Indonesia Expat

Understanding the word ‘Bule’


According to Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia or KBBI (The Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language), bule is a word used for foreigners who come to Indonesia heedless of their stay period and Indonesian proficiency.

Yet the word does not refer to the entire foreign population coming to this country. Usually, it points to white people such as Europeans, Americans or Australians. Occasionally, some say bule Afrika (African bule) pertaining to those stemming from Africa.

In spite of their lengthy stay periods in Indonesia, many foreigners are still branded

‘bule’ by their neighbours. This is quite annoying considering nothing has changed in their neighbour relations. Locals still see them as strangers and have not received the foreigners in their community life. Things will be different as they have Indonesian friends; locals no longer call a foreigner ‘bule’ when he or she befriends an Indonesian local. However, if a local resident would like to introduce his foreign friend to other friends, he still often uses the word ‘bule’.

Foreign tourists and adventurers visiting Indonesia for one or two months are called ‘bule’, ‘mister’ and ‘miss’. Not only do these sound funny but the titles eventually turn out to be disturbing simply because they originate from different countries and cultures. In the West, people do not give a stranger or newcomer weird names. Unlike western nations, foreigners staying more than one or two months to work or study find themselves truly disturbed in Indonesia. This is particularly true when a lot of people keep yelling ‘bule!’ at them repeatedly, whereas in fact they already knew and met before. Honestly speaking, such an atmosphere makes foreigners uncomfortable.

Many are curious on the possibility of foreigners integrating into the local community. Will the word ‘bule’ disappear? Could it happen in Indonesia? Acceptance of foreigners, to a serious degree, is quite a job owing to public prejudice over foreigners, and the other way around. For instance, many Indonesians opine that most foreigners are rich, so they should pay more for products and services they buy in this country.

Not all foreigners are wealthy. Therefore, it is unpleasant to find that whenever entering tourists object, there seems to be discrimination. Foreigners pay much more expensive tickets compared to that of Indonesian visitors for tourist attractions. Based on my experience while visiting tourist spots in the US, Australia, and New Zealand, I never saw price differences between foreigners and locals. Granted, there will be a special price for students and senior citizens.

Some Europeans, especially those who are yet to pay Indonesia a visit, have some prejudices against Indonesia. For example, some of my Czechoslovakian friends think that Indonesia is a country where people still live in primitive houses in the woods; no electricity and no internet connection. Such misrecognition and misunderstanding usually occurs when people just settle in their country and never go overseas. Getting the wrong end of the stick will get worse as one does not have a good education or merely focuses on their work, leading them to understand no one else in this world but themselves.

People who have travelled abroad a lot or lived in other countries could share knowledge taken from their home country or countries they have visited. This experience is instrumental in opening their eyes and enlightening residents in the countries visited. While foreigners can learn the particular local language, locals can learn foreign languages. Europeans, for instance, have 40-50 different languages besides English, which is spoken in the UK and Ireland.

In an attempt to keep a better relationship between locals and foreigners, it is important to show respect for privacy. This includes not yelling at foreigners on the street because it runs contrary to their comfort and security. On the other hand, foreigners are required to appreciate locals and their traditions. For that purpose, there must be particular groups of people, like tour guides, explaining the significance of culture and customs of the local residents to foreigners by means of intercultural communication. This is how good communication and mutual respect can be established.

Though some expats consider ‘bule’ a very rough term, it can have different meanings depending on its context. Some Indonesian people find that ‘bule’ is a neutral word, with its possible positive and negative meanings. Others argue that the term is functional, to describe a white foreigner. Linguistically speaking, white foreigners or expatriates should not feel offended when people call them ‘bule’. The term is more of an oral language for day-to-day conversations. Despite its oral identity, some Indonesian people consider that the word ‘bule’ is not insulting and is not meant to be rude.

Since the term is closely bound to oral address, educated persons would never call a white person ‘bule’ in a formal context, like in a meeting. It is deemed unnecessary because it is too colloquial. An erudite Indonesian will not call a white person ‘bule’ unless the person is intending to insult. Because of the common misinterpretation by westerners that the word is insulting, the more cautious of street vendors use the term ‘mister’, which foreigners find more polite.

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