My family’s background has always been confusing to me. When people ask about my background, I usually say I’m Chinese and Thai, but the truth is a little more complex. My grandparents are from all around Southeast Asia. My grandfather, who shares my last name, is from Indonesia and most of my extended family still lives there.
Growing up, I never considered the Indonesian aspect of my heritage. While my last name is Indonesian, I didn’t know how that side of me fit into my identity and the only time I visited the country was as a tourist on a short vacation to Bali. As a way to discover more, I attended Indonesian Cultural Night 2018. Put on by PERMIAS Michigan — the Indonesian Student Association at the University of Michigan — the event highlighted the diversity within Indonesia and its cultural heritage including dances, a modern rendition of the classic folktale “Lutung Kasarung,” and an interactive performance where audience members were given the opportunity to play a classical Javanese instrument, the angklung.
As someone unversed in Indonesian culture and history, I was surprised and excited to view the immense diversity of the country. Throughout the show, the participants continuously emphasized the rich ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of Indonesia and how one single narrative could not capture the entire Indonesian experience. Having lived most of my life in America, I realized I too had fallen into the dominant narrative of a monolithic Asia. In Indonesia alone, there are about 300 ethnic groups and 750 languages and dialects.
Audience members included distinguished Indonesian University alumni including the honorary adviser to Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism Indroyono Soesilo. After the event, I spoke to him about his experience at the University and the misconceptions Americans have about Indonesia. He, too, emphasized the importance of diversity to Indonesia and the nation’s growing importance in the world’s economic and political sphere.
Soesilo said, “Today you got a little taste of Indonesian culture. Most Americans only know about Bali, but there is more to Indonesia than just Bali.”
In the United States, it is often easy to forget the world outside of our borders. As the child of immigrants, I am often careful to reach beyond the traditional American curriculum, but I often find myself needing to rethink the dominant narrative of other nations — especially ones I realize are intrinsically connected to myself. Through experiences like the Indonesian Cultural Night — where communities are able to display their own narratives unfiltered by other influences — I hope I can continue to expand my own learning horizons.