Imagining and Filling in Lost Narratives

There have been a lot of times when this research process has been incredibly frustrating. I haven’t found what I wanted to find in the archives. I  have been worried that what I’m finding did not fit the narrative that I had in my mind, or the one that fits within this project. But I’m letting all that go, I’m letting the archives speak to me. One of the things that the archive is telling me is a story about erasure.

I’ve been looking for our people in the archives. We barely exist. I haven’t been able to find stories of Indonesian immigration to Philadelphia. Granted, we are the newest immigrant group, with most Indonesians arriving in Philadelphia after the fall of the New Order government in 1998, coming around the year 2000, and more coming after 9/11.

I have been thinking a lot about the oral histories of the Dutch born in the Dutch East Indies who immigrated to the United States in 1956. I’ve been thinking that I’ve spent too much time thinking about this piece of the archive, and that I needed to stop writing about it because I didn’t necessarily want to focus on this artifact. But the more I think about those oral histories, the more questions come up. In reading these stories, I wondered how many of these immigrants were what Indonesians call “Indo,”  an abbreviation of the word “Indo-European” to describe someone of mixed indigenous and European descent, usually Dutch. It’s not clear from reading the stories whether they were or not, since they all had Dutch names and the stories described the people as having Dutch parents, and Indos were classified as Dutch with full Dutch rights. Can one imagine though, that since the United States was their second attempt at immigration, that the initial immigration from Indonesia to Holland did not go so well? As the Dutch withdrew from their colonies, Indo-Europeans were left behind until the UN and the US applied pressure to the Dutch to allow Indos to immigrate to the Netherlands.

One of the most famous people with Indo backgrounds are the Van Halen brothers, whose mother was an Indo, and whose family immigrated first to the Netherlands, and then again to the United States to escape racial prejudice in Holland. When I first moved to the United States,  I recognized their faces as familiar. I noticed their features and wondered if they were Indonesian, but it seemed far-fetched, especially since they were not advertising their mixed heritage back then. Another famous person with an Indo background is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the blonde actor from Saved by the Bell whose parents were Dutch immigrants to the US, with a mother who was an Indo born in Bali and who identified as Dutch.  I remember watching this show as an immigrant kid, idolizing this blonde actor, the quintessential “all-American,” wondering about my place as a brown kid in America, through the lens of our inherited colorism, a leftover from colonization, all without knowing that he had an Indo background. What would it mean for an Indonesian kid at that time to know that one of their “American idols” was actually part indigenous? What would it mean in terms of belonging? 

We don’t think of these famous people as having indigenous ancestry, it is almost erased from their narrative. Why? Was it by design? Perhaps it was erasure of their native sides, were they separated from their native parent and grew up as Dutch? Indonesia didn’t exist when they were born, and as the islands transitioned into independence, they were left to choose which side they would be on. If they grew up with their Dutch parent, why would they consider themselves part of this new country?

Interestingly, the word “Indo” has transformed its meaning for some Indonesians, in our never-ending quest to shorten words or make acronyms, you will find many Indonesians now referring to the country and other Indonesians as  ‘Indo’:

‘Pulang ke Indo?’ – Are you going back to Indonesia?

‘Dia orang Indo?’ – Are they Indonesian?

I’m caught in between the old and new, to me “Indo” still means Indo-European, but the Indonesian language changes quickly and this new meaning will gain traction and soon the old meaning will be forgotten.

As I was ruminating on this issue of erasure of Indonesian ancestry, I went back to my saved searches in the Temple archives, and remembered a few photographs that came up when I typed in “Indonesia.”  In the archives was a photo titled “Pupils from foreign lands report for school opening. The description read: 

“Children who do not speak English greet their teacher, Mrs. Florence Wileman, at General George A. McCall Public School. Pupils are Doron Solomon, of Israel; Nadiesda Wdowitschenko, from Russia by way of Brazil; Joyce Stephen, of Indonesia, and Helgi Davis and his younger brother, Lawrence, from Iceland.”

“Pupils from foreign lands report for school opening,” George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center, 1960

I had initially dismissed this picture when I read the description, after all, the girl’s name was Joyce Stephen, not an Indonesian name at all. I only looked for it for a few seconds and filed it away. I thought she must have been the daughter of an English or American family who were born in Indonesia, and therefore irrelevant to my research.

