I loved Hong Kong Supermarket. The chain’s few locations were scattered around New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania – ours was half an hour away, in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and a quick Google search shows that it closed for good three months ago. There was a counter there for freshly cut slabs of pork; on the other side of the store was a rack dedicated to chewy beef meatballs which we’d eat three apiece with Indomie. My brother and I would run past the tanks of fish while pinching our noses and flapping our arms, pretending to swim through the aisles, and before checking out, we’d stop by the tiny bakery at the front of the shop and purchase Swiss rolls and slices of cake. The half-hour drive there felt like an expedition to Indonesia itself – one as exciting as a trip to Six Flags.
As with any vacation, we toted souvenirs. Snacks: a cartful. Hello Panda biscuits, Chelsea Butter Candy, Calbee Shrimp Chips. Haw flakes, Yan Yan, dried squid strips. Things we’d never find in the single cramped ‘International’ aisle of most other supermarkets. We didn’t leave the store until our cart was too heavy to push smoothly.
It was unthinkable that moments like these might one day end. In those years we would gather in the kitchen afterwards and enjoy a distinctly Indonesian dinner: the pre-packaged saus kacang smelled otherworldly, and as Mami roasted the chicken to go with it, Papi peered closely at the spikes of a durian as large as my head. How terrifying! With a knife, he cracked it open section by section, its buttery scent wafting through our home. Whenever I ran past the glass curio cabinets while waiting for my parents’ summons to the table, I could recognise some aspects of that distant country on my own face, a blur of colour. It was breathtaking, I knew it.
Gado-gado. Ovomaltine. Fried singkong and tempe. Teh Kotak. I didn’t grow up on these; like the sate nights they were random luxuries, bringing snap-second moments of validation that dissipated just as quickly as they arrived. Though I loved these dinners, they frustrated me. My mother was to blame: why cook Indonesian dishes without passing them down to us? Why converse in Bahasa Jawa without slipping it into our own mouths? Why compare my American childhood to her Indonesian one if she was never going to divulge the entire history?
The half-hour drive to Hong Kong Supermarket felt like an expedition to Indonesia itself.
You can imagine my happiness during the months my grandmother came to visit from Pekalongan. Everyday, we’d eat opor and stir-fried, garlic-laden vegetables and rawon and soto. During the months she visited, the kitchen – otherwise rarely used, and yet always dirty – was filled with the scent of freshly fried red onions.
She scolded me every morning.
‘Learn the language.’
‘You must know how to cook.’
That’s right – home. Where was that, exactly? I couldn’t recall.
Her presence in our house temporarily affirmed my own Indonesian identity, and I felt guilty for not returning with her to ‘the homeland’. I had no doubt it was beautiful and rich with culture – that it could provide me what the burgers, star-spangled flags, and school buses here could not.
Indeed, when she left I wept – not because I missed her, but because she’d abandoned me and forced me to continue drifting in murky waters, searching and failing to find a sense of self.
Whenever new friends asked me about my heritage, the only answer I could supply was that I was born in Indonesia. I could’ve said, ‘I’m from Indonesia,’ or even, ‘I’m Indonesian’. But being from some place implies a connection, a cozy upbringing, fond memories. Birthplaces are mostly arbitrary; pinpoints on a map where your mother happened to be at the moment you arrived.
But – in my case, Indonesia was more than just a point on a map. I spent the first three years of my life in Jogja and Tangerang. There’s photo evidence of those months with my grandparents, Mak and Ngkong, as well as other people whom I no longer remember. I ate jagung bakar. I rode becak. I went to the pasar hand-in-hand with my grandparents. So why, as I grew up, did I always keep my distance from Indonesia, and strive so hard to become someone else?
Being from some place implies a connection, a cozy upbringing, fond memories. Birthplaces are mostly arbitrary; pinpoints on a map where your mother happened to be at the moment you arrived.
Was it because, after all that time, I was no longer able to speak Bahasa Indonesia? Or because I didn’t know how to cook my grandmother’s food? Because, having failed to remember my daily life in Indonesia, it seemed presumptuous for me to identify that way?
The international news reports and books I borrowed about Indonesia built this image in my mind of a poor country with little access to running water or electricity. I still remember an ad in my Yahoo inbox that read, ‘Many Indonesians only live on $1 a day. Donate now.’
After Mak left, I reminded myself that I’d done nothing to deserve an Indonesian identity. Claiming that, surely, was a process; I had to become worthy first by learning the language and the recipes and the history. I’d have to pay the toll, sit silently through the drive. Suffer. Sweat. Cry. Indonesia was too honourable for me, too holy and beatific.
For now, Hong Kong Supermarket was the closest I could get.
I often pointed to my mother’s avoidance of anything Indonesian when I wanted someone to blame for my complete assimilation into American culture. But thinking back, perhaps that wasn’t true. We spent just as much time at Asian supermarkets as we did at Costco and Pathmark. And though Mami’s soto or hamenworst soup weren’t daily affairs, I remember enjoying them on many different nights. We used our Kitchenaid to make nastar on the happiest weekends, and did it really matter if we weren’t celebrating Sincia, if there was no other family to share it with?
