Laurent Widjaya: Making a new home in Philly


“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

– Mahatma Gandhi

We’ve been lucky in this country that we have not had a major conflict on our soil for quite some time. Other places are not so fortunate. This week, we speak to a person who has had firsthand knowledge of what violent upheaval and poor immigration policies can do to a family.

PGN: So where are you from?

LW: I’d like to say from Philly, but I actually immigrated here in 2002 from Indonesia. I came here to study at the Art Institute.

PGN: Oh, cool. What were you studying?

LW: Multimedia and web design, and I ended up with a graphic-design degree.

PGN: How did you end up at the Art Institute? It’s kind of a long commute from Indonesia.

LW: Well, my parents came here in 1998 because the situation was not great in Indonesia. There was an uproar and during the May riots of 1997 in Indonesia they were …  I shouldn’t say hunting, but they were looking to attack Chinese-Indonesian people, especially women. It was genocide and the city I came from, Surabaya, is the country’s second-largest city, so it really exploded there. People were looking for safety and spread to different parts of the world; some went to Malaysia, some to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, things like that. My parents went to Philly.

PGN: I think it’s hard for us to understand what goes on around the world every day. We have problems here, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be under siege in your own city.

LW: I remember I was about 13 or 14 at the time and our school was closed for several weeks after the uprising. I got to witness firsthand how cruel people can be to another human being. My friend’s brother was a journalist and he went out in the middle of everything and took photos. He had two thick albums of pictures that he brought to school once it reopened. I won’t get too graphic but it was horrible. They were looking for women to rape and kill. And they weren’t just raping women with their body parts but also using objects to accomplish the deed. Afterwards, they would kill the women and their family members. They would parade the heads or other body parts to prove that they had killed a Chinese person. They would loot homes and then burn them, oftentimes with the people inside.

PGN: So awful. And this was going on around you?

LW: Yes, yes. Mostly in Jakarta, but in Surabaya as well. I went to a private Catholic school and they were known for having a lot of Chinese-Indonesian kids, so we would have been a big target. Luckily, our head mistress found out about what was happening and closed the school ahead of time. They put guards outside the school and were able to keep it from being ransacked.

PGN: That must have been terrifying.

LW: It was. We had the advance warning that something was going to happen and when they closed the school, we just had to wait at home. Fortunately, the people in my area, village or whatever you want to call it, protected us. They put barricades on both entrances to our section and told people that there were no Chinese people living inside. The purpose of the people committing the genocide was to find people of Chinese descent and wipe them out.

PGN: I remember I did an interview with Laurentius Purnama, who owns a salon in South Philly. He also was from Indonesia. His grandparents were Chinese and his family changed their last name because he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school if they knew about his Chinese side.

LW: Ah yes, there are a lot of Indonesians in South Philly. Do you mind telling me which city he came from?

PGN: (Note: The answer is Nganjuk in East Java.)

LW: But that’s good, that you know about what’s happened over there.

PGN: Yeah, I try to keep up a little. We get so complacent here and then when something does happen, like 9/11, we go nuts.

LW: Well, it’s hard when you’re used to peace and quiet and something disturbs that. Unfortunately, it makes the immigration problem even harder.

PGN: Definitely. So what were you into as a kid?

LW: It’s hard to remember, but I was into everything. I loved being outside and climbing trees. I was a little monkey. I remember my teachers always shouting, “Get down from that tree!” and I’d respond, “Why? I love it up here!” I know I liked to ride bikes too.

PGN: Any siblings?

LW: One older brother, he’s not here. I don’t have any family members here except for one cousin, who has her own family.

PGN: Oh, I thought your parents were here.

LW: Well, that’s where the immigration problems come in. They came here to find safety and a better future for us in 1998 but they failed to get immediate asylum status. They would have been detained and put in prison while waiting to find out if their status was approved or not, so my dad decided to take the family home. By that time, I had been here for a year and was in school, so I decided to stay. Sadly, because they had overstayed their visa, they received a 10-year ban. Since they left Indonesia when I was 14, I’ve only seen them for that one year in the states when we were together in 2002. That was the last time I was able to be with them in person.

PGN: God, we need better immigration reform. So, what made you choose to go to an arts school?

LW: When I was looking for a major, I’d already started doing a little web design in high school. My mom asked if I’d be interested in studying multimedia and web design because it was really coming into its own at that time. I thought it was a good idea, and learned a lot. [Laughs] I especially learned that I wasn’t that much into the web design, but that I really liked the fine arts and graphic design. I also learned film and video, editing, etc., which was pretty cool.

PGN: And I understand you’re a pretty good cook too!

LW: Yes, I actually started a catering business, Swadilo Kitchen. My business partner, Reeta, is from Nepal, and Swadilo means “delicious” in Nepalese. We started the business because we wanted to hold on to and share our cultures — the traditional ways of creating food before they’re lost. There are a lot of Nepalese refugees who came to the United States in 2007, and Indonesians have been here even longer. We need to make our food and remember it and spread cultural awareness. Not a lot of people know about the foods from both these countries. Would you like to try some?

PGN: But of course! (We pause while I sample a delicious dish called mayo risoles, made with smoked beef sausage, egg, onion and sweet mayo, and try a special non-alcoholic beverage called Soda Gembira). OK, I would add this to my repertoire of meals!

LW: These are family recipes from Reeta’s home in Nepal. They’re from Lalitpur, not Katmandu. She too has not seen her family in a long time, so the recipes are a way to connect with home. My food is also a lot different from what you’d get in most Indonesian restaurants. I take the recipes from my mom and grandmom and add a modern touch.

