Interview: Melicia

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta; moved to Vancouver, Canada, at 17 years old

Currently living in: Vancouver

Age: 24 going on 25

Find them: Website | Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Melicia)

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

Q: Tell me more about yourself. I know you do costume design — how did you get involved in that?

I actually came here to study English literature. I’ve always been passionate about literature, especially Western English literature, since I was about 13 years old. It was a subject I really excelled at in school. But when I came here during my first year of university, I absolutely hated it. I was stressed out all the time. For a while, I thought about dropping out, maybe going to culinary school. I don’t know, it was just a weird time in my life. I then just thought on a whim to take a theater production class.

Theater’s also something I’ve been interested in for a while, since I was around 12-13 years old. But I’d always seen theater from an audience/actor point of view; I had no idea what theater production was or what any behind-the-scenes production looked like. I just really fell in love with working at the costume shop; everyone I met was super supportive. It was the first time that I had made something and I could tangibly see and feel it with my hands, and to watch a show go up and see, “Oh my gosh, I hemmed that skirt,” or “I sewed the ribbons on that cape,” was such a great feeling for me.

When I told my parents that I was going to switch my major to theater production, they were like, what the fuck, what are you going to do with this degree? But to me, the transition from literature to theater design, specifically costume design, feels so natural because I’m still working the same muscles of text analysis, character analysis, like really seeing the character motivations behind what they do and their upbringing and cultural context and translating that into the stuff they wear. I just loved being able to create things, and that transition — it feels like everything in my life made sense when I found costume design.

Q: What sort of obstacles did you face when you made the transition?

Growing up, my mom worked in publishing, so there was an unspoken — I don’t want to say rule, but there was this assumption that I would follow in her footsteps and get into publishing, especially since I read and wrote a lot. When I found costume design, people were like, “What?” I think a lot of it was that people didn’t really understand what it is I do. I found a lot of my relatives asking me like, “Why don’t you just go into fashion?” Because that’s where the money is. I had to explain to them that costuming was different from fashion. My parents were supportive, but they were confused. Now, my mom explains to her friends, “You know on ‘Game of Thrones’ when the costumes get dirty? That’s what my daughter does!” But I don’t work on “Game of Thrones.”

Q: Do you have a particular genre you like to work in, like a period piece or something experimental?

I feel like I’m pretty open. I don’t think I have a particular genre that I like to work in, but I do like to work on new works, especially telling stories from marginalized voices, such as the Asian diaspora and other queer people of color. But I feel like more than genre, what I’m really interested in is just working with colors and textures. Really playing with textures and different color combinations. I feel like whenever I’m in a fitting, I put things together and people are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t put those things together,” but it works! So I feel like I have a good eye for colors and putting things together that are unexpected. In addition to my design work, I also work in breakdown for the film industry as well. I just love making things look dirty and gross, kind of transforming a textile from one thing to another — that really excites me.

Q: What sort of expectations did you have before coming to Canada? What have you learned since you’ve started living there?

I came here because my great aunt and my great uncle live here. I’m an only child, so my parents were hesitant with sending me anywhere. I found Canada because — it was really stupid, but I went to an IB school and I was just looking for schools I could get into based on my IB scores and not on external testing. Coming here, there were certainly stereotypes of Canadians being so nice, saying sorry all the time, but now I’ve been really exposed to the horrifying colonialism…that continues to happen and that is still rampant today. The path to permanent residency, as well, is quite difficult. I feel like they discourage immigrants from coming here just because of how ridiculous the process is. It’s really opened my eyes to how discriminatory the policies are in Canada still.

Q: What has it been like finding a community you belong to in Vancouver?

A big part of the reason why I came here was because Canada is relatively queer-friendly. I came here to find a queer community I could be a part of. Growing up queer in Indonesia sucked. I feel like because of that, I didn’t have a good experience growing up in Jakarta because I felt so isolated from my peers. Also growing up Catholic and going to church and people saying that I’m going to burn in hell, classmates openly mocking gay people all the time — I knew I wanted to leave as soon as I could. I really found a good community where I could be myself, be appreciated, and seen, in the theater community. But after a while, I found that the theater community here is also pretty white, so I also realized that they’re seeing parts of me but they’re not seeing all of me. I have found several communities that I feel comfortable in and that I belong to, but I’m still in the process of figuring out who I am and finding out who I want to be in those communities.

Q: How did you start thinking of your Indonesian heritage? Was it something your family brought up? Or was it not something you started thinking about until later in life?

Growing up, I feel like my parents, especially my dad, instilled in me that I’m Chinese, I need to learn Mandarin, I need to celebrate Lunar New Year. Also growing up Catholic, there were a lot of ideals instilled in me of being a super-devout Catholic, like fasting during Lent. So thinking about being Indonesian didn’t really come to me until much later. I feel like I definitely thought of myself more as Chinese than Indonesian until I came to Canada and people asked me where I’m from and told me I don’t “look” Indonesian, whatever that means. Or people would be like, “Oh yeah, my girlfriend is from Bali,” like I don’t care!

