Born & Raised: Southern California, U.S.A.
Currently living in: Nithia lives in Los Angeles, U.S. Tati lives in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Age: Nithia is 29. Tati is 28.
(Photos and illustration courtesy of Nithia and Tati)
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me more about yourselves!
Tati: I read a lot; I read like two books a week. I am also a marbling artist; I work mostly with textiles and paper. I am a podcaster — I can say that now. I love saying it. And I do some freelance styling; I have done some styling for commercials here in Jakarta, which has been very, very interesting. I love the film and the commercial industry here in Jakarta, it’s really fun. Everyone’s very supportive of each other. There are a lot of female directors, which makes me very happy.
Nithia: I’m a fashion designer. It’s what I have always wanted to do since I was 5 years old. My parents, thankfully, were very supportive of my dreams, and really pushed me to pursue it. I didn’t become a designer through the traditional sense. I didn’t go to design school, I never drew growing up, and I didn’t learn how to sew until college. I had to learn everything along the way, and work three times harder than my peers in the industry. I started off as an assistant, and worked my way up to become the senior designer of the company I currently work for. After working in the fashion industry for five years, and seeing the day-to-day horrors of the industry, I definitely want to start my own collection and rewrite the traditional fashion narrative. Fashion is an ugly world. It is an exclusive and discriminative industry. I definitely want to make a change and see change in the industry in the next few years to come. My goal is to start a line that not only is inclusive to every body type, but also utilizes Indonesian textiles in an ethical way. I want to work closely with Indonesian vendors and batik makers to introduce a collection that is reflective of my identity, without exploiting my/our people. I’m also a podcaster, so that’s my other full-time job.
Q: Tell me more about your joint podcast, “Your Very Annoying Friends.” How did you start it, and where do you hope to take it?
Nithia: We wanted to create a space to talk about our “Indonesian-American experience.” I’m such an avid podcast listener. In the many podcasts I listen to weekly, I recognized that there are so many podcasts hosted by white women that go on and on about their dating lives and personal lives. There really is a lack of day-to-day Asian-American podcasts, especially Indonesian-American podcasts. We realized there was a market to fill and a space we could create for our voices to be heard. We also wanted to relate, meet, and connect with other first-generation children of immigrants. Although our intention was to use our podcast as a space to relate to other people, it has actually turned into weekly therapy sessions for us. We get to use our voices and talk about topics that we want to highlight and discuss, including name-butchering (how no one knows how to pronounce my name), fatphobia in the Indonesian community, the secrecy and taboo of the topic of sex. In one episode, we talk about intergenerational cultural dissonance, and the disconnect between us and our parents.
Tati: Our podcast is meant to be a sanctuary for when the world gets too dark and you just need someone to laugh with.
Nithia: There are so many resources out there that can speak about the diaspora or social justice issues a lot more eloquently than we can. Although we also cover similar topics, our podcast approach is more humorous, to laugh through our lives and —
Tati: Trauma. [Laughter]
Q: Tell me more about growing up in Southern California. And how did you two meet?
Nithia: I grew up in a predominantly white community. I was the only Asian girl in my school. It was 98% white and then there were 2% people of color. It was a very “othering” experience. I wasn’t bullied, but it was very much a microaggressive and racist environment. I also grew up bilingual. At home, we speak Indonesian. I didn’t have trouble speaking English in school or anything … but I would get mad at my mom and be like, “speak English in this house! Why am I not blonde? I wish my name was Ashley or Sarah, why did you have to name me Nithia?” It was because people in school couldn’t pronounce my name correctly, and always saw me as “The Indonesian Girl.” It wasn’t until I was 9 years old that my parents threw this event for other Indonesian Americans, and that was the first time I met this larger group of Indonesians. I realized there are other people like me, who also share the same struggles. This was a big turning point in which I realized that I actually come from this really cool, rich, and intricate culture. I became proud of my Indonesian identity, and then I wouldn’t shut up about it.
