Friday, November 13, 2009

Being Bule Radley

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?


  1. I absolutely LOVE the ending. I'm going to send this to my friend at the State Department.

  2. I would stand outside with my mouth open wide, ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah....

  3. *** HUGZ ***

    There, I think you needed that! I tried to put one in the card, but I couldn't close the card fast enough to catch it.

    Funny how things work out, huh? They all can't make it to the U.S., so they bring a piece of the U.S. to them. True, it's no fair that these students may only base their knowledge of a country based upon one person, like trying to explain baseball through only the Cubs - not an accurate depiction. But like you say, these students can't visit, so they only know the U.S. through Katie Bostdorff. Pretty big shoes to fill, eh?

    You're doing great, and you'll be surprised how much you enriched their lives when your time there is finished. You'll want to go back.

    And like Chris said, "I love you, you Bule, you." I wish I was there to help you take care of your peeling skin. Kisses!

  4. You know what, Katie? You're teaching us back here a whole lot about the rest of the world, too. When I read your blogs I can feel the heat, smell the smells, and laugh at the monkeys. You have brought Indonesia to all of us.

  5. This is so well written! I love the sentiment and the way you express it. Plus, the literary reference in the title is pretty brilliant as well. :-)

  6. Thanks for such descriptive writing. We all FEEL like we are there with you. You are educating us about a part of the world we really know very little about. Go you Bule, go. Love, Dad

  7. Palembang rude? Are we in the same place? Getting your picture taken, people wanting to be in a picture with you, "mister, mister" and what not is far from rude. Try Jakarta if you want rude, but not here. People give me rides (for free no doubt!), invite me into their homes to eat, take me places and otherwise extend their hand in ways they don't have to just because I'm different (i.e. a "bule")—and it's fucking awesome!

    Those kids, and no one else for that matter, are insulting you. They are merely curious at the site of you. You aren't a "spic", "chink", "nigger", etc. to them—trust me. You're probably the coolest thing they get to experience all day, so don't fret about your feelings. When they call you "ayam" you'll know you've been insulted!

    The things you rail against are the reasons I love it here. You'd never get this shit in the US, or Scotland, so I just eat it up. I remember a bus driver drove right past me in the middle of nowhere in Scotland just because I wasn't standing close enough to the road! I said, "I'm the only one here. Why do you think I was standing at the fucking bus stop!". The bus drivers here will stop in the middle of the road and pick me up, let me drive the bus (no shit!) and play heavy metal just because I like it! Try that anywhere else and see how far you get.

    Rid that Western mindset and immerse yourself in the way of life here. You never know, you might actually like it. I know I do!

  8. Katie, if no one is noticing you at the airport, you should just start dancing. This also works at the bus station, at Ab's school, and basically anywhere you go. Seriously, Erica and I keep making friends everywhere we go! Just because we like the caka-caka.

  9. Miss Katie, I love your blog just as much I love you. Indonesia is not always sunshine and rainbows, but you have so much tact and humor when you tell your stories. So many people read your blog, learn from it, and laugh along with you. I have a love/strongly-want-to-scream relationship with Indonesia too. It’s important for people to see both sides. We are cultural ambassadors not liars. You are aware of your readers: Indonesians, friends and family, school, etc. You aren't a rude, hypercritic Westerner who writes inappropriate words in public or who reams out and tries to embarrass others. OR stereotype an entire city (where I happen to live and enjoy), which is proof that we all have different experiences and opinions. You and Raj are both ETAs in the same city yet your lives greatly differ. I think you are brave, intelligent, and doing the best you can in a country where not a lot is easy.

    It’s not like you wrote about one of your new friends calling your school to spread lies and make your teachers cry. Or getting harassed every time you go somewhere by yourself and feeling unsafe. Or having no electricity half of the time. Or having no water. And throwing up all day and night ALONE from some bad soup. Or finding another friend who helps you with everything and then turns into a creeper and blatantly asks to sleep with you. Or about living far away from everything with no internet and barely a phone connection. Or having your ojek drivers call and yell at you for nothing and never being able to win.

    You leave these stories out because they have no cultural relevance. You pick and the choose the ones that do, and they are wonderful. You share pictures of traveling, Halloween parties with your students, lessons that you teach and learn from, and talk about human nature and the human condition.

    In fact, I think you handle yourself and your experiences quite well. Lets face it, sometimes life just stinks no matter where you are. It is what you make of it, the funny stories you create, and the lessons learned to make everything positive for the future. I wouldn’t change a thing about your blog or life in Palembang. We all know how hard you and all of us try to be patient, smile, and radiate understanding. It would be the same if an Indonesian came to America. They would have a lot of good and bad things to say. I would want to hear them all.

    You wake up every day and do everything you possibly can to make the best out of everything. That is what counts. You should win a medal for that. Oh wait, you have a Fulbright. And a million videos of your successful self and valid opinions on youtube. And forget driving a BUS because you drove an ANGKOT. We all know that is much classier and much less Westernized.