The first few years being in Canada, I was trying to figure out what being Indonesian means to me because growing up, my dad instilled a lot of Chinese-ness in me, and growing up queer, I felt alienated from a lot of things going on around me, so I feel like I wasn’t really there to absorb any deep, patriotic feelings about being Indonesian. Having the distance has helped me, and I’m still in the process of really unpacking what that means. I guess there’s still a lot of intergenerational trauma that I’m still trying to unpack around “being Indonesian” and what that means with my Chinese identity, especially because not many people here really understand the history behind that. Like, when I say I’m Chinese-Indonesian, people here assume that one of my parents is Chinese and the other is Indonesian and it’s like, no, it’s not that. My grandparents, on my dad’s side, immigrated to Indonesia from China, but I’m not sure how far back on my mom’s side of the family came from China, but I think a lot farther than my dad’s side. We visited Palembang, where my dad was born, and the house my grandfather grew up in is now a pirated DVD store — fun fact.

But yeah, to answer your question, I started thinking about it a lot more pretty recently. I think I have a lot of really complicated feelings towards it. As a child, I was really resistant to learning the Indonesian language, even though I grew up there, and my dad would make me read Indonesian books, and I remember having this really colonized mindset of, “Oh, why do I need to learn Indonesian? Nobody speaks it” — other than the millions of people that live in Indonesia, not realizing that if I don’t speak it and don’t have a way to articulate myself in it, that it was really cutting myself off from my culture and heritage. That’s something I always regretted. Especially now, I still feel so much more comfortable speaking in English. I feel imposter syndrome almost when I tell people I’m Indonesian; even though I grew up there, I didn’t really feel a strong connection to it until coming here. More recently, going back has been a lot easier, and I feel like I’m looking forward to it more, and I have more questions and issues I want to explore. I actually feel homesick for the first time in seven years. It’s been a slow process…but I’ve been pretty positive about journeying to find out who I am through my ancestors and what that means to me.

Q: Have you been able to have these complex conversations about your heritage with anyone around you IRL?

I talk about it sometimes with my partner, but he’s not Indonesian and he doesn’t really understand it in a deep way. Like, I know people who are Chinese-Indonesian, but they’re not queer, or I know people who are queer and Indonesian, but they’re not Chinese, so it’s just difficult to touch all those bases. I’ve had some conversations, not as much as I would like to, partially because I don’t really know how to initiate those conversations, especially with family members. My mom would say, “Oh, but it happened in the past, so we must move on and be present in the moment,” which, she’s right…like not all of our history has to be so dark; we can celebrate all the light that happens to us as well.

Q: Any upcoming work you’re excited about? How do you keep your creative flame lit?

As far as upcoming projects go, I just wrapped a shoot for an indie film called “Esther and Sai.” It’s going to be premiering this summer at the Voices With Impact Festival. I have a couple of theater shows that I’m doing as well coming up later this year and next year. I also work as an acrylic paint-maker and breakdown artist, and it’s pretty exciting to see how that feeds into my craft as a costume designer.

As far as keeping my creative flame lit, I don’t know, it’s been hard, especially seeing during the pandemic people getting creative suddenly. Creating something felt so difficult, especially since last year, my position in Canada was pretty precarious visa-wise. Security and stability really inspire me — a very Virgo answer. But I feel like when I’m grounded and clear-headed that’s when I create the best.

Q: What lessons did you learn last year that you’re carrying with you into the new year?

I think last year taught me the importance of not being defined by my work and productivity. My parents have always been super-busy, and kind of growing up in that environment, I unconsciously started to think that I had to be busy all the time. Especially now in the arts, there’s this culture you have to give 110% of yourself all the time. I think I started thinking about the idea of rest and not being defined by work. When my grandma passed away in 2017, I thought, well, I’ve been working really hard, but at the expense of that, I wasn’t able to see my family or friends as often. Her passing spurred thinking of what’s the point of working so hard if I can’t really enjoy it? Especially last year, I thought I didn’t want to work all the time without a break; even though I love what I do, I still need time to step back from it and not be defined as, “Oh yeah, they work in costumes,” because there’s other things I want to pursue, too.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage, especially your Chinese-Indonesian heritage, mean to you?

I feel like my Chinese-Indonesian heritage reminds me that there’s something bigger than myself. It reminds me of the intergenerational trauma that my ancestors have carried on their backs, the trauma that I’m still learning how to carry, entwined with the blessings I have that stemmed from them. I’m doing the work to stop our trauma from spilling out into the next generation, because I don’t want the Chinese-Indonesian identity to only be remembered for their pain.

My Chinese-Indonesian heritage really ties me to my family. Growing up queer, I feel like I was super-secretive around my family, to the point I couldn’t show them who I really am or tell the truth about anything. Not that I’ve formally come out to my parents or anything, but I feel like I’m finally becoming more open with my parents and what our family bond looks like. To me, being Chinese-Indonesian gives me something to eventually come home to. But I’m still trying to figure out what that means in my daily life.