Serving in Indonesia, being Indonesian
My ethnicity had shaped my Peace Corps experience more than I ever thought it would.
I am a first generation American. My parents were only the second generation to be born in their respective countries of birth, so my family history is filled with stories of immigrants and different cultures. My dad was born and raised in Guyana, a country in South America, to parents of Chinese and Indian descent. My mom was born and raised in Suriname, another South American country, to parents of Javanese descent. Javanese people are the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, where I am currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In the U.S., people often assume I’m Filipino or they realize I’m part Chinese when they hear my last name is Chung. I’ve always identified as Asian-American since I feel like I’m a mixture of cultures, no one stronger than the other. But since coming to Indonesia I’m viewed as being strictly Indonesian.
Many people have asked if I specifically applied for Indonesia. I didn’t, but I knew it would be a possibility. Once I received my invitation to serve, I should’ve known my ethnicity would play a huge role in my service, but I wasn’t prepared for the actual impact. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I have the face of a Javanese person, something I never got in the U.S.
Every time I’m formally introduced as a Peace Corps Volunteer from the U.S., people don’t hide their surprise. They almost always utter the phrase “Lho, kamu seperti orang jawa!” which translates to “Woah, you look like a Javanese person!” And to be honest, I’m still unsure how I feel about it. When I look in the mirror, I’ve never seen that strong resemblance to family members on my mother’s side, so I’m surprised that people are so quick to make that connection. But part of me questions if people say that just because I’m not their idea of what a person from the U.S. looks like – tall, white skin, brown or blonde hair.
I heard comments like this a lot when I first arrived at my training site and permanent site. I was often overwhelmed when this happened since I lacked the language skills to explain. It was frustrating not being able to defend my identity and teach about American diversity. Thankfully, I’ve now gained the language skills to have those conversations with people. I tell them I look Indonesian because a hundred years ago I had family who lived on this same island. I explain that majority of the people in the U.S. are immigrants, so everyone looks different and has different family traditions.
This misunderstanding of my identity has been a challenge because of the constant explaining of my background I have to do, but it is also a blessing because I blend in when I’m in public. Other Volunteers in Indonesia have their pictures taken without their permission, or have strangers walk up to them asking for selfies on a regular basis just because they look like a foreigner. I’ve been lucky to not experience that because people see me as just another Indonesian. Blending in has allowed me to enjoy trips with my host family or teachers from my school without being hassled by strangers for pictures.
Being treated as someone who belongs when I am so far away from home is something I will always be grateful for, even if it’s because of a misunderstanding. It’s early on in my service, so I know the questions about my ethnicity will continue as I meet more people. But I’m happy to try and open people’s minds about how there is no such thing as “typical American,” just as there’s no such thing as a “typical Indonesian”. It’s not a task I expected to have before starting my service, but it’s something I will gladly take on throughout my time in Indonesia.