Navigating Indonesia as a white ‘bule’

(Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

At Prambanan, as at other Indonesian tourist attractions, Indonesian English clubs gather to practice speaking with foreign visitors — a kind of language field trip that doesn’t require traveling far from home. I find it problematic that the groups target any white visitor. English speakers come from a variety of cultural and national backgrounds, which means that some white tourists don’t speak English, while other “unexpected” tourists may have a perfect command of the language, even if they don’t fit the imagined profile of an English-speaker. (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

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.

Bule.

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.

The phenomenon of baby powder in Indonesia... (May May Kaufman/Indonesiaful)

The phenomenon of baby powder in Indonesia. (May May Kaufman/Indonesiaful)

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 kfigone531@gmail.com.

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19 thoughts on “Navigating Indonesia as a white ‘bule’

  1. “Bule” is not intending for racism. The word could be use for beauty, non flat noses, white skin, non black hair, blue eyes and also for western traveler / tourism guest from western.

    Should be proud of it. Salam

    • What? It’s nothing to be proud of, it’s just a different look. You’re perpetuating the idea that whiteness is more beautiful than any other kind of look. Would you tell your mother that she is beautiful DESPITE looking like an Indonesian? No, you would say she is beautiful, period.

      • well unfortunately, dutch colonialism and hegemony and modern western-controlled media forced it into the Indonesians’ subconscious minds that bule is always better, stronger and more handsome/beautiful etc.

        Im also a bule, maybe not really, cos I’m a Turk, and orang Turki is saudara with Indonesia.. but I understand why many Indonesians are in a inferiority complex.

  2. Pingback: Blacksweet: Tangling with skin color in Indonesia « Indonesiaful.com

  3. Bule or Bulek ( from bulai )means white skinned people. its no more means albino and not a deregatory term in bahasa indonesia. its comparable to ” Asian ” Hispanic ” Whites”. there are two words to adress white skinned people in bhs indonesia, ” bule and Londo ” , both are polite and can be used even in a formal situation. dont get pissed off.

  4. intersting article…
    people should not judge the book by its cover..
    i’m Indonesian and i’m feeling ashamed by the way most Indonesian treat foreign people…it’s not our culture, actually.
    it seems like you speak Bahasa fluently.
    Make some articles in Bahasa, please… So Indonesian people could learning something and knowing about this issue.
    Sorry for my bad english… 🙂

  5. Interesting article. What would you suggest as an alternative term? To me “bule” means “Caucasians”, that’s all.

  6. You know, Indonesian does not call Bule for white people in the 80’s. Since the private TV media term “Bule” there is. Previously they call white people with “Londo” (Dutch), both Europeans and Americans, particularly in Java.

  7. I am an Indonesian girl who has natural tan-coloured skin.
    I as the owner of dark skin and a Native Indonesian, have felt how rough it was to be a dark skinned girl. And yes, dark skin considered ugly here. When I was younger, some boys told me that I was ugly. I was really ashamed.
    But as I grow older I came to understand that the colour of your skin is not that important. The most important is you have a clean, healthy and beautiful skin, and of course, a pretty face lol.

  8. I’ve been here for about 6 weeks now, and I still can’t get my head around the “bule” concept. I’ve seen it used (seemingly) as a term of endearment, but the way in which it can be just shouted at you is quite bizarre, as their never seems any expectation of a response (and much confusion if I decide to respond in Bahasa-Indonesia”). It’s this latter part that I find really hard to understand – it reminds me a lot of the type of catcalling many women get in North America (and everywhere else, no doubt), where someone drives by and honks, or just yells something as you’re passing by. Heck, kids will yell Bule at me and literally run away. It seems exponentially worse for women, near as I can tell.
    I think a fairly apt comparison is the way that “Asian” is often used in North America. It is not, in itself, offensive, but it calls to mind particular stereotypes (more so than using any particular national identity), and that this seems to be even more potent when applied to women (the whole docile/quiet/submissive Asian women stereotype that is still quite pervasive).

