The call follows me as I walk through the market. Stallholders look up from their phones wondering who everyone is shouting at, their eyes alight on me and the they realise it is me and join in the call while indicating their wares.
“Saya bule pak”
Upon receiving a message from the grab driver asking what colour my shirt so so they can identify me, I respond with the above because there are 20 other people here wearing a black shirt, but I stand out.
The word ‘bule' follows you around Indonesia. Indiscriminate in who uses it, from a bunch of children to a taxi driver and everyone in between, it is one of the few constants in a country that seems forever moving and changing. There is no equivalent in English and there isn't really an alternative word in Indonesian. In the simplest way I can put it, ‘bule' means foreigner.
Originally ‘bule' means Caucasian, but today, just about anyone who is not Indonesian comes under the umbrella term of ‘bule' or one of the more specific term such as ‘bule cina' for someone from China. If you go even further back, in the Dutch colonial times, ‘bule' was the Javanese word for a white cow/buffalo. The word, like all words has evolved throughout the years to take on new meanings and new subtext. However, in a world that is increasingly moving away from words which could be classed as racial profiling, what place does ‘bule' have? Should a word which is unapologetically related to race be accepted in wider culture and what impact does the use of the word have on those it is used against but also what does that tell us about the people it is used by?
When writing this article, I asked a Facebook group for Jakarta based expats what their opinion and experience has been with the word ‘bule'. Of the roughly 40 people who responded, opinions ranged from outright hatred of the word, to the point where people will correct those who use it; to people who see it as a harmless phrase used by many to talk about the few. The range of opinion just goes to further cement my current thinking on its use, which is that a universal opinion can never be reached when it comes to issues of race. Though I have been called a ‘bule' multiple times while in Indonesia, for the most part it is meant with no malice. I cannot compare ‘bule' to the racial slurs which were common in the UK until recently, where these words carried malice and derogatory subtext. As far as I know ‘bule' while is carries hidden meaning, is less derogatory and more linked to examples such as market sellers raising their prices for ‘bules' because they think we can afford it. There is of course the argument for ‘bule' being used negatively and there are I'm sure, people who use it as such. But as someone who has white privilege, something which I feel more keenly in Indonesia that back in the UK sometimes, is it really my place to complain about being called a foreigner, when I am.
Living in a country where racism is something I see daily, whether meant on purpose or not, makes me really confront my privilege. Indonesia is unfortunately one of the many countries in this part of the world, where pale skin is what is desired. Skin bleaching creams are very much the norm and I have heard children with darker complexions be asked somewhat inappropriate question by fellow students. So, when I hear ‘bule', should I be offended because someone is profiling me, or should I be worried because it is another form of racism that is being normalised? And if I do get offended, is it really my place to feel that way? This is not my country or my language, is it really my place to come in and tell people how to speak? All of these questions are things I am still thinking about and still forming an ever-changing opinion on. But one thing is clear, if you want to come to Indonesia, be prepared to be called a ‘bule'; it's not going away any time soon. Be aware and know that people do not mean it with malice, if you don't like it say, but know that there is every chance that will change very little.