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.
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