Being a Bule

Since I first came to Indonesia (and up until this point) I have been confused. Any time I walked around the streets of this city, or just took a stroll to the supermarket, strange things would happen. Apart from the cries of “hello mister” with my initial thought that maybe I was looking a bit manly on that particular day, people would go past on their motorbikes and look at me in fear or happiness, nudge their passengers and say, “bule”. Little children would start crying and pointing and saying this strange word, “bule”. Oh god, what had I become? What did it mean? Monster? Freak? Why were the children crying? Why were eyes lighting up? Since I was alone for a lot of the time, I started to become a little paranoid at these strange reactions.

When I asked the teachers at the school what this word meant, they told me that it was a word to describe a ‘white’ person, just a general term like we call all of the people with black hair and dark eyes “Asians”. Like with any single word that is used to describe a range of ethnicities, the term brings with it a layer of stereotypes and generalizations. In Australia it isn’t rare to hear a person who has been cut off while driving in their car by a person with black hair complain, “bloody Asians, they just can’t drive”, or “don’t go to that place, it’s full of Asian gangs”, or “those Asians always make a mess when they come into my shop”. Whenever I heard a person make one of these sweeping statements I would say, “You know that Asia is made up a lot of countries and you are putting over 2 billion people in the same bag, are you sure you know what you’re saying?”.

Now, as I find myself living in a country as a minority, there is nothing I can do to avoid being categorized as a bule, with all of the funny meanings that Indonesians give to this term. On one hand it’s great – usually Australians are stereotyped as a little crass, a bit uncultured, drunken, overweight and football lovers, but now I had a chance to be put in a category with some high class Europeans – I always wanted to be a little French, and now I had become a bule, I could put on my beret, put my baguette and cheese in my bike basket and cycle off to have some wine in the park with my friends. I could put on a cowboy hat and become a Texan cowboy, I could put on a white glove and test for dust in my local restaurant and pretend to be a German health inspector. Ah the sweet freedom of guilt free stereotyping.

It doesn’t matter what a bule does in Indonesia, because to become this ‘other’ and thus ‘stranger’, what is regarded as fact firstly is that you are different to Indonesians. Indonesians have important rules about how they live, how they support their families, when they eat and fast, who they can marry, how they can define themselves, which are all important things in order to be accepted by your community who (without any kind of government assistance to support you when you are in trouble) will be the people who you will need to turn to when you find yourself in trouble, when you can’t pay your hospital bills or need to get married, or your husband loses his job. Indonesian parents have a right to demand things of their children and to be a central figure in shaping their futures, and their children accept this. But if you are a bule living in Indonesia, you are not expected to follow these rules, people don’t judge you based on the decisions you make in your life or how you dress; they already expect you to be a little different and freakish and only look on in wonder.

I constantly find myself in hilarious conversations with Indonesians, who assume some very funny things about all bules; we are all tall, we love wearing bikinis, we are all outspoken and confident, we are all rich and can afford to spend half our lives travelling, we love Bali, we are free, we have no religion, we love shopping malls and fancy restaurants, we have sex with whoever we want to whenever we want to, we are more beautiful and handsome than Indonesians, and life is one big orgy of sex, drugs, all night parties and eternal freedom.

Any way that I attempted to explain the differences in people, or told them that anything about myself in order to assert my individuality such as my dislike of public speaking (they would laugh at me thinking I was only pretending to be shakie and feel sick before a presentation), I have never worn a bikini, and god, if they could see my bank account, but all to no avail. The picture is stuck in their heads. And I can see why.

The only bule people that general people meet or see are either on television or else being driven around by their drivers, nannies in tow, spending big sums of money as though it were mere pocket change. As the average Indonesian lives on less than $100 a month, this creates a massive gap in realities.

When I compare the stereotypical image of the Indonesian to the bule, some things ring true about the differences. And I can see that through Indonesian goggles, bules are strange people.

For one, it is common for bules to leave their families and embark on journeys around the world. Of course any bule that an Indonesian meets comes from somewhere else; they have never left their own country to see how a regular person lives at home in Australia, or the US, or the suburbs of France.

