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Don't Call Me bule!

Or how expatriates experience a word

Most foreigners living in Indonesia have experienced it at some point: being called bule. The term is an Indonesian language word commonly used to describe white persons. Its literal meaning, according to most dictionaries, is ‘albino’. Calling white foreigners bule, however, can cause offence, and lead to heated debates about the meaning of the word, as in the 'Living in Indonesia' forum on this website. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at the term that can upset expatriates, while some Indonesians regard it as an innocent habit with no ill intent.

The phenomenon

White foreigners are being called bule in different situations - in remarks on the street, or in conversations among Indonesians. A typical scenario is a Westerner passing a group of schoolchildren, and one child pointing to the person, shouting: ‘look, there is a bule’. It would also be common to say ‘My neighbour works for a bule’ or ‘There are many bules living around Kemang’. Indonesians might use the word bule when directly addressing foreigners, for example when a vendor in a market calls, 'eh bule, beli ini dong!' [‘hey bule, come and buy this!’]. Sometimes, exclaiming ‘hello bule’, or ‘hello mister’ can simply be an attempt to attract attention from, or to start a chat with, passing foreigners.

Many expatriates, however, are annoyed by this habit. For example, Eva, a German woman, talks about how she was shopping in a supermarket, when she realised two young women were looking at her, and one whispered to the other, ‘see the bule over there?’ Eva found this offensive; she thought the women behaved as if Eva was not able to understand their conversation, and felt being treated like a non-person. Sometimes, the term 'bule' is used in the presence of foreigners, for example as shop assistants talk about a customer, such as ‘the bule wants the black frame for this picture’- which foreigners find degrading or hurtful.

What does bule mean?

While many expatriates consider bule offensive, the term can have different meanings, depending on the context. Some Indonesians argue that bule is a neutral word, which can have positive meanings attached to it, as well as negative ones. Others maintain that bule is a functional word – a kind of shorthand to describe a white foreigner. A writer on the 'Living in Indonesia' forum affirms that, ‘bule is purpose for a white or Caucasian foreigner, cos the skin looks more brighter than Indonesian skin. Don't worry, it doesn't mean any offence. Or it doesn't mean Indonesian peoples [are] racist to white peoples or black peoples’ (10/07/00).’ An American contributor to the Forum presents it as follows: ‘There is nothing impolite inferred when an Indonesian refers to you as Bule. At home we have to tread on eggshells and pretend all races (and sexes) are the same for political correctness, but Indonesians just call a spade a spade (no pun intended) and say it like it is. You are white; they call you bule’ (6/04/02). Some Indonesians, however, point out that while bule might not be derogatory, as an informal term it is impolite. David, a Canadian working at a Indonesian university, made clear: ‘My university colleagues would never refer to me as bule in an official context, for example in a meeting. It’s seen as inappropriate because it’s too colloquial’. Similarly, another expatriate reckons that ‘any decent educated Indonesian will not address you as bule unless the person intended to flaunt disrespect’ (20/04/01).

Both Indonesians and foreigners who regard the term bule as neutral, however, acknowledge that it can be used as an insult. As one expatriate points out, ‘I have never considered it [bule] racist, but I can see why some people might use it in an offensive manner towards you’ (28/12/00). An American, long-term resident in Indonesia, points out that ‘if you get called "bule kampung" (…) that's another thing. And if you get called "bule kepet", then you really should be offended’ (6/04/02). Another expatriate reckons that ‘when people are trying to be offensive by the use of "bule", it's usually pretty obvious. Example 1, walking down the street, a bus zooms by and dozens of school kids yell out the windows, "BLAY". Example 2, walking through Blok M late at night and a gang of young males standing in a dark corner shout out "BLAY" (20/04/01). However, both Indonesians and expatriates point out that bule sometimes also suggests appreciation. As David has observed, ‘some of my Indonesian friends just love bules, they admire bules and everything that bules do - and they still call them bule’.

I'm not a stereotype!

If the meaning of the word bule is variable, and not necessarily an insult, why do many foreigners find it offensive? One reason could be that the term contains stereotypical ideas about foreigners, which many regard as unjustified. Tom, a young Canadian, summed them up: 'if they call me bule, that means I'm somebody who is rich, rude, and ignorant, who smells of cheese and has no morals - and I don't like to be stereotyped like this'. Being called bule therefore seems to reduce foreigners to a racial stereotype that they feel they do not deserve.

Being stereotyped like this is particularly upsetting for expatriates who feel that they have adapted to Indonesia far more than the term bule suggests. For example, Linda, a Canadian, has been living in Jakarta for more than a year. She speaks the language well, her colleagues are Indonesians, and she has quite a few Indonesian friends. But as she explains, 'all this does not help. When I pass by the becak drivers at my street corner, they still shout at me, hey, bule! As if I was some stupid tourist'. Linda is exasperated or depressed, because she feels the drivers do not recognise how much she belongs here, and that she has made Indonesia her home. At the basis of this lies a struggle about belonging: when a person considers herself as part of a community, not everybody else might be aware of it, or acknowledge it. Calling all foreigners bule, irrespective of their individual integration, is therefore especially hurtful for those foreigners who have made an effort.

