Back to Bule

Just before classes started this semester, I read Benedict Anderson’s memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries. Benedict Anderson is a quite well-known scholar of Southeast Asia. He wrote the important book Imagined Communities, which compares different societies within Southeast Asia and which will be referenced in most of the Southeast Asia-focused classes that you might take.

The memoir turned out to be very readable. I found it quite interesting to learn about the context surrounding Southeast Asian studies in the United States, especially through a first person point of view. I’m not sure how interesting it would be to someone who has nothing to do with the field, but I really enjoyed reading it.

At one point in the book, Anderson writes that he is responsible for the use of the word “bule” to refer to foreigners. In his story, he didn’t like being referred to by the formal word once used to refer to Dutchmen, so, considering his skin to be similar in color to that of a white water buffalo or an elephant, he suggested to his friends that they use the word bule instead.

I’ve written about the word bule briefly before, but let me say a few more things. Bule isn’t as offensive of a term as, for example, the Chinese word for foreigners. I avoid it, though, and only use it when I want to make a point, usually about a foreigner who doesn’t know anything about Indonesia. I tell my students not to use bule, but I only tell my friends not to use it if they ask (most haven’t). Bule doesn’t personally offend me, but I still don’t use it.

Anderson’s story makes the word much more friendly. Though I think choosing to refer to himself with a word normally used for animals is a bit strange, it’s a nice story about making friends.

Of course, the word has now moved far beyond Anderson’s circle of friends and can have completely different connotations now. At times (and probably often or usually), it’s completely innocuous. At other times, it’s an insult.

So does Anderson’s story change how I see the word bule? Actually, not at all. At this point, it’s a lot more than Anderson’s story.

You might also be interested in this blog post, providing some evidence that the use of the word bule to refer to white people predates Anderson. Does that change the story at all? Again, maybe not really. Maybe Anderson popularized the use of the word. At the very least, maybe he popularized it among his friends.

And it’s a good story.


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