Waking from the American Dream
About a dozen Indonesians, all illegal immigrants, thought they’d found their niche in the United States.
The men had good jobs with a nickel mining company, enough money for a car and rented a big house where they cooked rice in every known archipelagic combination.
They’d probably still be there enjoying their American dream had they understood the local culture a little better. But one fine Sunday morning the lads felt so happy they opened all the doors and windows to let out the music.
Loud noise is OK in Indonesia – even essential to disperse malevolent spirits. But not in US suburbs on the Sabbath. A neighbor complained. The police arrived and checked identities. End of dream.
New York based journalist Ramdani [Dani] Sirait (above) visited the men in prison before they were deported and added another anecdote to his store of cross-cultural stories.
These have now been blended into one; Green Card is the writer’s first novel, and based on his three plus years as the Antara news agency’s bureau chief at the United Nations HQ in Manhattan. It covers the adventures of Rafli, a young man from North Sumatra working on a cruise liner and wanting more from life.
“Rafli isn’t me,” said Dani, though hero and creator come from the same island. “Some other characters are modelled on real people, though I’ve changed their names.
“The American Dream is still alive. There’s an estimated 110,000 Indonesians in the US. Maybe more than half are there illegally. They are brave and ambitious. They deserve our respect. That’s why I wrote the book.”
Rafli jumps ship and begins his quest for the worker’s Holy Grail, the permanent residence document known as the Green Card. With no visa or other permissions he’s an alien, certain to be on the next Boeing to Indonesia if caught.
He gets jobs the Americans don’t want and meets other Indonesians. Not all are fair. Erina has a Green Card because she was once a US citizen’s wife.
A false marriage might get the document, but Rafli is vulnerable and easily exploited. The lady wants money. If he doesn’t pay she might call Immigration; then it’s bye-bye the USA.
Larger forces are about to play a role in the drama. Two hijacked commercial jets plough into the Twin Towers, paranoia sets in and differences spawn doubt. Rafli, always worried that one day he’d get a tap on the shoulder, becomes doubly fearful when the government demands all aliens get registered.
If he fronts the authorities he’ll get caught. If he doesn’t he might get asked to identify himself on the street because his features and accent fit the profile of an imagined terrorist. Read the book to discover what happens – this feature is not a spoiler.
Dani, now 47, remembers well the bright September morn when the world crashed into a new era. “It was a beautiful day, one of the best times to be in New York,” he said. “At first we thought it was a stupid pilot who’d lost his way. I just managed to get out a news flash on the real situation before phone lines and Internet connections were cut.
“Later came the suspicions. Some authorities linked my name [Ramdani] to Ramadhan [the fasting month] and I was pulled out of lines at airports three times. I was annoyed, but I understood what was happening.
“Many thought I was Vietnamese or a Filipino. There’s not much knowledge about Indonesia in the US.”
As a journalist Dani has the enviable knack of being in the right place at the right time. Before being assigned to New York he was in East Timor reporting on the last Indonesian troops to leave – later he was in Aceh after the tsunami.
He was on the palace round when travel-crazed Abdurrahman Wahid [Gus Dur] was the Republic’s fourth president. Dani criss-crossed the world reporting historical events. In Pakistan he asked President Pervez Musharraf what he thought about Gus Dur calling the world’s Islamic leaders to meet in Jakarta.
Unfortunately the Indonesian President hadn’t got around to inviting his Pakistani host so the question created a display of red faces and diplomatic gymnastics. “It was a challenging, funny and exciting time,” Dani said. “I was far too busy to start my novel.”
When Antara recalled him to Jakarta to drive a desk he suffered from the foreign correspondent’s itch.
Having seen overseas reporting trends he proposed giving Antara’s correspondents video cameras to file vision with text. When the idea bombed it was time to find the exit. For seven years he worked for the mining company Freeport in Jakarta and West Papua as deputy to the head of communications.
Now he’s executive director of the Indonesian Business Coalition on AIDS promoting awareness of the disease and strategies should employees become ill. His next novel will be about a woman who copes with HIV.
“I won’t be happy with Green Card until it’s a film,” Dani said. “I’ve been talking to a producer and director but the problem is the cost of having to set scenes in the US.
“Indonesians get their ideas of America from films and television, beautiful people in branded clothes. The media seldom shows the down and outs, the badly maintained buildings, the garbage.
“Indonesians are resourceful and many could make it, particularly in areas like information technology. We work hard and have a reputation for being friendly, flexible, multi-skilled and agreeable – that’s why so many are employed on cruise liners.
“Preparation is necessary – particularly competence in English, and qualifications. Despite everything Rafli’s story is one of success. When opportunity meets chance it can be a beautiful marriage.
“I tell people keen to go overseas: ‘I hope you have Rafli’s spirit. Instead of complaining he does something. Don’t be afraid. The world is our workplace’.
“Rafli represents the youth of Indonesia, the people we need to make our nation great.”
Green Card by Dani Sirait
Published by Kompas Gramedia, 2014
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 30 March 2015)