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Prodigal: What's your story?

The ReTurn Team has been interviewing immigrants and the children of immigrants for over two years now. We've talked to people from El Salvador, Columbia, Serbia, Ghana, Guyana, and more. But until we sat down with Cornelius Waiman, we hadn't interviewed an Indonesian American. At 26 years old, Cornelius believes he's found his purpose, and it all begins with the question, "what is your story?"

In 1980, an estimated 26,700 Indonesian-born immigrants lived in the United States. Cornelius' parents were a part of that growing number. After receiving the Diversity Lottery Visa, Cornelius' father migrated to the DC Metropolitan area, where he met his mom, who had also immigrated from Indonesia.

"Like many other immigrants arriving in the United States, you start with nothing," Cornelius told us. He shared that he doesn't want to assume how bad it was for his parents, but he is sure that it was connections with other Indonesians that helped them adapt those first few years. "The community of Indonesians who opened their doors, helped my parents apply for jobs, and so much more, I'm amazed by that," he added. Many other children of immigrants we have interviewed see community as a crucial part of their parents' migration story. While having the support of other Indonesians living in the US helped his parents, Cornelius tells us that the community is not the same as it is in his parents' home country.

His parents made sure he got connected with his Indonesian roots early. "I've been to Indonesia about seven times, and I speak Bahasa fluently. It was the first language I spoke. I learned English from school and television because my parents knew English, but they weren't fluent," he shared. Even though Cornelius knew other Indonesians in the DC Metropolitan area, he told us that it was not the same as being back home.

Cornelius shared that he believes that when you live in America, your culture becomes Americanized. "Sure, I knew the language and ate some food, but I didn't get directly exposed to the culture until I went to Indonesia," he noted. He told us that whenever he goes to his parents' village, everyone comes to greet him, not just his neighbors. Even people who live hours away visit to say hello. For him, home feels like family. Cornelius says that "when you are here, it isn't the same. Usually, in Indonesia, we regularly see each other, but in America, it's more so a holiday thing." He told us that he recognizes that the barrier of language and culture can create a gap between one's roots. He shared that it impacts many areas of a person's life, even their faith. "I'm seeing youth now, even younger than me, not being exposed to their roots as much. It feels like less and less exposure. Things have changed, but we have to stay connected to our story," he stated.

For Cornelius, your story matters, and that premise is the backbone of his new clothing line, Prodigal. He told us that "what's your story is about exercising our purpose by looking at your life's timeline." He shared that his parents always ask him to live this American dream and find the right job, wife, and family. He says that "while it is good to plan in life, it is hard to prepare for things that you aren't connecting to, and that connection is crucial." To get his parents to understand his brand and mission, Cornelius had to ask them why they came to America. He had to ask them what their story was.

According to Cornelius, mindset and mentality are things you have to have and protect. You can learn skills, but your mindset is critical. He shared with us that he wants to emphasize that "everyone has a story. Even before you are born, a story is being written." To build this brand, he had to go back and learn the story that started before him. Cornelius taught us that while there may be many of us on this planet, each of us has a purpose. Each purpose is unique because each story is unique. To find our purpose, we have to know our story. Check out what Cornelius and his team are building at Prodigal.


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