Interview: Pepe and Nike

a.k.a. Perdana P. Roswaldy and Eunike G. Setiadarma

Birthplace: Pepe was born in Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia. Nike was born in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.

Grew up in: Pepe grew up in Pekanbaru, Riau. Nike grew up in Semarang, Central Java.

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

Age: Pepe is 26. Nike is 29.

Quick things: Pepe and Nike are Ph.D. students at Northwestern University. Pepe is in the Department of Sociology, while Nike is in the Department of History. They make an online zine together called Terminal Bus. Read Issue One here and Issue Two here.

(Photo courtesy of Pepe, on left, and Nike)


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

Q: Tell me more about your specific areas of studies.

Pepe: I’m studying sociology in the doctoral program at Northwestern University. Specifically, I study political and economic sociology, and colonialism. So, I’m studying the rise of plantation economics in developing countries, and the legacy of plantation economics, or plantocracy, in plantation belts around the world, but mostly my case is in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia and Malaysia. Occasionally, I also do gender research because that’s what my thesis was about, but I dropped that because I wanted to pursue something a little bit bigger.

Nike: I’m studying history, also in Northwestern, and I’m a second-year right now. Previously, I didn’t have any background in history, so this is a very new field, starting from zero. Studying intellectual history/social history. Current interest in the idea of family and economic development. So, I’m trying to read archives on home economics, on how the family in the colonial era tried to shape the idea of progress.

Q: How did you become interested in your respective areas of study?

Nike: I feel like I got interested in studying the idea of the family because of Pepe.

Pepe: Really? Why? I never knew this, by the way.

Nike: Because, last year, Pepe was doing a study on gender, and she talked a lot about the family that she lived with during her ethnography, and at the same time, I was also doing something about a Chinese-Indonesian journalist, and this guy usefully talked about anti-colonialist discourse, etc. And then I actually found out that this guy wrote about family, too. I discussed with Pepe about my research, and then we came to decide, OK, let’s just make the topic of family my research topic.

Pepe: As the official PR for Nike, Nike actually won the best thesis.

Nike: For someone who has no background in history—previously, for my undergrad, I was doing IR, international relations, and development studies. But now, doing history and the history of families, that’s very different. So when I got the award—

Pepe: She deserved it! She’s been working so hard. Staying late nights at the library.

Nike: It was painful! I’m not doing it again. Anyway, that’s how I got interested in it.

Pepe: We’re from the same scholarship program for Indonesians pursuing graduate school in social sciences only. I applied for anthropology actually, because my background is in Russian literature. I’m more of a person who studies culture, and I like doing ethnography, so at first, I thought anthropology was the smoothest way to actually connect my cultural background, my literary criticism background, with these anthropology studies. Then, I applied, and then they read my essays. They accepted me with a little side note that they didn’t discuss with me during the interview: “We sent your application to the anthropology department, but they think it’s not really anthropological.” So, they sent my application to the sociology people, and the sociology people were like, “This person is a sociologist!” …And the reason why I study plantations is because I was born into transmigration, which is a development project where people from Java and other crowded islands were moved to the “outer” islands. So they really used the Dutch legacy of which ones were the outer islands, which ones are the inner islands. So, I was a child of development. I grew up in plantations, basically, and that shaped how I understand social relations. It’s really ingrained in my everyday politics, and it didn’t really occur to me as something to be researched because I thought it was just my life. When I moved, I found out it has a very sociological past and question, so that’s how I started my research in plantations.

Q: Why did you decide to go into academia?

Nike: It’s more because I like reading and writing. And I can get paid for that. After undergrad, I worked in market research, and then I worked for the British Embassy for a while. I hated it. I tried to escape it, and got my master’s degree. And after that, I thought, “This is nice,” so I continued it. I don’t know if there’s a political reason behind that. Maybe there is.

Pepe: Well, work is always political. Your work is oppressive.

Nike: Yeah, working with British people…And it’s not fair to pay local staff differently than the expats, diplomats. I was in an administrative position, and we’re the ones actually doing the work, day to day. But it’s not easy to get a wage increase for the local staff—they’re [the local administrator staffs] the last people to get a wage increase.

