Home Away from Home: Blurring the lines of identity


Written by Khatia Mikadze

Each installment of the series “Home Away from Home” will feature a young woman immigrant and the place in New York City that reminds her most of her home country, providing comfort and easing the stresses of starting life in a new country.

For Gladys, walking in Chinatown can remind her of home just as easily as sitting at an Indonesian restaurant with her friends in Queens. In New York City, she doesn’t have to limit her identity. “When I am asked about my ethnicity, I am no longer inclined to say one or the other,” she explains. The city’s openness to cultural blending is part of what Gladys appreciates most about living here; she knows the opposite mindset all too well.

Gladys first came to New York City on a vacation back in 2010 and thought this city was “just like in the movies.” At the time, she had a decent job back home in Indonesia, so she decided to return. As a young and determined woman, she held several high positions at financial companies and developed a passion for commodities and currency trading. However, it was not easy to move up the ranks in Indonesia, especially in a field dominated by men. Gladys wanted to make the most of her potential, so she often dreamed of working on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She even turned down job offers in hopes of coming to NYC. Eventually, after months of waiting for her visa, she arrived in September 2015. This time, she decided to stay.

Even though Gladys was a new immigrant here in NYC, the process of migrating and adjusting to a new culture was not new to her. Gladys was born in Indonesia, but her family is from China, which made her a second-generation Chinese immigrant in Indonesia. Her parents moved from China to Indonesia many years ago as economic migrants, but the Chinese, who are minorities in Indonesia, have never been welcomed there. In the late 1990s, as anti-Chinese sentiment grew in Indonesia, massive protests took place in cities, especially in Jakarta, culminating in the shootings of students, sexual assaults, and the deaths of more than 1,000 people of both Chinese and non-Chinese descent.

At the time, Gladys only had a few years left before high school graduation, but it was too dangerous for Chinese students to go to school, so her parents sent her to Malaysia to finish her studies. Although Gladys already spoke Mandarin and Indonesian, it was still hard for her to adapt to a new school, make new friends, and learn how to live by herself. However, she quickly blended in, studied Malaysian, and excelled in her math classes. After graduation, she was accepted into the university there and then studied in Australia for several years. By the time Gladys received her Bachelor’s degree, political tensions in Jakarta had calmed down, and her parents wanted her to return to look for work. She followed her parents’ advice, but was unable to find a position in her field of interest: stocks and trading. She knew that she needed more, and she knew where to look for it.

NYC was the place: it was full of opportunities and excitement. Even though Gladys, like many newbie immigrants here, faced challenges such as learning a new culture, and navigating the job market and sophisticated academic institutions, she realized that her ethnic identity started to blur here. Throughout her academic life in Malaysia, Gladys always identified as and spoke Indonesian, because she never felt otherwise. In Indonesia, she identified herself as and felt more Chinese. But here in NYC, she no longer feels she needs to clarify.

“I realized that it is not a big deal here. I can choose to be Indonesian one day, and Chinese on the other day,” she says. “I am not ashamed to be Chinese or Indonesian, and for me that is beautiful. I did not realize up until now how both cultures are deeply grounded into me!”

So, for Gladys, the concept of “home” is also blurred; part of her home is Chinese, while another part is Indonesian. She is a perfect fusion of cultures much celebrated and loved here in New York City. For a reminder of her roots, she often heads to Canal Street in Chinatown. “The ambiance makes me feel at home,” Gladys says. She also enjoys hanging out with her friends around the Indonesian Embassy on the Upper East Side during holidays, such as Independence Day and Ramadan, when many Indonesians from the tristate area gather and eat traditional homemade dishes.

Gladys is now creating her new life here. She is a recent graduate of New Women New Yorkers’ LEAD program and is very determined to get her Master’s degree and financial analyst certification. With more than ten years of work experience in the financial industry, Gladys is confident that she will soon be trading stocks on Wall Street. In the meantime, she offers the following advice to young immigrant women who come to NYC:
“Always be curious and adventurous and find like-minded people in NYC; if I were not curious, I would have never stepped into the public library and never found a flyer for the LEAD program which helped me in so many ways. Learn like a sponge and be adaptive. It may seem hard since you are not in your comfort zone anymore. Ask for help, because NYC is not as scary as you think. Everything is possible in this city.”

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