Something that I have alluded to in my previous post is the obsession it seems all Indonesians have with foreigners, especially white foreigners. A constant fascination with the “bule” seems to be a cultural cornerstone.
Explaining the experience of being an absolute foreigner is very difficult. In America anyone of any ethnicity can walk down nearly any street in any town and draw minimal to no attention. That’s not to say that race is not an issue in America, but that most people don’t see it as novel, strange, or unique to have an uncommon skin tone.
In Indonesia I cannot go anywhere without having people stare at me, whisper things to their friends about my presence, or come up to me and ask to take a picture (if they even ask). None of this is to be malicious or cause harm, rather there is a strong curiosity about those who are different.
At first this attention was enjoyable. I can only imagine it’s how a celebrity may feel in America. But the attention quickly turns into a burden. None of the attention I have drawn has been negative; however, knowing that everyone is curious about my appearance and happy to say hello means that responding with anything less than an equally cheerful tone could be perceived as rude.
The locals’ incessant enthusiasm for polite greetings and salutations is not a habit I want to entertain after a long day of TEFL sessions and language classes in the Indonesian heat. One of the more common, and frustrating, displays of their enthusiasm is when someone yells “hallo mister,” from well inside their house as I walk by. It’s frustrating because I know that they mean well, but how am I supposed to respond when I can’t see the person yelling at me?
The innocuous act of walking around my neighborhood becomes a spectacle when done in Indonesia. And if I am accompanied by other volunteers the amount of attention drawn is amplified. During our first week here, myself and a group of five other volunteers walked by a school whose students were on break. They saw us walking on the street in front of their school and about thirty kids came running outside to practice their English. We were stormed with “hello miss/sir,” or “how are you today”s and lots of handshakes.
At the end of the day when I’m on my way home, depleted of all mental and physical energy, drenched with sweat, hungry, incapable of stringing a sentence in bahasa Indonesia together and being chased by three Indonesian kids yelling “hallo sir!” I’m a little less forgiving of their enthusiasm. But despite my petty grievances with how Indonesians react to the sight of a foreigner I am still in love with Indonesia and her people.