At Home, Twice Removed: Living In Triple Exile
In a world where Twitter bios proudly proclaim, “Made In China”, “Brooklyn Via Oslo”, or “NYC mailbox, DC license”, mine politely whispers “New York City” and hopes for no follow-up questions. This would be fine, I suppose, if I spent all my time in New York, but in reality I divide the year between two (sometimes three) cities — New York being one; the other about 8,000 miles away on the Arabian Sea; and the third tossed in the Indian Ocean another 3,000 miles away.
I wasn’t born in New York, or in any other brackish grey, sleepy suburban small-town that lives in the shade of the Big Bad City. I wasn’t born in the United States at all. I grew up under the spell of The Velvet Underground and Nico and other records borrowed from the strange libraries of Lane Kim and Peyton Sawyer. I saw a Jane Street sunrise before I lived it, inhaled the fetid streets of Chinatown before I walked them. I studied the stigma New Yorkers attach to New Jersey, suspended in an air-conditioned apartment on the equator, only choosing to face the tropical sun when I went to school, or when I went to see the occasional “Alternative” band (read: Muse, Saosin, Incubus, Placebo) a local promoter brought to an indoor tennis stadium.
A regular night in Brooklyn finds me guzzling down one of those surprisingly decent German beers you shouldn’t find at DIY venues, in preparation for the excruciating exchange that is to follow when somebody snares me into polite chit-chat. Where are you from? It’s not that I’m embarrassed; in fact, discussing my background often buys at least five minutes of amusing banter, enough to break the ice in an otherwise awkward situation. But I know the moment a place that isn’t Philadelphia, Seattle or Florida leaves my mouth, my lifelong efforts to masquerade as an acolyte of American culture will be undermined. The answer will redefine how I’m seen: a few syllables away from a barrage of questions concerning my complexion, my “accent” or lack thereof.
To reveal I was born in India is to open the sluice gates to further investigation–Do you eat beef? Which God do you pray to? Do you enjoy the singing/dancing/ overall merriments of Bollywood films? How come you’re not, like, dark-skinned? To which I used to answer, “If you’re paying”, “To whomsoever listens to me during turbulent flights”, “No”, and “Fuck off”, respectively. Over the course of a minute, I would somehow become the emblem of the mystic, both Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi (though they are a dying breed now– we now have a whole gamut of godmen either busy repackaging the goodness of ancient India into two-minute insta-noodles, shooting song-dance sequences on celluloid, or languishing in jail on sexual assault charges). Sometimes I try to fight my disdain for the boringly ethnic and indulge said inquisitions with made-up accounts of religious psychosis. Give the people what they want, right? But most of the time, I take the short route and answer the question with the name of the country I was brought up in — Indonesia.
Typically people aren’t too sure where Indonesia is, but an educated guess often places Indonesia somewhere between Russia and Malaysia (though I’ve been told before in drunken certainty that it is in Vietnam and even, amusingly enough, in Bangkok). If they continue staring at me like I’ve just told them I’m from another planet, I tell them it’s the country mentioned in Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, and they shy away.
Uprooted from home, banished from their adoptive country, people with a divided identity are invariably condemned to these moments in exile. Growing up as an expat in a country with a sizeable multinational population, my sense of misplacement was taken for granted. With round eyes, a pronounced nose and an Indian name, I was branded an orang asing, relegated forever to the existence of an outsider. But I was too young to digest any of this. I unwittingly flocked towards children of second-generation immigrants– Chinese and Filipino younglings, “once removed” from the dust and struggle of their parents. We had our teen-magazine subscriptions, our mothers’ imported US Weeklys, the largest bootleg DVD market in the world, and most importantly, the Internet. Swept away from our natural habitat, not yet transplanted into the local culture, we had to forge our own little, culturally communal identity.
Together it was easy, if not natural, to douse ourselves in the Next Best. American culture was not only linguistically viable, but also contagious. Episodes of “The O.C.” and “How I Met Your Mother” became our cafeteria conversation fodder for years. In retrospect, we were the first wave of fanfiction writers, implanting ourselves in MTV reality programming, discussing who we’d like to have perform at our birthday party if we were on “My Super Sweet 16” over a shared plate of mie goreng. Keeping this ill-fated fantasy alive, it became particularly easy for me to ignore the differences in our appearances, easy to ignore the subtle reminders that I did not quite belong. Our own differences seemed trivial when we were all emulating something astronomically distant. Whether we were Southeast Asians or South Asians did not seem to count at all. Or at least it didn’t till the Gossip Girl obsessives graduated from bold headbands and shoes more expensive than our tuition to blepharoplasty surgery. Disturbed, I assured myself I was different: my connection to American culture wouldn’t lead me there. I took my cues from Seth Cohen, knowing the worst he could do was turn me on to Bright Eyes and Chuck Klosterman. And that, he did.
