Like a ‘Bule’ in a China Shop – What Indonesian’s REALLY Think About the West

Stujay Bule Indonesia

DEFINITION: bule \bʊ-le\ - westerner, neutral culture, more developed, open minded, long pointy nose, blue eyes, good looking, speaks English, likes to be practical, rich, smart, live for the future, selfish, look down on other cultures, arrogant, proud, albino - pigment deficiency, don't like to learn language or culture of host country, doesnt like washing, dirty, smells, has free sex, afraid of commitment to marriage, atheist, egotistical, only eats bland food, cannot eat chilli or hot and spicy food, alcoholic, refuse to try and understand Indonesian culture, don't try to see things through the eyes of Indonesians, dress inappropriately, too much emphasis on personal privacy, doesnt respect the past

Time for a Fresh Look on Indonesia

I have been running Cross Cultural workshops and working as a cross-cultural / cross-linguistic buffer in Asia for over 12 years now. Growing up in a mixed up cultural background and spending time constantly working between different cultural groups, I feel that over the years, the contrast between different cultures working and living together in Asia has become not as crisp as it was when I first started. I get so used to jumping between languages and cultures in my professional and personal lives, that the ‘mind set shift’ becomes automatic to the point that I often don’t realise what the ‘shifts’ are.

In a few weeks I will be running a Cross Cultural / Cross Linguistic workshop for large western company that will be sending many expats into work with and manage several thousand Indonesians. I thought it would be a good opportunity to put a survey out to my networks in Indonesia and hear from the horse’s mouth what their CURRENT opinions are on themselves, their own country’s culture, languages and how they view westerners in their country.

If you are Indonesian and still haven’t shared your thoughts with me by filling out the survey, there’s good news!… I will be leaving the survey open indefinitely.  You can access it here: http://stujay.com/indonesian-culture-survey/ .

Questions

Here is a list of the questions asked in the survey:

No.

English

Bahasa Indonesia

1

What part of Indonesia are you from?

Di indonesia, anda berasal dari daerah mana?

2

Where do you live (city) now?

Anda tinggal di mana (kota) sekarang?

3

What religion are you?

Agama anda apa?

4

Aside from Bahasa Indonesia, can you also speak any other local Indonesian languages?

Selain bahasa Indonesia, apakah anda bisa bahasa daerah seperti sunda, jawa, dll?

5

Do you still use the local languages that you can speak? If so, where / when?

Apakah anda masih menggunakan bahasa daerah yang anda kuasai tersebut? Kalau iya, dimana anda biasanya menggunakan bahasa tersebut?

6

In your honest opinion, what does the term ‘bule’ mean to you? (both positive and negative meanings)

Menurut pendapat jujur anda, apa artinya istilah ‘bule’ bagi anda, baik positif maupun negatif?

7

Please list 3 principles of Indonesian culture that you would consider important – e.g. ‘gotong royong’

Tolong sebutkan 3 prinsip budaya Indonesia yg penting bagi anda, contohnya gotong royong.

8

In your opinion, what do foreigners need to understand about Indonesia and Indonesian when working in Indonesia?

Menurut anda, apa yang diperlukan oleh orang dari luar negeri untuk mengerti tentang negara indonesia dan warga negaranya ketika bekerja di indonesia?

9

How do you feel about foreign men dating Indonesian women? (without the intent of marrying them).

Bagaimana perasaan anda tentang laki-laki bule yang berpacaran (dan tidak mempunyai tujuan untuk menikah) dengan perempuan indonesia?

10

How do you feel about cross-cultural / cross-religious relationships? Would you allow your child marry a foreigner or someone of a different religion?

Bagaimana perasaan anda tentang hubungan lintas budaya/agama? Apakah anda akan memperbolehkan anak anda menikah dgn orang asing atau orang yang berbeda agama?

11

From the foreigners in Indonesia that you either know or have observed, how would you rate foreigners living in Indonesia’s overall understanding of Indonesian culture

(Don’t understand at all, Insufficient Understanding, Sufficient Understanding, Extreme Understnding)

Diantara orang-orang asing yang anda ketahui dan/atau telah anda perhatikan di indonesia, berapa anda akan beri nilai untuk pengertian dan kepekaan mereka terhadap kebudayaan indonesia ?

(Sama Sekali Tidak Mengerti, Kurang Mengerti, Cukup Mengerti, Sangat Mengerti)

I chose these questions to specifically address areas that we’d been asked to cover in the workshop.  The initial questions on the speaking of regional Indonesian languages was also for my personal interest, as I wanted to know whether there had been any shift over the past 15 years or so.

