Dear Fulbright ETA of Color

~By: Anisha Tyagi, (2018-2019) ETA in Semerang~

Your role is going to feel impossible.

Though both the U.S. and Indonesia are extremely diverse, their diversities are different. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult to properly explain what it means to be an American of color to Indonesians. This is a new concept and a new way of understanding the world around them. I will argue that because of our limited language skills and near-complete lack of relevant in-country cultural knowledge, ETAs of color are ill-equipped to do this job. I won’t leave you on a depressing note, though. I’ve found some useful strategies I want to share.

Before I begin explaining, I want to define terminology.

Ethnicity is your membership in a group based on nationality and shared culture. Take my ethnicity as an example. I am American and Indian (yes, I’m considering American to be an ethnic group). I am American by nationality and culture. Most of my conditioning is American; I like to hold doors open, I ask “how are you?” and say “have a nice day” too much and I watched Bill Nye the Science Guy in school. I am also Indian by culture. My main diet is Indian food, I can almost never call older people by their first name and I am bilingual. As a mixed-culture kid, I do not have complete membership in either ethnic group. My accent when I speak Hindi is kind of embarrassing. My immigrant parents didn’t give me a typical American upbringing. The community that fits me best is the Indian-American community.

Race is how you’re placed into a group by other people. My race is Indian or South Asian. If I don’t open my mouth to reveal culture and language, I am indistinguishable from the people who live in the 2nd most populated country in the world. For instance, when I see Americans in Indonesia, I don’t expect them to walk up to me and chat about where we’re from in America. They walk by me because I’m only Indian to them. When Indonesians meet me, they sing Bollywood songs to me. They ask if I like living in India, even if I never said I’ve lived in India.

You determine your ethnicity based on your membership in a community, but you do not get to determine your race.

Indonesia has vast ethnic diversity. Javanese, Sundanese, Manggarai, Aceh, Minang, Batak, Balinese, Manadonese are all ethnic groups I’ve learned about in my limited 6 months in-country. But, with the exceptions of Papuans and other dark-skinned Melanesian-Indonesians, this is not racial diversity. Compared to the obvious difference between me and a white ETA, it is not straightforward to differentiate between a Sundanese person and a Javanese person. Also, the majority of all these Indonesian ethnic groups live in Indonesia. Even darker-skinned Indonesian ethnic groups, though discriminated against, can claim ownership of their homeland by virtue of their ancestors having lived on it. When they pulang kampung or “go home to their village,” they’re still in Indonesia. They are asli orang Indonesia or truly Indonesian.

Now, think of America. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian—I am barely touching the surface of Asian ethnicities living in the US. I could go on and on because at least 350 languages are spoken in the US. This is ethnic diversity like in Indonesia. A Mexican-American is Mexican and American. A Balinese-Indonesian is Balinese and Indonesian. But all these ethnic groups in America are also racial minorities. The majority of their race live outside of the US. Their races are not represented in mainstream American media. They have historically not had equal rights in the country. Both institutionally and socially, they struggle to claim America as their country. All this despite their community-of-choice being fellow diverse Americans.

For me “pulang kampung” is not going back to India. Because I am not just an Indian who lives in America, I am an Indian who is from America. Unfortunately for me, my ethnic group only came into existence a few decades ago.

^ This. This is what I have been unable to explain to the Indonesian people I’ve encountered. To be honest, it is also difficult to explain this to many Americans.

There is one similar example of racial and ethnic diversity in Indonesia that I know of. Chinese-Indonesians. If I were to talk to someone in Indonesia who accepted Chinese-Indonesians as Indonesian, I would have no trouble at all explaining to them that I am American first. Here’s the thing. I have yet to meet anyone who does.

Even my young, college-aged friends who study in one of the best universities of Semarang don’t believe it. They don’t feel prejudice against Chinese-Indonesians, but they’re still “the Chinese.” No one’s talking about how these Chinese people, whose ancestors moved to Indonesia long before they were born, who probably speak Indonesian better than they do Chinese, have a right to be Indonesian just like a Javanese person. Their ethnicity is unarguably Indonesian also, but in their case, their race keeps them from being accepted. They are immigrants. It sounds strikingly similar to being an immigrant and person of color in the US. Because immigrants becoming legitimate natives only works for white colonizers. Even though they were and are the minority in South Africa, they’re as South African as Black people. They came to America, and they’re more American than Native Americans.

