08 April 2008

Bule Gila


In a cynical sense this might just be my contribution to the debate or perhaps I am just looking for hits to increase my blog ranking or something.



I am sure that Indonesia is no different from anywhere else in the sense that there is debate amongst the local population and the expat population revolving around the pros and cons of the relationship and the merits and value of the conduct of this relationship. But this is an Indonesian specific post and issue with regards to the term "bule". Bule gila is literally translated as crazy white person.



The debate is generally academic but it also inspires heated and emotional response from commentators across the board. If you want to have a bit of a squizz at the debate as it rages on somewhat endlessly on other blogs and sites, then you need to go no further than the offerings of Indonesia Matters and Unspun, both of which I read -- daily (time to return the favour gents!). Both are masters at spurring the debate, and why not if people are willing to go hell for leather at the opportunity to spout their respective points of view.



However, I want to restrict my musings to the TV show "Bule Gila". There have been a few offerings of the show and it seems to be back for another season. The show is a sort of a candid camera meets I will do anything to be on tele affair but usually with the full knowledge and participation of the participants.



In essence the show relies on white folk (bule means albino in Indonesian) doing things that are part of everyday Indonesian life. Some classics have seen white fellas dressing up in drag and doing the rounds of the road side eating stalls singing Indonesian songs and begging for tips. Others have seen people pushing food carts around the place trying to sell martabak and other Indonesian food specialties.



The English saying for this probably goes along the lines of "taking the piss" out of oneself. And I guess when it is all said and done, if you want to embarrass yourself on TV then as a consenting adult you have that right. Yet, there are some issues that are worthy of further debate and this is one of those.



Without getting into too detailed a discussion of the word 'bule', it has been noted that the translation of this word is albino. This overtime has come to refer to white people and presumably Caucasians, this then gives the word not only color undertones but racial ones as well. The use of the word gets some people's knickers in a knot. A word can have, depending on its use, benign meanings quite different to their original intent.



An example might be faggots. Faggot originally referred to a faggot of sticks or to a type of meatball but overtime it has morphed into a word with a meaning no longer reminiscent of the original and its utterance can now bring charges of vilification of homosexuals. So, in this regard perhaps the innocence of the term bule has been lost overtime as well. And the use of the word even with the best of intents, that is it is not intended to offend, may in fact cause considerable offence to the hearer of the word.


And the fact that some of us bules might use the word (there is a book with the title Bule Gila and a bar called Bugils which can either be an abbreviation of the book title or the Indonesian word for naked both of which are associated with a prominent Dutch resident in Jakarta) does not mean that this is an attempt to take control of the word and empower ourselves meaning therefore the word is now devoid of any previous racial connotations.



However, once again back to the point. If a television station in Australia or perhaps even in the UK or the USA were to air a show called "Crazy Blackies" or Crazy Yellowies" or "Crazy Reds" there would be a public backlash and uproar even if the shows were intended to be innocent entertainment where particular people are taking the piss out of themselves for the enjoyment of others. Even in Indonesia, I wonder what the reaction would be to TV shows like "Cina Gila", "Batak Gila", "Pribumi Gila" (this one's for you Achmad because I know you have issues with the connotation of the word pribumi), "Kristen Gila", "Muslim Gila", "FPI Gila", or "FBR Gila"? Discrimination and distinction between people is not based purely on the colour of their skin!



To all and sundry, in spite of the intent of the users of the word bule, it must be noted that the word despite the initial descriptive nature to colour has now taken on the form of a word that has racial connotations. Therefore, the only way to truly justify the title "bule gila" is to ensure that the participants in the show are albinos and not just "white people" so the title reflects the original intent. Albinism relates to an unfortunate genetic inability to produce pigment whereas white people are genetically engineered in such a way as they produce limited amounts of pigment.


But, alas, the show really is about taking the piss out of white people and not albinos. Perhaps, this TV show goes on not because the word bule is not racist or offensive but rather the participants do not fully appreciate the term and its meaning. If they do understand the words racial connotations and still choose to participate, then go for it!


Once you distinguish a person on the colour of their skin then you are discriminating against them unless someone, somewhere out there in cyber space thinks that this is simply a case of affirmative action and giving the white folks an opportunity to be on Indonesian TV too :)


We can all agree to disagree and that disagreement does not have to degenerate into name calling and other insulting commentary (even though it may in fact be fun to read sometimes) but it is worth noting that the offensiveness and the insult is determined by the receiver and not the maker of the comment because if it was to be determined by the maker of the comment then people are free to say whatever they want without limitation because based on this logic provided it does not offend the speaker's sensibilities or was not intended to cause offence then it is anything goes and whether that be a case of fortunately or unfortunately this is not how the world works!


To be clear...my point of view is that the word bule is a term with racist connotations and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. I am open to a convincing argument if someone can make one! I think that the TV show is intended not to racially vilify but it is intended to be entertainment that takes the piss out of a particular group of people. The title though is a reflection of the general misunderstanding or ignorance of the racial undertones of the word. I have watched the show a few times but I am not a regular watcher (I think it was on last night but I was probably blogging because I did not watch it).


If anyone is thinking of contacting me to be on the show, don't waste your precious time. I am not interested, but I do appreciate the fact that you think I am crazy :)


Thus endeth the sermon...


Enjoy the remainder of your week...

11 comments:

Unspun said...

The white man comes in many names in these parts: Bule, ang moh, lao wai, farang, gaijin...

Like any words there is the paralanguage: what's unsaid wih words but said with intonation, pitch, body language etc.

Often when Asians use the word for th white man the paralanguage is neutral. Like an American, say, in the 1920s calling a black man nigger or negro.

