Michael Wijaya is a professor of mathematics at Bard High School Early College Queens.
How did you end up teaching at Bard?
To be honest, I really needed a job that would sponsor my H1b visa.The way it works, is that every year, there is a lottery in April, about 80 thousand a year that they give out, many many people want it. About 200 thousand plus people want it. I did it twice, but I didn’t get picked. So I had to leave my previous job. The second time, I got a job, my petition didn’t get picked, so I had to go home for quite a bit, four or five months, back home to Indonesia. The thing is the lottery happens in April and in a day they are all gone. So basically the only jobs I could apply for are the ones that are exempt from the cap. And so this job is the exempt from the cap.
Where exactly are you from?
From Indonesia, I grew up there.
How is it like growing up in Indonesia and transitioning into American culture? What are the differences you see?
Hmmm, yeah, for example when people ask, “How are you today?” Like when I was in college I stopped and thought about how was I doing today. Eventually I learned that it doesn't really matter. It’s a standard thing you answer. Or maybe things like that people use disposable mechanical pencils. In home at Singapore, you use mechanical pencils because they can be refilled. And nobody throws them away. Most people, here don’t have a dedicated eraser.
How is the culture in Indonesia?
I’m in a strange situation because I talk to my friend, [to them] I'm actually not Indonesian enough, from what I remember nobody asks how are you doing today, I guess that's different.
What was your experience like when you first arrived in the United States?
I spent a few days in NYC with my mom. You know, went to usual tourist places, the ship thing. What thing that struck me was the whole tip thing because in Singapore you just don't tip, in comes in the bill as the service fee. Those are the main things I remember.
How do you view the United States?
When I think about it , I guess its a place of lots of opportunity. And when you work hard you can get it. So for me I'm interested in mathematics and if you want to, there are summer research programs you can go to and yeah, lots of workshops and conferences you could go to and in university you can take so many math classes. You can talk to the professors and they are happy to talk to you and point you places. For me, the reason I left Indonesia [was that] I wanted to learn more mathematics, but there aren't enough opportunities to learn it. For example, the library just doesn’t have enough math books.
What do you miss about Indonesia?
I would say Bandrek. It's a really spicy drink. Also, Tempeh. I mean you can get it here but I don’t know how to cook it. It's a like a topical cake.
How was the transition from leaving Indonesia and working in the United States?
It wasn't so bad. I think that mostly because I was in academic environments. In the academic world you are kinda in a bubble. The people are nice and are pretty much the same, but I guess when you go outside it's different. Once I traveled with other people in a summer program from India to Chicago We made one rest stop and I just remember in many years here that, this worker wasn’t nice to me. In was in Dunkin’ Donuts and I don't exactly remember what he was saying but It was something to do with me being different.
How often do you experience that sentiment?
I mean usually in university, colleges and academic environments, people are accepting and encouraging. That incident just makes me think that leaving this bubble, people outside might be a different story.
What was it like growing up in Indonesia?
I went to a school where most of the students are ethnic Chinese. I guess that when I meet people in Indonesia, they will say that I’m not Indonesian enough because I don’t eat Indonesian food and I don’t really crave it. Maybe though, the way I speak Indonesian is really formal, like the way you learn in school. I rarely used it outside. So yeah, I'm probably not your typical Indonesian.
How do you think of yourself in terms of culture?
I guess I would say that I take a bit of everything. I mean even things like my accent, when I meet someone from Singapore they would ask “Are you from Singapore?”but the thing is I only spent four years there. I guess I have a Singaporean accent but it's not exactly Singapore. The food I eat isn’t exactly a cultural food. I just put together different things that fit my need. My friend told I don’t really fit in any place.
What would you say is the story of Wijaya?
I grew up in Indonesia until I was about sixteen then I spent four years in Singapore. Then I went to college in the United States then in my junior year I studied abroad in Moscow and Budapest to study mathematics. Then I went to graduate school, then I had my first real job teaching abroad for two and half years, and then I’m here.