Speaking Regional Languages

I’ve found from the responses to the survey, the situation in regard to regional languages is slightly different to the situation in Thailand.  In Thailand, especially in Bangkok, there is a certain stigma that’s attached to people speaking non-central Thai.  The main dialect regions in Thailand are Northern, Isaan (Northeast), Central and Southern.  There are many shades in each of these and some are thought to sound more refined than others.  I have even seen people on the skytrain, subway, restaurants and other places with ‘people’ in downtown Bangkok receive a call on their mobile phone only to quickly hang-up on the caller saying something to the extent of  ‘I’ll call you back soon’ in their local dialect trying not to be heard.  I find this happen mostly with people who speak Isaan.

From the results from the Indonesian survey, I get the feeling that people are a lot more proud to use their local languages in public, as long as they are with people who speak the same language /dialect.  One of the reasons that people would choose to switch to standard Bahasa Indonesia would be to release them from the hierarchical bonds that languages like Balinese, Javanese and Sunda put on them.  Javanese for example has several levels of speech – Krama (High), Krama Inggil (High Krama), Krama Andhap (Low Krama), Madya (Middle), Ngoko (Low).  In any interaction in Javanese, someone would have to have a full grasp on the nuances of all these registers of speech / vocabulary to be able to competently communicate in a respectable / appropriate manner. Speaking in Bahasa Indonesia to a great extent strips away many of those levels and gives a ‘vanilla flavoured’ language where people’s statuses are to a good extent flattened (though not to the extent of English).

Many of the responders mentioned that their level of their local language isn’t where they would like it to be.  Many who speak Javanese speak mainly in the low level and are embarrassed of their lack of ability.  Using standard Bahasa Indonesia is a safe alternative for them.

‘Bahasa Indonesia’ or ‘Indonesian’- Not just ‘Bahasa’

While we’re on the point of ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, I’d like to address a pet gripe of mine.  Many of my clients will send me an email or call me up and ask if I’m free to do a job in ‘Bahasa’.  ‘Bahasa’ is a Sanskrit based word – भाषा ‘Bhasha’ that just means ‘language’.  So ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ mean ‘Indonesian Language’.  The same word is used in many other languages like Thai  ภาษาไทย ‘Phasa Thai’. If you’re going to use the term Bahasa when speaking English, say ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ or ‘Bahasa Melayu’ etc … otherwise it’s just like saying “Are you free to do a job in ‘language’?”

Bule… Bule Bule Bule

As you travel throughout Asia, you’ll find that most countries have their own ‘endearing’ term for ‘westerners’. In Hong Kong it’s 鬼佬 ‘Gwai’Lo’, in Mandarin it’s 老外 ‘lao wai’, in Japanese it’s 外人 ‘gai jin’, Tagalog it’s ‘puti’, Thai is ฝรั่ง ‘Farang’, Malay it’s ‘Mat Salleh’ and in Indonesian it’s BULE (pronounced ‘boo-leh’).

I often read forums from all these countries in both English and in the local languages and the feelings vary.  Some will say that these are derogatory terms for foreigners, some will say that they’re neutral and others will say that they’re terms of endearment.  I’ll let you decide.  Most of the responses were in Bahasa Indonesia, so I have translated all the responses and deleted any repetition.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not you’d like to be considered a ‘bule’.

Positive

Negative

neutral culture

selfish

more developed

look down on other cultures

westerner

arrogant

open minded

proud

long pointy nose

albino – pigment deficiency

blue eyes

don’t like to learn language or culture of host country

good looking

doesn’t like washing

speaks English

dirty

likes to be practical

smells

rich

has free sex

smart

afraid of commitment to marriage

live for the future

atheist

egotistical

only eats bland food

cannot eat chilli / hot and spicy food

alcoholic

refuse to try and understand Indonesian culture

Has bad taste in women – can’t tell a ‘good looking’ or ‘good’ woman from a ‘less than good’ one

don’t try to see things through the eyes of Indonesians

dress inappropriately

too much emphasis on personal privacy

don’t respect the past

Many locals will be reluctant to mention what the ‘real’ feelings are about the term ‘bule’ as they think that it would be disrespectful. I have run workshops with expats in Indonesia and Thailand that have said ‘Some people might think those things, but they don’t think that about me – it’s not a negative term in my mind’. My response to that is that perhaps you are in denial.

Core Indonesian Values

Even though I asked for 3 of the core values that they thought were most important, many of the respondents gave more than 3.  The answers all hovered around similar points. It would seem that knowing the appropriate protocols is paramount.  The other major concept to embrace is that of family and society / the workplace as an extended family.  We will see in a later question that part of showing respect and getting into the ‘culture’ and showing that you ‘care’ is learning how to address people properly.  Not just by their name, but by the kinship title that an Indonesian version of you would address them in in Indonesia.