For many bules, even if our parents or grandparents don’t agree with the choices we make in our lives, we still make those choices anyway. Another thing is our lack of religion; in a country such as this where to have some kind of religion is a given and an important part of your worldview and identity, to meet these strange bule types who have no belief in God, or don’t see the importance of choosing a religion, or who may think that religion is a thing of the past, isn’t easy to digest.

My Indonesian friends were afraid for me when I came to Indonesia alone. They thought the building that I was living in was haunted, and refused to ever enter alone. They worried about me having no family around me, as their families are the roots that hold them together and help them to grow. A common question you may be asked here is “who are you living with?” and when I tell them that I live alone, it is almost as though their eyes well up with tears in sympathy for me. No religion, no husband, no children, no family; what on earth was I doing with my life? Kasian deh lo!

As for the common belief that bules love to shop at supermarkets, well, that is true. I love going to the supermarket and seeing familiar items on the shelves – price tags I can read, all of the essential items at my fingertips, and I still haven’t got any idea of how other people shop here. I was so surprised when a boy knocked at my door the other day from the warung (little box of a shop 3 metres x 2 metres where the owner often lives) close to my house, with a steaming bowl of indo mie (aka 2 minute noodles with an egg, chili sauce and a green leaf of some kind), some cigarettes and a couple of ice teas that my pacar had ordered. I didn’t know that you could order hot food from the little box of a shop. Only an Indonesian would know that. And only an Indonesian would have the phone number of the local warung so they can deliver direct to your door rather than having to walk the 20 metres to the shop.

Please, be patient here as I unashamedly spew forth some stereotypes about over 200,000,000 Indonesians.

The average Indonesian lives as part of a kampung – like a small suburb – where the doors are open, and what other people in the kampung think matters; they are your community, and they are there to care for you, to protect your house, to collect your rubbish, to meet at the local mosque, to do all of the things that a bule would expect their local government to take care of, and to make sure you are living a good life, within the rules. They will support you if you are in trouble. The average bule lives in a more isolated box where you make your own decisions, try not to offend the neighbours if you know them at all, but if you do, hope they will get over it.

Now, just to make it clear, if I am on a new adventure, anything is acceptable to me; sleeping in a train station, eating rice or any kind of slops for all meals, but when I am in a place long term, a place that I want to call home, my wants and needs alter. I like hot water coming out of a jet when I shower; an Indonesian is happy with a bucket of water and a ladle. I like toilet paper and a flushing toilet. An Indonesian is fine with a squatting toilet and the same bucket and ladle (I still don’t get this). I like to sit in a chair when I need to rest my legs; Indonesians are happy to sit on the floor or sit comfortably in a squatting position which hurts my knees just to look at. I prefer to sit in a half empty restaurant with space to move; Indonesians are happy to crowd onto one bench and slurp noisily. If I have to get a train during peak hour and stand all the way home you will see steam coming out of my ears; an Indonesian will stand for 2 hours stuck in traffic on a rickety bus and still manage to chat on their blackberries.

I like to define my meals as breakfast, lunch and dinner where rice is more of a dinner option; if an Indonesian doesn’t eat rice with each meal, they will never be full. I like to go into my own room when I want to and close the door and be alone; an Indonesian often doesn’t have this choice and feels alone if they aren’t surrounded by people. I like to add my own sugar to my coffee or tea, usually just a teaspoon or a spoon and a half; an Indonesian is happy to have their tea with 7 tablespoons of sugar already added. I like to have a price tag on the items I am buying and get a guilty feeling if I dare to ask for a discount; an Indonesian will argue tooth and nail to lower even fixed prices and still manage to befriend the shop owner.

I like to be on time for appointments and feel bad if I am late; Indonesians live in a realm of jam karet (rubber time) where it is acceptable to be 2 hours late. When I am ready to leave, I leave, often making sneaky exits; an Indonesian will wait patiently for their friend to solat (pray) first and then respectfully shake hands of everyone in the room, and if there are older people in the room, an Indonesian will cium tangan (take the elder’s hand to their forehead) to say goodbye.

Obviously to live beside a mosque as an Indonesian (I don’t know if this only counts for Muslims) is a bonus, the sound of the call to prayer may be like listening to a classical symphony; to me it is a lot of noise with “ya Allah” being the only 2 sounds I can understand.

