Interview: Matt

Born & Raised: Southern California, U.S.A.

Currently living in: San Gabriel Valley, California, U.S.A.

Age: 26

Find him: Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Matt)

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

Q: Tell me more about yourself!

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, which has a really dense concentration of Asian-Americans, though not so much for Indonesian-Americans. There were only a handful of Indonesian people that I interacted with on a day-to-day basis at school, so most of my experience or proximity to Indonesians had to do with either my family at home or the immediate Catholic Indonesian community.

I bounced around for college, was in D.C. at one point, and then ended up at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. A lot of what I studied in college had to do with race and identity, which was in part because I was trying to figure out more about what it meant for me to be Asian-American, and secondarily, what it meant for me to be Indonesian-American. So I tried to find a career where I could continue to do diversity/equity/inclusion work or work adjacent to race and identity, which is how I kind of took a foray into HR (and then jumped out of it for various reasons). I moved around California, and these days, I’m a consultant in Los Angeles, still trying to do some work adjacent to the DEI space.

Q: Tell me more about that college experience. You said that was the point that you started to think deeper about heritage and things like that.

The San Gabriel Valley is a really homogenous community, so it never really felt like I was being actively racialized as Asian until I went to college, where I was surrounded by white peers and people with extremely affluent backgrounds. I was in D.C. for a year, and I had a whole bunch of roommates who were literally trust fund babies. And living in D.C. was the first time that I’d walk down the street and hear people calling me “chink,” so as ridiculous as it sounds, it became very clear to me that I was Asian in a way that I hadn’t really considered before.

And that same year, I had gone to Indonesia with my parents to visit family, and it was then that I was just so fixated on this idea of rediscovering what it meant for me to be Asian, what it meant for me to be Indonesian. So, for some background context, I’m Chinese-Indonesian, but that’s not really a term that is used in my parents’ vernacular, like we don’t say specifically “Chinese-Indonesian,” and they’ve only ever referred to our family as Indonesian. No one in my family speaks Mandarin or Cantonese. I know now that a great-grandparent had moved from China to Indonesia at some point, and I think that’s the case for many Chinese-Indonesians. But because of that, culturally, there wasn’t anything that we practiced that was obviously optically Chinese. So, during that trip, there was this conversation that I had with my parents where I asked them, like, how Chinese are we? And they were like, super Chinese … we’re so Chinese. And that caught me off-guard, not having the vocabulary previously to describe our heritage, because all I knew was that my parents both spoke Bahasa Indonesia at home. So it was this whole culture shock for me to have this acknowledgement of what it meant to be Chinese-Indonesian.

But of course, even now, I would say that discovery wasn’t really at all that meaningful, because the customs and traditions and language that has been passed down by my family for generations is Bahasa Indonesia, and it has little to do with China. So there’s this whole process there, where I had this self-dilemma about what it meant for me to be Asian and whether I was more Chinese or Indonesian, and then kind of reconciling that with how I was being racialized as just Asian in general. And I realized it didn’t matter how I self-identified because, at the end of the day, I was always going to be racialized as Asian, at least in the context of America. So that’s kind of what led me to wanting to seek out more about Asian-American-ness and understanding the history of Asian America, how Indonesian-Americans or Indonesians in general fit into that narrative.

Q: What sort of conversations have you had with other people in your generation about issues linked to Indonesian heritage in diaspora?

You know, it’s unfortunately not a conversation that I have, in part because I just haven’t had access to other Indonesian people, and in part because when I have encountered other Indonesians of my generation, we’re so wrapped up in the novelty of meeting someone else with even a little shred of shared history. I continue to ponder about whether it’s important to me to be Indonesian-American, or whether it’s important to me to be Asian-American (and I say Asian-American as a political identity). Even now, I struggle with wanting to confidently proclaim like, “I’m Asian-American.” I struggle with that so much because of the lens through which institutions, I guess, and folks in power experience or discuss Asian-American-ness. It’s so hinged on representation in the media and being on the screen, and so you end up with people insulated by class dominating the narrative and giving rise to “boba liberalism.” They’re really just about representation and maintaining the status quo adjacent to whiteness. They care very little about the history of Asian-American activism and solidarity, about Grace Lee Boggs, or Yuri Kochiyama, the Third World Liberation Front, like all those things.