Where does Indonesia unfold? Within its geographic boundaries, or from the heart of its people?
Does the diaspora transmute her beyond recognition, or can she still thrive in some parts of these childhood scenes?
The news cycle paints Indonesia as a homely place full of kampung, dirty rivers, and traditional pasar markets, where cloves of garlic are strewn all over the floor and chicken is chopped right on the table, its neck snapped before your eyes. Acres of trash. Mountains, really, of plastic garbage and environmentally-unconscious jerks. No Wi-Fi, barely any clean water. I believed this image for sixteen years, and the first time my aunt brought up the idea of moving back, I recoiled at the thought of the dirt, the ‘monsoon’ seasons, and the slums.
Where does Indonesia unfold? Within its geographic boundaries, or from the heart of its people?
Imagine my surprise when my uncle sent his sopir to pick us up at Soekarno-Hatta Airport a month later. Sandwiched between my grandmother and first aunt, I caught glimpses of motorbikes and crowded convenience stores. Approaching Ngku’s house in BSD City, we passed by a sprawling Giant Hypermarket, one of the larger supermarket chains in the country. Where were the rice fields I was promised? The wild chickens? The impromptu Balinese dancing? The goats feeding on grass by the side of the road? I searched for the homely elegance and could not find it.
There are no ‘Asian’ supermarkets in Indonesia. No Hong Kong Supermarket, no H Mart. They are simply supermarkets, and no matter where I go they all sell tempe and santen and bumbu soto. I never have to ask a cashier for help when making opor, because daun salam and kemiri and lengkuas are all readily available. Even 99 Ranch Market, one of the Asian supermarkets we frequented after our move to Texas, feels run-of-the-mill here.
After discovering I was from the States, people would ask all the time, ‘Isn’t it so different? Why would you ever come back? Indonesia is so out of date.’
But that’s what bothered me. With its air-conditioned trains, rowdy buses, and the convenience stores that ran like clockwork, the terrible traffic and glitzy upscale restaurants and bookshops, Indonesia often felt just like home. Faster and more modern, even. There were plenty of cities, and Wi-Fi hotspots and cellphones were everywhere. Whenever I looked out the window, its visage was completely unrecognisable from the humble pastoral images I’d been fed – and to my surprise, this angered me.
It took me nearly a year to come to terms with the strange disappointment I felt. I’d come to Indonesia thinking I could share my knowledge, my English, my ‘cultured’ perspectives and that, in doing so, I could save myself. But I was not saving anyone by coming home. Indonesia didn’t need saving in the first place. Indonesia didn’t need me at all.
For months I avoided the supermarket, mostly because it was where I felt most strongly that the world I’d arrived in was indifferent to my presence. I was not special. I was not brilliant. And neither was Indonesia. I struggled to find wonder at every turn, and forced myself to climb the steps of Borobudur and visit water temples and shovel ‘authentic’ food into my mouth in my search for the country I’d dreamt of. The frustration felt good, like I was making progress against old feelings of inadequacy.
But I kept returning to that same question: where does Indonesia unfold?
Had I been searching in the wrong places?
The trips I went on and choices I made – everything down to the way I spoke and behaved – were performances; hollow caricatures of the life I’d expected to live. Denial is strong and sharp; it took me months to acknowledge that, out of my own desire to feel unique, I’d used Indonesia to romanticise myself.
I’d come to Indonesia thinking I could share my knowledge, my English, my ‘cultured’ perspectives. But I was not saving anyone by coming home. Indonesia didn’t need me at all.
Coming to terms with one’s identity requires seeing with eyes unclouded. The countries you claim are not perfect; they are rife with history and conflicts large and small – their pasts are bloody, their people make mistakes, prejudice lives on. This is as true of Indonesia as it is of America, or Australia, or any other country. The fact that they are different does not absolve them of wrongdoing; it also doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad.
In recent months we’ve done our daily grocery shopping at the pasar, but if I encounter a supermarket’s sprawling aisles I will often wander inside.
Hypnotised by the neatly-arranged disarray and the overwhelming variety, I often find myself among the Kellogg’s cereals, reading the nutritional values. I embrace the ordinariness of their presence: the numbers; the sound of the rattling contents; everything down to their cardboard boxes. They remind me, perfectly, of my past selves.
Living requires no great deception on our part, really: it’s simply a matter of resisting the notion that we must be extraordinary in order to be worthy of who we are. A bloodline may make you royal, but it does not imbue you with a kind heart. Several countries may flutter within your chest, but they do not grant you transcendence.
With the passage of years Indonesia’s dust has settled in my mind. Every few days we stop by Indomaret to buy sliced bread, some Teh Kotak, a few bags of potato chips. We dip our feet into the community swimming pool when we’re lucky, and watch the news with mild apprehension. Some evenings we’ll cook the recipes I’ve finally learnt from my grandmother, and other nights we order McDelivery. The little details have changed, but the overarching story – a family doing its best in an uncertain world – does not.