Tati: I also grew up in a predominantly white area. My family was the only Asian family in our entire neighborhood until I was in the eighth grade. I never had anyone be outright racist to me, but it was just like Nithia where it was a lot of microaggressions. Outside of school, my parents are super religious. The church they went to is an Indonesian church, so I grew up around a lot of other Indonesians. But the thing was, the Indonesians that I grew up with, they weren’t really proud to be Indonesian. It was like something you suppressed because we went to school with a bunch of white kids. We never talked about where our parents came from, where our grandparents came from. But my parents did always teach me to be proud of our background, where they came from. And, oddly enough, it was actually my grandma who suppressed being Indonesian because I actually used to go back and forth to Jakarta because my dad’s family is all in Jakarta and my mom’s family is all in California. So I would go back and forth, and my English and my Bahasa Indonesia were all messed up. My grandma would get mad at me if I don’t pronounce things correctly. If I eat my rice with a spoon instead of a fork, she would be like, “No! That is not how Americans do it. You have to eat with a fork.” So that’s basically the extent of my childhood growing up in California.
Nithia: I felt like my grandma was the same way, but on the reverse of Tati. My mom’s side of the family all live in Indonesia, and my dad’s side of the family all live in the U.S. Actually, my mom didn’t want to immigrate to America. She loved her life in Jakarta. However, my dad immigrated first and told her, “If you want to marry me, you have to move here.” For that reason, my mom chose to immigrate. If she had it her way, she would’ve stayed in Jakarta. My dad’s side of the family really is the same way: They don’t speak Indonesian, they all want to only speak English, and they really assimilated to American culture. Whereas my mom was like, “No, you need to stick to your Indonesian roots. You’re Indonesian.” Raising her children the Indonesian way was the closest way she could stay connected to her homeland.
Q: And how did you two meet?
Tati: We actually met through a mutual friend. We met when I was 11 and Nithia was 12, but we didn’t become super close until I was 18 and she was 19. And we just discovered that, oh my god, we’re literally the same person.
Nithia: We have different personalities, but we like the exact same things.
Q: And if I may ask, what brought your families to the U.S.?
Tati: My mom moved to California at a very young age; she was 14. What had happened was my grandpa actually came to California for heart surgery, and my grandpa’s sisters all already located to the U.S., and they were like, “We want you here; we all need to be together.” So he had his heart surgery, and he stayed and he never went back. Well, he didn’t go back for like 20 years, but he goes back pretty often now. So that’s how my mom moved to the U.S. My dad moved to the U.S. when he was, I want to say 26 or 27. So it’s really interesting to see the differences between my parents; my mom is very American, whereas my dad is very Indonesian. And I think my mom connected to her Indonesian roots through my dad.
Nithia: My dad’s entire family moved in 1978. To be honest, I need to clarify the facts on their immigration story. My dad had graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in Indonesia. However, by the time he had moved to America, my grandparents basically said, “OK, we already paid for your college, you just have to figure it out over here.” Therefore, my dad didn’t get to live his engineering dreams because, unfortunately, the U.S. does not accept Indonesian degrees. In the end, my dad just pursued what he loved: cars. He opened his own auto repair shop and found pretty great success in it. As for my mom, she immigrated to the United States in 1982 when she married my dad. My mom took a while to assimilate, but she really created her own Indonesian community to make her feel at home. To this day, she is very involved in church events, consulate gatherings, Indonesian women’s groups, and arisans, of course. She created her own home away from home within the L.A. Indonesian community. It’s funny when I think about it — my parents have been in the United States for over 40 years at this point and lived here a lot longer than they did in Indonesia. However, at the end of the day, they’ll always consider Indonesia their home.
Q: What have been both of your experiences of connecting with other people in diaspora?
