Indonesian immigrants at Foggy Bottom deli demonstrate the power of informal networks
| By Brigitta Kinadi |
In the cramped and stuffy kitchen of Leo’s GW Delicatessen, Dian Nugraheni braces herself for the rush of students that will inevitably bombard the sandwich bar as soon as afternoon classes are dismissed. She puts on her transparent plastic gloves, and fixes the red patterned bandana on her head with resolve.
Within a few minutes, the deli buzzes with conversation as students from George Washington University place orders for BLT sandwiches and steak and cheese subs.
As more customers flow in, the kitchen becomes increasingly chaotic. Seven people work behind the sandwich bar. Each worker in the kitchen handles their own orders, but they collide and jostle in the small space. Nugraheni tries to avoid crashing into other workers as she heads to the counter with an order of a bacon, egg and cheese bagel wrapped in aluminum foil.
As she brushes past one of her co-workers, Nugraheni apologetically says “permisi,” “excuse me” in the Indonesian language. Nugraheni is one of five Indonesians working in the deli. Throughout the day, more snippets of Indonesian, a language most Americans are not accustomed to, are heard in the deli kitchen.
More than half of the staff at Leo’s GW Delicatessen are Indonesian immigrants, even though the deli is not Indonesian-owned. The rest of the deli staff are immigrants from Vietnam and El Salvador.
The concentration of Indonesian workers in the deli exemplifies a common phenomenon in immigrant communities – members of immigrant groups gravitating toward particular businesses and lines of work when they start off in the United States. In this case, as is with many immigrants, Indonesian workers were brought to the deli through an informal community network.
“For immigrants, word of mouth becomes the principal vehicle by which new immigrants learn from those who have come before them about the culture of a place and the opportunities that exist,” said Fanta Aw, an administrator at American University who has a doctorate in sociology and has studied immigration extensively.
“Word of mouth is instrumental to how new immigrants learn about job opportunities, which often translates into immigrants clustering into specific jobs and places.”
Nugraheni, 44, has worked in the deli for three years. Clad in knee-length denim shorts and an oversized yellow t-shirt covered with a black apron, the petite Indonesian greets all her customers from behind the counter with unwavering cheerfulness, even at the end of her 10-hour shift.
“Job opportunities for the deli circulated around the Indonesian community,” Nugraheni said. “And now the tradition of Indonesians working here has continued on.”
Indonesians have worked in the deli for more than 10 years, though some have come and gone in that time. The first Indonesian to work in the deli was Setio Nugroho, who found the deli on his own and started working there in 2001.
The other Indonesians who now work in the deli all heard about job openings there from Nugroho. Nugroho’s wife Wiwin also works as the cashier.
The Nugrohos are no strangers to helping fellow Indonesians find employment opportunities in the area. Because the family has lived in the U.S. for longer than most D.C.-area Indonesian immigrants, newcomers often turn to them for employment advice.
“Many Indonesians rely on each other to get jobs. My husband has lived here since 1999, so people know he has experience and connections,” said Wiwin Nugroho. “Everyone knows that he is the go-to person for questions about jobs. In fact, Indonesians here know him as our Department of Labor.”
When other Indonesians went to Setio Nugroho for help, he would find out if the places he used to work at had openings. In the case of the deli, the owner, John Ambrogi, also asked Setio for potential employees every time an opening came up.
“Setio is our very own human resources department,” said Iman Prayetno, another deli worker who got to know Setio when he lived a few floors below the Nugrohos in an apartment in the Dupont Circle area.
Although the Indonesian immigrant community is dispersed throughout the Washington, D.C., metro area, most Indonesians still manage to find each other, whether through embassy events, mutual friends or prior contact before moving to the U.S.
“My husband is the kind of person that’s always willing to help others,” Nugroho said. “But because we know many Indonesians here, he usually ends up helping other Indonesians. At the end of the day, we’ll always try harder to help one of our own.”
‘For the kids’
A common thread for the Indonesian workers in the deli is how much they value the education their children are receiving in the United States.
