Since I first came to Indonesia (and up until this point) I have been confused. Any time I walked around the streets of this city, or just took a stroll to the supermarket, strange things would happen. Apart from the cries of “hello mister” with my initial thought that maybe I was looking a bit manly on that particular day, people would go past on their motorbikes and look at me in fear or happiness, nudge their passengers and say, “bule”. Little children would start crying and pointing and saying this strange word, “bule”. Oh god, what had I become? What did it mean? Monster? Freak? Why were the children crying? Why were eyes lighting up? Since I was alone for a lot of the time, I started to become a little paranoid at these strange reactions.
When I asked the teachers at the school what this word meant, they told me that it was a word to describe a ‘white’ person, just a general term like we call all of the people with black hair and dark eyes “Asians”. Like with any single word that is used to describe a range of ethnicities, the term brings with it a layer of stereotypes and generalizations. In Australia it isn’t rare to hear a person who has been cut off while driving in their car by a person with black hair complain, “bloody Asians, they just can’t drive”, or “don’t go to that place, it’s full of Asian gangs”, or “those Asians always make a mess when they come into my shop”. Whenever I heard a person make one of these sweeping statements I would say, “You know that Asia is made up a lot of countries and you are putting over 2 billion people in the same bag, are you sure you know what you’re saying?”.
Now, as I find myself living in a country as a minority, there is nothing I can do to avoid being categorized as a bule, with all of the funny meanings that Indonesians give to this term. On one hand it’s great – usually Australians are stereotyped as a little crass, a bit uncultured, drunken, overweight and football lovers, but now I had a chance to be put in a category with some high class Europeans – I always wanted to be a little French, and now I had become a bule, I could put on my beret, put my baguette and cheese in my bike basket and cycle off to have some wine in the park with my friends. I could put on a cowboy hat and become a Texan cowboy, I could put on a white glove and test for dust in my local restaurant and pretend to be a German health inspector. Ah the sweet freedom of guilt free stereotyping.
It doesn’t matter what a bule does in Indonesia, because to become this ‘other’ and thus ‘stranger’, what is regarded as fact firstly is that you are different to Indonesians. Indonesians have important rules about how they live, how they support their families, when they eat and fast, who they can marry, how they can define themselves, which are all important things in order to be accepted by your community who (without any kind of government assistance to support you when you are in trouble) will be the people who you will need to turn to when you find yourself in trouble, when you can’t pay your hospital bills or need to get married, or your husband loses his job. Indonesian parents have a right to demand things of their children and to be a central figure in shaping their futures, and their children accept this. But if you are a bule living in Indonesia, you are not expected to follow these rules, people don’t judge you based on the decisions you make in your life or how you dress; they already expect you to be a little different and freakish and only look on in wonder.
I constantly find myself in hilarious conversations with Indonesians, who assume some very funny things about all bules; we are all tall, we love wearing bikinis, we are all outspoken and confident, we are all rich and can afford to spend half our lives travelling, we love Bali, we are free, we have no religion, we love shopping malls and fancy restaurants, we have sex with whoever we want to whenever we want to, we are more beautiful and handsome than Indonesians, and life is one big orgy of sex, drugs, all night parties and eternal freedom.
Any way that I attempted to explain the differences in people, or told them that anything about myself in order to assert my individuality such as my dislike of public speaking (they would laugh at me thinking I was only pretending to be shakie and feel sick before a presentation), I have never worn a bikini, and god, if they could see my bank account, but all to no avail. The picture is stuck in their heads. And I can see why.
The only bule people that general people meet or see are either on television or else being driven around by their drivers, nannies in tow, spending big sums of money as though it were mere pocket change. As the average Indonesian lives on less than $100 a month, this creates a massive gap in realities.
When I compare the stereotypical image of the Indonesian to the bule, some things ring true about the differences. And I can see that through Indonesian goggles, bules are strange people.
For one, it is common for bules to leave their families and embark on journeys around the world. Of course any bule that an Indonesian meets comes from somewhere else; they have never left their own country to see how a regular person lives at home in Australia, or the US, or the suburbs of France.
For many bules, even if our parents or grandparents don’t agree with the choices we make in our lives, we still make those choices anyway. Another thing is our lack of religion; in a country such as this where to have some kind of religion is a given and an important part of your worldview and identity, to meet these strange bule types who have no belief in God, or don’t see the importance of choosing a religion, or who may think that religion is a thing of the past, isn’t easy to digest.
My Indonesian friends were afraid for me when I came to Indonesia alone. They thought the building that I was living in was haunted, and refused to ever enter alone. They worried about me having no family around me, as their families are the roots that hold them together and help them to grow. A common question you may be asked here is “who are you living with?” and when I tell them that I live alone, it is almost as though their eyes well up with tears in sympathy for me. No religion, no husband, no children, no family; what on earth was I doing with my life? Kasian deh lo!
As for the common belief that bules love to shop at supermarkets, well, that is true. I love going to the supermarket and seeing familiar items on the shelves – price tags I can read, all of the essential items at my fingertips, and I still haven’t got any idea of how other people shop here. I was so surprised when a boy knocked at my door the other day from the warung (little box of a shop 3 metres x 2 metres where the owner often lives) close to my house, with a steaming bowl of indo mie (aka 2 minute noodles with an egg, chili sauce and a green leaf of some kind), some cigarettes and a couple of ice teas that my pacar had ordered. I didn’t know that you could order hot food from the little box of a shop. Only an Indonesian would know that. And only an Indonesian would have the phone number of the local warung so they can deliver direct to your door rather than having to walk the 20 metres to the shop.
Please, be patient here as I unashamedly spew forth some stereotypes about over 200,000,000 Indonesians.
The average Indonesian lives as part of a kampung – like a small suburb – where the doors are open, and what other people in the kampung think matters; they are your community, and they are there to care for you, to protect your house, to collect your rubbish, to meet at the local mosque, to do all of the things that a bule would expect their local government to take care of, and to make sure you are living a good life, within the rules. They will support you if you are in trouble. The average bule lives in a more isolated box where you make your own decisions, try not to offend the neighbours if you know them at all, but if you do, hope they will get over it.
Now, just to make it clear, if I am on a new adventure, anything is acceptable to me; sleeping in a train station, eating rice or any kind of slops for all meals, but when I am in a place long term, a place that I want to call home, my wants and needs alter. I like hot water coming out of a jet when I shower; an Indonesian is happy with a bucket of water and a ladle. I like toilet paper and a flushing toilet. An Indonesian is fine with a squatting toilet and the same bucket and ladle (I still don’t get this). I like to sit in a chair when I need to rest my legs; Indonesians are happy to sit on the floor or sit comfortably in a squatting position which hurts my knees just to look at. I prefer to sit in a half empty restaurant with space to move; Indonesians are happy to crowd onto one bench and slurp noisily. If I have to get a train during peak hour and stand all the way home you will see steam coming out of my ears; an Indonesian will stand for 2 hours stuck in traffic on a rickety bus and still manage to chat on their blackberries.
I like to define my meals as breakfast, lunch and dinner where rice is more of a dinner option; if an Indonesian doesn’t eat rice with each meal, they will never be full. I like to go into my own room when I want to and close the door and be alone; an Indonesian often doesn’t have this choice and feels alone if they aren’t surrounded by people. I like to add my own sugar to my coffee or tea, usually just a teaspoon or a spoon and a half; an Indonesian is happy to have their tea with 7 tablespoons of sugar already added. I like to have a price tag on the items I am buying and get a guilty feeling if I dare to ask for a discount; an Indonesian will argue tooth and nail to lower even fixed prices and still manage to befriend the shop owner.
I like to be on time for appointments and feel bad if I am late; Indonesians live in a realm of jam karet (rubber time) where it is acceptable to be 2 hours late. When I am ready to leave, I leave, often making sneaky exits; an Indonesian will wait patiently for their friend to solat (pray) first and then respectfully shake hands of everyone in the room, and if there are older people in the room, an Indonesian will cium tangan (take the elder’s hand to their forehead) to say goodbye.
Obviously to live beside a mosque as an Indonesian (I don’t know if this only counts for Muslims) is a bonus, the sound of the call to prayer may be like listening to a classical symphony; to me it is a lot of noise with “ya Allah” being the only 2 sounds I can understand.
I was yelled at so many times in Melbourne for not standing on the left hand side of the escalator (or right hand side to walk), “hey, stand on the left or bloody move out of my way!”, that I am always conscious about being in people’s way; an Indonesian will stand in the middle of the escalator or at the top of the escalator having a chat blissfully unaware of the people behind. If I rear-end a vehicle it will ruin my day and my insurance premiums; in Indonesia to bump your motorbike into the person in front of you can happen 20 times on the way home without anyone being concerned.
The differences are rich and varied; from every day things to overall consciousness. Indonesians are teaching me about patience (I have a long road to travel here) and the joy of community. They are also teaching me the joy of stereotyping.