Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Jakarta; moved to Singapore at 15; Australia
Currently living in: Queens, New York, U.S.A.
(Photo courtesy of Adithya/Credit: Ucita Pohan)
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me more about yourself. I understand that you work in theater, but you were also a food and travel writer?
So, it’s a very fascinating transition. I grew up in a very hospitality and food and beverage-centered family. My dad was a general manager for a hotel. When I moved to Australia in 2009, I went to culinary school; I got my diploma in pastry and bakery arts. I worked there, and then I went to Singapore, got a couple more jobs there. In 2013, I tried to move back to Indonesia after being abroad for seven, eight years, sort of like, “Oh, you know, maybe it’s time for me to settle back in Jakarta and find out what’s there for me,” because things do change a lot. I moved back to Indonesia and I had a new-found love in food writing. It was fine until I realized that I don’t actually think I can live back in Jakarta anymore. It took a toll on my mental and physical health.
So then, I’m just like, I need to figure out a way to not be here anymore. I figured I should be able to finally get an undergraduate degree, but in what I didn’t know. Then I figured out a food studies program at The New School in New York. I was like, “Oh, this would be interesting,” and it aligned with what I like to do. I’d spent quite a few years in the kitchen and now it was a matter of looking into food from a different perspective, and understanding the anthropological side of it, really understanding where food comes from, the politics around it, the historical and cultural backgrounds.
I moved in January of 2015 to do that. Throughout that entire experience, I’ve always been interested in arts, in theater and all that, but mostly as an audience member. When I came to visit the States in 2013, I experienced signing up for the lottery for cheaper tickets at a Broadway show, and was able to gain that experience. During my second semester, I figured I would try and do something with theater since I was spending so much money going to shows. It’s like, OK, great, then I’m just going to do more theater stuff and take a couple of classes, meet a couple of professors, do this, do that. And I ended up taking more projects and understanding more.
And here I am, almost six years later, and I’ve been working as a theater administrator and dramaturg for three years now and kind of abandoning food, but at the same time, also not because food is still a part of a day-to-day thing. So that’s sort of the long version of how I ended up transitioning from being interested in food into actually doing theater and art right now.
Q: What was it about theater that really drew you in?
I enjoy the aspect of the live performance. I enjoy the fact that, with theater, one performance will be very different from the other. There are no two performances that are alike. One night, you will find nuances in this, and another night, you’ll find nuances in that. And then you just see how the production grows and you get to see all the nuances closer when you’re involved in a production, as opposed to just like, Oh, I’m buying a ticket, seeing the performance tonight.
I also feel that, for the most part, theater tends to be a little bit more groundbreaking in terms of thematic issues and addressing things that television or movies are not generally able to because of the scope of the audience. A lot of the theater works that I’ve been drawn into are challenging in their themes. For my thesis, I looked at the presence of HIV/AIDS narratives in contemporary theater in America, basically comparing how narratives of HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s are all really white-centered when, in reality, especially today, communities of color are majorly impacted. My thesis basically was like, why are we still centralizing the white narrative? How can we, as an industry, as a community of theater practitioners, be able to move forward from that narrative into the narrative that actually reflects the conditions of today, the realities of HIV/AIDS in contemporary America? That’s when I think theater has more liberty in finding the ability to share those stories.
Q: How did you come to understand yourself as a person with Indonesian heritage? Was it something your family instilled in you? Tell me more about your experiences.
I wouldn’t consider my family to be the source of strengthening my ideas of what it means for me to be an Indonesian since we’re, for the most part, a very Western-centric family. My late aunt moved to the States in the ‘70s; we also mostly speak English. So really, how I shaped my identity as an Indonesian is by being away from it, in a sense. When I found that other people were interested, on an individual level, of my story as a person of Indonesian heritage, I found myself kind of getting more into it.
The first couple of semesters when I was still doing a lot of food studies courses, I kind of tried to introduce that a lot. I remember a couple of my first papers were about the basic philosophy of Balinese seasoning, or how colonialism shaped the way food in Central Java, especially Yogyakarta, tend to be sweeter than the other parts of the island due to the sugarcane plantations in the area.
So, there’s sort of like those little things that I’m just like, Oh, I’m going to go deeper into my research and figure it out. Why are tastes so different between West Java and Central Java, and Yogyakarta and Bali? Why is this? Why is that? So there’s a part of me that’s still wanting to explore that more. But now, since I’m in theater, it’s been a little harder to introduce my identity as an Indonesian, because there isn’t–there is now a small interest in theaters in Jakarta, but I just wish it would’ve been bigger.
Q: If you’re comfortable with sharing, why do you think your family was, as you described, “Western-centric?”
I definitely do have theories. Of course, it doesn’t help that my aunt moved to the States in the ‘70s and found a “better life” essentially. I was raised Roman Catholic, too, and there’s a lot of perceptions around Catholicism as an Anglo-Saxon religion. My grandma could also speak Dutch and whatnot. We’re also Chinese, and especially with 1998, since we’re not technically “accepted” as Indonesian, perhaps my family felt like they had to distance themselves or find where they felt they would be accepted.
