By Richard Boughton
There are not many white people in my neck of the woods, being as it is rather off the beaten tourist track, and as a result of being rare in this sense, I often find that I’m a bit of a celebrity. Not like, say, Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga, given that people neither go into a frenzy at my presence nor violently protest it, but more like a giraffe or a duck-billed platypus.
I’m unusual; I’m odd. Children cannot help but shout at the sight of me. “Hey, bule!” Either that or they shy away, hide behind a parent or a nearby tree. Some of them merely stare, like little deer caught in headlights. The older boys, the adolescents, have learned some English, and they like to employ it whenever opportunity knocks. “Hey, Mister! Bintang, ya? Obama! Boom-boom!”
Honestly, I find it all purely delightful.
I suppose this is because I’m so accustomed to being fairly perfectly anonymous. In America, if you are not Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga or some reasonable facsimile, people simply don’t give a damn. You may as well be a fire hydrant or a telephone pole. And if you were to pipe up and say, “Hi, how ya doin’?” or “Hey, where ya goin’?” the stranger so addressed would more than likely avert his eyes and walk a little faster, taking you for some kind of weirdo or pervert. Either that or he’d flip you the finger, if he had enough time to bother.
I’m not saying it has always been that way. It’s more of a recent development, over the last half century or so, a period of time that has seen the division of community into small special interest groups, isolated cliques through which the general society is negotiated with paranoid caution, being considered vaguely dangerous and by and large threatening.
I’m reminded here of a scene from the movie Blast from the Past. In this movie, Brandon Frasier has from childhood been sequestered with his family in a fallout shelter since 1950 or so, the father having mistakenly believed the world above had been wiped out by a nuclear war. When finally Brandon emerges from the shelter, sometime in the 1970s, one of the first creatures he sets eyes upon is a black female mail carrier. Aghast, nearly frozen with delight at the novelty of this occurrence, Brandon finally exclaims “Oh my lucky stars – a Negro!” In the deeply segregated society of the 1950s, one simply did not see black people, nor did black people see white people. We knew of each other’s existence, of course, but to behold the actual creature was extraordinary and inspired a certain sort of amazement, a passing enchantment.
So it’s kind of like that. Oh my lucky stars, a bule! And why not? Brandon’s character intended no insult, but merely expressed a child-like wonder at the brave new world he had so suddenly entered. Here was something beyond the pale of everyday experience – the environment of the self-sufficient yet hopelessly remote fallout shelter – and by extension, the social environment of 1950s America. In the same way, these people who greet me mean no insult or intrusion. They simply acknowledge the uncommon event and are driven to connect, and thus take part through speech.
The beach nearest my house is not a tourist beach. There are no shops or cafes, no chaise lounges, no sellers or hawkers. From Padang Galak to Ketewel and beyond the sand is black, and hot like smouldering coals. People don’t swim or surf or snorkel here, partly because it’s a rather dangerous sea, and partly because you’d come out looking like a loaf of poppy-seed bread. It is local people who frequent this beach, to fish, to collect black-and-white rocks for sale to the warehouse down the road, to attend a ceremony or a ritual bath; and in the evening they go there to stroll, to chat, and to let the children play in the lake-like shallows left by an outgoing tide.
It is here that my celebrity seems most noted and esteemed. Everyone wants to say hello; they need to say hello. They alter their path to approach nearby, to smile, to wave, to say hello. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where do you live? How many children do you have? It is simple; it is the same; and yet it’s newly pleasant with every occasion. I am alive, after all, and they are alive, and we are alive together in this one small place, in this huge, non-negotiable, impersonal world.
“Om, Om,” one man exclaims, calling me “uncle” as he turns his little daughter by the shoulders to face me. “Minta uang dari Om,” he says. Ask for money. And I am slain by the innocence of the thing, the faith of the man, the shy anticipation in the eyes of his little girl. Ask and you shall receive; knock and the door will be opened.
Sadly, I am helpless to help them. Silver and gold have I none. My pockets are quite empty, and my wallet as well. But such as I have, I give. Friendship. Kindness. Humanity. Celebrity.