Wednesday, May 21

A Month in Jakarta: The only white guy

This month in Jakarta has provided me with a number of notable 'firsts.' It is my first trip across the Pacific. It is my first time south of the Equator. It is also my first time ever being in the minority for being white, and for the neighborhood I have been staying in, this particular minority is even smaller than the non-white communities in either Baudette or Spokane, both very heterogenous cities.

For the most part, this is not such a big deal, even if I stick out all the more for standing at least four inches taller than the average and having lighter hair. People just tend to stare or watch a little longer. Maybe ever other day, some random person who knows a little English will try it out on me. The first guy knew no more than basic pleasantries but was pleased enough that he could pull that off (and that I had to backtrack past him when the road ended shortly thereafter in front of someone's house). The second spoke fluently and with an Australian accent, which was a little off putting. It is to be expected, I guess, because you have to learn English from someone, somewhere, but it is still not what I first expect. British, maybe, but never Australian.

Sometimes, though, it is a little more irritating. Someone yells "Hey, mister," to see if you respond or calls "What is your name?" after you are far past because it took that long for them to work up the courage. It is an act of bravery rather than friendliness to try and draw my attention because, if I turn to look and reply, they are laughing with their friends and pulling away. Maybe my size is threatening or movies have given them outlandish ideas about violent whites. I do not know.

More irritating are the people who say bule (boo-LAY) as I pass by. I have been told it means Westerner and there is no insult in it, but to be picked out like that and commented on in the belief that I do not understand is not the most comfortable feeling. At some point, I want to start pointing at myself and nodding and saying bule, too, just to give them a little start.

I think what gets me about all this, considering the apparent lack of malice, is the feeling that I am being treated at these times as more of an amusement or curiosity than a regular person. Take the time I was riding the bus, which in Jakarta means a hollowed-out van with two parallel benches facing each other. I ended up next to a toddler and what must have been her grandfather. She silently stared at me, and with the way he looked across at me, I assume he was telling her something like, "He's not from around here. Maybe across an ocean or on the opposite side of Asia." It was harmless enough, even cute at the time as the there was no ill will in the man's face and, like I wrote, the kid was quiet throughout, but looking back now, they were definitely interested in me as something new and different.

There is a darker, far less amusing side to this that goes well beyond me. Not surprisingly, the developed world has a good handle on Indonesia. Visiting the VCD rental place one evening, the vast majority of the films were American and British, and the most prominent advertising campaigns are from the West and feature white models. Even the mannequins before clothing stores have a distinctly white look to them. At times, this is funnier. One girl told me after I visited her school that her friends said I am handsome. Then there are the less pleasant experiences. One of the boys said he was ashamed for having darker skin than me. My responses then were not the best, telling her to tell her friends they were wrong and telling the boy he did not want to look like me because I am disgustingly white, respectively, but they put me off balance. I guess white is the standard of beauty, and while I see no reason for people to always think they are beautiful, they should at least be comfortable with their appearance.

Being faced with all this, it is uncomfortable. Race is an issue that has never really cropped up in my life. The non-white community has always been small enough and never vocal enough that it just never came up, not that I would have cared. Among the many forms of identity politics and groups, race always ranked near the bottom for me because you could do nothing to change it. You just had to accept it and treat those with a different skin color fairly. Of course it has come up in the abstract, during English and history classes and tap dance most recently, but this is something different. It is a little shock, to find that this sort of thing matters and that the rest of the world does not agree with me on this. Perhaps this is part of the reason Westerners are invited here, to give the kids real exposure to the world outside Jakarta. I do not know, and I have little more to write, this is so outside of my experience. Maybe more later.


Josh said...

Interesting perspective. You make me think that I should travel more, just to get a better understanding.

Sara said...

Couldn't resist because your experiences are so similar to mine especially outside of Istanbul. I've stopped getting irritated when people call me a yabanci, but I definitely glow when they use one of the other polite forms of address. Foreigner, while not rude, does also translate directly as strange. Thus you see signs like, 'no parking for foreigner cars'.

I'd never considered the calling out as an act of bravery. I suppose for children it might be. It does rather remind me of the kid who gets dared to run up and ring the doorbell on the strange neighbor's house. I doubt it has anything to do with bogey man tales about violent whites though. Maybe the thrill is from being able to do something that might get you in trouble for being rude or just a fascination with the odd. The opportunity to harass without guilt is one of the great joys of childhood.