Nithia: As mentioned in my previous answer, my mom inserts herself in every Indonesian narrative (community events) in the greater L.A. area. Since I was a child, my mom pushed me to socialize with other Indonesians in the diaspora. Within the L.A. area, most Indonesians stick within their ethnic or religious groups; however, my mom pushed me to hang out with everyone. My mom is of Ambon descent, and when I was 9, she threw a fundraising event for Ambon. It was at this event I met other Ambon-American girls and formed an Indonesian friend group. I also grew up at a Chinese-Indonesian church. I also had my large group of Chinese-Indonesian friends — all of my Indonesian circles were very different. In middle school, I met Tati’s and my mutual friends, and these were Indonesians that I would call the 0.5 generation — they’re Indonesians who moved to America when they were like 11 or 13. They were definitely caught in between two cultures. They were still very much tied to their Indonesian roots but also tried so hard to be American. This is truly when I saw the assimilation process firsthand. What I noticed hanging out with these Indonesian friends is that we would speak Indonesian, we would eat the food, but we never actually wanted to be Indonesian. I think our rejection of our culture came from the fact that we didn’t have this representation in American media, or we didn’t see ourselves reflected outside our respective communities. We really wanted to be a part of something. We recognized that we were Indonesian and that we had Indonesian pride, but we always wanted to be something else. We wanted to be Korean or Japanese, but never Indonesian. Thankfully, once those friendships phased out, I finally reflected and thought, “What are you doing? This is what you are, you’re Indonesian, and it’s OK to be Indonesian and be whatever you want. You don’t have to be Indonesian and fit into some stereotype or box.” It was truly an awakening, and I’ve been proud of our culture ever since.
Tati: I grew up in such a tiny bubble, and I had no idea that other kids were outside of California, outside of my little hometown in Southern California. And it’s, you know, it’s been really nice to meet other like-minded Indonesians, Indonesian-Americans, Indonesians from anywhere else. And even the ones that I meet that studied abroad here in Jakarta I would say that I feel like I relate to them more than I do the Indonesians I actually grew up with because yes, the ones that I grew up with were very conservative-leaning, or just super religious, or trying to be anything other than Indonesian.
Nithia: And competitive. There’s a huge, like, competitive aspect of Indonesian Americans in Southern California. I feel like Tati and I are the only few Indonesians who are not competitive, which is why we are straying away from our parents’ community.
Q: Did you feel like it was a scarcity mindset like, oh, there’s only so many things for us, we have to be the one Indonesian in the door for these things?
Tati: In a way, yes.
Nithia: I think it was also our parents, their generation, they would compare their kids and say things like, “Oh, well, my kid’s a doctor, what does your kid do?” The whole comparison thing, and I guess it transferred over to the next generation. I love meeting other Indonesians, but I choose not to interact with them if they’re within that competitive circle — the circle that believes in “the model Indonesian American.”
Q: Does your family talk about a specific suku they belong to, or do they discuss heritage in “general Indonesian” terms?
Tati: Very much yes. Again, when I said that I lived in a bubble, the bubble I lived in was specifically Manado Indonesian Americans. I did not meet a single Javanese person until I met my current partner, and I met him when I was 23. My entire life I have only known Manadonese Indonesians, except for Nithia, who’s a fellow Ambon Indonesian.
Nithia: Tati, you didn’t mention that you’re half-Manado, half-Ambon.
Tati: Oh, I didn’t. So I’m Manado and Ambon. I did also have a lot of Ambonese friends who I love dearly, who I would say I relate to more than I do the Manadonese people that I knew.
Nithia: For me, it was more all-around Indonesia. Ethnically, my mom’s family is Ambon, and my dad’s family is Chinese. I would say our family adopted traditions from both sides. However, both of my parents grew up in Jakarta. Therefore, the heritage that was passed down to me was Jakarta culture, whether it be the language or the lifestyle.
Q: What kind of stories were your families sharing with you as you were growing up? Or maybe more recently?
