By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Did you know that Seattle has a sister city in Indonesia? Surabaya, the capital of East Java, and the second largest city in Indonesia, after Jakarta, became our sister city in 1991. June Cutler, president of the Seattle-Surabaya Sister City Association (SSSCA), wishes that people in Seattle knew more about not just Surabaya, but Indonesia as a whole.
“Indonesia is not just Bali,” she reminds us. “That’s just a small island. We are more than that…Go to other places.”
June grew up in Jakarta, and now lives in Seattle. Her job as SSSCA president is to “explain Indonesia and the relationship between Seattle and Indonesia.” To that end, SSSCA has been sponsoring programs locally on Indonesia culture, business, and politics for over 30 years. This might include celebrating Ramadan and Eid recently, for the Muslim population (at 87% in Indonesia and a small amount here, not even given a percentage in the last Seattle census) or Easter for the second-most populous group of Indonesians, religiously, Christians (10%).
The total Indonesian population in the United States in 2019 had not yet hit 200,000. That would not necessarily include, for instance, those who are here as university students. Seattle ranks fifth in the nation for the number of Indonesians living here, while Los Angeles stays at the top. According to the U.S. State Department, “Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, largest Muslim-majority country, the seventh-largest economy by purchasing power, and a leader in ASEAN.” Diplomatic relations, therefore, are important.
Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, made up of around 1,800 islands. As you can imagine, that allows for a great deal of diversity in areas such as food, clothing, and language, of which there are over 700. Some parts of this spread out country are populated and modernized. In others, life there might be the same as you would have seen hundreds of years ago.
“We have so many tribes, so many ethnic groups, about 1,400 ethnic groups,” Cutler said, and recommended the part of Indonesia called Sulawesi if you would like to “experience the traditional life of the traditional people.”
Indonesians are famous for their hospitality, and this was evident when speaking with Cutler, who was gracious and cheerful at every turn.
“Everybody is nice and smiles all the time,” she assured. She recommends not only getting to know the bigger cities like Surabaya, but also the smaller towns, “where you can taste traditional coffee and traditional food.”
In fact, Indonesia is one of the top five coffee producers in the world. You probably have some in your house right now. Indonesia has been making its now famous coffee since it was a Dutch colony in the 1600s and 1700s. Interestingly, nowadays, most of Indonesia’s coffee is grown on small farms. There are multiple varieties and many are certified organic. Perhaps you are aware that one of these varieties, called kopi luwak, is made with beans that have been digested first by the civet, a feline-like animal. Yes, you read that correctly, and it’s not the only one made this way; there are five in the world and all five are very expensive.
Indonesia is made up of seven geographical regions, replete with remarkable parks on land and by the sea. The most well-known is Java, where Jakarta lies, over 50% of the total Indonesian population, and several World Heritage Sites. Kalimantan shares Borneo with Malaysia and Brunei. The Maluku Islands, of which there are over 1,000, are located in the Banda Sea; while the Lesser Sunda Islands are closer to Australia and contain that famous tourist trap—Bali. Western New Guinea is split into two—one part belonging to Indonesia and one part belonging to Papua New Guinea. There are many tribes living in this area that still follow the ancient ways of living.
“You might find them not wearing any clothes,” Cutler commented equitably.
Finally, you have Sulawesi, the world’s 11th largest island and especially famous for its natural beauty. That natural beauty is probably one of the ways in which people in the U.S. have most come into contact with anything Indonesian. Cutler remembered that once upon a time, Seattle was home to one of Indonesia’s famous komodo dragons of Komodo Island. Other native Indonesian species that are often the stars of our zoos are the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.
For about one more month, you can view another of Indonesia’s famed exports—ikat—at the Seattle Art Museum’s special exhibition on the subject (closing May 29). Ikat and batik both originate on these green islands. Both types of fabric require extreme dedication and days, if not months, to create. But watch out if you want to buy some, because there are a lot of fake versions out there that have not gone through the extensive design and crafting process. Each ikat or batik design has a special meaning, if unknown to those outside of its maker or its maker’s people.
“But most of all, you need to try the food and coffee,” Cutler urged. Word of warning: if you are accustomed to American spicy food, you will find that Indonesian spicy food is an entirely different story. If you see a dish slathered in orange paste, get your glass of milk handy. Perhaps you will come across “ayam rica-rica” (clue: rica rica is code for “spicy”), a dish of chicken with more than one variety of chili. Or you could try “rendang,” named one of the world’s favorite foods by CNN Travel, in which the seasoning permeates the meat over an hours-long preparation process. “Ayam betutu” was said to have been the choice of Balinese royalty and comprises of a whole chicken or duck stuffed with chilis, shallots, and ginger, then wrapped in banana leaves. Suffice to say that if spicy is your game, then Indonesian food is for you.
From time to time, you will see an Indonesian on the screen. Candace Nelson, co-founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes—one of the first cupcake bakeries in the world—was born in Indonesia. Her baking has been lauded by celebrities like Tom Cruise and Oprah, and she has appeared as a judge on Cupcake Wars. Martial artist Joe Taslim is known for his roles in “Fast & Furious 6” and “Mortal Kombat.” Perhaps you recall that one of our presidents was part Indonesian, or at least by marriage.
“Barack Obama grew up in Indonesia for several years, in Jakarta, because his mom was married to an Indonesian man,” Cutler pointed out. “He has a half sibling who is Indonesian. People in Indonesia love him.” We wonder if he can handle the spicy food!
You don’t have to travel to Surabaya or Indonesia to experience that famous Indonesian hospitality. Right here in King County, SSSCA hosts many cultural events. Every year, for example, they celebrate Indonesia’s Independence from the Dutch but then from the Japanese during WWII. The Indonesians fought the Japanese and won their freedom in 1945. On Aug. 17, SSSCA will present a gathering for that purpose with the Indonesian diaspora of Seattle and King County. Other upcoming events include a cooking demo in June.
For more information on upcoming events, visit www.seattle.gov/oir/sister-cities/seattles-sister-cities/surabaya.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.