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Indo Of the Month – April – Written by Rochelle Lether

My Oma was from the small city of Klaten and grew up on a tobacco plantation, where her father was a book keeper. My Opa was from Jogja and his father was in the dutch army, with his mother being his fathers servant. The Indonesian part of our family is Javanese (Orang Jawa) with the Dutch or European part being mostly a mix of German, French and English (and a little bit of Dutch), and one of my distant great grandmothers being Raden Adjeng or daughter or a Sultan.

My grandparents lived a happy childhood of abundance and privilege. That all changed during the war, when they were stripped of their possessions and rights and placed in internment camps; where they were nearly starved to death. Both of my great grandfathers died from complications due to imprisonment, as POW’s under the Japanese. My grandfather was at Changi in Singapore, which had a very low survival rate and a reputation for brutality towards its prisoners. He survived, and went on to meet and fall in love with my Oma in Jakarta after the war.

Once married, and after two children, my grandparents immigrated to Holland. They were not fond of the country, as it was very cold and the native population was prejudice of their dark skin. They decided to try their fate elsewhere.

They immigrated to the US in the late 1950’s with about 5 children, a motorcycle and $100 to their name. They chose the city of Costa Mesa in Southern California, as they were told that the climate was most like their native home of Indonesia. They were sponsored by the church and luckily, as a skilled and trained electrician, my Opa was able to find work right away. They continued to grow their family until they had nine children in total.

My father went to fight in Vietnam in the 1970’s, and having never really recovered from the war, was unable to be a parent to me. My grandparents filled in where he lacked. Especially my Oma who took me over the summer, winter and spring breaks from school –providing much needed, cost-free childcare to my mother. Through all the time spent, my Oma and I developed a very strong bond to each other. We often spent lazy summer days sitting on her porch or lying in her bead snuggling our gulings and listening to the doves she kept in her back yard cooing. Indonesians have a thing for birds.

She would tell me about the carefree times of her childhood. It was a world that seemed so far away, but that I could only imagine in my wildest dreams. I became obsessed with Indonesia. Every school report, project or essay was written about this far away land that I was somehow distantly connected to. There were so many beautifully romantic and exotic stories that it would take an entire book to collect them all with words to describe. I can only say that it inspired with me a love and appreciation for my culture that has no bounds. One day, I will put these stories to paper. I also learned to cook the cuisine of our culture and attended events with her, such as the indo festival. She would often give me old relics of her past such as jewelry, art work, or wood carvings. I treasure these pieces to this day and look forward to passing them down to my children.

After college I spent a year in Indonesia, living and working as a journalist and English teacher. I was able to go back to my Oma’s childhood home and explore her neighborhood. I walked through her home, looked down into the well where they drew their daily water, stepped on the grass of my Oma-Oma’s old tennis court, stood over the dried pond where the little neighbor boy had drowned, stood under the massive tree that Oma used to climb. I felt the walls that encumbered her most treasured childhood memories of life before the war. I was able to make this pilgrimage twice and in one visit, bring with me three of my Tante’s and a cousin. We even met a lady selling vegetables on the side of the road that knew my Oma as a child. So many things that I had questioned in childhood, made sense once I lived there –Just weird quirky things, like moth ball smells, words and expressions, cultural nuances. I will never forget that year, as one of the best and most wonderously amazing experiences of my life.

Fast forward to three years ago, when I lost my Oma and shortly there after, my father –both to cancer.The family disbanded shortly after the loss of our matriarch. ¬†At this time, I was just barely beginning to start my own family and I was perplexed with a heavy sadness that I could not provide the exposure to my culture for my children. Shortly before the losses, I had began seeking out online and in social media, to find other sources of our culture in the local area of Southern California. At that point, I became familiar with the Indo Project. I met Jeff, Michael and Jamie shortly after and we all instantly clicked over food, culture and dirty jokes. We began organizing casual meet ups and gatherings, mostly centered around food. Now we have large, formalized, and organized gatherings! Its been a pleasure watching this develop and most importantly being able to expose my children to the wonderful things that inspired me as a child. I want to thank SoCal Indo for providing this opportunity for myself and my family. Whenever we are all together, it brings such comfort…. and it feels like the warm embrace of home.

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