Pepe: There was no one in my family who actually supported me to be an academic, except my dad. They felt, maybe, the furthest you could go was Singapore, because Riau is just 30 minutes away, and that’s fine. But when I got the special scholarship, everyone was just losing their minds. Not because it was so much gender, per se, like my family didn’t really care about that at this point. It was just a very New Order-way type of family planning; you wanna have a very stable and secure household. They expected me to be a civil servant, working for the government, instead of wandering around NGOs for four years. But my dad really loves the idea of me being an academic. He encouraged it. … Politically speaking, same, I’m tired of my work, but unlike Nike, I generally liked my work. I worked at an NGO that deals with post-war communities, especially women after atrocities in post-conflict settings, and a part of me still reaches out to that side of me, reflecting in my gender research. … I feel like at a lot of international NGOs, the brown staff members got more work compared to their white supervisors and counterparts. …The power relation is really off-putting, to say the least.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as people of Indonesian heritage? Was it something your family discussed, or did you not think about it until later in life?

Nike: It’s not so much Indonesian heritage, in my case. It’s more Chinese (Tionghoa) heritage. Being Indonesian and Chinese, and having a family name—my family name is Setiadarma, but it doesn’t have a single Chinese character.

Pepe: Like it’s not a typical assimilation name.

Nike: Usually people use, like Tan—Tanuwijaya. Or Salim—Lim. Or Kosasih—Ko. But my family name has no relation to a Chinese family name. My mother is Javanese, so sometimes, we talk a lot about what am I? Chinese? Javanese? Because we’ll become “Indonesian” when we’re outside of Indonesia. But if we’re in Jakarta, in Semarang, you’re no longer “Indonesian.” You’re Javanese. You’re Chinese.

Pepe: I’m a child of development, in which this development basically dictates what being Indonesian means. You move the majority ethnic group into other places where they most of the time land-grab indigenous land, and they claim themselves as Indonesians. So this kind of talk about what being Indonesian means among my family is always like militarism. …So being Indonesian is just serving your country. But there’s a shift with more recent generations, like with my dad heavily supporting me to have a career outside of Indonesia, and that question was brought up in many of our discussions. Like, “Don’t forget you’re an Indonesian.” And I was like, I never know what it means! It’s also a taken-for-granted thing, as someone who’s not fully in the diaspora since I came to the U.S. just three-and-a-half years ago, and you (Nike) two-and-a-half years ago. But you spent another year in England.

Nike: Yeah. Sort of.

Pepe: Yeah, and I asked my dad, “What do you mean being Indonesian?” And he doesn’t actually know. It’s “just remember where you belong.” And I was like, “Aren’t you the one who told me to leave and forget everything here back home?” So, I don’t know what being Indonesian means for someone who was actually born and raised in Indonesia, just internalizing that kind of nationalistic view of what it means to be Indonesian. It’s also not helpful the fact that I lived in a development project that basically said, “You’re Indonesian if you have a palm oil estate.”

Nike: Even though my mother is Javanese, because she has light skin, people think she’s Chinese. So we never talk about being Indonesian, but we talk about being Chinese. It’s common among Chinese families to talk about what to do with their identity. So, when I arrived here (in the U.S.), I became Indonesian, not Chinese-Indonesian.

Pepe: I feel like if you were born and raised in Indonesia for your very good formative years, it’s more about the ethnicity you belong to. …My family is very much an archetype of a New Order family; we kind of erase that part of us and say we’re these modern Indonesians who speak Indonesian, and our loyalty belongs to this constitution, whatever that means, and the whole performativity of a nation.

Q: Tell me more about your friendship. What’s it like being in the same school as your best friend?

Nike: We became friends in 2016. I never knew Pepe.

Pepe: Weirdly enough, I knew your husband before you.

Nike: It was Twitter in 2016. Pepe was just floating around on Twitter, doing her thing. She wrote really good reviews on IndoProgress, back in the day. She was quite popular around leftist activist groups, so she was popping up on my timeline.

Pepe: To be fair, I used to help your husband’s collective. …I knew her husband, but I never knew Nike. Maybe you were in England then?

Nike: Yeah, I was in England then, doing my master’s. And then, I don’t know why, I came across Pepe and was like, oh, who’s this person? And, you know, I ended up doing some research.

Pepe: By research she means stalking.

Nike: Not stalking! I was reading your blog. …I was attracted to Pepe’s writing first.

Pepe: Pepe’s writing only!

Nike: Writing first, personality later!

Pepe: Or not at all, actually!