I was yelled at so many times in Melbourne for not standing on the left hand side of the escalator (or right hand side to walk), “hey, stand on the left or bloody move out of my way!”, that I am always conscious about being in people’s way; an Indonesian will stand in the middle of the escalator or at the top of the escalator having a chat blissfully unaware of the people behind. If I rear-end a vehicle it will ruin my day and my insurance premiums; in Indonesia to bump your motorbike into the person in front of you can happen 20 times on the way home without anyone being concerned.

The differences are rich and varied; from every day things to overall consciousness. Indonesians are teaching me about patience (I have a long road to travel here) and the joy of community. They are also teaching me the joy of stereotyping.

It cannot be denied that I am a strange person; I am a bule. And this definition allows me to be a total freak. And there is so much freedom in that.
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30 Responses to “Being a Bule”

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  1. Alyano says:

    it always made me laughed out when i read your blogs.keep it up, can’t wait for the next posts. cheers

  2. Alyano says:

    “an Indonesian will argue tooth and nail to lower even fixed prices and still manage to befriend the shop owner.” LOL

    IMO, this is the best post you’d ever wrote by far…cheers

    PS: sorry for my english…i knew its sucks 🙂

    • Hi! We are glad you are enjoying the blogs, it’s lots of fun to write it too. By the way, your English is fine…it doesn’t suck…you should hear our Indonesian..tidak bagus ;). Thanks for your comment.

  3. my God, i believed you were going to chip in with some decisive insght on the end there, not depart it
    with ‘we go away it to you to decide’.

    • welovejakarta says:

      It is best that you never expect any insight on this blog, and then you won’t be disappointed 🙂

  4. Favian says:

    Hi.. It’s nice reading this article when I’m far away from Indonesia. It relieves my longing to my country, hehe.. 😀

    I’m happy to know the opinions of “bule” about my country and people living in there. Living in jakarta is so tough. I already experienced it for 3 months when I was working as part time worker at one IT company. Since that time, I decided not to live in Jakarta anymore. Then, I lived in Bandung.

    If you have a chance to travel to Bandung, don’t miss it. Bandung is a nice city for living and traveling.

    Keep post something about Indonesia. ^^

    • welovejakarta says:

      Jakarta definitely isn’t for everyone – sometimes I am not if it is for me either!

      I have been to Bandung and think it is really beautiful there – except for on the weekends when millions of people come from Jakarta to escape the traffic (thus of course creating a little Jakarta in Bandung – macet and all).

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Adek says:

    I can’t stop to laugh reading this one, awesome.
    Playing with stereotype is always fun, btw 😀
    Titip salam untuk langit jakarta!

    minority Indonesian in scandinavia

    • welovejakarta says:

      Thanks for your comment – it is true I do enjoy some unabashed stereotyping and it is fun, though a little wrong.

      How is it to be a minority in Scandinavia? Hopefully as hilarious as Jakarta, though I suspect the people will more serious there and no one will call out “hey look, it’s an Indonesian, wow!” though I am not sure.

      I said hi to the sky for you – it’s a cloudy one today – say hi to the fresh air where you are!

      • Adek says:

        Haha.. Thank you.. sure, I’ll say your ‘hej’ to the north sky, it was shine today, tough it is quite fast, it was still -10 degree last year at the same date..scandinavia teaches a lot how to be grateful for the bright sun and warm air in Jakarta’s sky 🙂

        Indonesian in scandinavia

  6. Xavier says:

    Love your blog about Jakarta!
    I’m an indo who has been living in Perth for the last 17 years and has just recently moved back for good to Jakarta to pursue other opportunities. My wife and kids are also excited about our move!. She has been wanting to go back for as long as I can remember.
    I just want to say it’s good to hear such an open minded view from a bule because as you mentioned in your blog, I myself have had numerous (and witnessed) experiences being sterotyped as just ‘Another Asian’ by Australians who thinks just because we have slanty eyes, have dark hair and eat rice all the time we are somewhat inferior to them. Having said that, not all Australians are like that of course. I’ve had also many incredible experiences living & working in Australia, seen many beautiful places and enjoyed friendships with bules like yourself.
    So I guess at the end of the day it all comes back to each individual’s personality. Let’s just hope that more and more people can finally open their eyes and respect others regardless of their race and cultures.