Indonesian Values Graph

Respect / Politeness - Using appropriate greeting protocols 71%, Friendly 67%, Gotong Royong' - Mutual Assistance and Repect 63%, Family 54%, Respect Elders 46%, Caring for each other 42%, Tolerance 42%, Cooperation 42%, Importance of Religion 29%, Social Solidarity 25%, Humility 21%, Maintaining Good Relations / Networks of Influence 17%, Dilligence 13%, Forgiveness 13%

What do Westerners Need to Understand about Indonesia when Living and Working in Indonesia?

Answers were very long and descriptive here.  In the following chart, I’ve translated the answers and categorized them under just a few major headings.  From right across the board, nearly everyone unanimously said that learning the Indonesian language and learning about Indonesian culture is THE most important thing for foreigners to do when working in Indonesia.   Not just learn about the culture, but to implement what was learned too.

Many foreigners may think that the linguistic side isn’t important and that they are there just to do business.  The fact is though, in order to do business well, the foreigners need to work with and motivate local teams.  To truly do that effectively, language and being able to speak to and understand the heart of the people is a vital ingredient.

Learn Indonesian 96%, Learn about Indonesian culture and do what you've learned 96%, Listen 79%, Don't come across as thinking you are superior 79%, Don't cause people to lose face 75%, Don't appear arrogant 63%, Don't Speak too much 21%, Don't just treat everything as business 21%, Don't think of Indonesia as a terrorist country 13%

One response stood out in regard to language and culture:

Tidak Tahu Unggah Ungguh

Foreigners should learn to address people – especially those older than them by the correct term. E.g. ‘Pak’ or ‘Paman’ for an older male. Even though a certain degree of familiarity might exist, for example a foreigner’s child should not just call the driver by his name directly. (He should use the correct term of address). This is often called ‘Tidak tahu Unggah Ungguh’ – to not be of a good upbringing / not know how to operate in a normal society.

Depending on what ethnic group and what part of Indonesia you are in, the terms used to address people can vary. There are a standard set of terms you can learn though that should get you by in most places. Stay tuned for an article covering these terms.

How do you feel about foreign men dating Indonesian women? (without the intent of marrying them).

The answer to this one was divided, though still weighted about 70% towards the ‘do not approve’ answer.  The main difference was that from the ‘do not approve’ group, about a third of those people did not approve, but thought that it was up to the individual’s involved.  Everyone is different, so if the girl makes a decision to do that, it’s her decision.

The majority however did not like the idea of western men dating Indonesian women without the intent of marrying them and said that it just reinforced the negative connotations of ‘bule’.  That is that they are dirty, immoral, non God fearing people that are just after free sex and to take advantage of people.

How do you feel about cross-cultural / cross-religious relationships? Would you allow your child marry a foreigner or someone of a different religion?

The answers here were varied, though the majority of respondents when it came down to it did not approve of people marrying across cultures and especially not across religions.

I have translated 3 responses below to show the gradient of opinions.

Sample 1

All humans were created differently. There aren’t any two people the same. That is the greatness of God, and that is what makes this world so beautiful. Because of this, I am extremely ok with cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships. I would certainly allow my child to marry a foreigner but not with someone of a different faith (this is my own personal principle), as it’s difficult to sail a ship with two completely different captains.

Sample 2

I don’t agree cross religious relationships because it is not permitted by Islam. If a Moslem marry’s someone who is not Moslem, it means that they will be committing adultery for eternity. Just as long as the two people follow the rules of marriage for Islam, I have no problems with people of different cultures or nationalities marrying.

Sample 3

Cross-cultural no problem at all. Cross-religious or agnostic no way jose

Note that this last response was submitted in English

How Well do Foreigners Understand Indonesia?

The final question was to get a general picture of how Indonesians perceive foreigners living in Indonesia:

From the foreigners in Indonesia that you either know or have observed, how would you rate foreigners living in Indonesia’s overall understanding of Indonesian culture

(Don’t understand at all, Insufficient Understanding, Sufficient Understanding, Extreme Understnding)

The results are as follows:

Don't Understand at all 0%, Understanding Not Sufficient 58%, Understanding Sufficient 42%, Understand Very Well 0%

There is obviously a long way to go in developing a better cross-cultural understanding between foreigners living in Indonesia and Indonesians.  I will continue to hone my cross cultural programmes to address all of these issues and more.  One take-home from this survey is that in the programme that I will be running for one of my oil and gas clients in a couple of weeks is that ‘language’ is a ‘need to know’, not just a ‘nice to know’.  I will incorporate fundamental language learning within the cultural programme in a fun way to at least equip the expats with enough to make a good impression and start building bridges with their Indonesian team-mates.

Take the Survey! (If you’re Indonesian)

At the time of writing this article, there have been a total of 51 respondents.  I will be leaving the survey form open indefinitely and encourage all Indonesians out there to share your own views.  Do you agree with these findings? Do you disagree? Let me know what you think.

You can access the survey on a separate page here:

http://stujay.com/indonesian-culture-survey/

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.