The Nugrohos say their primary reason for staying in the U.S. is the fact that both of their children are recipients of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and now attend private schools in the District. Their daughter Dinda, 16, goes to St. John’s College High School, while their younger son, Dimas, 9, attends St. Ann’s Academy.
“Americans themselves have tremendous difficulty sending their kids to private school, so I always remind Dinda and Dimas of how lucky they are,” Nugroho said. “My husband and I don’t even make enough money to have savings, so the scholarships mean everything for our family.”
Nugroho believes that the quality of education in Indonesia has significantly improved in recent years. However, there are certain features of American education that she appreciates.
“Education here is more focused on values and building good character,” Nugroho said. “In Indonesia, education in public schools is geared towards rote memorization. Students are taught to be smart in the academic sense, but there is not much emphasis on how to socialize well and how to have discipline.”
Nugraheni echoes Nugroho’s sentiments about the advantages of getting an American education. She is a single mom with two daughters, and lives in Arlington, Va.
“Based on what I see in my daughters,” Nugraheni said, “education in the U.S. goes beyond memorization and emphasizes the ability to critically think about things.”
Life in the U.S.
Nugraheni’s days in the deli are long and exhausting. She works 10 hours a day, six days a week. She estimates that she makes more than 200 sandwiches on an average day. She gets one break each day that lasts for half an hour. Her short breaks are spent hastily eating her packed lunch, which typically consists of rice and a modest vegetable side dish.
Nugraheni and her daughters came to the U.S. four years ago. Her husband, who has lived in the U.S. since 2002, petitioned for their green cards. Shortly after their arrival, the couple divorced. Since the separation, Nugraheni has had to support her daughters with a single income. She concedes that life as an immigrant in the U.S. is far from easy.
“My family never understood my reasons for wanting to leave home,” Nugraheni said. “They asked me how I could possibly want to live in the U.S. when I only had a bachelor’s degree from an Indonesian university. With that, I would have such a hard time getting a decent job here.”
But Nugraheni enjoys working in the deli, which she describes as a “warm and relaxed environment.” Although she identifies as a Muslim, she is not particularly bothered by the requirement for her to handle pork in a deli known for its bacon sandwiches.
“It’s just part of the job,” Nugraheni said. “I just work with the material, but don’t have to eat it. And I work to provide for my family, so I don’t think much of it.”
Apart from the language difficulties she initially faced, Nugraheni said she did not experience as much culture shock as she expected. In fact, she quickly began to embrace certain aspects of what she considers to be “American culture.”
“Since moving here, my daughters have learnt to follow rules and to be polite. They cross the street only when the light is green, they don’t cut lines, they open the door for other people – they have adapted to the American way of life,” Nugraheni said. “I really like the fact that people are friendly here, more so than they are back home.”
Similarly, Nugroho said that one of the biggest differences between life in Indonesia and the U.S. is how people treat each other. In Indonesia, Nugroho worked in the administrative department of a small local bank, and felt that people looked down on her due to her position.
“People in the U.S. respect you no matter where you work, even if you’re just a cashier in a deli,” Nugroho said. “That kind of attitude is hard to find in Indonesia.”
Nugroho said that she still misses home at times. However, working with other Indonesians in the deli helps alleviate feelings of homesickness.
“The deli reminds me of a warteg,” Nugroho said, referring to small food stalls common in Indonesia. “The food is cheap, but the portions are quite big. And it’s nice to have other Indonesians working there. I feel like I belong in a community, even if I am thousands of miles away from home.”
All interviews with the deli workers were conducted in Indonesian.
in the original dnneor (actually spelled df6ner) there is thinly sliced and fried lamb meat, however there are also delis that use chicken or beef. i think the meat isnt spiced at all, it gets is flavor by roasting it pretty well. it can very well be compared to the greek gyros.you take a loaf of pita bread and cut it halfway open. you put in the meat along with sliced lettuce, tomatoes, onions, very dry cole slaw. traditionally its served with a creamy garlic sauce, but due to the smell, it can also be served with yoghurt sauce. bon appetite