    • welovejakarta says:

      It seems a part of life that we are all boxed into one category or another and in Australia there is definitely the ‘Asian’ category just as in Indonesia there is the ‘bule’ one. There are funny things that go along with this but also horrible racism and stereotyping. Lucky for us in our lives we get to live in different places and explore the world to broaden our horizons and those of the people that we meet. Some people are not so lucky. I appreciate it more and more after living in Indonesia amongst people who have never even really left Jakarta, and I can see why bules are such strange creatures if you have never visited a ‘bule’ hometown. I know now that my boyfriend has visited Australia and seen how people actually live there, that many of his ideas about bules have disappeared, just as my ideas about Asia, Indonesia, Islam, marriage, food and a million other things have altered since living in Jakarta. Welcome back home and thanks for your comment.

  7. Dhani Layung says:

    This is so fun to read! Not just because the way you wrote it, but also because it’s ALL TRUE 😀 Having spent nearly all my life in Indonesia, I always thought what we Indonesian did regularly is not unusual. But when I went back&forth to the UK, Greece, Germany, and Indonesia for the last 3 years, I just realize how unique my people are.

    This is a very good article. I’m going to forward your article to my “bule” friends 😀 It’ll help them A LOT to understand all the odds possesed by their Indonesian friend (c’est moi!). Especially about the kissing the elder’s hand. Oh yes, I was still doing it to my friends’ parents&grandparents when I was leaving the house hahahaha..some habits just can’t be changed.

    cheers from Jakarta,

    • welovejakarta says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words! Haha. Some habits can’t be changed and other are created without realising. I am always shaking people’s hands and touching my heart now, Indonesian style, and some of the non-Indonesian parents at my school, and friends from home look at me very strangely. It is a very unique place here, and that’s why we love it!

  8. triles says:

    I enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up and have fun in Jakarta!

    An Indonesian living in France.

    • welovejakarta says:

      Bonjour! Thanks so much for your lovely message and it’s so amazing to know you are reading our blog all the way over in France… I am sure you are having just as much fun discovering a new city and culture and what a beautiful place to live! One of my favourite memories is standing under the Eiffel Tower for Bastille Day watching the fireworks going off in time to beautiful old songs and it was a very surreal and magical time.. I hope your days are filled with magic over there as ours are in Jakarta.

      Hati hati 🙂

  9. What a great post! I would love to hear your updates on this, since the last time you wrote this posting almost a year and an half years ago. Just wondering how things are going now compare back then..


    • welovejakarta says:

      Well Dina, my ideas haven’t changed much since then! I am still a strange bule and people still laugh at me every time I walk past and I hear the whisperings (bule bule) and see small children wanting to cry when I walk past. The only difference now is that I can understand more of what people are saying so I am less paranoid, but I am still not comfortable with being stared at. I think a lot of the stereotypes still ring true. And my boyfriend’s family still loves me because I am a bule so I don’t have to convert to Islam to please them if we are to marry, though if I was an Indonesian I wouldn’t be accepted into the family with a non-belief in god. So there are good and bad things and life goes on! I just have to accept that for as long as I am here, I will always be a bule!

  10. Verina says:

    Awesome post! People in Jakarta..umm maybe 60% from kampung. When Lebaran Day, Jakarta will be empty, like a dead city. 🙂 And yes, you’re right about people with their own BB. No speak, just having some fun with BB. You forget to post about the traffic jam in Jakarta. 🙂 haha.

  11. Ira says:

    I read your blog with a little chuckle. No, not over your misery of being a weird bule, but over a thought of being at the other end – I am an Indonesian living in Melbourne, Ha! 😉 Not sure how much you have become a ‘bulindo’ (bule-indo), but i have picked up many positive things from people here. Well i guess.. they are not necessarily socially, religiously or culturally desirable in Indonesia. But what matters is how much courage i’ve got to challenge my long-existing-and-often-baseless beliefs. I still don’t register though how young Ozies just opt to have casual jobs and have a year off to travel overseas and go broke when coming back. (got to be spending 2 years in England, okie? I gotta be back and brag ‘when i was working in the UK.. i got really pissed..’). My 20s were all about finding scholarships to be overseas educated and working my ass off to be highly employable. Or getting that ‘are you freakin serious’ look when i told some people here that i was committed to provide financial support for my parents is just so common in my ‘cap with one sugar (not seven!)’ convo.

