Interview: Katherine Sarwopeni Antarikso

Born: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: State College, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Age: 43

Quick Things: Katherine is a fall 2020 Activist-Curator Fellow through the Chronicling Resistance project from the Free Library and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries. She is currently working on a project on Indonesian immigration in the U.S. Follow the Instagram @indonesian_archives. She is also a founding member of Pejuang: Indonesian Social Justice Coalition based in Philly.


Q: Tell me more about yourself.

I’m an architect by training but I have a lot of other interests. I do traditional Indonesian dance; that’s been really important to me in connecting back to my roots and feeling a connection to my ancestors. I’ve also started writing poetry because of another Indonesian poet, Cynthia Dewi Oka. I was part of her workshop, and that was life-changing.

I’m currently working in this fellowship through the Free Library called Chronicling Resistance. It was an opportunity to research the archives of the libraries. I love libraries, I love reading, and I want to know more about Indonesian history. I want to know more about the ties to Indonesian history in the U.S. and have a chance to share what I’ve learned about Indonesian immigration to the U.S. with the community. I want to put Indonesians on the map in Philadelphia; we have a thriving community here that’s living under the radar. I want future generations to know those stories.

What I’m trying to do now is to combine all of my interests into a more cohesive life so that I’m not being splintered in many different directions. I want to work on something impactful that I’m also interested in. I just want to maximize what I can do in the time that I’m here with all of these things that I’m interested in.

Q: Did you grow up in an Indonesian community? What was it like for you growing up in Pennsylvania?

My parents had lived in the U.S. in the ‘70s, when my father was getting his MBA. My father then became a professor in Indonesia. Then, in the ‘80s, he returned to get his doctorate at Penn State, and that’s how we ended up in State College, Pennsylvania.

We were supposed to only stay for four years, which was the length of his program. We had packed our stuff in crates and boxes to go back, but we ended up choosing to stay in the U.S.

I grew up in a community of other Indonesian students. When we got to the U.S. in 1988, it was mostly people sent by the Indonesian government or their companies. But then, after 1998 and the fall of Suharto, I noticed a change, and it was mostly wealthier Indonesians who were coming over.

I think, around that time, I was really trying to assimilate – being surrounded by white Americans, I felt like I was trying hard to become really American. I think I missed out on exploring an Asian-American identity, especially since I felt I didn’t have a lot of exposure to it. But I also didn’t feel like I fit into any foreign student clubs. So I always felt left out.

I think it was only in college and after college that I met other Indonesians, especially moving to Philly and having a big Indonesian community here. This is where I’ve met the Indonesians that I can talk to and I feel like I can relate to.

Q: What sort of stories did you grow up with? Did your family talk a lot about Indonesian history when you were younger, for example?

My parents didn’t share a lot of stories – maybe some about how they grew up. But they didn’t really talk a lot about Indonesian history. I came to the U.S. when I was 10, so I did have a chance to get exposed to Indonesian media, TV, and state propaganda. I’d seen the G30S propaganda movie, and that was my introduction to Indonesian history.

Of course we didn’t learn about Indonesian history in U.S. schools. I think what I learned about Indonesian history has been as an adult. It’s only since college that I started to get into history.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage? How has that changed over the years?

I was always really proud of being Indonesian. That was instilled in me from a young age. I started dancing early on; having those dance lessons made me feel really Indonesian. My mom brought our dance costumes here and we would perform at university events. I was proud of being Indonesian, but I found that most Americans don’t even know what Indonesia is, so I think maybe that’s where the schism came from, like, OK, since no one else knew what it meant to be Indonesian, I guess I’ll just try to be really American.

In college, I was very focused on my studies, so I wasn’t even really thinking about my identity. But I think the turning point was 1998, which happened during my third year of undergrad. Seeing college students, people my age, affect this enormous change in Indonesia while I watched from a distance – it felt like I was missing out on something really important.

After graduating college, I took more of an interest in Indonesian history, especially after 9/11. I think it was those big, historic events that made me think about my heritage in deeper, more critical ways.

Also, my family is very Javanese: My mom is from East Java, and my dad is from Central Java. They spoke Javanese to each other. That’s something I missed out on and wish I could do, speak Javanese. I think there was also this emphasis on being a “good Javanese.” I don’t know whether that was just from my mom or all my family members, but yeah, there was that emphasis, and also being Christian.

Q: Did you notice that specificity growing up, or is that something you’ve noticed more now as an adult?

I feel like I’m more conscious of it now. I’m starting to understand more now how other Indonesians see Javanese people. When I was younger, I wasn’t aware of Javanese occupation of other islands. I knew about Dutch colonization, but I’m learning more about Javanese colonization, and it’s something that’s making me interrogate my own upbringing.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I’m proud to be from the archipelago. I’m proud to be part of the islands. We have a rich culture. I think being Indonesian is being accepting of differences, different cultures, different people, and finding those shared moments. Being Indonesian is home to me, when I find others that I can be in community with. That’s what it is now.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Katherine.