Katharina Kempf teaches Spanish and Latin American History at Bard High School Early College Queens. Outside of the classroom she is the dedicated leader of Undocufriendly BHSECQ and the faculty advisor of BHSECQ's Dream Team.
Are you a first generation American?
Yes, my father is from Switzerland and my mother is from Germany, and I was born in the U.S. the first year that they moved here.
How do you think that background of your parents being immigrants affected you growing up?
I grew up speaking German in my household. My father is a German professor at Bard College, actually, and so that was my first language at home, and I didn't start to learn English before I had babysitters who would sing songs like “Baba Black Sheep” with me in English. And then I went to nursery school and I went with other kids with whom I spoke English. We also had really strong ties to my family--most of my relatives still live in Germany or Switzerland, so we were lucky enough to be able to visit them most summers for several months at a time. So I have really strong connections, still, with my family in Switzerland and in Germany, to the language, to the culture, and to the country in that way.
How does it feel switching cultures? Like, say you go to visit your family in Switzerland or Germany and then you come back to the United States, what differences do you notice?
So that's an interesting question because it's a question of being bicultural, right, where you have this deep knowledge of culture in Germany and Switzerland, and also [knowledge of] the U.S. from growing up there, living there, going through the school system there, working there. But I think the advantage of being bicultural is that you can see beyond just the one culture and you know that there are people who think differently, or who live differently, or who have different traditions. And you know it because that's a part of your life and a part of how you were raised and a part of your identity. And so I always think I feel more American than German or Swiss, but I also at times feel un-American by some of the traditions that my family has or some of the things that we do, and so I really appreciate having that background because I think it's what inspired me to be interested in other cultures, to want to learn Spanish, to want to travel, and to want to develop this deep knowledge of people who are not like me.
Have you ever lived in another country?
I have! I have lived in Mexico--I lived in Mexico for two and a half years, and I've actually had the opportunity [...] to go abroad a lot as an undergrad. So I studied French for six years, so I did a program in France one summer for a couple weeks, where I lived there to practice my French, and then I did a study abroad program about politics and human rights around the world. It was called “Rethinking Globalization,” and I traveled to England, Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico over the course of an academic year. And that was a completely life-changing trip because I had never really thought about Latin America; I spoke French, I hadn't really learned Spanish, but the night I arrived in Mexico, and we drove through the Zocalo to the hotel where we were staying, and I was just in awe of the buildings--which are actually colonial buildings--and just from that first night in, I was just in love with the country, and the cultures, and the food, and the people. And so that inspired me after graduating to want to move to Mexico to live there and to learn Spanish and to just spend more time there.
I have a story I can tell. My husband is from Mexico. I actually met him the first week I moved there; we met in a club. Between the two of us, there's a lot of cultural differences as well. He grew up on a ranch with eight siblings and his parents--they have a one-room building on this ranch. In his family you can see, his parents have very little schooling, his siblings have more schooling, most of them have some high school but I don't know that any of them have finished high school, and then the next generation, so our nephews and nieces, are now going to college. [They are] the first generation to go to college over three years. So very different, [my husband’s] background growing up on a ranch in Mexico and my background growing up on a college campus with my family who are professors and doctors and so on and so forth, and who have been able to travel, whereas his family is really rooted in their community there. And so that's an interesting growing and learning experience that I really enjoy--that we both enjoy, I think we have that in common--that we like to learn about people who are different from us, and we enjoy the opportunity to live somewhere else, somewhere different. Ruben is now in New York with me and we went through the visa process for him, and that was very difficult. In order to get a visa to come to the U.S. as a tourist from Mexico, you have to have a lot of money in your bank account, you have to own property, and you have to show that you have a good job that you will return to. And so Ruben had none of those things, and his family doesn't have any of those, so they can't come visit him in New York, [and] they wouldn't be able to get a visa. And so in order for him to come to New York with me, we had to decide to get married, so I got married young, and the first step is to get a fiancé visa. And you have to send all sorts of paperwork to immigration, very personal things. So we sent them information about how we met, letters from friends, that said we were a real couple that was in love, we sent them photos of our anniversaries, of our time together, of our families visiting Mexico, me visiting his parents, all of these things. And then we had to go to Ciudad Juarez, which is a city that the US state department does not recommend people visit, but that is the embassy they send you to to have an interview with someone there. Ruben had to spend four hours in the embassy having doctors appointments, being interviewed, and luckily he got the fiancé visa so he could come over to the US. So he had three months in the US, and within those three months we had to get married and we had to apply for a green card so he could stay beyond those three months. And it's a very expensive process, it's a very time-consuming process, and it's really not easy for people to come to the US legally. It takes a lot of work, and you have to have a lot of things in your favor. If I were not a US citizen, or a permanent resident, if I had some other status here, I would not be able to bring my partner over, so I'm lucky in that way that we were able to do that, but it is a difficult process.