'Whiteness is not a race'

Many expatriates, though, who do regard themselves as particularly integrated, are also annoyed by the term bule. Rosie, a German expatriate, complained that, 'the word bule sounds really ugly ... like something you are spitting out'. Another German woman, Gerda, felt that the original meaning of the term – albino - was insulting, because: 'Albino means that you are lacking something, that your skin colour is not normal. But where I come from, millions of people look like this'. One reason for Gerda's, and other expatriates' irritation might be that they are not used to being categorised as a 'race' at all. The term 'race' was mostly related to being black or coloured; white people, it seemed, had no colour, and therefore did not count as a 'race'. For many expatriates, it is therefore a new experience not to be invisible, but being a 'racial Other'. For the first time, they are different with respect to an 'Asian racial norm'. Expatriates' anger about the term bule might therefore a sign of their discomfort with being 'racially deviant', a label which they are not used to, and feel they don't deserve.

How controversial this issue can be, becomes apparent in the debates on the Living in Indonesia forum. One contributor finds that: 'the word's (bule) origins are ... and remain derogatory. Allowing people to use the word - or worse, using it yourself - supports the ignorance that surrounds us here as it does in every culture’ (16/07/02). Another writer puts the blame on the character of Indonesians: 'they use the term (bule) to boost their own lack of self-esteem. As we know, belittling someone else to give yourself an ego boost won't work for long. If short sightedness is a stumbling block to nation building, Indonesians are only delaying the day when they can truly claim to be citizens of a nation they made instead of one they inherited from the UN after WW2’ ( 5/04/02).

An additional sting for expatriates, however, might be that they feel insulted by Indonesians - people whom some consider to be politically backward, and intellectually less capable. In their responses, some expatriates therefore suggest that Indonesians need more education. As one contributor claims, ‘teaching people their own language and setting limits for correct social behavior is a right we all possess as humans. .. I will not allow someone talking to me to use derogatory English terms for ethnic Western groups, so why should I allow an Indonesian to use a slur when referring to me? If anything, not correcting them is even more arrogant – it shows you don't think Indonesians are worth teaching … because ignorance and laziness are at the root of this country's centuries-old troubles.’ (posted by SEF,1/02/02).

Expatriates' reactions

Being the object of racial stereotyping – or even abuse – is thus a new experience for many expatriates, which they have not encountered before in their home countries. How do they react to this? While responses on the discussion forum vary, some expatriates conclude that Indonesia is a racist society. As one contributor declares, 'bule is offensive and this is one of the most racist – or race conscious – societies I've ever lived in. It's probably worse than the Southern United States, where I was born. It's worse because on top of low general educational levels, most Indonesian have few real social graces' ( 21/04/01).

A second writer agrees: 'Indonesia is one of the most racist societies in which I've ever had the pleasure of living. Indonesians are constantly denigrating others (including one another) by tribe, birthplace, and religion. While, admittedly, this is human nature at its worst and done everywhere, it still has no place in a pluralistic, democratic society. Because developing that kind of society is Indonesia's main problem now, use of any derogatory remarks to describe other humans must be stopped now' (23/04/01).

It does not seem to occur to these two writers, however, that Indonesia seems racist to them because they have, for the first time, received racial insults themselves. This is pointed out to them, however, by other participants: ‘I've heard many people describe Indonesia as the most racist place they've ever been and although I would never argue that it isn't racist, I don't think its more racist than other places, but that it is probably the only place where expats (who are mostly white) have experienced racism personally directed at them. You have probably lived with racism all around you but until you moved to Indonesia and became a victim of it you just didn't notice it' ( 23/04/01).

If this observation is correct, one could take one step further and regard this situation as a possibility for Euro-Americans to experience how many non-white people in expatriates' home countries feel. Their lives in Jakarta could be a chance to gain a different perspective on themselves – that 'whiteness' is not the norm, but only one among many 'racial categories'. However, it seems that many expatriates do not regard this as an opportunity, but rather see themselves as victims of 'racist' Indonesians.

If there is anything to take away from these discussions, it is a reminder that the word bule is not always meant as an offence. Also, if foreigners sometimes saw themselves as others see them, it might reduce some of their resentment. Finally, some expatriates have found another way to get rid of the word's nasty overtones: they simply use the term bule themselves.

Our appreciation to Anne-Meike Fechter who wrote and contributed this article at the request of the organizing committee. July 2003

Read Meike's book entitled "Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia".