Getting Acquainted With the Indonesian American Community

LA Beez director profiles the little-known Indonesian community in the Los Angeles area.
Members of the Indonesian American Business Council posing with the Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Dino Patti Djalal (center).
Members of the Indonesian American Business Council posing with the Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Dino Patti Djalal (center).

My cell phone rang constantly on the morning of December 26, 2004. On the other lines were reporters from local media asking the same question: "Julian, Do you know of any Indonesian media or community leaders in Los Angeles? We would like to interview them." About 8 hours earlier, a Tsunami of 9.1 magnitudes had wiped out Aceh, a northern region at the tip of Indonesia's Sumatra Island. Approximately 170,000 Indonesians were killed or went missing and another 500,000 were left homeless.

America is a big country with lots of things happening practically everyday. As a result, it often takes a major event or catastrophe to get the people's attention on certain issues or groups.

From the flurry of media reporting for more than a whole week about the Tsunami, Angelenos suddenly discovered that their southland is home to 60,000 Indonesian Americans, the largest concentration in the country.

People also learned that Indonesia, the world's fourth most populated country of about 240 millions, is a collection of 13,466 islands in the Pacific.

An interesting fact about the Indonesian diaspora is that approximately 60% of the nearly 150,000 Indonesians in America are actually Chinese Christians. Many people find this confusing because Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. This is because although the Chinese have lived in Indonesia as a minority group for many centuries, most have converted to Christians due to influence from the Dutch, who colonized this country from 1800 to 1942.

Another interesting fact is virtually all Chinese Indonesians have also replaced their Chinese last names with Indonesian surnames to blend in with their adopted homeland. For these reasons, there are few Indonesian Mosques in Los Angeles and it's rather difficult to identify Indonesian Americans of Chinese origin.

Recently, in November, 2010, Indonesia got the world's attention again, but on a positive note, when President Obama visited the country. Mr. Obama has a special personal relationship with Indonesia since his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was Indonesian and he had spent part of his childhood there.

In March of this year, a group of Indonesian American business leaders launched the Indonesian American Business Council (IABC) at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Leading the event was the Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Dino Patti Djalal.

The gathering attracted all the "who's and who's" of the Indonesian community in the greater Los Angeles area as well as American companies that have direct business activities with Indonesia. These executives and entrepreneurs represented a wide variety of sectors from aerospace to commodity trading, information technology, car dealership, and restaurants.

According to IABC President Rif Wiguna, the Council's mission is to promote Indonesian American businesses in America as well as business relationship between America and Indonesia.

"Our community is small when compared with other ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Besides the annual Indonesian Festival organized by the Indonesian Consulate General in L.A. in July, we hope our business group can be a catalyst to promote our community to become more well known," says Dr. Ibrahim Irawan, publisher of Indonesia Media and founding member of IABC.

Julian Do is director of LA Beez, a project of New America Media.

Photo courtesy of Indonesia Media.

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