Later I found myself in Syracuse, pursuing my love for American media at an academic level. Though I was farther from New York City than I intended to be, I was happy sharing an alma mater with Lou Reed. At Syracuse, I confused a lot of people–a transitional problem I later self-diagnosed as the American equivalent of a Cockney accent. On a superficial level I sounded American: I rolled my ‘r’s and said “like,” like, a lot. I spoke fast and squeezed in esoteric references I picked up from Amy Sherman-Palladino, hoping to come across as I always imagined Americans to speak. After monitoring me closely for a week, my new friends handed me a list of instructions: “says” rhymes with “Fez”, not “pays”; “squirrel” is pronounced “squirl”; “I’m down” really means “I’m up for it”; “Nickelback is the Antichrist”, etc. Migrants who live to tell are survivors–quick to grasp, eager to adopt.
I came back home to Jakarta for my first winter break a high priestess of Americanese. I showed off my newly acquired jargon to my high school friends in a patronizing lilt–after all, I was the only one living our collective dream in America. I could hear myself sounding obnoxious, pathetic even, but I couldn’t help it; my horse, for the first time, ran farther than theirs. I spent the month watching Noah Baumbach films and re-reading Peter Criss’ Makeup to Breakup — I was in limbo, finally beginning to realize the curse of the immigrant: the inability to be anywhere without feeling like you belong somewhere else. It is an incurable, terminal homesickness, only you don’t any longer know precisely where home is.
When I went back to Syracuse, I got more involved with college radio, became self-conscious, and neglected my prerequisite courses, choosing instead to iron out the quirks in my “radio voice.” I maniacally taught myself to eradicate the soft ‘t’ out of my diction and emphasize a hard “th”; to say think, instead of, think, which stood the risk of sounding more like “tink”. With practice, I rid myself of the Indonesian tendency to pronounce ‘v’s like ‘f’s, and in turn, the Indian tendency to pronounce ‘v’s like ‘w’s. I maintained a Moleskine in which I listed newly learned, now laughable terms like “trill” and “sick”.I thought I was finally amongst people I could relate to and understand, and I didn’t want them to change their minds about me.
By the first glimmer of spring, my American friends and I were inseparable. We weathered several snowstorms, exchanged ghost stories, stoned in the cemetery, proof-read essays on world music in daylight, and sent drunk texts to romantic interests after dark. The year culminated in a particular Blood Brothers evening spent tattooing each other with sterilized needles dipped in a stolen pot of India Ink. I remember feeling like I belonged. I decided not to go home that summer, or the summer after that. It was hard for me to acknowledge, but the idea of going home had begun to frighten me. I felt like I could lose everything I had become — as if I were an onion, destined to be peeled, layer after layer, until there was nothing left.
In the Fall of 2014, I was acing my classes, had put together a decent resume and had a tightly knit coterie of friends who accepted me. I was learning to accept myself, too. About a week or so after this process of self-actualization, I found out that my parents were leaving Indonesia for good. This time around, I was to call a new address home. In India.
We were, what you call in India, a “nuclear family”, exempt from the social conditioning and reasoning of unwanted advisors that make up your extended family. Coming back after more than a decade, after having grown up and become my own person, I was not comfortable being answerable to a host ofpeople I didn’t know– Why did I speak with an “accent”? Why did I talk the way I did? Why was I not majoring in a subject that wasn’t music business? When would I come back? Neighborhood whispers labeled me a confused girl strutting about in borrowed plumes. I wasn’t born in America, and I wasn’t, in any way, confused about my relationship with India. I was a militant. The people criticizing me were filled with rage because I couldn’t hold on to a culture I didn’t experience. My “accent” had become, to them, a sign of hijacked imperialism, a profession of superiority.
My frustration escalated to tears over a family dinner one day when I was discussing an article about Chennai flight fares in the newspaper with my uncle. I was disturbed to hear a wicked laugh from the other side of the table, and I knew why. “I’m sorry, did I not pronounce a particular word to your liking?” I shouted. I asked him if his American-born niece would have sparked such a reaction had she pronounced ‘Chennai’ the way I did. He tried to justify himself: “But you weren’t born in the States, you were born here!” I left the dinner table in fuming haste.
Could I not be part of a culture I wasn’t born to? I wondered. Was I supposed to unlearn who I was and what I knew to fit the Indian societal perception of who I should be? How could I, an Indian-Indonesian hybrid and American pop-culture obsessive, fit into “my” culture? What even constituted “my” culture? And why should anybody besides me set my cultural parameters?
It felt like India rejected me as the body would alien tissue, spitting me out of its rickshaws and heckling me relentlessly for my rusty Hindi. I was prey to the streets of Mumbai, where oncoming traffic from every direction threatened to devour me. When I finally got a call from a Manhattan-based artist management company, I was happy to pack my bags and jump onto the next flight out of the country to start my new internship.
