Being Bulai in Indonesia

One of the hardest things to adjust to living in Indonesia is being a constant source of fascination. Being bulai (white) makes me stick out, and being tall with red hair doubly so. I can’t walk down the street without people wanting to say hi. Everywhere I go I hear shouts of “Hi miss!” It is all well-meaning, but strange none the less. It certainly thwarts my attempts to lie low and fly under the radar. Yet even for the all of the uncomfortable situations it creates, such as strangers wanting to take pictures with me at every tourist site I visit, I embrace the step out of my comfort zone. It has opened up an entirely different perspective on race that I may not have otherwise been aware of.

In Indonesia, whiteness is the beauty ideal. In every ad, people’s skins are lightened, and noses narrowed and elongated. Just about every major shopping area features a beauty spa offering skin brightening. Many Asian women, through plastic surgery and cosmetic products, strive to achieve features associated with Western beauty, such as round eyes, defined noses, and double eyelids. In the Asia-Pacific, the whitening treatment business alone is valued at over $13 billion. When a product 'wins' endorsement from a white celebrity, it's like striking gold.

A number of scholars have researched the origins of this Euro-centric view of beauty. Some attribute it to the long arms of globilization, some see it as a left over from Dutch colonialism, when white equaled wealth (and still perhaps does). Other say it is some mix of both. Either way, it is creating an unhealthy impact on Indonesia’s youth. Young girls criticize pictures if they appear “too dark” in them. Even young boys learn to judge beauty from a Euro-centric perspective. Despite the compliment being well meant, I cringe when a group of young boys call out “You are beautiful miss!” Don’t they recognize that the Indonesian girl sitting across from them, with her brown skin and almond shaped eyes, is absolutely gorgeous? Skin color should not be the marker by which people dictate social status or self-worth.

It’s hard to not then reflect on race issues in the U.S. Reports from home show that a conversation about race is crucial to healing the open wound that just won’t close. I don’t claim to even begin to have the answers, but Indonesia has taught me that standards of beauty play a big, and often unconscious, role in how we talk about race. Unless we redefine what it means to beautiful, it will be hard to find a way forward.