. I’m just more interested in that perspective in this point in my life.