  9. Useful piece of information – most motorcycle riders wear gloves because that’s the first thing that usually hit’s anything in an accident. You can’t do much with a scraped up hand or broken fingers. We don’t care how hot it is. “I’d rather sweat than bleed”

  10. Hi Kelsey!

    As an Indonesian girl, I myself also get inappropriate attention and cat-calls from those unemployed men hanging out at warungs. I believe you had it worse, though, because they shouted at you, where in my case it’s usually ‘just’ whistles and/or whispers. However, I think the excessive attention you got had had less to do with you being a bule and more with them assuming you did not understand what they were saying.

    Indonesians do use terms and make comments that are generally perceived as racist by foreigners (i.e calling somone ‘bule, commenting on physical appearances), but I can assure you that these terms and comments are not intended to be racist or derogatory. As a multi-ethnic, multi-language, multi-religion nation, Indonesian people are so used to diversification that it’s become very common to point out differences. I can call my friends ‘Sunda!’ or ‘Dasar Batak!’ when they do/say something really sundanese or bataknese (each race in Indonesia tend to have its special traits thanks to cultural differences), yet nobody will feel offended because they understand that those terms do not imply a certain race inferiority (unlike when you call an African-American ‘nigger’).

    Our country is extremely diverse it has become casual to talk openly about differences, even make jokes out of them. And do not get me started with religion differences – in my circle of interreligious friendship we can jokingly mock muslims for being ‘terrorists and extremists’ and christians for believeng in a god who was ‘so weak he was tortured to death’ and still love each other. In my opinion, these kind of things show Indonesians’ ability to look beyond the surface of respecting differences, not simply being polite by never mentioning differences. We have come to a degree of respect where differences are openly acknowledged because we are not ashamed of being different.

    I am afraid that my lack of proficiency in English will corrupt my points, but I hope you get my gist.

  11. Interesting perspective, Kelsey … probably the same one held by visible minorities across North America. It really is dehumanizing to be categorized on sight by your skin colour, isn’t it?

  12. Im a white english man and my wife is Sumatran i have two children i lived in Jakarta and was called Bule everywhere I just got used to it, however when i first went there it used to really bother me

  13. Actually bule is used to talk about all white living things, and it isnot racial terms. Javanesse will always call white people, including albinos, as bule. in Solo they have also some white/albino buffalos which they call as bule also. For sure, bule is a call for all white living things, but especially for human being, javanesse also call them as “londo”. londo is derived from walondo which means Dutch. Javanesse generalize all white people as dutchmen thatis why javanesse call white people as londo. so whenever indonesian people call you ‘bule’ or ‘londo, you need to be worried, because you are factually bule or londo. bule and londo means no more than white foreigners for indonesia. it is not racial term at all.

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  15. Pingback: 10 Kebiasaan Unik Orang Indonesia yang Bikin Para Bule Heran – penasaran8

  16. I’m glad that someone else feels as uncomfortable as I do being hemmed into a word and sometimes seen only as the body that I am in. I have lived here for a few months now, received warmth from some people, made friends with Indonesians, however I remain offended by being looked at as a ‘white woman’ and even more offended when I experience street harassment from groups of men here. Perhaps I am just ‘sensitive’ but I am deeply hurt by being diminished to a race or gender, even worse to a skin colour. It’s not so much the term as what it entails-that I am white. I grew up in a multicultural city where race was tolerated all throughout school to the point where it took me many many years to even know that we are of different races. People are souls. So yes I am offended by this attitude. I wish people could think about it and it would stop. I’ve traveled widely and have felt myself here more than anywhere to be seen first and foremost, by a startling number of people, as a skin colour and/or a gender. I wish people would just look in my eyes first and see that I am more when I go for my daily walks because it makes my heart sink when I’m categorised by my body.

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