So, where was I going with this? You asked what type of conversations have I had with people my generation about diaspora? I suppose the short answer is that I just really haven’t, and that I struggle with wanting to identify that line with Asian America and Asian-American-ness the way that I think that it’s been kind of captured in the cultural zeitgeist. But, that said, I also recognize that Asian-American-ness is not wholly or completely that idea of boba liberalism. Like the work that many grassroots organizations do across the U.S. and even outside the U.S. I think is unfairly covered up, overshadowed by the Daniel Dae Kims of the world throwing out $25,000 rewards to seek out the perpetrators of a hate crime. And, it’s like, this is not the right approach, but this is who’s in the public eye, this is what people latch onto because it addresses the face of the issue. There’s so many more grassroots organizations that have been caring about the collective security of pan-ethnic Asian people and not just East Asians, and contributing to the critical thought leadership for Asian Americans.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It’s such a difficult thing for me to pin down, what it means to be Indonesian or Indonesian-American. Largely because, I think, if someone asked specifically about Chinese-American history in the U.S., you’re able to point to specific historical events that either target Chinese-Americans, are about Chinese-Americans, and so on and so forth. And perhaps it’s through my own ignorance that I don’t know enough about Indonesian-American history, but I feel like, in this wild goose chase that I’ve gone on and tried to seek out specifically “Indonesian-American-ness,” it’s so difficult to tie any single cultural event to Indonesians’ wide and disparate presence in the U.S. And again, I’m sure there actually is a history here, especially as it relates to a wave of folks who may have left as a result of the ‘65-’66 genocide, maybe a wave of folks who came in the ‘90s, similar to my parents. But because of that, it was hard and continues to be difficult for me to think about, like, what does it mean to be Indonesian in America. It becomes just an amalgamation of these very small moments.

What it does mean to me, I guess, to go back to how I experienced Indonesian-ness, is my nuclear family. A lot of the story is told through food. And food is just something in general that I continue to go back to understand culture, whether that be my own or others. So like, I would say, to be Indonesian or Indonesian-American is something to me that’s very deeply personal, but that I continue to have difficulty trying to connect to a broader narrative of Asian America. But yeah, I continue to try to make a connection between the political identity of Indonesian-Americans and the political identity of Asian-Americans I guess.

Q: Based on that, why is it important to you to make that connection with Asian America and the larger part of Asian-American history?

I guess this is also specific to me being a Chinese-Indonesian, understanding my positionality, my privilege, amongst the landscape of other Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. I think it’s important for me as a Chinese-Indonesian, as an Indonesian-American, to continue to work towards disaggregation of data and to foment an identity that’s beyond like … I wish rich Asian-Americans cared about more things than just becoming like a Yelp elite. And like, I love food, and all that, which again, I just had this whole spiel about my connection towards Indonesian culture being primarily through food, and yada, yada, yada … So maybe this is a comment that’s pointed specifically at like East Asian populations, and those who are affluent and those who regularly turn away from the broader context of political activism and solidarity. I see that a lot in my community and in my immediate network. So I think that, because of that, it’s been this personal mission of mine to continue to educate myself and wanting to do better in that respect. So, connecting the cultural heritage that I have to the broader narrative of Asian-Americans to the rich history of activism that exists within Asian America continues to be a priority for me to make it so that whatever semblance of history that Indonesian-Americans have in the broader context of Asian America now and in the future, isn’t marked simply by just the presence of Indonesians being Catholic in the U.S., or Indonesians having all these restaurants in the U.S., like more than Rich Brian, right? We need more than Rich Brian when it comes to Indonesians in America.