Do you think that experience with your husband led to you wanting to be immigration activist and encouraging the start of the Dream Team and Undocufriendly--did that inspire you in that sense?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing that I love about the BHSEC Queens community is how incredibly diverse it is. And I love that we have students who have strong ties to cultures from all around the world and they bring that to the classroom and I think it's so incredible to be in a classroom of students who can talk about things that are happening in Nigeria and how that compares to things that are happening in Egypt, in Poland, and in Argentina. I think that it's really exciting to be a part of that community. And one of the things that comes with having such a wonderfully diverse community is having different statuses, different immigration statuses. And I think all of my students, all of you guys here at BHSEC Queens, work incredibly hard and are incredibly motivated and dedicated to your studies. But it's such a roadblock if you don't have citizenship, if you don't have a legal immigration status in this country. It's really heartbreaking for me as a teacher to see the kind of work that students do, the people that they are, and to know that because of that lack of status, it's hard to go to college, it's hard to exercise a career, it's hard to feel safe as a family or feel like you can access the support structures in the city--like things happen, going to the police, things like that--that's really hard to do if you don't have status. Thinking about that inequality, and wanting the same opportunities for all my students is what motivates me here to do the Dream Team. And for sure, my husband and I have friends who are undocumented, we have friends who have been in this country for a very long time without status, and I come from a small town, Red Hook where Bard College is, where there's a lot of farms, there's a lot of migrant workers, many of them from the same state as my husband, Ruben, who don't have papers. And so I was involved in some activity around immigration when I was in high school, and just knowing the kind of work that migrant workers did in my own community without status, is something that I remember, too, that has influenced this work.
Did you grow up with other students whose families were immigrants or were immigrants themselves, and did that help, having other people who understood being bicultural?
Yes, because I grew up on Bard College campus, I was good friends with the French professor’s son, who grew up speaking French, and there was another German family, and we were close family friends with them too, and we did some sort of German things with them. And so that was nice. But my town where I grew up is very white, and very conservative. So a much different experience from what you guys are having at BHSEC and one of the reasons I love living in New York City and I love working in this particular school.
So you mentioned some German things and before you mentioned Swiss culture as well--I was wondering what those aspects of culture might be?
One of the things I think, about me, is that I'm very frank. Germans are very frank, Swiss people are very frank, and they will tell you like it is. They won't do this sort of American sugar coating, saying things in a nice way. I think I am more frank than some of my family members but I do think that's a cultural difference where, in the US, people kind of beat around the bush, they don't want you to take it the wrong way, whereas in Germany you just say it like it is and that's that and everyone moves on. So that's maybe a less obvious cultural difference. Some of the things are traditions we have around the holidays, December 6 is St Nikolaustag, which is our St. Nick day, so when we were younger we would put a shoe outside of our door and Santa Claus would leave typically mandarins and chocolates and sometimes a little toy, so that's one tradition we observe. Another tradition we have is my favorite Swiss dish which is Raclette which is melted cheese, and is also a French dish, for Christmas Eve Dinner, so that's something I really enjoy, also. And we always watch the World Cup and we’re very proud of the German national soccer team!
When you go to visit your family, does your family, or can people in Switzerland or Germany tell that you were raised in America or do you ever encounter situations when they ask you about that?