Being an ambassador is tough for anyone, because no one person should represent an entire country. But the thing is, my fellow white ETAs have the ability to represent America. I do not. Indonesians learn about Americans from movies. People like me don’t even show up in mainstream American movies. I can’t come up with a script in Bahasa Indonesia that erases everything Indonesians believe about racial differences. Today, I learned how to ask, “Is someone planning something for Feb 20?”  Can I be expected to explain that different races can and should have membership in the same nation? Can I explain the difference between race and ethnicity? I could explain to my 6-year-old neighbor that stereotypes don’t work all the time—and this is the primary goal of white American ETAs. But I can’t convince an adult English-speaking teacher that I am as American as a white-skinned American. Where’s the proof? I’m short, brown, Indian-nosed. They know Indian pop-culture. This makes my job even more challenging. They haven’t seen people like me in American movies, but they’ve seen me in their beloved Bollywood movies. I thought I had my accent going for me, until my teacher said I had an Asian-English accent, which is pretty much bullshit. No such thing exists. My grant year has felt like a broken tape. Over and over again only talking about my race, rarely getting the chance to discuss my views on religion, politics, life goals etc. Rarely do I get to tell people I studied chemistry.

So, since clearly this is my primary job, how do I explain racial and ethnic diversity in the US as a Fulbright scholar? My program accepted me without Indonesian skills and then only gave me 2.5 weeks of language training. ETAs cannot apply for a 3-month language grant that is open to researchers. We get a modest stipend to find our own Bahasa Indonesia tutor, and I couldn’t find anyone able to fulfill that role. Gone is the option of me having somewhere near an intelligent discussion about this with non-English speakers (a.k.a. almost everyone I’m around). There wasn’t even an hour-long session that catered to just this issue. I spent weeks telling people I was “Indian-American,” only to realize weeks later that people believed I was half-white. I am grateful that Fulbright and AMINEF make it a point to sprinkle racial diversity into their American cohort. But to do so without properly training us is about as bad as not including us in the first place.

One time in class I had an activity where I showed real pictures from my American college. There were young women in hijabs, black women, Asian women, white women. I emphasized— “this is really an American school!” A girl pointed out my Chinese-American friend. “Miss, but this one is Chinese!” My teacher, a fluent English speaker with whom I had countless conversations, said, “see, in Indonesia, when we see Chinese they are just Chinese. But in America, that Chinese person is an American.” Unfortunately, this still reflected the marginalization of Chinese-Indonesians, but my job is to be an American ambassador. It’s the best teaching moment I’ve had and it took 6 months to happen. Because it occurred after I had learned (the hard way) not to call myself “Indian-American.” It was after I had learned quite a bit about Chinese people in Indonesia, and knew it was the best possible analogy. I didn’t have all this information and more during orientation. That’s precisely why I’m writing about it now.

Future ETA of color, you have a tough task ahead of you. Come up with short, medium and long answers, all in Indonesian, about where you are from. You will need them every day, and many times you will want to pull out the short answer. Especially every time you’re on the back of a motorcycle, which is not an ideal place for thoughtful conversation. Pictures are wonderful. If real pictures from your life showcase diversity, as well as white people for legitimacy, they will work wonders. Most importantly, expect to be hurt. I know that no one is asking me “where are you really from?” because they want to hurt me. They are curious. But it puts a question mark on who I am. And being an ambassador in Indonesia means you never stop being questioned. So, future ETA of color, I warn you that you will think quite deeply about identity this year. Please don’t put pressure on yourself to explain this to everyone. If I can convince 10 people that I am not just an Indian who lives in America, but an Indian from America, I’ve succeeded.

Despite the struggle, I assure you I am grateful to be living this social experiment. It’s been more about my growth than the growth of those around me.

I wish you all the best!



Indian-American with an Indonesian name

Constantly pushing when asked “asli dari mana?”

Note from the Editor-

This post originally appeared in

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