I am a siren of a person. In a crowd of Indonesians, I am the one brown head in a sea of black. I have peachy pale skin and freckles splashed across my apparently excessively sharp nose. Everything from my height and weight and facial composition advertises DIFFERENT. I cannot be anonymous here, not even if I wear hijab and duck my head. Trust me, I've already tried.
That's the first element of the life of a bule: not being able to blend in, ever. As I've mentioned here before, 'bule' is the word Indonesians use for a foreigner, but is also used to refer to white people in general. It's become something of a second name for me as I've settled into daily life here.
My bule-ness follows me everywhere. Somehow, my pale skin makes me rich (I still don't know how to get it through to Indonesians that Apple products are expensive in America too), beautiful, glamorous. It also makes for an excellent excuse for everything I do that might be strange or slightly socially unacceptable. Being bule means that usually, Indonesians assume I don't know their language or their way of life, they even kind of expect me to be strange. Any faux pas I make can be laughed off to the tune of 'oh, she's just a silly bule, she didn't know better!'
It's an incredibly convenient excuse for me to take advantage of all life has to offer here (within reason, of course). It's entirely liberating in this respect. But being a foreigner living in Indonesia also comes with a slew of challenges and little difficulties, that never really ease with time.
One of the biggest issues of being bule here is all the stares. I've already elaborated how different I am, and how stark that difference is. Just like someone with hot pink hair in America would attract a few extra looks, being bule in Indonesia means that everyone has to have a good, long look.
I can understand this. Especially in some places I frequent, like the market or school, bule are an extreme rarity and people are curious to see me there. Surabaya, despite its close proximity to Bali, has very few white tourists. I'm something different appearing in people's day-to-day life. I can't begrudge them a look or even the occasional "where are you from?"...
But sometimes, extreme visibility just plain sucks. I can't walk around without being looked at. Everything I do in public will be watched by someone. I'm a living breathing representation of my homeland, and the pressure to always make a good impression can be intense. If I'm tired but someone tries to get me into a conversation, I feel horrible if I don't respond... despite the fact that every conversation is exactly the same for me, right down to the typical questions and answers:
- Where are you from? (Amerika Serikat)
- Where do you live in America? (Boise, Idaho)
- Idaho? Where's that? (Near California...)
- Where do you live in Indonesia/Surabaya? (*insert the name of my Indonesian neighborhood here* Oh! Yep, it's actually okay to give your address to random people here, not that I ever have. They even put the home addresses of celebrities in the newspaper.)
- Do you have a boyfriend? (Noooope, and no, I don't want one either!)
- Do you like Indonesia? (Very much)
- Can you eat spicy food? (Not really, I'm not used to it, it hurts my mouth if I try)
- How long have you been in Indonesia? (Four months)
- Can you speak Indonesian? (I can, but I'm not yet fluent)
- Can you understand Javanese? (Oooonly a tiny bit)
And so on.
Sometimes it feels like my humanity is forgotten, especially in the moments when I walk in a crowded alley or in a market. Reactions can be extremely dramatic. It's like I'm a celebrity or some ultra-famous supermodel, and not just a plain girl in plain clothes with no makeup on. This past weekend I was with Avery, the other AFS student in Surabaya, and after we took a walk through some alleyways near a mall to try and find the bus that would bring us home, we scrambled to try and remember all that happened to us.
What happened indeed, right? We were sung/shouted/stared at, stared at for dangerously long by motorbike drivers, and followed by children... among other things. It's rare for all of that to happen all at once but it does go on in smaller doses almost every day. And honestly there's not going to be an end to the occasional discomfort of being foreign here, because bule will always be the interesting minority. It's just something to deal with day-by-day.
I kind of feel like I might be giving the wrong impression of life here, though. Prospective exchange students to Indonesia, have no fear!! For the most part, after the first glance, Indonesians will leave me to my own devices. In the mall, staring actually isn't so bad. (Shop workers are terrified of me and my assumed lack of Indonesian skills, though. So, usually when I go to buy something they'll scramble to shove the best English-speaker in front of me, but that part is understandable when so many bule live in Indonesia without learning the language.) People are usually respectful, and extremely kind-hearted and curious. A bule in Indonesia will be hard-pressed to suffer from a lack of friends. Language mistakes are forgiven and generosity seems to be endless. I honestly love my life here, even taking into account the tough bule days.
The experience of being 'bule' has been a very, very different one, and that's what I was looking for when I set out to live abroad. I think I'll always define myself that way, even when I'm back in America and surrounded by people like me. 'Cause being bule doesn't just mean being white, it means you're a foreigner who has the bravery to live abroad in a technically third-world country, and you're willing to wear that on you like a badge. And I know I am.
(There's another really good blog post on this topic right here, so take a look if you're interested! Thanks for reading this one.)