Learn the Indonesian Language at UH


Today, I received the following inquiry:

Dear Professor Kozok,
I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts and feelings on the use of the word ‘bule’ to describe a white person or westerner. Would you consider the use of this word to be somewhat insulting? I have been doing a lot of reading on it and I’m still not exactly sure as to what my thoughts are about it. I can think of nobody that is more of an authority on such things as you.

Although the word bule can be used in a derogative manner, it is in the vast majority of cases used without any intent to cause offense. At a website called “pacar bule” we can read:

Kalau kamu seorang cewek mau cari teman, pacar atau suami bule, pertanyaannya adalah bule dari negara mana yang lebih baik?

If you’re a girl, and you’re looking for a white friend, boyfriend, or husband, the first question is, a white guy from what country is better?

The author continues that Europeans are more civilized because Americans are descendants of British criminals… Well, here he probably mixes up Australians with Americans, but our point is that in this context the word bule is used with absolutely no negative connotations.

Outside the beaten track where the sight of foreigners are rare, it happens quite often that someone may exclaim “Look, there’s a bule!”. My Indonesian friends use the term bule quite frequently even in my presence.

Here’s another example of the word bule being used from a certain Afrizal from Lampung. He writes at Kaskus, one of the most popular Indonesian social media sites:

Aku benci bule dari dulu…. mulai dari kulit mereka yang albino seperti warna kulit babi sampai gaya rambut mereka…. kedengeran rasis emang …

I’ve always hated white people… beginning from their albino skin that looks like the hide of a pig until the style of their hair… I know it may sound racist…

Well, yes, it is indeed not only racist, but blatantly stupid too. Clearly, the term bule is used here in a derogative manner. Bule-bashing is in vogue in certain circles, but even outside these circles you may hear exclamations such as “dasar bule!” which approximately means “What do you expect from a foreigner!”

And, last but not least, there is BUGIL. The word by itself means ‘naked’ but it can also be an acronym consisting of the first few letters of the two words bule and gila (mad). So what is a “crazy Westerner”? It is the name of a popular Indonesian TV show! This comedy reality show hires white foreigners and make them do local things. In one episode, for instance, they dressed two young Westener in shorts and faded t-shirts, with a shabby towel across their shoulders. They then had to act as polisi cepek (10 cents policemen) as they are mockingly called. These are young local lads who earn a few bucks by helping regulating the chaotic Jakarta traffic. The passing motorists then give them either a cigarette or 100 rupiah (the slang term for 100 is cepek). For Indonesians it is of course totally hilarious seeing a bunch of Westerners – representatives of the former superior ruling race – carrying out one of the lowest jobs imaginable.

You can check out one silly episode on YouTube.

The word bule is semantically very closely related to the the terms haole and pākehā from the Hawaiian and Maori language respectively. Just as bule, pākehā and haole can carry a lot of negative connotations depending on the context in which they are used, but they can also be used in a more or less neutral way.

Pākehā is a Māori language word for New Zealanders who are not of Māori blood lines. [...] Opinions of the term vary amongst those it describes. Some find it highly offensive, others are indifferent, some find it inaccurate and archaic, while some happily use the term and find the main alternatives such as New Zealand European inappropriate. (Source: Wikipedia)

Bule can, just as Haole and Pākehā, be used in a derogative way, totally depending on the context and the intentions of the author.

Other words in Indonesian denoting Caucasians are orang Barat (Westener), and Londo. The latter is, as bule, restricted to colloquial speech and also has no implicit negative connotation. Londo is most commonly used on the island of Java where it originally was coined. It is derived from Javanese Walanda, a loan word from Portuguese Holanda (Holland). Even though it originally denoted the Dutch, it is used as a generic term for all Westener.

So, what is the origin of the word Bule? Interestingly indonesians typically don’t know. The original meaning of the word has been completely forgotten.

Words with final -e have a strong tendency to be derived from final -ai, e.g. cape (occasionally even spelled capek), which is derived from capai. As final ai, such as in sungai, satai etc. is usually rendered e (sunge, sate), the bule derived from bulai. This word is listed in Wilkinson’s Malay dictionary under the entry bulai I. Albino. The same meaning is also given in the contemporary KBBI (Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia) where we find two entries: 1) bulai – the definition given here is ‘albino’, and 2) bule (coll), 1. = bulai, 2. white skinned person (or animal), 3. white person (especially European or American), Westener.

Hawaiian [ˈhɔule]), in the Hawaiian language, is generally used to refer to an individual that fits one (or more) of the following: White person, American, Englishman, Caucasian; American, English; formerly, any foreigner; foreign, introduced, of foreign origin, as plants, pigs, chickens”. [...] Its use historically has ranged from descriptive to racist invective. (Source: Wikipedia)

Even though East Asians tend to be whiter than Europeans, they are never included in the category orang putih (white person), but they are occasionally included in the bule category as testified by the following examples:

“Tidak suka pedas”, tanyaku pada si bule Jepang.
You don’t like spicy [food]?” I asked the Japanese.

Bule Korea juga gabung acara.
Koreans also took part in the activities.