Tati: My parents never really taught me about the history of Indonesia. I mean, they taught me everything else, the food and the music, and that’s it. I knew nothing about, like the political side, the history. I love to ask my grandparents questions about when they were in Indonesia, and they absolutely hate talking about it. Now they’re a little bit more comfortable, but back then, maybe like 10 years ago, they refused to really say anything. My grandma has a bit of PTSD — if she hears really loud noises, she gets really scared. So yeah, that’s one of the reasons why my oma never tells me anything. My opa grew up really, really poor. He ended up becoming a doctor. While he was in med school, he had four kids, and then that’s when he uprooted his family to California.
Nithia: Growing up, I heard so many Indonesian folktales like Maling Kundang, Batu Bedaun, Bawang Merah Bawang Putih. I have more knowledge of folktales than I do of actual Indonesian history. I have very minimal knowledge of my family history. I regret not asking my grandpa, who passed away last year, more questions about our family history. I do know that he was in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia when he was 7 or 8. On my mom’s side, I really don’t know a lot. I do know that my grandpa worked in the government, and he actually lived in New York in 1950, which I think is so cool. In terms of actual Indonesian history, I wish my parents taught me more. I’m barely trying to learn about history now. I watched this Indonesian movie called “Bumi Manusia” — “This Earth of Mankind.” Through this movie, I saw that the Dutch were really awful. I don’t think I ever knew the true extent of terror they brought upon Indonesia until I watched this movie.
Tati: Nithia, don’t your grandparents still speak Dutch? Because mine do.
Nithia: Yeah, both sides.
Tati: It’s weird. Yeah. And I didn’t know why. I used to think it was cool, but now I know it was forced on them.
Q: I wanted to ask you Tati, specifically, like what has the experience been like moving to Jakarta and thinking about all of these things about being in diaspora, but you’re in Indonesia now?
Tati: Being someone who was born and raised in California, and then moving to Jakarta with my partner, has been quite the ride. There are people who don’t see me as Indonesian enough, or they’ll see me and they’ll be like, OK, you’re just Indonesian with an American accent, you’re not special. And it’s like, I’m not trying to be special whatsoever, I’m just trying to live my life. Coming from California, a lot of people here in Jakarta really expect so much of me, like they think that my parents must be millionaires, that I’m this and I’m that. My partner is Indonesian, and I’ve had girls come up to me and say, “Oh, my god, your parents moved you all the way to California only for you to find another Indonesian?” Just so casually say that to me, and it’s just really weird. So it’s been kind of tough because I feel like people do want to get to know me, but they don’t. Moving here has been weird because people have all these expectations of me and when I don’t live up to their expectations, they’re just like, whatever.
Nithia: I think one thing you talked about is how people over there are really into wanting to hear more about America and American culture, but you wanted something different.
Tati: OK, yes, so I came here thinking, alright, I’m going to learn about my heritage, my culture, my history, like I want to know. And it’s the complete opposite because everyone that I’ve met so far is obsessed with the West. Like they don’t care about being Indonesian because they were born and raised here, so it’s not anything special to them, I would guess. So I very much want to learn about Indonesia, and everyone else who meets me wants to learn about America. But I’m like, Oh, I don’t want to talk about this, I want to talk about Indonesia. Everyone asks about what’s happening in the U.S., but no one ever really wants to focus on the things that are happening here in Indonesia.
Q: And you’ve been in Jakarta for a few years now?
Tati: I’m coming up on two years, actually.
Q: So what does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?
Tati: What it means to me is to lift up my ancestors to make them proud in everything that I do. Everything that I do now, I want future Indonesian kids everywhere in the world to see that being Indonesian is something to be proud of. It’s something that you’re going to carry with you your entire life, so might as well love who you are and where you came from, where your grandparents came from, and where your parents came from.
Nithia: I want Indonesians everywhere to be proud of where they came from. I want us to also take ownership of everything that comes from our beautiful country, ancestors, etc. Side note: Working in the fashion industry, so many other fashion designers and companies are taking our textiles and saying that that’s their look and making it “their own.” I want to take back all of our resources, take back our culture, and showcase our culture to the world but in the eyes of Indonesians, not through the eyes of white people that have gentrified our culture. So being Indonesian means everything to me, and I want the world to know about our culture through our lenses.