By Richard Boughton
What is a bule? Where did this word come from and what does it really mean?
This is where Wikipedia comes in handy. It tells us everything we do not know, which is fine as long as one really does not know.
Wikipedia tells us that bule (pronounced boo-lay) means, in the strictest sense, albino – yet in the same breath adds that the definition is no longer in use. Instead, the word has shifted from its archaic meaning to denote anyone who is a foreigner, regardless of skin colour. In fact a bule can even be a fellow Indonesian who is somehow outside the nucleus, because of status, money, light skin tone or what have you.
In short, a bule is, or can be, anyone who is not Indonesian through and through, culturally, socially, genetically, geographically; according to heritage, skin colour, language, parentage, and so on.
It strikes me that this notion of bule-ness has much in common with the concept of the Wasi-chu among the American Indians. Like the word bule, the word Wasi-chu in the Lakota/Dakota tongue simply indicates a person of non-indigenous descent.
Over time, however, the word began to pick up shades and connotations as a result of further experience with these non-Indian people, specifically as regards their character and overall effect upon the Indian nation. The word itself narrowed and came to describe not merely a foreigner but an intruder, an invader, generally a white person.
In Indonesian usage, the word bule has also narrowed, so that it does most often indicate a person of European descent. Moreover, there is the matter of who is speaking, what that person’s experience is and who he or she is speaking to or about. Bule can still be as neutral as mister, and in fact the two were used interchangeably in the not too distant past. Hey, bule, come look at my shop. Just looking-looking, mister, very cheap.
Negatively, the word has picked up additional layers of meaning. The bule therefore, in the meanest sense, is a promiscuous person who has no morals, eats copious amounts of bread and smells vaguely of cheese. He is apt to have strange habits and unsearchable behaviours. He tends toward imperialism and bigotry. The bule is rude, ignorant, superior, pompous. Possessing a wallet that is never empty, he never tires of purchasing the most ridiculous sorts of overpriced junk. He is also, therefore, stupid (which in this case is his saving grace).
On the other hand, especially as far as some of our Indonesian women are concerned, the bule is handsome and desirable. He is tall, rich, fair-skinned, fair-haired and looks like a good prospect for procreation (as well as relocation).
Note here that the bule is rich in either case.
In addition, we have various attachments to the base word. Bule gila, for instance. Crazy bule, in plain English. And bule sekali. Totally bule. My wife often uses that one in reference to me; so I am hoping that it is a good thing, or at least a neutral one.
The bule inexplicably lays his white body under the scorching sun, for he wants to be dark. Instead he turns red, and as a result spends half his holiday on a bed in an air-conditioned hotel room. The Indonesian prefers to be as light as can be managed and therefore avoids the direct sun, covers the limbs and even wears mittens to shield exposed hands.
One has to wonder. Are we all merely uncomfortable in our own skins?
Ultimately, the word bule does not describe a race or a colour but a state of mind. He is a perpetual stranger, the product of a foreign culture and mindset – which is something that makes him, at any given time and in any given place, every man among us on planet Earth.