There’s group of kids who like to dare each other to run by my house and yell “bule!” at the top of their lungs. They poke each other and laugh bravely until I happen to walk by the window, at which point they run screaming down the street.
I don’t think they’re scared of me so much as they’re amazed that the only white person they’ve ever known lives down the street from them. And it’s not that I never leave my house. I’m frequently outside taking out the trash, getting my water cooler refilled, and picking up or dropping off my laundry; I guess they’re just not around then. Most people in my neighborhood have their front doors open all day. Admittedly, mine is usually closed—I’m either at school during the day or holed up in my bedroom (the only room with air conditioning). The screen door has a big hole in it, so anybody could just stick their hand through it and let themselves into my house. Since I don’t have anything in my house that I don’t desperately need or selfishly want, I try to keep my stuff safe. But apparently I scare children.
When I first moved in, I tried to talk to them, but they’d just scream “BULEEEEE!!!!” and run away. So now I just ignore them and they wait outside until they catch a glimpse of me, and then they run away screaming.
It probably doesn’t help that my Bali sunburn is now causing my skin to peel off slowly.
So the word “bule.” (Pronounced BOO-lay.) Forgive my rudeness here. In effect, it’s the same as using the word “spic” for someone Hispanic or calling an Asian person a “chink” in the United States. Most Indonesians really don’t mean it to be offensive, but the more educated people know not to use it. It literally means “faded,” implying that my ancestors’ skin used to be dark like theirs.
Kids are the worst. They just scream “bule bule bule bule bule!” until someone hushes them. I wish I knew enough Indonesian to kneel down beside them and explain that it hurts my feelings. Then I’d give them some piece of candy and tell them I’d really like to be friends. (Then, slowly, I would worm my way into their hearts and convince them to never eat a bunny rabbit.) Maybe give me another month or two.
When we were leaving Bali, we passed a Starbucks outside the airport that had a sign outside advertising their special holiday drinks menu. I laughed a little at first, thinking how out of touch this tropical coffee shop was. Then I realized that Christmas is next month. Who’s really the one out of touch? My whole life, I have subconsciously kept track of time by seasons. Here I am, sweating and swatting away bugs just exactly like I was two months ago, and the rest of the world is still moving forward. I can’t shake the feeling that school has just started and we’re all coming back from summer vacation; meanwhile, everyone else is preparing for their semester finals.
My students asked me what snow tastes like the other day. “I think it tastes like ice cream,” one girl said. Another boy suggested that it was probably more like vanilla. They all looked up at me. “Well,” I said, “it’s really just like… ice.” They were so disappointed. I wish I could have told them, “Yes, snow is delicious! Snow is just like soft, sweet sugar that falls right onto your tongue!”
I taught them that song I learned from Barney: “If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, oh what a rain that would be… If all the snowflakes were candy bars and milkshakes, oh what a snow that would be…”
One day, one of the English teachers asked me to prepare a lesson on “airports.” Airports. Ok. So I made these little pretend tickets with blanks for all the dates, airlines, locations, and times, and we spent the first quarter of the lesson filling out our make-believe tickets.
“You can go anywhere in the world you want to go, ok?” I explained. “Just write it on your ticket and tell me why you want to go there.” I showed them my example. “See? My ticket says I’m going to Italy because I love spaghetti and pizza and I want to eat the best spaghetti and pizza in the world!” They nodded and scribbled away.
Before I paired them off and they had to start interviewing each other, I went around the room and asked each student where he/she was planning to go. Every single one of them picked somewhere in Indonesia. Most of them chose Bali, a few picked Jakarta, and some wanted to see the orangutans and Komodo Dragons.
None of them want to go somewhere else in the world? I wanted to yell, “You’re 15 years old! Tell me you want to explore the pyramids in Egypt! Tell me you can’t wait to see the Eiffel Tower at night!” What’s the point, though? I don’t know what the right answer is.
The truth is, maybe one of those 30 students will ever leave the country. Odds are good that none of their parents have ever been outside of Indonesia. It’d take years for them to get a VISA to even vacation in the United States. More than half of them will never leave the island of Sumatra, and these are the rich kids. I feel like pitying them is elitist, but I don’t know how else to feel!
Do I force them to describe to me all these magical, incredible things they’ll probably never be able to do? Do I say, “No, really, you can go anywhere in the whole world!” when really, they probably can’t?
Sigh. At least I can teach them not to say “bule.”
Children are always the most rude to me, but isn’t that how it is everywhere? They don’t mean to be, they just aren’t able to censor their thoughts yet. I’ve heard that Palembang is one of the rudest cities in Indonesia, and I believe it. No one tries to take pictures or yell things at me as much as they do here.
I realized something when Raj and I were waiting for our luggage in Palembang last weekend. We were standing in a big group of Palembang natives, and no one was taking a picture of me. No one was whispering to their friend or trying to touch my skin when they didn’t think I’d notice. It happens sometimes in the airport, but it’s a dozen times worse at the mall.
Maybe I’m being too dramatic; I tend to do that. Maybe people at airports are in too much of a rush to worry about an American, while people at the mall are just using up their free time. But I like to think people at the mall are people who aren’t able to travel. Obviously, the people waiting for their bags at the airport have seen at least a little bit of the world. I think that’s all it takes: meeting new people and seeing even just a little bit of what’s outside the city you were born in, and suddenly you realize that there are people different than you everywhere, and it’s really not that big of a deal.
I wish I could scoop everyone up and plop them down somewhere new. But I can’t afford to do that, and the Indonesian government can’t afford to do that, and the American government can’t afford to do that.
Then I thought, maybe we could bring just one person or a few people here to teach them just a little bit about the rest of the world, just give them a taste (a taste of snow, if you will) that there’s life going on outside of their lives. And then those people would also be learning and could take that back to where they’re from.
Oooh, wait. I get it. So is that, like, why I’m here?