But after thinking more about the Dutch immigrants from Indonesia from the NSC Archives, I brought up the picture again on my screen. I looked at the picture of Joyce Stephen. Even though her name definitely sounded English to me, in looking at her image, I saw Asian ancestry. Could she be part Indonesian? Had I found the answer to my initial question:  Who were the first Indonesian immigrants to Philadelphia? The picture brought up more questions than answers:   She didn’t speak English, did she speak Indonesian?  What was Joyce’s story? Was Joyce Stephen her real name? Was she adopted? Was she part Dutch or European?  Was she only in the United States temporarily? Did she stay in Philadelphia after attending McCall school? What happened to Joyce Stephen?

Besides the picture with Joyce Stephen, I found two more pictures when I entered “Indonesia” into the SCRC finding aid. One of these was a picture from 1951 titled “Foreign teachers visit.” The black and white picture shows a row of nine women and men linking arms with one another in front of a blackboard, with wide, toothy smiles. I immediately recognized the Indonesian traditional women’s dress, the kebaya, on a few of the women and a man wearing the signature black peci hat that President Sukarno always wore. The description read:

“Visiting foreign teachers don native costumes as they attend a meeting in the Board of Education building to compare various teaching methods”

“Foreign Teachers Visit”, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center, 1951

I’m reminded of a passage that I read in Richard Wright’s account of the Bandung Conference. On page 210 of The Color Curtain he writes about his conversation with a white American official in Bandung:

Seeking intelligent reactions to the meaning of Bandung, I found a highly competent official who met my qualifications on grounds of elementary honesty; this particular man was a reformed American of the Old South. His grandfather had owned slaves and he was eagerly willing to own up to what had happened in history and was most committed to try to do something about it. I questioned him, narrowing my request for information to the situation obtaining in Indonesia, taking that baby nation and its case of measles as my point of departure.

“Let’s start with Communism,” he said. “It’s no danger here,  not yet. What this country needs in order to make rapid progress is assistance; it needs it badly and in all fields. Above all, it needs personnel trained in modern techniques. Now, I’d advocate that we Americans ought to take about a hundred and fifty Indonesian students each year and train them… No political strings tied to that. In that way a body of trained and educated young men would be built up –”

The Color Curtain, Richard Wright, pages 210-213, photos by Author

It’s hard reading these pages in The Color Curtain, the discussion about education, interference, the growing fear of communism, western ideas of eastern societies, all a foreshadowing of the events of 1965


Another picture in the SCRC archives showed four foreign students in the International House near the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in 1977. The picture is titled: “Foreign students relax at International House.”

Foreign students relax at International House, Foreign students convene in the lobby of International House, 37th and Chestnut Streets. They are, from left, Hariani Santiko, Indonesia; Rita Dorairaj, India; Christine Jaki, France; and Anthony Ogbumkpi, Nigeria. George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center, 1977

Starting in the 1960’s with the passing of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the United States sent Indonesians to study at its universities as part of programs sponsored by a U.S. government agency called the International Cooperation Administration which later became USAID (United States Agency for International Development).

I wondered if the Southeast Asian teachers in Philadelphia were part of a USAID program. I searched for Hariani Santiko, the woman pictured in the International House picture and found that she was a Fulbright scholar studying archeology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, the year this picture was taken. She went on to write books about Hindu deities and the conservation of the Buddhist temple, Borobudur, in Central Java.

Looking at the pictures, along with reading the passages in The Color Curtain, made me think of my own family’s history with the United States; my mother’s father was sponsored by USAID to study in the United States in 1962, a fulfillment of the American official’s words to Richard Wright in 1955. There are a few pictures that I have seen of my grandfather in the US; he and two other men, in various settings around New York City, wearing their dark winter coats, tropical islanders in a foreign land, unknowingly sowing the seeds of migration in their children.

Sumarsono Mestoko, the author’s grandfather, center, and two unidentified men, circa 1962, photo provided by Author

I’m not sure the exact circumstances of his return back to Indonesia, but I was told he returned to Indonesia in 1965, the same year of the coup and counter-coup that would overthrow President Sukarno and bring the biggest bloodshed in Indonesian history as the military came into power to try to eliminate communism in Indonesia. My grandfather wasn’t the only student to be recalled home, President Barack Obama’s stepfather,Lolo Soetoro, was summoned home as well, and his mother later taught English to students being sent to graduate school in the US by USAID. The US educational project may have stopped in 1965 during the unrest in Indonesia, but it resumed again by the time my own father was sponsored by USAID to study in the US in 1974. Both my grandfather and father went on to teach in Indonesian Universities.

Visa application for the Author’s father, Antarikso Abdulrahman, 1974, photo provided by Author


Copyright 2021 by Katherine Antarikso. All rights reserved.

+ posts

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.