The “Other Asians”

“Japanese?” “Korean?” “Thai?” “Mongolian?” “Vietnamese?” “Cambodian?” “Filipino?”

I shake my head after each guess at my ethnicity. Usually, my patience would cave in and I would tell people my ethnicity before they could guess further. However, this boy is more globally-minded than most and would be able to put a name to the cluster of islands lying between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the place I call my second home.

His brow furrows deeper.

“Indonesian?”

“Yeah,” I finally nod my head.

“No, you’re not,” the other boy interjects, his protest ringing with conviction.

“Yes, I am,” I reply, a slight hint of amusement seeping into my voice at the irony.

“But I have a friend who’s Indonesian and he’s way darker than you,” he protests.

I smile a little.

I happen to be acquainted with the boy in question — the only other Indonesian in the school with more than 2,000 students.

“Well, that’s because I’m also Chinese,” I admit.

“See,” he retorts with an air of satisfaction.

While the particular incident was in good jest, it wasn’t the first time I’d been hard-pressed to explain myself: Chinese or Indonesian?

It’s difficult enough to be a “hyphenated American” (i.e. Chinese-American), but to be double hyphenated (i.e. Chinese-Indonesian-American) adds on a whole new layer of confusion.

On Cultural Day in elementary school, I was embarrassed to bring in an Indonesian flag and a platter of delicious homemade perkedel (mini potato patties) because no one knew what it was. Whenever I talked about Indonesia or being Indonesian, I received blank stares.

People would take one look at me and ask, “are you Chinese?”

“Basically, yeah,” I’d say.

And that was it.

It wasn’t a lie, after all. It simply wasn’t the whole truth, and my younger self was too impatient and too shy to explain the whole truth. I wasn’t particularly proud of my Chinese heritage either, but at least it was something others could more readily understand.

So I allowed the seemingly innocuous half-truth to consume me.

At times, I almost forgot that I was Indonesian. Only I couldn’t really forget, because I came home and ate bami goreng, spoke Indonesian to my grandma, went to Indonesian church, and the glossy pictures on the wall clearly depicted a childhood in Jakarta. At nine years old, I couldn’t foresee the harmful implications of neglecting an important part of my identity in conversations.

My naive nine-year-old self yearned most for so-called “colorblindedness,” a perfectly rosy world devoid of questions formulated by stereotypes and my skin color, such as “do you speak Chinese?” (almost none) and “so Chinese food is your favorite food?” (yes, but not the sugary Americanized kind).

To be Asian was to be an outsider, so I tried to suppress my race as much as possible.

Truth is, when the general population hears the word “Asian,” it conjures up images of a select, few ethnicities: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and occasionally Indian thrown into the mix. And underlying this generalization is the widespread, American view of Asians as a monolith, rather than a diverse pool of ethnicities, narratives, skin tones, personalities, and every other factor that defines an individual.

To associate myself with “Asian-ness” was to melt into the mold; to reduce my complex individuality to stereotypes: nerdy, robotic, quiet, math-loving, inarticulate, and incapable of creativity and critical thinking.

Thus, to break free from the “mold,” it is imperative that we embrace more narratives that challenge a singular mindset, from the first-generation child of Laotian refugees to the third-generation Bengali-American.

I don’t know what it means to be Chinese-Indonesian-American, but I can certainly try to explain.

I am proud of my heritage. I believe that the presence of two hyphens does not signify a dilution in cultural ties, but rather a strength in cultural ties and their ability to persist throughout generations, ever since my Chinese great-great-grandparents arrived in Indonesia at the turn of the 20th century. It is the legacy of my ancestors’ perseverance and endurance in the face of discrimination. It is a testament to my family’s adaptability to new cultures.

And I can only hope to carry the torch onward, with pride.


This article was written by Quinna Halim and edited by James Noh.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Young Asian Leaders of America.

To contact or get involved with Young Asian Leaders of America, visit yalamerica.wordpress.com.

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