–By Julius Tsai–
“But where are you really from?”
I’ve been facing this inquiry in some form or another for my entire life. But never as much as I have in lush Central Java where I’ve been teaching English for the last eight months. Though I could conceivably pass as one of the many ethnic-Chinese Indonesians, the fact that my Bahasa Indonesia is akin to that of a 3-year-old gives away my foreigner status. Thus, every time I meet somebody, whether eating Bakso or riding in an Angkot, I am almost immediately asked, “Asli mana– “Where is your origin?” After saying I am from the United States, I’m often asked to clarify. “China? Japan? Korea?” If I respond, it is with an abbreviated version of the following; my mom’s parents, Yukee and Shih Hao, came from Shanghai, my dad’s parents were born in the states; Philip to recent Hungarian immigrants, and Katherine to a family that has roots in the States back to the time of the American Revolution. The ethnic quizzing usually ends there.
I’ve been asked to clarify where I’m from so many times that it’s hard to remember particular instances. When I first arrived, I was so high off the thrill of travel that the constant inquisitiveness of the Indonesians I was meeting barely registered. Yet, as novelty faded to familiarity, there were times when the question bothered me. In those rare moments, a flicker of annoyance turned into a spark of anger and, dare I say, vulnerability. I felt like there was nothing I could do to prove that the only place I have ever called home is actually my own. That my experience was just as American as the the blonde-haired, blue-eyed imagery of America that they’d been exposed to. It felt as if the world was giving me a pat on the head and saying, “No no young man, you can’t possibly be from there, your eyes are too slanted and your hair too black.” The more I maintained my Americanness, the more I seemed to forfeit it. In hindsight, it feels melodramatic, but I’m not going to deny that I felt that way. As time has passed, I’ve stopped having any sort of emotional reaction when I’m asked to explain my family history. In the face of this steady barrage of questions, my reactions have turned more introspective. I’ve begun to identify how the, “Where are you really from” sentiment holds a different significance in Indonesia than it does it does at home.
In my experience, many Indonesians lay bare what they feel about your appearance in frequent and frank ways. This does not play out in meaningful conversations so much as it does in passing remarks and candid interactions on the street. The great deal of privilege I hold here on account of being a fair-skinned man has been made very clear to me through looks, comments and attitudes. Yet, it is also through these comments, incredulous stares, and raised eyebrows that I’ve been made aware that I don’t look American. I believe there is a natural human curiosity to ask about things that do not conform to a perceived norm. Sometimes, this questioning can be a more sinister way to “otherize” people, but I don’t think it is always the case. I should also note that I have done a relatively poor job of learning Indonesian and would perhaps be having more complex conversations if I was not so limited in my Bahasa Indonesia skills. However, given that ethnicity questions are usually the first or second thing I’m asked, these conversations have reached the realm beyond my understanding. While a factor, I don’t believe language is the determining influence over this phenomenon.
There’s no denying that Asians, hovering around 5% of the U.S. population, are a small minority in America. Within that group, there is incredible diversity, so I can only speak for the East Asian-American experience in Indonesia as it differs for South and Southeast Asian people. Because of who I am, it is easy for me to identify the Asian people, art, and food that enrich American culture. American news, media, and entertainment are already whitewashed, yet the American pop culture exports that make it here seem even more so. In eight months of consuming Indonesian media I’ve seen few to no Asian-American, Latinx, or Black people, aside from Obama. Certainly no mention that America’s slave owning founding fathers stole land from indigenous people. Yet, in the past week, I’ve encountered ads featuring Robert Downey Jr as well as Scarlett Johannson, heard Taylor Swift blasting on the radio, and seen Mike Pence mean mugging on the cover of the newspaper. Little to no representation of Indonesia makes it to America; preceding my grant I couldn’t name a place that wasn’t Jakarta or Bali, let alone an Indonesian actor or singer. Yet American media, while superficial and inaccurate, has enough of a foothold in Indonesia to establish a cultural norm for what America looks like. While I will never know what motivates individual actions, I suspect that the constant stream of questions I get about my ethnicity is produced by some combination of natural curiosity, the language barrier, the tendency of some Indonesians to comment on appearance, and the media’s established norms of what Americans look like.
Unpacking my beliefs about the “Where are you really from” phenomenon in Indonesia has led me to realize that the source of my agitation stems not from the sentiment here, but from having heard it so many times at home. In the last few years, I have heard it with decreasing frequency as some Americans have woken up to the fact that it’s a nasty question. Yet, in the early years of the century, when dialogue on social justice was far quieter and my own knowledge and vocabulary in their infancy, I was asked this question all the time in unapologetic fashion. In the mainstream left-leaning sphere, where we’ve come to a point where ignorance is not an excuse, when I hear, “Where are you really from” in America, especially from a white person, it reads as, “I’m curious but cannot bothered to phrase my question in a less racist way.” It is not that I mind being asked about my ethnic history. Just the other day, after talking for an hour or so talking about Asian politics, an older white American said to me, “I apologize if this is rude, but you appear to have some Asian heritage. Is that true?” It was totally fine given his words, tone, and the context. In my experience, the Indonesian understanding of how specific words, tone, and context matter in conversations about identity is different from what I’ve become used to at home. That these subtle things are lost across the world is not surprising- it is not the job of Indonesians to learn my cultural cues, especially given that I’m here by choice. I realized it took me a while to parse out these differences because of my anger over all the times I’ve encountered this small, casual bit of racism at home. I have also witnessed brutal racism in Indonesia, amongst other bigotry, which further complicated the process of identifying these differences.
Reflecting on all the aforementioned has reminded me that I still hold cultural biases I need to confront. A few months ago while I was traveling, I had a short conversation with another East Asian-looking tourist who said she was from New York City. Given the difficult time I was having understanding her, I immediately began asking myself questions, wondering how she could have made it through American high school with such limited English. I felt all these parts of my mind chirping in, thinking she’s not American. In reality, I have no idea what her story was. Though I didn’t push the issue, my face must have given away some of my skepticism. Thinking about that hypocritical instance reminds me of how I need to expand my own ideas of who can be American and take people at their word. How can I ask others to stop being lazy if I continue to be guilty of it myself? Why can’t I ask people humanizing questions about themselves and let their culture and heritage emerge naturally and by choice? Ultimately, that interaction was a small restructuring of my belief of who is American. My interactions with Indonesians are responsible for similar microscopic shifts of my own frame of reference. My ideal is not a world where in which we cease to be curious about others, but one where we do so while being mindful of our biases and the way we ask questions.
Julius Tsai is currently teaching at SMKN1 in Magelang, Central Java.