Yet I wasn’t completely at home there. My boss called me “Laura” and repeatedly described me to others as “the girl who looks like Vanessa Hudgens” when the only things we have in common is the color of our skin and a chin dimple. But it still seemed better than the alternative. Being in New York allowed me to be who I really was, and any other city I knew was, by comparison, stifling. In New York, when somebody asked me too many questions I didn’t want to answer, I could throw my hands in the air and walk away, and that would be that.
Of course, the questions kept coming. No matter how many Sundays I spent salting my popcorn with tears at Film Forum, it was always Bollywood that I was quizzed about during interviews. Slightly disappointed faces would meet my gaze when I’d say that my family moved away when I was too young to remember. It seemed arbitrary to me–I was interviewing for a job in the American music industry, so why was my heritage dragged into question? When would all the work I’d done here–the classes I’d attended, the (mostly) unpaid internships I’d slogged through, the books I’d read, the records I’d listened to, the films I’d seen, the shows I’d been to, be enough? When would they start to think of me as one of them?
My friends, both old and new, were envious when I told them I was leaving New York one summer to partake in a research project at a Maharashtrian media company. I took the job mainly because it entailed vast travel opportunities across the subcontinent–I wasn’t going to find God, as some of my friends wished me to, but perhaps I would find myself. On the road in Rajasthan, fatigued, I listened to Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Said” over and over — first thinking, then overthinking, then singing along, and ultimately blubbering until the song began to feel incongruous in the sands of the Thar desert. I was the Frog who dreamt to be King, surrounded by literal camels. I wanted to take Neil by the collar and yell at him: Being lost between two shores seems easy by comparison! My story doesn’t even rhyme! “India’s fine, but it ain’t home/ New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more/ and I spent all these years waiting to leave Indonesia but now I’m missing it too.”
I caved in and switched to AM radio for the rest of the trip, making a conscious effort to naturalize myself to the surroundings. Serendipitously, in a ramshackle raddi shop I came across an early ’80s disco record in a tattered sleeve. On the sun-scrubbed cover was a duo clothed in all-white, illuminated in neon blue. I couldn’t suppress my laughter, couldn’t wait to show my friends back in New York that the 80s universally were a disastrously packaged era in music. Back from the trip in Mumbai, I dropped the needle and listened closely to Young Tarang in my room. It teemed with Blondie bass lines and Carpenters-esque overdubbing. My father, who heard me listening, barged in– “Are you listening to Biddu?” He told me “Biddu” was the producer behind Disco Deewane, a real rage in India, over a hundred million feet tapped to its beats daily. He stepped into the scene with a band called The Trojans, sprung from the first wave of Beatlemania in Bangalore, and then moved on to produce a band called The Tigers in Japan before finally settling down in The U.K. Repulsed to think that seminal Bollywood disco was based on the aftermath of the American 70s, I labelled Biddu a plagiarist. I brought the record back to New York and gifted it to my former boss as an ironic token souvenir. I passed on the story. “Hey, I know Biddu. He produced “Kung Fu Fighting!” said my former boss, to my surprise. “He’s on NME’s list of 50 Greatest Producers.” I felt strangely confused, but a little less intimidated by the future. If Biddu from Bangalore could make his differences work for him, transplanting mystical elements from the East into the West, and importing technical sheen from West to the East, why was I letting my differences hold me back? I have a brown body and an American rhythm and like most Indonesians, an over-familiar inclination towards people. I just had to find a way I could use these differences to my advantage.
As of now, my paperwork restricts my working opportunities in the U.S. I have to travel on a tourist visa to visit my childhood home of Indonesia. After years of being an official Non-Resident Indian, I am still to get the right to vote in my country of birth and yet I feel more at peace with myself than I did before. I haven’t quite become Biddu, but the questions of identity that once troubled me have begun to define me. Who am I? I sphere three different worlds, orb three different cultures, my body placed firmly in the center. My soul spinning around these three worlds in elliptical orbits: I’m privileged enough to listen to The Soft Boys, review a Ryan Adams cover album, name a dog of Croatian descent after a Steely Dan song, and tear-up during a Hindi biopic about Neerja Bhanot. I get to love kopi luwak, ginger-infused chai and promotional cappuccinos from the pop-up cafes on Bowery equanimously. I get to speak three languages (albeit all with a slight foreign accent) and ameliorate the pronounced physical distance from my homes with an Internet connection. Most importantly, I reserve the rare privilege to mock Americans for taking geography lessons from ironic Alex Chilton lyrics and Indians for thinking Madonna is British. I’m not going to be none, I’m going to be all three.
Originally published at the-toast.net on May 17, 2016.