Most of the women were immigrants. The stories in the news were about them leaving their countries in search of better opportunities for their children. The classic immigrant story.
Their children talked about mothers who spent all their time working, who they only saw on their days off, who never had time for leisure. They were working to give their children something they did not have, and for each one, it was something different.
I wondered if these women were dreaming of the moment where they could stop working. The moment where they finally saved enough money to put a down payment on that apartment, or to finish paying that college tuition for their children. To stop, to see their children have children, to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But that moment never came for them.
On that day of the Atlanta shooting, all attention was on these Asian women.
As I read the stories and interviews with family members, I recognized these women. I know them, they are in my family, they are in my community, their stories are etched in the faces of the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Indonesian immigrants I see in the Vietnamese markets on Washington Avenue, or walking down the street in South Philly. They are the immigrant labor that is the engine of this country, laboring invisibly, quietly.
The stories of how and why they come may differ, but they came to America because they believed in the American Dream.
The recently converted are the most zealous, and so it is with immigrants and the American Dream. Many do not question it, but they will learn one way or the other the reality of the Dream. That it is not for everyone.
The author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote this recently in an article outlining the history of anti-Asian racism in the United States and tying to it American Imperialism:
“[T]he US is a colonising country. The difference is that Americans call their colonialism ‘the American Dream.'”
We don’t think of America as a colonizing country, that is not part of our myth, but what is Manifest Destiny but a colonizing cry?
I had planned to write about what I found during my research of the HSP archives, but the events of March kept me frozen. Frozen in place in mourning and grief. The world seemed to be whirling around me, while I stayed put. Our group co-sponsored a vigil the day after the murders, but I was numb. It didn’t hit me until days later. I found myself mourning these women and all the victims of anti-Asian hate crimes all at once, mourning the experience of Asian Americans before me. The hope, and the crushing fall of the reality of the immigrant experience. The grief was overwhelming.
A few days after the vigil I got a message from the Free Library that three of the books I was interested in were available for pickup. Finally, I was looking forward to being able to see one of the archival materials in person.
One of the books I was able to check out was Asian American Experiences in the United States: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam and Cambodia.
I think about what is not in the archive. Glaringly missing are stories of Indonesian immigrants. Even though Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world, the largest archipelago in the world, and spans an area from east to west the same distance as the United States, we are not in many Americans’ consciousness.
The story of Indonesian immigration is similar, but mostly different than immigration from other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao, or the Philippines. The US did not fight a war with Indonesia, the US did not colonize Indonesia, what the US did in Indonesia was only recently revealed . It wasn’t direct and explicit enough to allow Indonesians to be able to immigrate here. Indonesians had such a hard time coming to the United States, I remember a joke that the elders used to say “We should have fought a war with America, then it would be so easy to come here, like the Filipinos and the Vietnamese.” So it is that we are scarcely found in the archives.
As I combed through the book and ruminated on the American Dream, I came upon this fitting excerpt on Page 53, in a chapter attributed to the oral history of Charles Ryu, a Korean American who immigrated to the United States at age 17:
The biggest disillusionment I had was that the American Dream is a lie…..all the promises of America are more of a dream and well orchestrated hoax than reality, for most Americans, even. America is not a freedom-defending democratic country, but simply a capitalist imperial force that does whatever it wants to do for its profit.
The women in Atlanta came for the American Dream. What was beyond their wildest imagination, and what they didn’t know, is that the reality of white supremacy would one day come for them. That the wars fought in their land, and their propaganda and values, would follow them to their new home, and was actually born here.
Copyright 2021 by Katherine Antarikso. All rights reserved.
Katherine Sarwopeni Antarikso (she/her) is an architect, artist, and activist. She was born in Jakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia, and moved to the United States at the age of 10. As an architect, she is interested in issues of equity in the design of urban spaces. She performs traditional Indonesian dance and writes poetry and essays focusing on themes of home, migration, and displacement. She is an activist for immigrants’ rights and is a founding member of Pejuang: Indonesian Social Justice Coalition.