(Laughter)

Nike: And then I sent her a personal message first.

Pepe: She’s very funny on Twitter. I can’t remember what you actually messaged me. I’m a very private person actually. …I was not keen on making friends over social media at the time…but she sounded very genuine. She’s very likable. She loves manga and anime, which makes two of us. So that’s how it started. There was a phase when I was very active online, back in my NGO days. I have op-ed writings all over the place. That phase has stopped, because I don’t like attention in general, and then I told Nike, “I’m going to be off living my life. Can we text?” And then we’ve been texting until today. And we actually didn’t meet in person until 2018.

Nike: So, 2016, we were just doing WhatsApp. In 2017, Pepe went to the U.S. for her predoctoral training for her scholarship. …And then, after graduating from my master’s, I was interested in doing a Ph.D., too. I was interested in Pepe’s program, and I thought, “Hmm, this is a good program, and Pepe’s there!” So yeah, I asked her if it was a good decision to apply.

Pepe: And I was like, based on my personal feeling, yes! It would be a very good decision if someone I already know came here!

Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned so far being in grad school?

Pepe: It was just so shocking to me to pursue a Ph.D. because it was very different from what I thought it would be. In my mind, it was master’s first, Ph.D. later. But my first thought (of entering grad school), was, “Oh my god, this is a shithole. Why do people do this to themselves?” And I am one of those people! I wish people had explained how different the American school system is compared to every other school system. The whole six-year thing—I can see the merit of it. …But it’s just the mentality of “you gotta be in academia if you’re in grad school,” where in Indonesian, in European settings, I think the understanding is that it’s OK to work as a non-academic, even if you get a Ph.D. … The American academic culture is …

Nike: Whole shenanigans.

Pepe: Whole shenanigans! It’s not healthy. I know academia in general is never healthy but, holy shit, this country has issues clearly the way it is set up, the way it designs for some students to fail, based on your competition, based on competitiveness, you have to be competitive under whether you “publish or perish,” and I don’t want to perish! But it doesn’t mean I want to publish either!

Nike: The American culture part is quite correct. It was a shock to me, too. A master’s in the U.K. is more like a final year of undergrad, sort of, so it’s still huge classes, and seminars are like undergrad. In the U.K., if you’re a grad student, you need to know what you’re gonna write, so there’s no guidance. It’s more like independent study, in the U.K. But in the U.S., it’s very intense and very mentor-based. There’s a good side to that.

Pepe: We love Nike’s advisor. He’s not my advisor, but I suddenly slip into his orbit.

Nike: He’s very nice, but the structure of the program, especially for history, is very intense. I have exams, and one exam I have to read at least 200 books, or something like that, so yeah. I wish people had told me—

Pepe: “It’s gonna be hard. And we mean it!” …And the visa—oh my god.

Nike: The whole immigration process.

Pepe: And you’ve experienced the horror of the British immigration process. It was nothing compared to American immigration. Even if you already have really good standing, it really doesn’t guarantee anything. They can just not give it to you, just like that. For no apparent reason.

Nike: European graduate students are already looked at as colleagues, because they are usually only four years and they usually do a project, following their mentor or project advisor. So it’s already a colleague-based system. But, in the U.S., graduate students are still students. So we’re not seen as colleagues.

Pepe: But we’re workers, too, based on our T.A. work. So it’s a very vague worker relationship.

Q: So why did you start your zine, Terminal Bus?

Pepe: The expectation is “let’s hope the domain is still alive in the next three years!” Why did we do that? You’ve been in zine projects way before I have.

Nike: Which one?

Pepe: Back in Semarang! You’re not the only one who Googled a name!

Nike: Oh, previously, I had this zine with friends from my undergrad, but it was more like a photo zine because my friends love doing analog photography. Pepe used to have a very radical, feminist zine called Merah Muda MemudarFaded Pink—and it was really popular. People loved it. The writing was really good, the editing was really good, and Pepe was the one who worked on it. So, we decided to make one because we didn’t have a collaboration together.

Pepe: Yeah, I think the sense is that we wanted to keep a community going. …We’ve always wanted to do something together that wasn’t academic. What keeps me going in this very hostile environment of white space, imperialism, is women friendships, queer friendships in general, that really keeps me going and keeps me alive, and Nike feels the same way. So, I was like, let’s totally define this more than ever, more than we already do. So we wanted to create something physical that’s really fun for us, and we want it to be our distraction over immigration.

