A Bule by Any Other Name is Still a BuleMay 23, 2010
People can get awfully bent out of shape about words. The word bule is one term that keeps triggering responses ranging from mild perturbation in the insecure to incandescent rage in those who regard it as some sort of personal slur. Its original meaning of albino has, as in most languages, morphed over time and social influences into white person, or Caucasian, or just foreigner. It is a useful generic word denoting someone who is ‘not of this place’ and I believe is only semantically charged for those who bring their own Western cultural biases to Bali.
That’s because in Australia, for example, we are nowhere near as tolerant as the locals here. We don’t tend to use neutral terms like foreigner. Instead, we have a rich lexicon of epithets that focus on race, colour and creed as distinguishing markers. When I came to Australia from Europe at the tender age of three, my kindergarten compatriots didn’t use the derogatory terms that their parents did. In the acceptant world of pre-schoolers, they just called me The Guy From That Other Country. Only when I became older did I become aware of the more snide aspects of cultural profiling, being variously called a wog, wop, gyppo, dago, or strangely, even the imported spic.
But even during the process of being so labelled, I would sense confusion amongst my cultural judges when they realised that my features were not really Mediterranean. But they weren’t quite Anglo-Saxon either. They didn’t know what I was; they just knew I didn’t sort of fit in. In time, with increased awareness and their developing sense of healthy xenophobia, my school mates soon graduated to using the more accurate Dee-Pee (for Displaced Person) or the cute Reffo. My real friends just called me The Guy From That Other Country. Eventually I lost all my labels except ‘nerd’, one that I carry proudly to this day.
I didn’t care one way or the other, because by six years old, I was already a burgeoning nerd (translation: prolific reader) and I felt that all words were my friends. I was constantly bemused by people who chose to be offended by mere words, because even at that age I knew the difference between choice and compulsion. So-called epithets were just new words for me to absorb, ponder their meanings and decide that they were irrelevant to me. Sticks and stones and all that …
So with this rich Western (or at least Australian) heritage of pejorative, racial terms for foreigners, is it any surprise that some visitors to Bali become agitated about dealing with a harmless generic term for outsider – bule – believing that is negative and nasty, just as it would be at home? All it does is identify that someone is not from here. In Thailand the foreigner is a farang; in Hong Hong, a gweilo. So, is that bad too?
And yes, it has been argued by some that many of these so-called neutral terms are in fact disparaging. I mean, gweilo means foreign devil, right? Ooh, how terrible. Our social engineers and do-gooders have much to answer for, distorting semantics and imposing their interpretations on the most innocuous of terms, which we are then forbidden to use. Try using nigger, or even ‘black’, or queer, or boong in social intercourse nowadays if you are not actually a member of the target group, and see how quickly the humourless (but politically correct) sensitivity mafia leap down your throat.
While they are just words, there is, of course, the non-verbal aspect as well. The speaker’s intonation and posture, and the context of a word is still all-important. So bule spoken with scorn and derision can certainly be insulting. But so can the completely neutral word ‘foreigner’ when spat out with venom.
I was speaking about the connotations of bule to two friends recently. One is from Kalimantan and one from Sumatra. They laughed. “You think you Westerners are the only bules?” was their response. “We are Indonesian, and we have lived in Bali for ten years. We love it here, but we will never really fit completely into Balinese society, because we are bule lokal.”
“Do you find the term offensive?” I asked. Both looked at me bemused.
“No, of course not, because it is true. We are Indonesian outsiders here, just as a Balinese would be an outsider in Kalimantan or Sumatra.”
Those who choose to take offense at being called a bule should perhaps take heed of the words attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “No-one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.” Wise words. If you refer to yourself as a bule, not in a self-deprecating way, but as part of your natural conversation, you take away the power of others to offend you. On those incredibly rare occasions in Bali where someone tries to use it as an insult, your calm ownership of the term disempowers your detractor. Ultimately, bule will regain its original meaning – The Guy From That Other Country.
But then, I have always been a bule, so it’s easy for me.