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'Bule'

Feeling Like a Giant Fish Out of Water

Photo by Laurentiu Morariu on Unsplash

'Hi, Bule!" 

The call of a young Indonesian child makes me turn my head and wave. The child lights up, enthusiastically waving back. I continue walking down the crowded sidewalk, ducking to miss the low hanging backpacks that a vendor is selling, towering over the rest of the passerby. I am the Bule.

Bule is the Indonesian term for white person. It is an affectionate term but one that makes you aware of your differences. However, in a city mainly filled with native Indonesians and ethnic Chinese, it is hard for me to fit in. At 5'6, I am average height for an American woman but much taller than most Indonesians. I am much heavier too, wearing an American size ten. I squeeze through the narrow gaps in entry points, fold into myself on the angkot (Indonesian bus) in an attempt to make myself fit better on the narrow bench seat. My white skin and light brown hair is in direct contrast to the tan skin and black hair of most Indonesians.

I start to feel like a giant in this country of petite people. As I walk to work in the crush of humanity, I gaze over a sea of heads. I bang my head on the wares of the street vendors that are hung up under small tarps while everyone passes nimbly by. When the women's section of the department store at the mall has a sale, I wonder if I am in the children's department. The baby doll dresses and tight jeans look fantastic on these glamorous Indonesian women with their high heels but would never fit me in a million years. Forget undergarments. I have to go to a specialty store to find anything close to my size.

The staff at my workplace says I am a big person. When I ask what they mean, they say I am 'so tall'. As the only non-Asian woman at my workplace, I start to feel my insecurities magnify. I work in a Chiropractic clinic in a mall patronized by wealthy Indonesians. Several of the younger Indonesian women are married to tall European men. I watch them walk by in their heels and long, glossy black hair. Even the more conservative women in hijabs are fashionably dressed in tight jeans with lots of makeup. Never a big makeup wearer, one of my first purchases in Indonesia is at The Body Shop  where I get an assortment of bronzer, lipstick and eye shadow. A friend takes me to the shop where she works, which has some larger sizes, and I buy chic outfits to replace the conservative tops and skirts I had brought from home.

I lose weight unintentionally due to all the walking I am doing and possibly due to the heat. I walk everywhere; to work, to the various malls scattered around the city, to go out to find something to eat (my small room in the hostel I am in does not have a kitchen). I still remain heavier than most of the Indonesian women. I am still taller than everyone, though that does not prevent an ambitious Indonesian man half my height (a stranger promoting a credit card company in the mall) from asking me out. My makeup is applied but not expertly. 

I start connecting with my patients and pick up a few Indonesian phrases. I find myself struggling at first when many of the younger female patients choose to be treated by the only other American doctor, a blue eyed, sandy haired man, 'because he is cute'. We are required to market ourselves in this practice and I find this a challenge as many of the passerby that walk past the office literally run away when I try to talk to them. The staff tell me that people are worried about their English and afraid they won't understand me if I start talking with them. They tell me to be patient and wait. Over time, I find patients that I connect with (mostly older women and younger kids). 

Over time, my insecurities wane though I still feel like a giant. I navigate my way around the city by myself, boarding angkots and figuring out my stops.  I ask for directions and use hand signals to figure out my location. I find my confidence as a doctor. I make some Indonesian friends and spend time exploring the city with them. I go on my first and only solo vacation, traveling to the other side of Java, the island I am on. I spend a few days wandering around by myself in Jogyakarta, exploring temples, beaches and volcanoes. I meet some young European women around my age and spend some time with them on my trip.

Then, it happens. People start telling me that I seem Indonesian. My skin is still light and I certainly haven't gotten any shorter. I still feel like a giant strolling across a land made for tiny people. But my personality seems Indonesian. I am quiet like most Indonesians. I eat the food and take part in the culture. In discovering myself, I discover what connects all of us. I may be a Bule but I am no longer a fish out of water. I find my sense of place and, for a little bit, I find a sense of home.