It often starts with a changed expression. Furrowed eyebrows. An uncertain smile. Blinking.
The person, usually a cashier or a waiter, has just realized something is off about me. Why is this Indonesian-looking person seeking assistance? they wonder. Why is she mumbling only a word or two at a time? Why does she only smile at polite enquiries? What are those weird things she’s buying?
The realization slowly dawns. This is not an Indonesian.
A half-Malay, half-Caucasian ETA coined the term “secret bule” for the ETAs who could pass as Indonesians, usually some flavor of Asian. We, unlike many other ETAs, can glide through Indonesia undisturbed. As long as we keep our sentences few (unless we speak excellent Bahasa), we can shop in the mall or relax in a coffee shop as we please. We don’t get charged the inflated “bule price” while shopping or visiting attractions. We don’t get mobbed with requests for “foto, foto!” by random passersby when we walk down the street.
Yet, while we don’t go through the downsides of being a visible bule in Indonesia, passing for Indonesian comes with its own issues. As a Filipino-American navigating an unfamiliar culture, almost all my conversations with new people made aware of my American citizenship start with a variation of this: “Why do you have an Asian face?”
I have a standard answer: “Lahir di Amerika tapi keluarga saya dari Pilipina.” (I was born in America, but my family is from the Philippines.)
It’s not the most comprehensive answer. I learned later some people labored under the misapprehension that I was half-Caucasian because surely, there’s no way I can be American if I don’t have a white parent. Still, inundated with back-to-back inquiries about my appearance and citizenship, it gets the job done. I save my protestations for people who keep pressing the point:
“No, I know only five words of Tagalog. No, I do not know much about Filipino pop culture. No, I have only been to the Philippines a few times, so I have no idea what your favorite place is like.”
I also give a standard lesson delineating race, ethnicity, and nationality/citizenship to my high school students, using myself as an example:
Race = Asian, Ethnicity = Filipino, Nationality/Citizenship = American.
Melissa*, a fellow ETA and “secret bule”, is stricter about her boundaries, preferring to be quiet among strangers but clear about her citizenship to people she knows. “I want to be acknowledged as American in my social circles,” she explained. Discovering that some people at her site continue to believe she is not American, she wonders at times, “Is there a point to all this if they still think I’m from Malaysia?”
The endless attention white ETAs receive can become a source of envy, even if the “secret bule” doesn’t necessarily want it. Hannah*, another ETA who can pass as an Indonesian, generally likes that she can out herself as an American at her convenience. She said, “Everyone wants to show off their trophy bule, but that doesn’t happen to me.” She further struggles with what she feels are expectations placed on her because of her appearance, fearing that because she passes, people unfamiliar with her background can be less forgiving of any unknowing violation of social mores. At her site, she said of some strangers who hear her speak English or limited bahasa Indonesia, “It’s not always a friendly response.”
Additionally, looking like an Indonesian can make it harder to do our jobs as ETAs, when our “expertise” in American language and culture is not complemented with a stereotypically white American body. Melissa points out that because “the narrative of being an American doesn’t match [her] appearance,” her achievements can be undervalued compared to other Americans who don’t pass. Speaking Bahasa Indonesia well may earn her praise, but her white friends’ command of the language is cause for even greater celebration.
It’s not all struggle, though. Even if we don’t get instant and constant attention and adulation, our “Indonesian” looks can break down some boundaries between ourselves and the people around us. Hannah feels like her interactions with Indonesian people are more genuine: “They treat me like everyone else….I really like that.” Melissa, of Malaysian descent, benefits from her familiarity with the language and culture: “People feel closer to me. People feel less anxiety about practicing English with [me].”
In the end, I try not to let it get to me. There are many daily reminders of the overwhelming narrative that Americans are white, a narrative bulwarked by centuries of imperialism, media, and popular culture. They wear on me, and it’s impossible for them not to. So I cling to moments like this:
“[Last year’s ETA] had trouble eating rice all the time, but Anna does not because she is Asian,” my counterpart said, smiling.
It’s silly, but hearing anything positive about my bicultural identity is nothing to sneeze at. If being willing and able to eat mountains of rice will make me less alien and more approachable to the people around me, being a “secret bule” needn’t always be a source of stress. I prefer to think of it as being a “strategic bule.” I can choose to blend in or not, and that’s a rare privilege for American ETAs.
*Names have been changed.
About the author: Anna Cabe is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palembang, South Sumatra. She graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2013 with a degree in English Literature-Creative Writing.