It's a fact of life. That's what you are, where they are concerned.

Sometimes the paralanguage that accompanies such labeling may even endearing, such as what a local girlfriend may say to her western boyfriend: "You're my Bule Gila>"

So the bottom line is that you'd be making too much ado over nothing if you take word meanings too literally. A bit like not seeing the forest for the trees.

Best way to cope with such remarks is with self-deprecating humor and a good laugh, which some members of the expatriate community here are unable or unwilling to do.

Hence they have hemorrhoids and piles and they become grumpy bloggers :) Glad you're not one of them Rob.

Rob Baiton said...

Unspun...

Bule has entered into the modern Indonesian lexicon in a way that most Indonesians do not see the racial underpinnings of the word.

This then leads to the endless and sometimes viscious circle that we see on a number of blogs.

My personal opinion is that there are solid arguments for bule being racist. Yet, the truth of the matter is that most Indonesians are unaware of the racist nature of the word and are also unaware of the offence its use might incur. It is also fair to say that most "bules" also are ignorant of the words history and connotations.

I would encourage anyone that is really into the substance of the issue to enrol in a PhD and do some serious leg work and give us a reasoned academic account.

In the tradition of Forrest Gump... "bule is as bule does!"

Patung said...

Hi Rob, the 'bule' issue, I couldn't care less basically, I'm not really bothered about being called a bule, of course it just depends how it's said. War, mass murder, slavery, child sexual abuse, child malnutrition, those are things to get hot and bothered about, or better still do something about. But if people want to talk about trivial things like bule I don't mind at all.

Rob Baiton said...

Patung...

It is a storm in a tea cup in the sense that the whole debate will continue unabated, albeit with periods of silence every now and then, because of the diametrically opposed views on the subject matter.

I agree there are more pressing issues in the big bad world that we live in.

Although, I beg to differ on the 'trivial' aspect because wars, genocides, agression, slavery, and a whole range of other nasty bits of world history have been premised on discrimination regarding the colour of one's skin or the religion they profess to follow!

As I said I think at this point in time it is an academic debate!

But I do agree we judge a person by their deeds / actions so perhaps so of this energy and anger over the word bule can be directed to addressing issues such as child hunger and homelessness on and around the streets of Indonesia from Sabang to Merauke!

Merdeka!

Unspun said...

Let me get this right. Patung can't care less about this issue. So that's why he bothered to leave a posting instead of going out there and making the world right?

Rob Baiton said...

Now, now, there Unspun :)

I am happy for him to drop by in the down times between posting on his own blog(s) and saving the world!

Patung...

Nah, in Unspun's defence, and not that he needs any defending as he seems to have a pretty good command on that himself, I gotta say for a person that does not care a lot for the bule issue then Indonesia Matters is an interesting retrospective on how little you really care for this issue :)

I think the issue is one of your "bread + butter" ones, particularly with just about everything Ross posts lending it to the very discussion of bules and their place!

Along with a number of other issues that allow people to get hot and bothered such as religion, sexuality, and the conflict between right and left / liberal and conservative. I must admit I read Indonesia Matters to see where we are at as a group of people and to try and understand different perspectives and rationale for adopted positions...almost educative :)

As I have said many times; to each their own!

And no name calling! My Blog, My Rules! If you can insult without name calling then go for it!

Cheers

Patung said...

Rob yes you're right, racial based terms can lead to awful behaviour, this particular issue is one I just don't care about.

As for what goes on in IM - if people like to talk about something, then I will do whatever necessary to facilitate this.

Finally Woken said...

The author of Bule Gila, Bart, has 2 kids and the eldest daughter called our Singaporean-Indian friend as "Oom (uncle) bule hitam". She was 3 that time. Must heard it from somewhere. So even for 3-year-old, bule is associated with not only albino or white. My ex-staff also did that, saying something like "bule-arab"...

So what do you and others prefer to be called rather than bule? What's the correct term? Is it Caucasian?

Rob Baiton said...

Hey Anita...

Thanks for stopping by! I don't know that I am lobbying for any particular term but rather pointing out that the word is loaded and some people get rubbed the wrong way when they hear it...

I hav also heard terms like bule hitam, bule Arab, bule Depok, and the like...but in this context bule then means foreigner and it has moved even further away from the original meaning :)

Perhaps my point is when in Rome why not do as the Romans do. In this sense what is wrong with calling a bule, bapak or ibu?

However, the Roman analogy might not be such a good one because in Indonesia the term bule is regularly used and most Indonesians do not see the term as racist. The various blog entries bear this out.

So, in that sense maybe a good sense of humor would not hurt...

But the post was not really to lobby for anything in particular but to point out some of the issues as I see them...people are free to disagree with my interpretations and view points...

If you want to call people bule then go for it! :)

Unspun said...

There is also a Bule Jalan Jaksa as in "need a westerner in the team to help you win a pitch? Then go rent a Bule Jalan Jaksa, give him a shower and shave, put him in decent clothes and parade him before the prospective clients."

This is no reflection fthe denizens of Jalan Jaksa but on the colonial mentality of the prospective clients.

On your outburst about name alling in you blog: what's that got to do with the price of fish?

Rob Baiton said...

Unspun...

Name calling has nothing to do with the price of fish at all! So, it is a good thing I am not selling fish...

The "now, now" was tongue in cheek and not intended to offend...point merely being in general name calling evidences a lack of rational argument and not cheap fish!

Yes, on the colonial mentality! And I think we agree on this point it bothers me too when the token white person (aka bule) seems to be an integral part of a sales pitch even where that particular individuals role is non-descript at best...

Although, funnily enough the missus and I enjoyed "ikan bakar" last night :)

Apologies for an offence...