Yes, so one of the things about being a heritage speaker of German is that my German is not as strong as my English. I've tended to use it just in your everyday life situations, the kinds of conversations you have outside of school. And I read and write in German as well, but I've never done that in a classroom or academically. So sometimes when I speak to my relatives, it's hard to find the words to express the ideas that I want to, now as an adult. Sometimes I have to talk around things or I use the wrong word and they notice that. There are also some customs that they think of as American that they will point out to us, things they will do that they think are very American versus things that are German, and some of those can be very stereotypical like eating junk food or other habits that are un-German. I’m trying to think of some, what do they make fun of us for? Oh, they talk about obesity! Like stereotypes that are not so great. But definitely you can see differences in how we were raised and how we've grown up in our culture.
What do you think it means to be American? What do you think it means to be German?
Ah, that's a really good question. So often, Americans like to say there is no American culture. America is a melting pot, this and that, you can't really identify what is American. Yes, you can. Go abroad, people will know you're American. They will identify things about you that makes them think that you are American. So I think that it's really important to be aware that there are definitely things that are very much a part of our culture, our systems of government, our institutions, our expectations on what we do, that are different from other countries. Like the amount of time that we work in a work week, which in Europe is shocking and outrageous. Or our prison system, which we learned about today [BLM Day of Action]--we imprison a heck of a lot more people than anywhere else. We have a very different outlook on prisons than other countries do. Our attitudes--[...] for example, customer service is very different in other countries. Here, the customer is always right; [... in] other countries, they think, you're not happy, whatever, go sit somewhere else. And so there are definitely things that I think are American. How would I define an American? I would say, I think...ooh that's a difficult question. I think Americans believe in dreams, they believe in the ability to achieve dreams, become someone that they aren't born...I think it's the American Dream, right, like you can change your circumstances, you have that ability. Whether or not that's true, I don't know. I think Americans also believe, or are taught to believe in the superiority of our government, of our lifestyle, what's accessible in this country, and we’re also very capitalist. Everything is about money and earning money, and earning more money. I think those are American things that are different in other countries. I think the Germans, on the other hand, are very close-minded when it comes to immigration, more so than Americans, and that if you're not born German, you can't become German, whereas you can become American even if you're not born American. And so I think that they are more closed-off, or they view their culture as more closed-off, you have to be a part of the club, and you can't really become a member. But those are tough outlooks.
Lennin Antunish is a year one at Bard High School Early College Queens. He helped establish BHSECQ's Dream Team and continues to contribute to the team as one of our dedicated leaders.
Where is your family from?
My family is from Ecuador, my father being from the Shuar tribe. My mom's traditional language is Kichwa, and she and my grandma talk in it, and make fun of me in it.
Did you immigrate here?
No, I was born here, but I’m from a mixed status family. So my parents came here illegally, and they took my eldest brother with them, who I think was 6 months old. My dad came here by himself for like a year to establish a foothold in the country and he worked odd jobs until he could find a place to call home. And then, after he settled here, I think originally he worked in Georgia and North Carolina, he told my mom to come over with my oldest brother and then they started living in Georgia.
How would you describe living in a mixed status family?
It’s interesting because part of my family dynamic is that we don’t talk about immigration and things like that. My parents are very closed off about that. So I didn’t really know that immigration was an issue until a couple of years ago when I found out that I was a part of a mixed status family because that topic was never talked about. It’s weird because my oldest brother, who’s one of my inspirations and one of my idols in my life, he’s a really intelligent guy and he got scholarships to colleges, but he couldn’t attend the colleges because of his immigration status. And so realizing how much of an influence immigration status had on them influenced me. My parents work tremendously hard, my dad works easily 12-16 hour days, and so does my mom, and they work consistently every week, even on the weekends. They’re sacrificing a lot of their time and money for our wellbeing, and that motivates me to pursue things that help their community and my community.
Do you feel like you relate more to the American experience or the Ecuadorian experience?
