Birthplace: Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Grew up in: Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Currently living in: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
(Photo courtesy of Alexa)
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me more about yourself!
In college, I studied International Affairs and Arabic, and then, like any lost college graduate, I went into a professional field that had nothing to do with what I studied. I got into recruiting and talent acquisition because I was interested in working in the startup space and had people skills. Currently, I lead a recruiting team at a cancer research tech company in New York and have loved the experience. Recruiting suits me because I’m a people person. Connecting people is something I like to do professionally and personally. I am someone that connects people to opportunities, experiences, and other people.
In my free time, I spend a lot of time cooking. I love to cook. During quarantine, I created a food Instagram (that does not have a lot of followers lol), but I’m not doing it for other people, I’m doing it for me. Cooking Indonesian food is a personal passion project. My mom is a fantastic Indonesian cook and I felt like I never really learned how to make Indonesian food from scratch, so I’ve used cooking as an opportunity to get closer to that part of my heritage and to her. Now I’m always at the Asian supermarket binge grocery shopping. My kitchen is a mess and full of random ingredients.
Q: Tell me what it was like growing up in New Jersey. Did you grow up with Indonesian community?
We did have a solid connection to the Indonesian community and culture, which I am grateful for. My mom is a social butterfly and has always been a central part of the community in the New Jersey-Philly area. She is always trying to bring Indonesian people together. Also, as kids, my grandmother lived with us, so that’s why me and my siblings all speak Bahasa Indonesia. There was always a strong Indonesian presence at home. But it was a totally different world in the house versus outside of the house. We grew up in a community where we were the only Indonesian people.
There were other Muslims in my community growing up, but that part of my identity wasn’t simple. My dad converted to Islam when he got married to my mom, but his family’s traditions were Catholic, so we celebrated Christmas and Easter. At the same time, I took Qur’an reading lessons as a kid and was living through a post-9/11, anti-Islam America. It was confusing. There was a period where I felt lost and uncomfortable about what it meant to be half-Indonesian, Muslim, and not fitting in with the white, American, and Christian part of my family and community. It was hard to be someone who didn’t fit into the norm and didn’t fit squarely in an identity.
Q: What sort of stories did you grow up with?
It’s always interesting to hear my mom’s stories growing up. My mom’s family is from Bandung, but she grew up in Jakarta when she was in her older years. She’s from a big family and didn’t grow up having everything we have now. For my mom, I think coming to America was very much a chance for her children to have a better life and stability.
To this day, my mom and grandmother tell stories through food. My mom will cook food and be like, “This is what we eat when we celebrate this event,” or “This food stall in this pasar has the best version of this,” or “This recipe is a specialty in this part of Indonesia.” Instead of telling stories, they’ve shown love and connection to our heritage through food.
Q: How did you start to think of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
My mom traveled back and forth to Indonesia for work so it always kept me very close to Indonesia. I went back every year for two to three months — every summer break was in Indonesia. Those visits really solidified my heritage and connection because I was completely absorbed and accepted into my Indonesian family. Even though I’m close to my American family, there is this level of familial closeness that’s different than in American culture. It’s hard to describe. Children are expected to take care of their parents and family in a way that’s almost giving back to your family. That always really resonated with me.
Probably the saddest thing lately is not having had the opportunity to go back. I feel more distant to the country and place itself. That said, this effort to try to connect to my heritage is something that’s always top of mind.
Q: What sort of conversations have you had with your siblings around your heritage? What about with your mom?
It’s interesting because I’m one of three, and me and my brother look more Indonesian, and my sister looks more white. We talk about how that means our lived experiences are different. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how there are privileges from being half-white and growing up in America. Something we think about a lot in the context of this conversation around stopping Asian hate is how being half-Asian, and specifically being Indonesian, is complicated. “Asian” is such a catch-all category and I don’t necessarily find that my lived experiences are the same as someone who is Chinese versus Indian versus Middle Eastern. For me and my siblings, can we identify as Asian since we are half-Asian? Is it more about what we think we are, or how others perceive us? We’ve been thinking about why we don’t always feel totally authentic in those conversations.
Digging deeper, I think about the context of being Southeast Asian and Indonesian specifically. Southeast Asians are thought of differently compared to other Asians. For example, when I was visiting my friend in Dubai, I was like, “Wait, people have a different perception of what it is to be Indonesian because Indonesians are often domestic workers.” It was striking for me to learn that being Indonesian might be perceived negatively, especially since it was an identity I was proud of. I am always curious about those distinctions, about the perception of Indonesians, who they are, and what it means to be Indonesian. It’s so different depending on where you are in the world. So we talk a lot about that.
The conversations with my mom are also interesting. So, my name is Alexandra McCue; if you were to look on paper, you might think I’m Irish, right? And my mom did that on purpose. She said that, “I didn’t want anybody to not give you a job because you had an Asian name.” Sometimes I wish I had part of my name that was a little bit Indonesian, even if it was my middle name. I feel like my name was whitewashed. That’s something that’s come up with my mom.
Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?
For me, it’s something I’m very proud of, and I love to talk about it. I’ve been talking a bit about myself as half-white and half-Indonesian, but I think I can still be 100% of those identities in some ways. I can still 100% embrace being Indonesian and be proud of that heritage. I don’t have to dial that back. In all honesty, I’m half-Irish, but I don’t get that jazzed up about St. Patrick’s Day. I get so much more excited about my Indonesian heritage and want to contribute to the culture of that community.
My Indonesian heritage feels like home. This culture feels authentic to me. I want to make sure that’s something that I live in, breathe, and contribute to, and then pass on to other people. It’s really, really important to me. I’ve been away from Indonesia for a while, and I feel like I miss home. I think about Indonesia all the time.