Dont Call Me “BULE” by MB

Dont call him BULE plz :-)
Dont call him BULE

Ini curhatan MB beberapa waktu lalu ketika saya minta dia menulis uneg unegnya selama tinggal di Indonesia namun karena sibuk saya lupa posting.  Baru sempat sekarang, ternyata dia Bete juga selalu di panggil bule atau mister hahaha dia suka balas orang lain dengan panggilan mister juga terus si pemanggil sontak kaget kalau dengar MB panggil balik, saya saja jadi tak enak kalau terjadi aksi panggil memanggil kayak gitu. Makanya awal awal menikah tuh saya Bete kalau jalan bersama pasti ada drama di perjalanan, nasib nikah sama WNA 🙂 demikian prolog dari saya …

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. 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 of 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 neighbor 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. 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 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 people. 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’. Some Indonesians, however, point out that while bule might not be derogatory, as an informal term it is impolite. David, a Canadian working at an 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’.

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’. 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’. 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”. 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 recognize 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 color 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 categorized as a ‘race’ at all. The term ‘race’ was mostly related to being black or colored; white people, it seemed, had no color, 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’.

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 to 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’.

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 it’s 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’.

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.

By MrBig

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25 thoughts on “Dont Call Me “BULE” by MB

  1. Bule bahkan sudah ada dalam Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI) : bule/bu·le/ /bulé/ cak 1 a bulai; 2 n orang (binatang dsb) berkulit putih; 3 orang kulit putih (terutama orang Eropa dan Amerika); orang Barat.

    Aku sendiri memang tidak terlalu nyaman menggunakan kata bule. Ga ada alasan khusus, hanya merasa tidak nyaman saja meskipun pernah menulis satu postingan diblog dengan judul bule. Suamiku juga sama seperti MB, tidak mau dipanggil bule. Sewaktu ke Indonesia trus ada yang manggil2 dia bule, selalu didatangi dan diajak salaman sambil bilang “My name is Ewald, not bule” bahkan abang2 becak atau anak2 kecil yang selalu memanggil dia bule selalu didatangi sama dia dan dijelaskan namanya. Dia bilang ga masalah menjelaskan satu persatu namanya daripada orang2 dan saudara2 manggil dia bule.

    Thanks for your inspiring explanation MB. Really appreciate it.

    1. Bener say, sampai sekarang 2 tahun dia masih saja berantem kalau dalam perjalanan .. suka aja masih ada yang iseng berharap dia katanya kulitnya sama dengan kita biar tak jadi aneh katanya…….

  2. Aku sempat meriset kata-kata bule sebelum bikin blog binibule. Kata-kata ini memang punya sense negative di tahun 1960an, jaman itu bisa ngamuk kalau dipanggil bule karena asosiasinya dengan albino. Tapi bahasa berkembang dan sekarang bule kehilangan sense negatifnya (walaupun kalau dikombinasikan dengan kata sifat lain jadi negatif, seperti kepet, gila atau kampung). Nggak hanya kehilangan sense negatifnya bule juga mulai digunakan untuk mengidentifikasi orang-orang asing non-caucasian, terjadi pergeseran makna. Saya sudah mulai mendengar bule Jepang, bule Korea, bule India, bahkan bule Afrika. Perkembangan bahasa ini, menurutku gak bisa dihentikan dan akan terus berkembang.

    Tentang orang-orang yang manggil-manggil di pinggir jalan biasanya excited karena melihat orang asing. Mereka tak pernah atau jarang lihat orang asing, makanya jadi excited. Kemudian nyapa-nyapa dengan bahasa seadanya, tahunya mereka ya cuma bule atau mister (bahkan perempuan pun dipanggil mister – aku ada temen perempuan yang telaten menjelaskan pada mereka bahwa dia bukan mister, tapi buntutnya dia capek sendiri). Beberapa bahkan berteriak-teriak “I love you”, karena mereka gak tahu bahwa mereka mestinya ngomong “How are you?”. IMHO, mereka cuma ingin menarik perhatian, menggoda, pamer kemampuan kalau bisa bahasa Inggris dan berinteraksi.

    1. Ai, itu juga yang dulu dijelasin sama si Matt. Sekarang dia sih cuek aja dipanggil2 bule, capek kalau mau marah2 haha. Kalau kata temen si Matt karena tinggalnya di Indonesia jadi diikutin aja gimana orang disini berinteraksi. Serba salah juga.

