01 July 2010

Don't Judge a Bule* by her Color

* For those who don't feel like doing their homework, "bule" is the Indonesian term for "foreigner."

Fifteen months ago, as I was sitting in the PiA Director's office being offered the job I'm now about to wrap up, my would-be boss looked at me and said, "You know, it'll be interesting -- people are going to think you're Indonesian."  I accepted this statement with the same clueless enthusiasm with which I greeted all of her musings on my future over those next few weeks, including her warnings not to get on boats and her prediction that, because of Indonesian rubber time, my visa would not come through until absolutely the last minute.  As it turned out, my visa came through with a few minutes to spare, and I've been just fine on the few Indonesian ferries I've boarded -- but she could not have been more accurate in her first prophecy about the way my nationality would be perceived in this country.  I thought I was ethnically ambiguous in the U.S., but here I just confuse the pants off people (or the sarongs, as the case may be).  Being ethnically ambiguous is now the story of my life.

There is easily one sentence I have heard with far, far more frequency than any other single collection of words since last August, and it always comes at the same point in a conversation.  I will be conducting a transaction in Indonesian, and after a few moments the real Indonesian person on the other side of the transaction realizes that, contrary to their initial assumption, I am not, in fact, Indonesian (or at least not a native speaker of the language).  "Where are you from?" they proceed to ask, and, as I have a thousand times previously, I always answer "From America."  "America?" they repeat, looking either baffled, surprised, or amused (or all three).  And then it comes: "But you look Indonesian!"

Wow, really?  I've never heard that one before.  

If there is one thing I've learned during my time in Indonesia, it's that I don't fit the bill of what a typical American is supposed to look like.  This lesson, confirmed for me again and again over the last eleven months, was presented to me on my very first day -- within my first five minutes, in fact.  I had de-boarded my final flight in Yogya, collected my luggage, and exited the baggage claim area, and was looking for the university staff who were supposed to be meeting me at the airport.  I saw them right away, holding up a sign that read: "PiA -- Fiona Miller."  As I approached them, smiling and waving, they continued to look over my head, scanning the crowd  for their idea of Fiona Miller.  It wasn't until I was standing directly in front of them, introducing myself, that they realized it was me.  "Oh!" they exclaimed, and laughed.  "Sorry -- we were looking for someone with light skin!"  This sort of surprise (shared by many) speaks, I think, to an interesting truth about the way Americans are perceived abroad (or at least in Southeast Asia) -- as the blue-eyed, blond-haired, wealthy, big-car driving, hot dog-eating, premarital sex-having, "All-American" of Hollywood.  Isn't that what all Americans are like?  No?  But that's what it looks like in the movies.

I've gone through different stages in my reaction to the oft-received exclamation that I "look Indonesian."  At first, I thought it was funny.  My boss had been right!  "Yeah, I know!" I'd reply, and laugh along with them.  Then, I thought it was cool.  If I wore my batik and didn't open my mouth, I could actually pass.  Real Indonesians didn't give me a second glance, thinking I was one of them.  I had never really fit in visually to my environment before, but for the first time in my life, I was exactly the same color as the vast majority of the people who surrounded me.  This was pretty sweet.  The next phase was irritation.  Not that I'd ever been particularly proud to be American, but not being able to be perceived as such rubbed me the wrong way.  One time someone went so far as to suggest, "But you don't look American," and that really pissed me off.  So what was the deal, I didn't get to fit the visual profile of "American" in the United States or anywhere else?  I AM American, I wanted to snap.  Get over it.  

The stage I'm in now, I think, contains a little bit of everything.  Sometimes the disbelief still exasperates me, but I also can't complain when the color of my skin and the structure of my face gets me the local entrance fee to tourist sites for which I would otherwise have to pay a steep tariff.  I've always been grateful for my mixed heritage and have counted it as an enormous blessing, but I think being multiracial in Indonesia has given me one more reason to be appreciative of the ethnically ambiguous color of my skin, in that it has allowed me to embody an alternative American reality for a lot of Indonesian people.  Most Indonesians I've encountered have never met a brown-skinned American before, and now each of those individuals knows we exist, and has a new understanding of the United States as a nation much more diverse than the whitewashed version of itself it projects to the world.  The election of Barack Obama did a lot to shatter this projection all over the globe, of course, but I'd like to think I also have a small part to play in teaching my Indonesian friends that America is not Hollywood, and that some of us look just like them.  Sometimes I feel like I don't fit in here or in the United States, but it's also true that, looking the way I do, I can move between these two worlds more easily than a lot of people from either one.  Fitting in nowhere can also mean, in other words, fitting in everywhere -- and that's something I don't think I'll get tired of.


  1. Fiona! How does it feel to be a Bule in America? Do people still ask you if you're Indonesian? I hope you had a fabulous time reuniting with your family. We all miss you here!

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  3. LOVED it! Went from exotic to ordinary, huh? You just reminded me of a lovely pet name my Cuban grandfather had for me. Like Britt, I used to very brown in my childhood summers. I was the only granddaughter he lovingly called "Naglita L'inda" (na-glee-ta leen-da). Don't know & can't find the spelling but he told me it meant beautiful dark girl. Leave it to 3 brothers to knock the 'pretty' right out of me, ha! Xoxo, Alison