Journalism and Women and Gender Studies major
Taman Impian Jaya Ancol (Ancol Dreamland Park) in North Jakarta holds a "panjat pinang" (pole climbing) competition on Carnival Beach on Aug. 17, 2019. (JP/Syelanita)
When I first came to Washington D.C., the United States, for my undergraduate education in 2017, I was excited to be away from a country I had lived in my entire life and to “start anew”. Determined to redefine myself and become “more out there”, I thought I had to erase everything I was to be accepted in the new environment I was in.
This meant I no longer wanted to identify much with my Chinese-Indonesian culture. I wanted to simply be a university student in the US and not have where I came from have anything to do with how my life was going to be there. I didn’t bring much with me that made me think of my culture to university, except for a few snacks. My family told me to bring some batik for cultural events, but I told them that would be too embarrassing.
I didn’t think that my plan would have a lot of problems because I thought I knew American culture pretty well from consuming so much of its media since I was little. It was the little things, though, that made me realize I couldn’t truly fit in because of where I came from.
Things like pronouncing the letter h “heich” instead of just “eich”, not being able to go to Canada or the United Kingdom for spring break in short notice because I would have to apply for a visa, absolutely hating the bland food like cold sandwiches (which most of my friends loved), not knowing how to eat string cheese “the right way” (you’re supposed to peel them off but I just bite right into it) or not following the sports that everyone seemed so into.
My friends laughed at these “othering” traits of mine with good nature, but I hated that I was different. The bigger things, like having to worry about getting a work visa if I wanted to stay after graduation, not having family to come home to during Thanksgiving breaks and having to consider a 28-hour flight and a very expensive plane ticket every time I want to come home (and back to D.C.) when my friends can just take the bus or train made me feel even lonelier.
I hated my differences and wished that I had grown up in the US as well so I could live like them. I changed the way I pronounced “h” and I ate cold sandwiches even though I hated every bite.
Growing up in Indonesia, there is such an obsession with “the foreign”, anything from K-pop to American movies, that I didn’t realize how much I rejected my Indonesian culture until I sat back after dwelling in so much dissatisfaction for so long.
Because of the obsession, I denied everything. I told myself the food wasn’t that bad and that I didn’t miss home even though I was terribly homesick during my freshman year and continued to be throughout the next two years even though it got better.
It wasn’t until I surrounded myself with other Indonesians that I started to see how much I missed and loved home. I wasn’t very active in my Organization of Indonesian Students in the United States (Permias) group, but I made a few solid friends with whom I loved spending time because they made me feel like I was back home.
Speaking Indonesian to someone in real-life and not in a phone call with home was freeing and hanging out with people with the same cultural mindset was comforting because I didn’t have to act or hide anything.
When I volunteered with my friend Gaby in the Indonesian embassy for a cultural event it was having, it was the first time I was surrounded with so many Indonesians. The food they provided was amazing, and I wondered why I rejected and hated something that was so beautiful.
Independence Day was something that I used to only look forward to because it meant I didn’t have to study in school and played sports instead, but it obviously wasn’t celebrated in the US, safe for in Indonesian communities. The embassy had annual celebrations with flag ceremonies, food and art that I would found cheesy two years ago but I love so much now.
As I spent my time abroad, I grew to love my culture even more and would look forward to going home. I embraced the fact that I was very homesick (partly because I was in such denial). I didn’t care how I pronounced words or that I had different circumstances due to my nationality. I ate Asian food almost every day because I couldn’t stand anything else. I brought back batik and so much Indonesian food whenever I came home. My culture became an emblem I was proud to wear because it was how I knew where I belong and where I can always come home to no matter what happens when I’m away.
This is especially true now with me coming back home because of the coronavirus pandemic, having my last semester in university online and not knowing anything about my future. I had a lot of anxiety about how things were going to go when I was in D.C., but now I am slightly comforted by the fact that I am at least home. (wng)
Caroline Giovanie is a 20-year-old Journalism and Women and Gender Studies major who is in her last semester of undergraduate studies. Currently in Jakarta, she spends her time quarantining with her dog and family and listening to indie rock albums
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.