    I guess both of us are really fortunate to have had a chance to affirm and challange what we like/prefer and what we don’t. Only after living in Melbourne I affirm that Soto Betawi is just divine and $10 for that would do (compared to Rp15 ribu saja back home). Also, I enjoy those moments of letting people rectify their stereotypes that some Asians are level headed and respectful – in your case that some bules have never worn a bikini indeed!! And despite the notorious image of Oz bules going blind in Kuta, I do find some Oz friends who are happy to just chill out over a schooner or two and show a genuine interest on my Indo-not-so-weird culture.

    Enjoy your endeavours!

    • welovejakarta says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, I really enjoyed reading it! There are so many differences between the cultures – both Tash and I did the pre-requisite 2 years in London getting drunk and living below the poverty line – it is certainly a desirable adventure in Australia particularly if you want to escape the suburban boredom and certainly our mum encouraged it. My family and many others believe that after being at school and institutionalised for over 12 years, it is necessary to experiencethe world outside institutions – to see how you survive, to go a little mad and be irresponsible and not have any deadlines. It was a great time even if it couldn’t last. And it is certainly a luxury on world standards (even if we were sharing rooms or cupboard space with other broke Aussies). As a 17 year old at university, I had no idea about the world outside and I remember feeling totally ignorant and knowing that I had to get out in order to be able to analyse or think outside my square.

      It is really admirable the way that Indonesians support their families, we certainly don’t as a norm, individualism is our motto – of course we wouldn’t let our mum go hungry but it is in her life plan to be able to provide for herself, as it is in our life plan to do the same. Of course, this is more difficult in countries without any kind of social welfare or retirement packages and where families have to provide for each other to survive. We are lucky that way. Just think, at least your soto betawi has less of a chance of poisoning you with a $15 price tag and a few health guidelines would have been followed.

      Anyway, you are right, we are very fortunate to have our ideas constantly challenged, though it isn’t always easy and comfortable to live away from home, it is good for the brain. Thanks for writing.

  12. Asiah says:

    ahaha. its another hilarious piece from you. i enjoyed it so much. i too, before, have stereotyping that all bules are like what you had explained above. but as i grow older, i know that wasnt true. i love your blog. thank you for covering jakarta in your perspective. and sometimes i dont even know the place to look for fun in jakarta. fun as in ‘without alcohol’ as you mentioned before.

    aah, im sorry for the grammatical error, not an english native 🙂 hope you will still enjoy jakarta. cheers 😀

    -from a bekasian, spend most of time home in jakarta, but currently studying in bandung

  13. Asep says:

    Great article!

    IMHO, that exactly showcases a number of cultural differences in your country of origin and ours, which are presumably inevitable.

    Keep up the good work and live life to the fullest here in Indonesia as a so-called bule.


    • welovejakarta says:

      So happy you enjoyed the article and had a good laugh! Thanks so much for reading, we really appreciate your comment and we LOVE living in Indonesia!

  14. Yoni Tresina says:

    Interesting article. Know we how it feels like being called “bule” 🙂
    Keep writing girls.

  15. Seoul Nainggolan says:

    This one is really good post, a good reflective post. I love it!

  16. ancul says:

    hi , i like your blog and , btw , your pacra is local guys ?

    • welovejakarta says:

      Hi Ancul! Thanks so much for reading through our blog… Yes, Treen and I both had Indonesian pacar’s who are both now our husbands 🙂

  17. It doesn’t funny at all. I know it is right what you have written here and the reality in this country. But yes I agree with that, too many judge heh? or maybe we can say it different culture between west and east. I dont want to be a racist for judging my people back but neither judge your culture too. It is nice to be an advice to ours to change what we really think about foreigner. And my best regards to your husband Mr…, how is samudra doing? 🙂

    Nice post and I appreciate to heard this directly from you vielen dank…