So when it comes to Ecuadorian cultural influence and American cultural influence, I’ve definitely been more influenced by American culture because my parents didn’t have a big emphasis on cultural traditions. All the traditions they followed by themselves, and that didn’t always translate into my family, and part of that is because they were always working so hard, so to build that cultural influence into our family environment was hard on them. So most of the time I’ll learn about our culture through watching them pray and do certain traditions that my dad has from the Shuar tribe and my mom has from being very religious. And also part of that is the food and the dances they have. My mom traditionally eats Ecuadorian food and makes Ecuadorian food. Like guinea pig for example, which is something that everyone is scared of, like everyone doesn’t like the idea of eating guinea pig. But my mom and dad always used to do that, and they still do it. And I saw that, but I saw it through a lens of American culture because most of my life has been in American school environments, and having American friends, and watching American TV and all of that. And I’ll see a glimpse of Ecuadorian culture if my parents will watch a certain TV show or do a certain practice.
Would you ever want to go back and visit Ecuador?
Yeah, definitely. My grandma recently started visiting New York City, a year ago. And she’d come over and she’d bring a whole new traditional idea system from Ecuador I wasn’t really used to, and she would talk in Kichwa, and I’d be like “what?” And she’d tell me stories about growing up in Ecuador and things like that. And part of relating to my cultural experience is that there’s a language barrier. I mostly speak English, and I learned Spanish through context, but having conversations about politics and race and growing up in Ecuador has always been hard because I’ve lacked the expertise in Spanish to have those conversations. So they tell me some really simple stories. She invited me to come to Ecuador and live like them, for example. So she was like, she has a farm, and she told me you’re gonna come and, you know, farm things, and eat handmade food. I’ve been thinking about it recently. She told me to come down during the summer, but I’m stuck at a crossroads because I’m working during the summer and I also have plans during the summer to go to Egypt, and Europe, and Paris. So it’s like what do I do? Do I go back and retrace my cultural roots, or go follow this American dream of doing things and being successful. You know? I think that’s always been the crossroads for me. Because, so many people look at their identity through their cultural lens, you know? I’m Ecuadorian and I’m American, but I’ve never looked at my identity through my cultural roots because it’s never been explained to me, it’s never been taught to me, and it’s never been a part of my life. And it’s kind of sad to say that because that’s coming from being in a mixed status family whose identity is Ecuadorian, and that’s their identity, but growing up in American culture, it’s a weird environment.
What do you think the differences are between your parents and your brother’s experience with American culture are versus your experience with American culture?
My brother definitely carries many of the practices and ideals of being from Ecuador, because there were four years of solely him and my parents, and they spent a lot of time giving that cultural life to him. And so he has a lot of those ideas from my parents inside him. For me, a lot of those practices disappeared because as much as they tried to teach me that, having two other brothers to worry about and also a sister, the line gets blurred from there. So he’s been more affected by Ecuadorian culture than I have.
What do you think it means to be bicultural?
I don’t know. I guess its having two different ideologies at a constant struggle. I guess that’s what it means to be bicultural, because you think about your life in America and you have these American idea instilled in you, but then you also have these ideas instilled by your parents, and part of growing up is learning how to find a balance between the two. I think that’s what it means to be bicultural, to find a balance between those cultures.
Do you see it as both an advantage and a disadvantage?
Definitely. Because if I were solely to grow up in American culture, then that’s the only perspective I have of the world, but growing up in this bicultural environment, I also see the world through my parents' experience, you know, to have a different perspective of things in the media. I guess it’s having two different ideologies at a constant struggle.
On February 9th, Bard High School Early College Queens celebrated an Immigrant Day of Action. One of our activities included interviewing students and faculty who were first generation immigrants or immigrants themselves. At our school, we posted a map with quotes from the interviews and string connecting all of the countries out interviewees emigrated from to New York City. We will be posting these interviews throughout the week to promote BHSECQ's Dream Team's Ally Week day and National Immigrant Resilience Day, which will be on Thursday, April 26. BHSECQ's Dream Team has worked hard transcribing these interviews over the past few months, and we hope you enjoy learning more about our community!
How many generations has your family been in the United States?
I am the first born on the mainland.
Since you’re from Puerto Rico, do you consider yourself and your family immigrants?
That’s tough. Culturally, I see us as different, but we are American.
How does it feel to be bicultural? Do you find yourself “switching” cultures depending on who you are spending time with?
I completely find myself switching around. I try to stay genuine as my own individual, but there certainly are the different perspectives that you can apply to both cultures.
Do you consider it a power?
Are there any specific parts of American culture and Puerto Rican culture that are different?
The most glaring difference that I’ve noticed is that the culture I grew up with, the Puerto Rican culture, is a matriarchal society. And in saying that we have often three or more generations in a house. So, that’s the biggest difference that I see as far as here in America with friends and what not.
What is your experience with American culture versus your parents experience? Are there different struggles or advantages?
The biggest difference that I’ve seen is, the American standard is to go out and make your own life and continue, whereas in the Puerto Rican culture we go out and make our own lives so that we can bring it back. It’s similar to what happened with my grandparents’ generation. In my grandparents generation, many of them came over during the big migration in the 50’s, and many of them went back in the 70’s and left their children, my parents, aunts, and uncles, here.
Do you think that ideology of going back to your family is better than the American ideology of continuing for yourself?
Yeah, I do. There’s nothing like family, and to leave your family behind is a tragedy, that’s the only way to put it.
Do you have a story about when your grandparents came over to the mainland of the United States?
My grandparents on my mother’s side came here because of the economy, The Great Migration of the 50’s. My grandfather left Puerto Rico as a butcher, he was an excellent butcher, but he couldn’t get a job here as a butcher so then he worked at the Domino’s sugar plant over in Brooklyn. And he lived right across the bridge and could see the plant. So that’s a vision and a memory from my childhood. Since my grandfather used to take care of me after school, I would look out his window and see the Domino’s sugar plant.
Do you go back to visit your family a lot?
Many of them actually live here now. Yeah, now the family I have in Puerto Rico are very distant relatives. They’re the Cortez’s.
When was the last time you went back?
Last time I was there was probably about 6 years ago.
How did it feel to go back?
I did see myself switching. I stayed very American, you know, and it felt awkward. It did. Puerto Rico economically is very different than New York. And you know, everyone was telling me “be careful, be careful”, and I didn’t feel like I had to be careful because I felt regular, but at the same time I felt the difference that I was an American in Puerto Rico.
What did they mean by be careful?
Crime is very high over there. Traveling from one place to the other, it’s not necessarily safe. So they wanted me to be careful, and I just couldn’t snap into that mode, I just couldn’t. Even though I felt different, I did feel like I was going home, because the time before that I spent the entire summer there as a teenager. When I first came in, I was the kid from America, and then by the end of the summer people were throwing rocks at my window telling me “come on, wake up, let’s go!” I became one of the local kids. It was a tremendous experience since I had so much family throughout the island I got to see the wealthy side, the middle class side, and the poor side.
What was being that age like in Puerto Rico? What was it like to hang out with the other kids?
We hung out at the park most often, or someone’s house. A lot of the times we would, traveling from one place to another, sneak into somebody’s backyard and eat some fruit, because in a tropical climate you had passion fruit that grew in this neighbor’s house, and the house I was staying at was my great aunt’s house and she had a lime tree. So everybody came over and we made limeade.
Is there anything you miss about Puerto Rico that you wish you could bring to the U.S. and have around you?
Just family. The island itself is in a great state of disrepair, not just in the infrastructure but in the society itself, and it needs some of that old school back in there to fix it up. The old school frame of thought, old school thinking. You know, less leaving family behind.
So do you see the society in Puerto Rico becoming more Americanized?
Yes. It was different visiting my grandparents generation, you’d go to the house and it’s "Are you hungry? Sit down for a while" and every time you went into someone’s house it was an hour or two hours. Whereas someone from not so much my generation, but maybe a little bit younger, says “Okay, what are we doing? Where are we going?” and moves on to the next thing. There was no offering of the food and coffee in the same way. There are cultures where you know, saying hello is a half an hour, whereas sometimes we have people who just move on, and they don’t say hello.
What do you think it means to be American?
What do I think it means to be American? To be American is about opportunity, and the responsibilities we have in regards to those opportunities.
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