So, those are my theories, but the most fascinating part about it was a story that my dad told me that, in 1998, my aunt offered for him to move to the States but he refused, so I was very surprised to learn that.
I still haven’t really been able to talk with my family about it, but that’s what I think, that since my family was of Chinese descent, Roman Catholic, and we had a close relative move to the States, that sort of oriented us away from Indonesia or a sense of “Indonesian-ness.”
Q: How did you start to conceptualize how your Indonesian heritage was actually important to you?
I’m a strong believer right now that distance makes things better essentially. You always see things in a different perspective at a distance. For example, my relationship with my dad–when I was still in Indonesia, we were fighting every single day, but when we’re very far apart, we get along perfectly fine. I guess the same goes with my relationship with Indonesia; the further I am, the more I’m just like, Oh, I can see things in a more objective sort of way.
What I was really craving for was community, even when I was in Singapore. When I was there in high school, at 15, I felt alienated from my Indonesian identity and felt that I have to be “Singaporean” in a sense. It wasn’t until I moved to Australia when I had my first encounter with PERMIAS. That’s when I sort of figured out, Oh, there are like small pockets of Indonesian diasporas, where people are gathering, where people are sharing, and it’s always food that becomes their main binder essentially. It was like, Oh yeah, come over, I’m making sop buntut or martabak or something. And it’s like, OK, then we’re gonna get together and eat Indonesian food and feel a sense of community and belonging. And that’s where I’ve found some joy in a sense.
But finding community hasn’t always been easy, because it’s never as easy as, Oh, you’re also Indonesian, so am I, and that’s it. There’s politics to consider, certain affiliations. You know, even though we’re in diaspora, there can still be the tendency to bring in judgments and things like that. I would rather not associate with others who are homophobic, misogynistic, etc. So, it’s been a journey to find my specific community. Does that make sense?
Q: Yes, of course, like just because you meet someone who is also Indonesian, doesn’t mean you have anything in common with them. I definitely understand, like, wanting it to be as simple as that, but the reality is that it’s not so simple.
Yeah, like if I tried to bring my husband to an event, it was like, Oh, let’s not bring that up, let’s not talk about it. But I want to be in a community where I can be accepted with my husband. I have found my own little–I call my Indonesian circle. After I got married, they ordered a whole bunch of Indonesian food from Philadelphia, had it shipped over and hosted a big massive liwetan in my friend’s apartment for us. That’s what I hold, that sort of familiarness that I like of being Indonesian, that sort of idea that communities are still important, still a strong core, without the prejudice, without the preconceived notions of like, Oh, you are different than us.
Q: Before you came to the U.S., did you have any expectations about the racism you may encounter here? Were you prepared, or was it kind of a crash-course for you upon arrival?
Before I moved in 2015, I did visit in 2013, so I felt that I knew how to navigate the country; I felt confident about what I was getting into. But in terms of racism, that is something that I definitely was not prepared for. But, you know, I got here in 2015, and it was leading up to the 2016 election, so it definitely was a crash-course for me.
When I first moved here, I didn’t really like using my real name, like, Oh, my name is too difficult for people to pronounce and therefore I should adjust. As an Indonesian, I feel that we’re still living in the shadows of colonialism ourselves without understanding what that actually means to us. So I was like, Oh, you just call me Addy. It was actually, to be honest, when I started working in a theater when I realized people are actually willing to learn your name. Yes, there will be mistakes, there will be people who stumble your name here and there, especially because it’s not an Anglo-Saxon name.
So, it was a crash-course into understanding that and also unlearning–there’s an idea that, you know, since I moved here, I’m buying into this idea that the West is the best place for me to live as someone with my sexual orientation, with my gay identity, that I wouldn’t be able to live comfortably or be in a gay relationship if I stayed in Indonesia. But I think it’s more complex than that. And I think by learning how to liberate myself through my sexual identity, I’ve been able to better decolonize myself, better able to unlearn a lot of deeply embedded colonized thinking and better understand myself as a person with Indonesian heritage. It’s hard to explain. It can feel hypocritical, like, yeah, I moved to a Western country to learn how to be Indonesian? When I was able to really fully realize my sexual identity and being able to fully live, that’s when I learned to decolonize myself and own up to my Indonesian-ness.
Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?
For the most part of my life, especially in my high school years and early years, my idea of moving into another country is to assimilate to where I am–when I moved to Singapore, hoping to be Singaporean there, and when I moved to Australia, hoping to be Australian. When I moved here in 2015, for the first time, I didn’t intend to “be an American” and was really able to put up my identity as an Indonesian. That’s when I truly found what’s important to me, that I’m more than just an “Asian” person. I think the short answer is it means a big deal to me.