A Bule by Any Other Name is Still a Bule

May 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.



  1. Hahaha… Even in NZ I was a “Pakeha” (foreigner) before I became a “Bloody Kiwi” in Australia. I then became an “Orang Putih” (White man), folowed by becoming a “Gweilo” or a “Gwailo” (either way I was a ghost) so being a Bule takes me full circle.

  2. oh- I forgot Mat Saleh….

  3. Oh, boy can I relate to feeling like a DP. Aussie mum, American dad, born in Oz, raised in America, back in Oz for 25 years and everywhere I go people think I have an accent. So a sense of not belonging and being a bule in Bali won’t be any different for me, either.

    Thanks for the bule explanation. We’ll know to take it in the spirit in which its intended.

  4. Ha ha ha ha h. yeah we call bule for “people from other country” and the funny thing , balinesse people always said “orang jawa” for indonesian who not come from bali. even they come from sumatera or other place 🙂

  5. buleeeeee
    nice aarticl

  6. hmmm.. what is in the name/call unless you’re harassed by the expression… 😉
    nice article..

  7. Bule is used by Batavian society in colonialism era, even Indonesia use Malay language as national language .. composition of population is 60 % Javanese, the ancestor still chose Malay based language for many considerations. Later as Batavian culture became trend setter, for Batavian society are native of Jakarta capital, all other Indonesia ethnicities among others, Javanese which us the majority in this nation follow the trend. the word Bule does not exist in other Malay nations i.e. Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei that they use the similar word: matsale. While Bali is not a trendsetter of Indonesia, that way it only follow the trend coming from Jakarta. this is my personal opinion but I think connotation of Bule follows the perception of Batavian who are totally Moslem. For Moslem point of view there are only three ethnicity ar Rum, as Shin (Chinese) and al Abashiy (Arabian or African). Rum is Rome this is Bule derived from, and to differ the Dutch, Portuguese, Spain and other colonialism nations, which were defined as kompeni, since Batavia or Old Jakarta was the freeport zone at the momment, had become most visited area by white Caucasians or white blonde hair people, while there was not a right termination to describe such changing visitors. However as an Indonesian I feel negative to mention bule due to my perception that white skin nations are all colonial in the past. In this way, when mentioning something, if I do not feel negative then I would never mention bule but his/her nation, like Australian, American..

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