In conversations among Indonesians, you can often hear the word "bule" referring to foreigners. If you're in the central area of Jakarta and little kids run up to you, pointing and shouting "bule!!! bule!!!", you can't help but wonder what this word means and how it became a part of Indonesian language.
The word "bule" entered Indonesian language in the 19th century. Initially, it referred to the white color of a buffalo (bualai). In one of the regional books from 1840, it was mentioned that people preferred white (bualai) buffaloes over black (hitam) ones.
In a Malay-English dictionary from 1894, the words "andan" and "buley" were noted as referring to albinos.
The word "balar" was used as an adjective meaning "white" in the context of buffaloes, as well as albinos in general.
Subsequent dictionaries defined "bule" as an "albino."
In colloquial use, street vendors might use this word to attract attention from foreigners or when Indonesians discuss foreigners.
As a rule, the word "bule" is used for foreigners with lighter skin, hair, or eyes compared to Indonesians. However, in some cases, you might also hear terms like "bule Africa" or "bule Arab" to describe people from the African continent or the Middle East.
As an alternative, the adjective "barat" (literally meaning "west") is often used, which is considered more polite than "bule." So, "orang barat" translates to "European" or simply "foreigner."
An even more polite phrase is "orang asing," which means "foreigner."
Some foreigners living in Indonesia consider the term "bule" to be stereotypical, offensive, or even sometimes "racist."
Some Indonesians argue that it doesn't carry any negative connotation. They justify this by pointing out that foreigners in Indonesia have always been treated with special respect, so the word "bule" cannot be offensive.
However, the word "bule" is considered informal and is used in colloquial speech or unofficial discussions on social media.
In some regions, people might start calling you "blanda" or "orang blanda." Literally, this means "Dutch person." The practice of referring to foreigners as "Dutch" has persisted from the times when Indonesia was under colonial rule by the Netherlands.