      @Siti, hehe…. emang bete kali ya. Si Matt juga sebel kalau diteriak2in sampai dia berhenti lari pagi deket kompleks karena selalu dipanggil2 bule2 dan mister2 tapi kalau di deketin atau ditegur balik mereka langsung bubar. Maunya apa coba haha

        1. hehehe iya alhamdulilah disni bule hunter nya tak separah di Jakarta atau kota kota yang banyak bule lagian kalau MB sedikit radikal dia sama cewek apalagi kalau tak berhijab, pernah di keramaian dia buat saya malu sekali, banyak ABG yang mau foto ekh dia bilang “No Hijab No Foto” katanya biar aman dari serangan orang yang mau foto… ternyata manjur juga….strategi nya,..

  3. pernah baca blog bulejugamanusia yg laris manis? sgt kocak mungkin itu salah satu bentuk penerimaan thd perlakuan di indonesia…sebetulnya itu bisa jadi pujian, ingin tahu, tapi…ya intinya sebetulnya agak sedikit norak.. sebetulnya..bukankah itu sebetulnya agak ngenes, lho?

  4. Mungkin ini dialami oleh hampir semua bule2x yang ada di Indonesia ya. Awalnya saya risih jalan bareng suami karena sering menimbulkan kehebohan….sampai sekarang masih risih juga kalau jalan di lokasi yang mungkin jarang lihat bule 🙂 Kayaknya mereka panggil2x itu bermaksud cari perhatian saja, temen saya cewek yang bule juga dipanggil mister. Mungkin sifat manusia merasa ingin tahu, penasaran jika melihat sesuatu yang terlihat beda kadang tidak tahu bagaimana harus bersikap. Sebaliknya temen2x saya dari Indonesia yang berjilbab dan teman dari Myanmar yang bersarung menjadi selebriti dadakan saat di pedalaman Brazil karene mereka berdua terlihat unik dan tidak biasa. BTW, itu fotonya di taman kupu2x Bantimurung ya mbak? Saya dan hubby ke sana akhir tahun lalu dan kenyang deh dia diminta foto setiap beberapa meter, berasa jadi bintang felem aja, sementara saya pura2x nggak kenal, hehe 😀

    1. bener say itu di BANTIMURUNG tahun lalu, malah dia sudah sering kesana bareng teman Myanmar dan teman lokalnya disini, dia sudah mulai enak adaptasi, bahasanya sudah yaa bisa dikatakan 15% lah, lumayan terus sudah mulai bisa berdamai kalau di panggil mister walau belum seramah kita kita ini. Namanya berproses… semoga bahasa indonesianya bisa lancar jaya…

    1. hhahaha ini mah ngomelnya masih bagus di tulis kalau dengar uhh telinga bisa panas… sekarang omelan sudah mulai jarang sudah capek sendiri dia hahahha

  5. Kalo Ian malah cuek aja Mba kalo dipanggil-panggil bule/mister. Tapi kadang dia suka manggil balik orangnya mas/mbak 😀
    Tapi emang dasarnya Ian cuek sih. Kita juga kalo traveling bareng seeing dpt curhatan para foreigner yg sebel dipanggil bule..

  6. waduuh Mbak, senasib sama suami saya..
    suami saya sering risih sendiri dipanggil Bule/Mister, sampe dia bilang “i’m from Arab,not from Europe”
    apalagi dia baru stay di indonesia,skrg sdg proses pengurusan KITAS.

  7. mba siti…suami saya juga sama.marah dan emosian kalo ada yg manggil bule..boleh ga…kenal sama suami mba siti biar nanti sharing sama suami saya yg kebetulan orang amreika juga

  8. Saya setuju deh sama curhatannya si MB ini, emang sebenarnya bule-bule tuh pada protes kok mereka dipanggil bule. Alasannya nih (menurut curhatan temen2 saya ya), terminologi bule tuh terkesan diskriminatif karena warna kulit mereka yang putih.

    instead of call them as ‘bule’, better to call them as foreigner. Gitu katanya wkwkw (saya selalu ketawa kalo dicurhatin dengan tema ‘kenapa gue dipanggil ‘bule’ sih)

    beteweh salam kenal yaa mbaa 🙂

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