Nike: I have a shallow reason, actually.

Pepe: Oh god, no.

Nike: I want to make people jealous with our friendship!

(Raucous laughter)

Pepe: Look at me here being deep!

Nike: Teta, I don’t know if you’ve felt this, if you have a best friend and your best friend is really nice, really good, and she’s precious, and you want to show them off to other people. I’m very passionate about my friends.

Pepe: And we love reading novels. Fiction keeps us sane. The name of the zine is really stupid; we didn’t even really think about it. And my philosophy for zines is always, we have to put forward the punk side of zines—it’s an alternative media. It’s pure, raw emotions, and Nike is on brand with that, too, especially with the emotions part.

Nike: People actually know, when they read it, which one is my writing and which one is Pepe’s. My writing is really angry. And we edit the zine using a free mobile app. We hope to put something out once a year, and some occasional reviews on the blog.

Pepe: Like, if Nike has an obsession with an anime or manga, or I have an obsession with a novel I read, but it has to be strictly fiction. So it’s escapism. We had this talk for it after we were dealing with our immigration, like, “This is stupid,” so we had to have some safe space for us.

Q: What has been your experience trying to connect with other Indonesians abroad?

Pepe: I think, politically, Nike and I are not in the majority of many Indonesians who come here, so when we see a bunch of Indonesians, we’re very cautious. We have our own world, in terms of being academics, and we have our own caring system, in terms of being friends, and sometimes, that doesn’t really translate to other diasporic communities in which they emphasize their Indonesian-ness, whereas Nike and I are actually challenging that notion through our research.

Nike: I was in a cohort of LPDP students that went to Manchester, U.K., so I was in a space where the campus was really white but the social life, outside of the campus, was really Indonesian in some aspects. But it was still not quite comfortable, as Pepe mentioned, but also, when there’s a lot of people, more than 10, more than 20, a hierarchy forms. There were programs, social events, but it felt self-exotifying.

Pepe: Like very performative. I mean, I get it. To a certain extent, I think my Indonesian-ness is reflected in what I eat and what I love to eat, on a basic level. I always cook Indonesian food here, you too, back at home. You have a warteg.

Nike: Warteg-style.

Pepe: That’s the only thing that keeps my personal memory going. But other than that—

Nike: It’s difficult. It’s superficial social relations.

Pepe: “We’re Indonesians. That’s about it.”

Nike: “We have to help each other, blah blah blah,” but it doesn’t actually work that way.

Pepe: Especially the notion of Indonesian-ness is very problematic across history. You have your experience as a Chinese-Indonesian, which is an entirely other world to talk about, what it means to be Chinese-Indonesian, and also what it means to be Indonesian outside the gaze of development projects. So, it’s layers upon layers, and then suddenly, they want to erase it, like, “We’re Indonesians here,” so great. No, we’re not cool. And when they tried to curb our political interests during the racial justice movement, that was not cool. So, it’s very performative.

Q: To build on that, what does your (Indonesian) heritage mean to you?

Nike: I only use it for intellectual curiosity.

Pepe (laughs): Like an analytical device?

Nike: Yes, exactly. An analytical device, analytical category. But nothing beyond that, in a way. As a place, it’s accidentally where I was born and grew up. My family is there.

Pepe: I think, for me, it’s more like something that I actively challenge, and negotiate or compromise. It’s very much a part of me that will always be in flux, precisely because I used to take it for granted until I realized, especially when I built up my whole career, even before my Ph.D. program, when I started thinking about this transmigration program in which I was born to, and there’s no way I would be born without this New Order—actually, this colonial program that’s been around since 1901, and they haven’t stopped the program until now. The notion is always the same: They want to create this imaginary and utopian reading of Indonesian-ness, like, “You can put us anywhere. It’s always gonna be one Indonesia,” but people died because of this program. So, I feel like the very being of myself as an Indonesian through that program has always been contentious, and Indonesian heritage is something that I know I will not have an easy relationship with, despite how easily I can use it and take it for granted. Like Nike’s explanation, it’s an intellectual project, but at the same time, it’s a very personal project to deal with. I’m not sure if I want to compromise everything the way that many American TV shows are like, “You can have 50 different versions of you!” Just like dealing with the mosaic of being Indonesian.