I hear it on my bike ride home from school, waiting in the domestic departure section of the airport, and buying groceries from my neighborhood vegetable seller. Strangers shout it at me and burst into laughter, kids yell it outside my gate and run away as soon as I open the door, and people mumble it to each other, pointing surreptitiously as I pass by.
What is a bule (pronounced “bu-lay”)?
When I ask this question of some of my female Indonesian friends, they point at my skin: “putih” (white). Next they point to their own skin: “hitam” (black). I stare carefully at our skin, but I do not see it.
My skin has tanned significantly as a result of the brutal equatorial sun (well, my arm skin – the rest of me never sees the sun), and many of my Indonesian friends use whitening products and are cautious to never expose their skin to the sun (going so far as to wear gloves when they drive their motorbikes in 90-degree weather). The result? Our skin is hardly a few shades different from each other.
Is a bule then distinguished by language? Bules are not necessarily just English-speakers; they can be Europeans, North and South Americans, or Australians. Perhaps they are “white” people who cannot speak bahasa Indonesia? But even Terry Collins, prominent expat Jakartass blogger and Jakarta resident for over 20 years, continues to be called bule, much to his chagrin.
Is it determined by nationality? Certainly not: many of my fellow American Fulbrighters are denied the term because they are of a non-white ethnicity. In fact, their nationality is often doubted because, in the eyes of some Indonesians, all Americans surely must be white. That is what our media often portrays to Indonesia, at least.
So, what is a bule? It is one of those slippery racial terms that evades exact definition because it is simply another word for “other.” Literally it means “albino” and is occasionally used to refer to albino Indonesians, but that meaning is generally superseded by its more colloquial use to describe white foreigners.
Should I be bothered by this categorization? I cannot make up my mind. I am a white middle-class girl from the U.S., and of course I have benefited from all the privilege that entails, so my intention is not to whine about my first experience as an object of racial stereotyping. But I am also a student who wrote her thesis on the power of language, and I’m curious how this word operates and affects our jobs as teachers and cultural ambassadors in Indonesia.
Most of my Indonesian friends insist it is not intentionally malicious or offensive; it is only intended to denote difference. And, honestly, sometimes I use the term to describe myself. Whenever I make a cultural faux pas or there is an awkward misunderstanding, it is easy to blame it on my bule status: “Maaf, saya bule – belum mengerti!” (Sorry, I’m a bule – I don’t understand yet!). It is a helpful tool to explain away miscommunication and confusion.
However, there are other times when the word gets under my skin and makes me cringe. For example,
- I dislike that when I go for a jalan-jalan around my neighborhood and pass the warung full of unemployed men, they leer and shout “Hey! Hey bule! Mau ke mana bule? HEY BULE!!! COME HERE! SINGLE? HEY BULE!” As if my “bule-ness” somehow makes me deserving of inappropriate and excessive attention from men.
- I dislike that being a bule means that some people think it is okay to talk about anything in front of me, because of the assumption that I am liberal and OK with “free sex.” I really do not care to know that eating sate supposedly gives men a performance advantage in bed.
- It bothers me that, as a bule, it’s assumed that I’m loaded. I have student loans, my parents are divorced, and I saved up my own money so that I could afford to travel while I’m living in Indonesia. Admittedly, the exchange rate is such that Indonesia is an extremely cheap travel destination for Americans, but that does not mean I want to pay the “bule price” – typically five times the real price of any given item.
- I am also uncomfortable with the assumption that I must be friends with all the other nearby bules. There are less than five bules in Madiun, but I have yet to meet them. Still, I frequently get the comment, “I saw your friend at the mall yesterday” or “Your friends were eating nasi pecel last night.” I’m initially very confused – “Which friend?” – until I realize they’re simply referring to another foreigner.
But the main reason I cringe at the word? Once a stranger has termed me bule, they have built a series of assumptions about who and what I am. Often, the word is used when I have no opportunity to respond or communicate to the person yelling it at me. They’re not interested in getting to know me, they’re not interested in learning if I’m actually liberal, sexually licentious, and exorbitantly rich. The unique me? Who cares about that? I stand as a symbol for an imagined “other,”and to get to know me would challenge a widespread system of thought.
Thus, it is not exactly the word that bothers me, but rather the resulting attitude. And the fact that some Indonesians are similarly offended for me makes me feel more justified in my discomfort. A fellow Fulbrighter, Catherine Brist, put it this way:
“When I was living with my host family in Malang, my host mom got really, really angry at her grandson for calling me a bule. She told him it was disrespectful and mean. Before that I always thought it was a harmless word, but her reaction made me rethink it a little and wonder if people always say it with good intentions. Now it sort of makes me uncomfortable and I wish people wouldn’t say it.”
Some foreigners go so far as to suggest that the use of bule reveals an inherent racism in Indonesian culture. But I reject that generalization and acknowledge the presence of a variety of demeaning racial terms in American English. My own musings on the word do not presume to comment on Indonesian attitudes towards race; rather, I aim to reveal my own experience and ambivalence with my labeled identity in a foreign culture.
I have found that, when used by someone who doesn’t know me, bule can prevent any further cross-cultural understanding from occurring. It becomes a barrier to connection, and isn’t the whole point of the Fulbright to forge connections? As a result, in my classroom and in interactions with my fellow teachers, I use bule as a teaching opportunity for the issue of race in America to contextualize my personal discomfort.
About the author: Kelsey Figone is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Madiun, East Java, and a managing editor of Indonesiaful. Figone graduated from Scripps College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture, studying language and human rights. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.