DON'T CALL ME BULE, MISTER! © Duncan Graham 2007
Standard advice to foreigners in Indonesia is to respect local customs. But when these include stares and verbal harassment then the tolerance gets tested.
French lecturer Emilie Vigano has had enough of being called a bule – the standard kampong and village description of pale-skinned outsiders. This is a contentious issue among many foreigners. Some take it in their stride, a few reckon it's a bit of a hoot, but others (including dictionary makers) say the word is derogatory.
Emilie agrees. After five months in East Java she's now got enough grip on Indonesian to respond with some mild words about politeness. "I want people to call me Ibu or Nyona, as they would if I was an Indonesian woman," she said.
"With men I can't stand their rudeness. So I just plug in the earphones on my I-pod, smile a lot and keep walking."
Because this story starts with complaints you might conclude that the Frenchwoman teaching at Malang's Brawijaya University (a government institution) is a sensitive soul, a fragile francophone easily slighted.
Wrong. She's no stranger to cultural differences and is driven to try and make a positive impact on the world. