Being brown and “bule” in Indonesia

To say that I feel safe in Indonesia than in my home country is not a statement that should be taken as an elevator pitch. There are other foreigners who have had terrible memories in this part of the world (read Diana’s post on experiencing blatant racism). 

The privilege of being a brown Southeast Asian in Indonesia is that you don’t elicit so much attention when you’re going around the country. In Malang or elsewhere, I haggle goods at the market, ask directions from people at the street without anyone getting a hint that saya bukan orang Indonesia. In many ways, it works to my advantage. As a sociologist in training, it gives me a privilege to see Indonesia like an Indonesian. 

To be considered like one of the locals is that you’re expected to act like an Indonesian. So far, I’ve been told to never use my left hand when passing objects to another person, to be politer to people above my social strata by addressing them in honorary pronouns instead of their names, to never be critical to people in position, and, to start thinking about marriage because I’m not getting any younger.

The reality, of course, is that I am not an Indonesian and my world view is far different. I think the left hand should be used when handing over money most especially to food vendors (the right hand must be kept clean), giving unnecessary honour to people just because they hold a higher position only perpetuates feudalism and – to my suspicion – is the reason why we’re cultivating corruption (this is a master-slave relationship), and marriage is the least of my concerns (because raising kids is not a joke).

So when conversations with strangers run deep – the invisibility cloak fades away. Where are you from, they’d ask. I come from the Philippines, I would answer. No wonder you think and sound differently.

It’s when I open my mouth and speak earnestly that I undress myself and expose my bule-ness to people.

I loathe passing as a bule because the concept of bule holds  a problematic meaning. By definition, bule refers to people of European descent. These are the people whose pictures you see in promotional materials for products masquerading as international. I am a Filipino. My skin is brown and my nose is flat.

But these days the term bule is used to put all the foreigners in one basket – only to confuse people. I do not have sufficient knowledge about the origin of such term. What I do know is that locals have nuances of the term bule:

A brown Southeast Asian foreigner only becomes a bule when he’s grappling with his Bahasa Indonesia. He will get an apology for being mistaken as a local. He will hear excuses like we’re sorry we ignored you for hours at the lounge; we didn’t know you’re a foreigner. Where do you come from? How long have you been in Indonesia? What is your makanan favorit?

A brown Southeast Asian foreigner is not the kind of bule that locals would want to have a photo with. Hence, don’t be surprised if your other white foreigner friends get more invitations than you. They make events look awesome – regardless of how nonsense it is. If one of your local friends ask you if you have a bule friend whom they can use for a promotional video, ask him if he meant Caucasian.

I do not want to disparage the locals themselves for this because they’re not entirely at fault. There are institutions who far worthy of blame for conniving in cementing this ugly inferiority complex on the locals. If institutions could stop portraying white foreigners as superiors (exhibit A), then maybe we could address issues such as racism.

READ: Sindrom Inferioritas Orang Indonesia Terhadap Bule


3 thoughts on “Being brown and “bule” in Indonesia

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