EDITOR’S NOTE: “Jane Mantiri: Coming full circle at last,” Nancy E. Dollahite’s story about Indonesian-born theater artist Jane Mantiri, was published originally on Aug. 27, 2021, by The Immigrant Story. An ArtsWatch Community Partner, the Portland-based organization, as its name suggests, tells stories of people who come to the United States from around the world to make new lives. ArtsWatch is republishing the piece with permission.
“You are an Indonesian mama,” the local tour guide told Jane Mantiri as she wound up her recent visit to Indonesia. “At first I thought you were American, but now I feel it – you are an Indonesian mama.”
“Then,” says Mantiri, “I [finally] felt at peace.”
Jane Evelyn Vogel Mantiri was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 18, 1953. Being Indo, or of mixed Indonesian-European heritage and culture, has remained central to who she is, even though she lived in Indonesia for only a short time. Her family immigrated to the Netherlands in 1954, when she was just over a year old. “So the stories I was told are my only memory of Indonesia,” she explains.
A legacy of colonialism
Like many Indonesians, Mantiri’s family has both Indonesian and European roots. Indonesia, a country of some 18,000 islands, has long been a center of trade in Southeast Asia. From the late 1500s on, Europeans began arriving to try to establish control over its resources of goods and people.
Dutch and German men came and married Indonesian women, creating a mixed race, the Indos. Colorism, or the favoring of people with lighter skin, became pervasive. The hard labor, childcare, and gardening was done by the darker skinned people (babus), who were described as “loved” and “part of the family,” according to Mantiri; however, everyone understood the caste system, with darker skinned people at the bottom of the social scale.
Mantiri’s own family reflects this history. Her father passed as white and her mother, with darker skin, did not feel accepted by his family. Her father’s family, the Vogels, arrived in Indonesia from Germany in the early 1800s. Her mother’s family name, Mantiri, came from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi; however, this name was lost for several generations, until Jane herself decided to take it back.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Indonesia, and Mantiri’s family suffered many traumas during this time. Her grandfather and father both were prisoners of war, one of her father’s sisters was brutally murdered, and her mother, a teenager at the time, lost both parents. The history of repeated individual traumas and centuries of colonialism shaped Mantiri’s world view, although the family rarely referred to it openly. She credits this history as one of the influences leading to her eventual work as a trauma psychologist.
Immediately after the war, Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands and the ensuing revolution ended with Achmed Sukarno’s being declared president of the independent country of Indonesia in 1949.
Early years in the Netherlands
Mantiri’s parents married in 1950 and tried to get into the United States but were denied entry because of the refugee quota. In 1954, they went to the Netherlands instead, to wait for sponsorship into the states. Her father got an administrative job in the Hague. Later, her younger brother was born there. Many members of her extended family also left Indonesia for the Netherlands during the 1950s. The family was able to take very little with them, but Mantiri still has her mother’s Indonesian steamer, her mortar and pestle for grinding spices, and the small finger-washing bowls from her aunt who was murdered during the war.
“We were not really welcome,” Mantiri says, noting that the Netherlands was still recovering from World War II. “I later found out that the stereotype about us Indos was that we were dirty and lazy.”
Their main social life was with family and other Indos, but they lived in an apartment building that included Dutch tenants, too. Mantiri’s best friend was a Dutch girl who lived next door. “The Indo culture is to welcome any visitors and our door was always open,” Mantiri says. “My friend could always come into my home, but I could never go into hers.”
Many years later, when Mantiri visited, the girl’s mother reflected on the restrictions of those days. “We loved you,” she told Mantiri, “but that’s how things were and we did the best we could.”
Mantiri’s father kept applying for refugee status in the U.S. and, finally, he was sponsored by a small Presbyterian church in Milwaukee, Wisc.
A new life in the U.S.
The family settled in Milwaukee in 1960, attending the church but keeping their Indo culture at home. “We lived in two different worlds,” Mantiri explains. “My parents thought of Indonesia as home, the place where they really belonged.”
Her father worked as a clerk in the accounting department at the Schlitz brewing company. Her mother washed dishes in the school cafeteria. Both her parents spoke a number of languages, but were not able to use those skills in the U.S.
At school, Mantiri and her brothers and cousins were the only non-whites. Other kids would ask, “What are you? Japanese, Chinese?” She would say, “Indonesian,” but they didn’t know what that was.
On the first day at school, as a second-grader, when she did not understand the teacher’s directions, she coped by looking at other kids’ desks to see what she was supposed to do. “Then they would cover their papers and call me ‘cheater,’” she remembers.
Because there was no ESL class, she was sent to a speech therapist. She worked hard on English and wanted to be in the top reading group, but kept being placed in mid-level groups, “sent to the ‘dummy room,’” she explains.
However, several teachers gave her extra help and one sometimes invited her home to spend time cooking American food and chatting. One even visited her at home to check on her when she missed school one day.
Several times, Mantiri was bullied as an outsider. After a boy taunted her with racial epithets, “we both ended up going to detention and sitting in a little room together. But I was generally one to follow the rules,” she says, remembering that brush with school discipline. “I wanted to stay out of trouble and, above all, I wanted to make my father proud of me. He would say we came here so you could have a good education. I was here to be successful in order to honor my parents’ sacrifice – I understood that.”