PGN: Nice.

LW: It’s fun because I’m also getting back into my graphic design too. I developed our website and logo, business cards, all of that.

PGN: Any crazy catering incidents?

LW: Not really. We started in March and our first week we got an order for 540 momos, which are the Nepalese dumplings. We didn’t sleep for two to three nights trying to fulfill the order.

PGN: And what’s your day job?

LW: I work as an interpreter. I do legal and medical interpretation and translation. I’ll go from CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] to a law office, then back to a different hospital in the course of a day. I get to see a lot of blood and guts and body parts in my job; it’s kind of cool. For me it’s exciting, but my idea of fun is probably not most people’s! I love medical stuff. I’m fascinated by body parts and anatomy, anomalies and surgeries. Working in the emergency room as an interpreter, you get to see all of that firsthand. It’s probably not as much fun for the families, but I learn a lot!

PGN: Eeek, more power to you. So what do you think of when you think of Surabaya?

LW: The best memories are of going around by myself. Because my parents left when I was 14, I had a fake ID and they got me a motorbike so I could be independent. During the day, I’d do typical teen things — hanging out at the mall with my friends — but at night, I loved riding around, getting lost and finding my way back, exploring different parts of the city. There were a lot of parks, and I’d see gay or trans people going in — well, I assumed they were gay once I found out what it meant. The sad part is, I’d see waria or trans women go in happy and run out screaming because they’d been sexually assaulted or beaten. I understood as I got older that they were probably prostitutes or with someone they thought wanted to be with them, and things turned ugly.

PGN: There was a great movie I saw called “Tales of the Waria.”

LW: Yes, I was asked to speak when they screened it at the University of Delaware. There’s another good film called “Children of Srikandi” about FTM and gender-nonconforming people from Java Island.

PGN: When did you come out?

LW: I’ve told my friends this and it always tickled them. I have a brother who’s five years older than me. He used to have Playboy magazines he would hide in his closet underneath all his clothes, but somehow I still managed to find them along with some porn DVDs. They were Playboys from the ’70s, which weren’t as explicit as now. I learned a lot of my English from reading the stories in Playboy! It’s where I learned the words “queer” and “lesbian.” I thought, Hmmm, what’s this or that word? I’d go to the library and look them up. I’d read the definitions over and over and say, Ah, that sounds kind of like me but not really. But it’s the best that I have. And that’s when I came out to myself. I didn’t really like the word “gay” and didn’t really fit the word “lesbian.” It made me uncomfortable at first.

PGN: When did you start coming to terms with it?

LW: I tried to come out to a close friend at home first but it didn’t go well. They advised me to fight against it. I didn’t really come out until I came to the states. When I was at school I joined a gay alliance group. My parents were still here but I didn’t tell them. In fact, I remember going to my first gay Pride. I was volunteering for something and was terrified that someone was going to see me!

PGN: You mentioned that you weren’t comfortable with the terms gay and lesbian that you originally found. Tell me a little about your gender journey and where you are now.

LW: I felt like I was originally pushed into identifying as a butch lesbian. Most of my friends were the typical butch-femme couples. They were my introduction to the queer world here in the United States. They were all Indonesian and I think they weren’t quite comfortable themselves and didn’t quite know what to do, so they just followed the recipe that if you were butch, you had to be with a femme. Because I looked more masculine, I was pushed in that route but, for me, I can be attracted to both butch and femme women. But whenever I expressed interest in a butch person, my friends would steer me away. They would tell me that I was a lesbian but I preferred using the term gay. I didn’t exactly know why, and then I joined Hotpot! They really helped in the journey to finding myself and becoming comfortable with myself. I now identify as “he” or “they” for pronouns. They also gave me a platform for speaking about immigration laws and how they affect queer people, and specifically how they affect trans people. And that’s how I went from thinking, I’m gay to I’m pro-masculine. [Laughs] Right now there’s such an explosion of terms that I just picked one or two that fit me! I was debating between “genderqueer” and “gender-nonconforming” and I think the difference is that, with genderqueer, you can still be kind of femmy if you want and that’s not how I present, so I choose gender-nonconforming. And within that, the part I like most is that you don’t have to define yourself as binary at all; you can just kind of float. I don’t feel trapped in any kind of expectation. Then, I found out about trans-masculine and I was like, Yes! That’s me!

PGN: It’s funny, I’m a femme attracted to femmes and when I first came out, people also were like, “No, no no. You can’t do that! You’re a femme, you need to be with a butch!” So on both sides, we had people trying to dictate who we should love or be attracted to.

LW: It’s crazy, but I think it’s gotten better.

PGN: OK, random questions. What’s your go-to karaoke song?

LW: “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse.

PGN: Excellent choice of Winehouse. I used to sing that myself at Sisters. Top-three TV shows?

LW: Oh, I love to watch TV, so that’s hard. “Bones,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Orphan Black” and “Elementary.” Oh, and “Grey’s Anatomy” because of my fascination with all things medical.

PGN: Last book you read?

LW: It was called “Ash” by Melinda Lo A gay chick-lit book a friend lent to me.

PGN: Best birthday?

LW: That would be some years ago when I was at a Creating Change conference. My friends threw me a surprise birthday party.

PGN: If you were a natural element, what would you be?

LW: Air. I feel like I’m flexible enough to change and mold into something else and flow into different spaces.

 To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected]