Interview: Zahra

Birthplace: West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Champaign, Illinois, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Champaign, Illinois, U.S.A.

Age: 22

Find her: Instagram Twitter 

(Photo courtesy of Zahra)


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

Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I just graduated with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. I’m currently working as a process engineer. That’s about it.

Q: How did you get into STEM?

Growing up, it was one of those things where I didn’t want to go into STEM because my dad’s an engineer, everyone around me was an engineer, 85% of the Indonesian community that I knew were engineers or scientists. I wanted to do something different, so I almost went into journalism. But then I took my first chemistry class and I thought, actually, I think this is it. This is what I’m going to have to do.

Q: How did your family end up in the Midwest?

My dad went to school in Purdue (University in Indiana), and then he did his grad school in U of I (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). He had me during his time in Purdue, and then he moved here (to Champaign) when I was 6 months old. So, I’ve been here pretty much my whole life.

Q: Did you grow up with much of an Indonesian community?

Since we’re so closely connected to the college — we’re essentially a college town — my Indonesian community growing up was really transient. It was grad students coming and going, with or without their families. So it was always a constant wave of ah, once this family is here, they’re gone when their program is done.

As a kid, my Indonesian friends had parents in grad programs, but once they were done, they would go back to Indo. So it would just be me and my siblings who were the only Indonesian-Americans around us, other than the people who were coming and going.

My first few years in elementary school, I went to a school near the university, and there was actually an Indonesian-language class available. But then, we moved, and I transferred to a 95% white school.

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

It was something instilled in me pretty young and pretty immediately. It became pretty evident to me that me being Indonesian-Muslim-American is kind of a niche identity that I didn’t share with a lot of people around me.

My masjid community is primarily Desi, Arab, so I’ve never really had a full sense of community there. But then I was able to find community within the few Indonesian friends that I had. I guess my initial impression of my Indonesian heritage stemmed from my tiny circle of Indonesian families in Champaign.

Q: What has it been like connecting with other people of Indonesian heritage who are around your age?

So, I feel like compared to the Desi community, which is larger and more established, being Indonesian felt like a more uncommon experience. Like, Desi people my age had in-jokes they could share with other members of their community, but I feel like that was harder because there were so few Indonesians. But those are valuable experiences and jokes to share among other Indonesian people.

My dad, when he was here in college, connected with other Indonesians his age and stayed connected with them, so I watched him build his community from the ground up. And, as an extension of that, his friends’ kids are now all people I call friends and who I’ve grown up with. When I think of my Indonesian community, it’s scattered throughout the U.S., but they’re people who I hold dear to me.

In college, a lot of the Indonesians at my school had different upbringings than me — they were mostly international students who came from Indonesia or Singapore. I never got a chance to connect with any of them. I’d see them in passing and at PERMIAS events.

I have four siblings, and I see that our experiences vary. Even within our household, there’s a difference about how much we care about our heritage.

Q: Growing up, did you find that your family emphasized a Muslim side over an Indonesian side, or was it pretty much intertwined? 

So, being Indonesian is important, but I feel like there was also somewhat of a priority of just being involved in the Muslim community. Even when it came to a point that it was clear that me and my younger sibling were often singled out for being non-Arab and non-Desi and made uncomfortable for it. It didn’t really come across to my parents why that was such a big thing for us.

We often felt left out and didn’t feel included in a lot of Muslim spaces, primarily because we were the only Indonesians. In that regard, I think my parents wanted us to have that sense of community within the Muslim community, but it didn’t really work. They didn’t really get that even though, yeah, we’re all Muslim, but that doesn’t always make it easy to fit into the community.

Not fitting into Muslim spaces, I learned to find spaces where I would feel comfortable in. In college, MSA didn’t really feel like a community — there were no other Indonesians. So then I started to search for places that were for more marginalized Muslims. So, I had my Indonesian community, but there wasn’t a Muslim community that felt welcoming.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It really means community. It’s really the people around me. I connect with these people through my heritage. There’s just some things that feel like home within the community and within the culture itself.