Growing up between two cultures
In 1966, when Mantiri was 13, her parents became U.S. citizens. “As we walked out of the courthouse,” she remembers, “my father said that now, when people ask us, we should say, ‘I am American!’”
Still, Mantiri kept confronting the conflict between her two cultures. “My friends would come over,” she recalls, “and they wouldn’t know how to act politely in the Asian way. For example, when my mom would offer them a snack, they would just say, ‘Sure’ the first time, whereas my mom expected them to politely refuse three times before finally accepting and then thanking her profusely. That would be the Asian way.
“When I witnessed these exchanges, I would think to myself that I’m not really ‘American,’ because I would have acted the right way, the Asian way.”
At times, she would feel shame about being Indo. Her mother would warn her that people might not like her because of her dark skin.
Her parents primarily socialized with Indos and, by the time she was in high school, Mantiri did not want to be an “other”; she wanted to belong, “to be American.” She enjoyed being invited for meals at friends’ homes and noticing cultural differences, like how the food was presented in separate individual servings instead of family style, as at Indonesian meals. “I loved that,” she says. “Just seeing how things were different.”
She took an active part in high school social events, becoming a cheerleader and being elected homecoming queen. She wanted a career and worked hard to find a way to go to college. At the same time, she was always aware that she was disappointing her mother, who expected her to follow her own example and prepare for marriage.
“I never felt relaxed,” she says, “but always had that weight because of my obligation to succeed, please my parents, ease my mother’s anxiety.”
A career in healing
Mantiri chose to attend Carroll College (now Carroll University), a small Presbyterian college near home. She got a scholarship and worked several jobs to pay for her education, finishing in three years. With a major in elementary education, she got a job as teacher and track coach after graduating.
A couple of years later, she impulsively joined her parents on a brief summer visit to visit family in Oregon, where she met her cousin’s favorite teacher, Charles Schneider. “He was one of the first teachers in the district to focus on special needs students,” she says. “And I could immediately see why he was her favorite teacher.”
One thing led to another, Mantiri explains, and she even got a last-minute job offer to teach in the local school. “So I never left Eugene,” she laughs. “We were married by the end of that year, 1978.”
Along with her husband, Mantiri felt drawn to students who struggled in school. Learning how to move forward through painful experiences has been part of her family history and helping students live with trauma became a specialization in her professional work.
The school district paid 75 percent of the tuition for further education, so Mantiri eventually received an MA in counseling and education and became the counselor for the school district, starting a program for fourth through sixth grade in sexual abuse prevention. To further support her desire to work in healing trauma, she went on to get a PhD in Counseling Psychology in 1988.
“Although I am a pacifist,” she says, “I joined the U.S. military in order to do my residency for my PhD because it was a good APA [American Psychological Association]-approved program that allowed me to keep my family with me while I was completing that part of my education.” Her three-year residency took the family, which by then included a son and daughter, to the East Coast, while her husband took a sabbatical from his teaching.
After she earned her PhD, she and her family returned to Eugene. Her husband resumed teaching and she went into private practice, specializing in trauma and often working with eating disorders.
Promoting gender equity in the arts
As a child, Mantiri had loved to write plays and make her friends and family act them out. “In fact, when people asked me, that is what I always said, that I was going to be an actress,” she says. “But my father told me that I should not become an actress because I would not be treated well.”
However, her parents’ deaths in 1998 made Mantiri realize that life can end at any time with things undone. “I thought about how I had wanted to be an actress,” she says. “I signed up for a class at a professional theater company, Lord Leebrick Theatre [now Oregon Contemporary Theatre] and felt like I belonged there. I started to audition for parts in plays in Portland.”
Gradually, she devoted more time to theater, commuting between Eugene and Portland. But she found a lot of ageism and racism in the theater world. To address this, she raised $30,000 and started offering grants to theaters if they would hire people of color and older women. “This began to make a difference,” she says. “There are a lot more women directors now.”
In 2014, Mantiri and her husband moved to Portland. and the following year she closed her practice in Eugene to devote herself full time to Advance Gender Equity in the Arts (AGE), the organization she founded. A recent project has been the founding of Ignite, a national program for BIPOC theater people, with mentors for emerging artists.
Taking back a heritage
In 2019, Mantiri returned to Indonesia for the first time. “It was something I had wanted to do but also was afraid of doing,” she says. “I look just like my aunt, my father’s sister, who was raped and decapitated and, when I visited my father as he was dying, he confused me with her and told me to run and hide. So I had a fear about going back to Indonesia, that I would somehow experience what my auntie had gone through.
“But when I finally went, I carried a paper from my father listing the addresses of all the places we had lived. I wanted to find them all. I even went to the hospital where I was born.
“That trip was a life-changing pilgrimage when I reconnected with my Indonesian roots. While I was there, one of my cousins told me the story of our family name, Mantiri, and how our great-grandfather had been told that, if he gave up this Indo name, he would be given citizenship. So, when I returned, I took back the Indonesian name of my mother’s family, Mantiri, to acknowledge my Indonesian blood and reclaim the gift of my mixed heritage.”
Even now, she says, some things in the states still feel foreign. “Being an Indo is very important to me,” she says, “and it saddens me that the culture is dying. But some aspects I will embrace and pass on to my children and grandchildren, like serving special foods, honoring our elders, and being ready to share whatever you may have with others. These are parts of our culture that I will always keep.”