Interview: Rio

Birthplace: Surabaya, Indonesia

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

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

Age: 25

Find him: Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Rio)


This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I teach third grade in Brooklyn, New York. I used to teach in middle school, but I think my energy matches elementary school more. I grew up in L.A., went to Georgetown University in D.C. I was initially going to go to one of the UC (University of California) schools, but during the college application process, Georgetown offered me a full financial package I needed as an undocumented student.

I studied international economics. Through Georgetown, I was able to leave the country, going to Nicaragua and Hungary. And I went back to Indonesia for a few weeks in 2014. I went by myself because my family couldn’t come with me. I stayed with family members there, and they took me around Surabaya and to Jogja and Bali.

Going to Indonesia, it was the first time I met other people who are not from Java. And it was really cool to learn about the diversity of Indonesia. Every island is different.

Q: Tell me more about your family’s journey coming to the U.S. What was it like growing up in L.A.? Did you grow up with much of an Indonesian community there?

My family moved to the U.S. in 1995; I was there when I was 4 months old. My entire family came: my mom, my dad and me, and my grandma lived with us, and then my mom’s three sisters and their families came. My mom’s three sisters, their husbands, and then my seven cousins. We used to all live in the same apartment unit and then apartment building. Now, most of us still live within five minutes of each other.

Growing up, I feel like my family members and I were the only Indonesians in my immediate vicinity. There was one other Indonesian girl — there were always one or three others aside from me and my family, at school and things like that.

The neighborhood I lived in was largely other Asian and Latino communities, so growing up, I felt like I wanted to be a part of those other groups. My cousins and I would gravitate more towards Japanese, Chinese groups — other kids got to see themselves more represented amongst their peers, but as an Indonesian person, it was not a thing.

My parents weren’t really involved in church when I was growing up, but now, as they’re older, they’re more involved. I think it’s maybe because I don’t live at home anymore and it’s a fun way for them to socialize. But my aunts and uncles are similar. I don’t think they’re super religious either.

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

Growing up, because my family, and Indonesians in general, are oftentimes more recent immigrants compared to other groups, I felt like I was just lumped in as a “general Asian,” because people didn’t really know a lot about Indonesia, and there weren’t that many Indonesians. But then, I started learning more about how there are differences within Asian communities, and like, the differences between East Asians vs. Southeast Asians.

I felt like there was a degree of colorism, and I noticed first-hand that East Asian kids and their families would always mention about the darker skin of Southeast Asians. But I also learned that being Indonesian is its own things.

I feel like when people think of Asian America, Southeast Asians are so often erased, and East Asians are always centered.

Q: Did your family share a lot of stories about living in Indonesia?

My mom and dad are from Surabaya, and I feel like they love being from East Java. Whatever Chinese heritage that’s in my family is really in the past — none of the language was passed down. But we all speak the dialect of Javanese that’s found in Surabaya. At first, I thought that was how all Indonesians sounded.

It seemed like, from what I understand, my grandma grew up in a more rural setting. She moved around and eventually settled in Surabaya. My parents had a more middle-class upbringing. My parents would talk about the fun times they had growing up: My dad talked about horseback riding, and my mom would talk about the random food she loved eating. My hope is one day we’ll be able to go to Indonesia all together in the future.

Q: You mentioned you grew up with your cousins. What was that experience like?

Since there’s eight of us in total, it didn’t really feel that isolating growing up. Growing up, I lived with my grandma, so I got a lot of my knowledge of Indonesia from her, how things were over there, the customs, the folktales, and stuff like that.

I really tried to be mindful of my cultural background growing up because we were also undocumented, so we were never able to go back to Indonesia to visit. Because I knew I couldn’t really go back, I tried really hard to connect with Indonesian culture in other ways.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I feel like being Indonesian has taught me to be resilient and take pride in my uniqueness. I feel like, growing up, since my family and I were always the only Indonesians in the spaces we were in, I did distance myself from being Indonesian. But now, I’m learning that there’s a lot more to my heritage and I would love to learn more about it. I’m learning there’s a history of resistance, too, and Indonesia is so diverse.

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