The single most influential factor in my life here is my existence as a bule. It dictates how, why, and when people interact with me. It affects every single relationship I create and colors people’s opinions of me as soon as they see me.
Bule. Boo-lay. In Bahasa Indonesia it used to mean “albino” though now it is generally a blanket term for almost all foreigners, especially those who look white or at least kind of white. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Being a bule comes with various disadvantages as well as privileges, but the bottom line is that being a bule means attention.
The other day, as Sam and I returned from a trip to Bunaken, we walked from the marina to the market. From the windows of mikro buses drivers called out “Where you go, Miss?”, boys on motorcycles zoomed by with the shout “Bule!” trailing behind them, and for the second time that day a stranger asked us for a picture with them. Sweaty and tired, we were not in the mood for the paparazzi and gave out excuses in Indonesian as we walked by and refused to stop for a selfie.
Children will yell “Bule! Bule!” when they see you and the older ones might whisper it to the people around them when you pass. Strangers will ask you for photos with them regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. Men on the side of the road or offering ojek motorcycle taxis will make this “psst psst” sound to call you over (a personal least favorite of mine as it sounds like they’re trying to get the attention of a dog) and walking through the market or looking for transportation can lead to swarms of people inundating you with questions of “where are you going, miss?” and “cewe, cewe cantik!” (“girl, pretty girl!”), and the ever present “Hello Mister!”. As a bule you are always on display, always at the center of attention, and always treated as if everyone you pass deserves your attention in kind.
Being a bule in Indonesia sometimes reminds me of being a woman in an American city. People say hello to you, call out to you, “compliment” you and usually expect a response. At a certain point it can be hard to distinguish “bule-calling” (as I’ve come to call it) from outright catcalling. When strangers say things to me on the sidewalk I calculate in my head whether or not I have to respond. Do I say hello to the man who just called me sweetie? Just like in America, I weigh whether or not to respond to the bule-callers in Manado. Do I respond to the boy who asks me where I’m going?
My first response is to try to be polite as many of these people just want to say hi or acknowledge that an exciting person walked by or just want to practice the one or two English phrases they feel confident saying. But on the other hand, much of it just IS catcalling. When they yell at you from a motorbike zooming past, clearly not looking for any reciprocal conversation. When they honk their horns repeatedly to get your attention. When men my age or older tell me I’m beautiful as I walk by.
In general I’m polite to the ones who say hi soon enough for me to respond, I ignore any comments on my appearance, I ignore those who yell “bule” or “mister” from afar (and often I’ll respond “bukan laki-laki!“–“I’m not a boy”–if they get my gender wrong). But even when they are as polite as can be sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anyone.
Whether I like it or not, as a bule and an American I am constantly representing my nationality and really the concept of bules as a whole. As a “cultural ambassador” I want to show them that I am polite and friendly, but on the other hand it can be tiring and irritating to respond to everyone who says hello, who says “good afternoon”, who calls me mister, who tells me I’m beautiful, who asks for a photo. Sometimes I just want to walk somewhere without having to interact with every goddamn person on the street.
I want to tell every bule who comes to Indonesia–especially if they’re female, especially if they’re living here for a long time–no, you don’t owe every single person a response and no you definitely don’t owe anyone a picture.
If you know me personally or look at my profile picture, you’ll see that I don’t look stereotypically white. My mother is Caucasian but my father is from Malaysia and his grandfather is from Java. This is a super exciting fact for most people in Indonesia because it means that I’m kind of Indonesian. In Manado they say “aaahh, iya, ngana pe muka Asia“–“Ah, yes, you have an Asian face”.
Especially here in Manado where many families have Dutch ancestry, occasionally people while assume I’m from the highlands or at the very least not immediately recognize me as an outsider. Occasionally people will ask if I’m “full American” because “kinda-Asian-looking” doesn’t fit into their American stereotype. I find this question pretty amusing and I enjoy challenging their ideas of a white America.
Walking around with my sitemate–a six foot tall white woman with light brown hair and blue eyes–is an interesting social experiment in observing how we might be treated differently together or apart. Though we are both American foreigners in Indonesia, my experience as a half-Asian bule is a bit different from hers and at times easier. I think Sam handles bule-calling with grace but, as I noted above, the constant attention can be exhausting. Sometimes my “Asian face” gives me a bit of respite and allows me to fly under the radar. Although bule-calling is generally present with or without Sam, on rare occasions if I’m walking alone at night I can get away with no one talking to me at all! And there is a remarkable peace in that privilege in the rare moments it appears.
But sometimes I get more unwanted attention for having “muka Asia”. As a bule with an Asian face I am American enough to be exotic and exciting but Asian enough to be familiar and comfortable. I have, on occasion, had incredibly uncomfortable experiences with men who have found my half-and-half ancestry enticing. I would say that uncomfortable experiences of men hitting on you is a nearly universal experience for women in general and any racial addition to the mix just makes the whole thing that much more uncomfortable and awkward.
But please do not get the idea that being a bule in Indonesia is simply a torrent of catcalling and uneasy situations. Yes, you will get attention. Yes, people will want to talk to you. But you know what happens when you talk to people? You make friends.
I have truly never been in a place where I have met so many people in the most varied circumstances.You will meet people on the mikro, in the malls, on the street, in the warungs. Yes, they will often talk to you whether or not you feel like being talked to. Yes, they will ask for photos. Yes, they will ask for your number. But they will invite you into their life as easily as if you were an old friend they ran into. They will invite you to dinner, to outings, to their homes for homemade meals or just coffee and cookies. They will tell you to call them if you ever need anything and offer to give you a ride home or across town.
In no other place have I had the privilege to meet and speak to so many people enthusiastic just to find out where I’m from. They want to know about you–why are you here, where do you come from, what do you do? And, most importantly, what do you think of Manado? Of Indonesia? Often regardless of how much Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Manado you know, they will start asking you questions using what English they might know and usually being patient with and excited about your paltry language skills.
This is exactly how I’ve learned to speak Indonesian (or Manadonese). These days the people I meet will say “Just 8 months? Wow you’re already fluent in Indonesian”. They are surely using hyperbole and low expectations, but it is because of all the people I’ve met on the street that I am able to hold conversations with them. They ask me “where did you learn Indonesian?” to which I reply “Di jalan“– “in the street”.
Being bule also comes with many privileges. You’re allowed to get away with either not knowing the language or messing up on their cultural customs because everyone knows that you’re foreign. People will routinely go out of their way to make you comfortable (in their own ways) and to treat you as a guest of honor.
Sometimes this means your teachers insisting on paying for you or ordering you into the front passenger seat (a coveted position). Sometimes it means taking you along on errands to meet important people. bringing you to weddings to shake hands with the bride and groom and take pictures with the new happy couple (that you’ve never met before). Or maybe it will be seating you in front of the body at a funeral for person you’ve never met.
At times being a VIP can be exciting and amusing and it’s always nice to know that you’ll be given leeway. But at other times these privileges can be awkward and uncomfortable. My general goal here is to try to blend in as much as possible and not call too much attention to myself. This is, on the whole, impossible.
In some ways being bule greases the wheels of friendship because your automatic exotic nature opens you up to many opportunities to meet and talk to people. However, there is a caveat to making friends here as there is always something there that I call the “bule barrier”.
While I know some other ETAs have made some very close connections with some of the people they have met here in Indonesia, I have always felt that there was something keeping me apart from my Indonesian friends and acquaintances. Of course some of this is because of a language and culture difference. It’s obviously much easier to connect with people if you can fully communicate with them and understand their customs and cultural habits. But there is something else. There in the background of all my relationships with the people here is the bule label.
This bule barrier comes from both sides. On the one hand I think it can be hard for Indonesians to get past that bule label and see me as a regular human. It’s hard to connect with someone on a deeper level if you see them first and foremost through the bule screen. I kind of equate this to how in my childhood I didn’t consider my teachers to be real people with their own personal lives until much later when I started connecting with them beyond the “teacher-student relationship”.
On the other side of things, I find that being bule puts limits on how I view my interactions with people. In the back of my mind I’m aware that me being a bule is largely why any friendship has begun and that knowledge nags at me. It causes me to be somewhat guarded in my relationships knowing that things would be different if I was a “regular Indonesian”. The VIP status carries on in relationships and that can be uncomfortable when you just want to be on equal ground.
After reading this post you might think that it’s rough being a bule in Indonesia. And yeah, sometimes. But attention isn’t always bad and you do get to meet lots of people who maybe you wouldn’t have if they hadn’t made themselves present in your consciousness. The fact is that if you want to explore the world and experience different cultures, you’re going to be an outsider. I think of the people who might come to America who don’t know the customs, the culture, the language. Would we Americans treat them with the same enthusiasm and honor?
Even if I find being a VIP uncomfortable or inconvenient, even when I’m at the end of my rope after the last person yells “Hello Mister!” from their car window, even though I wish I could connect with people without this celebrity status–I am grateful for their friendliness, their kindness, and their openness.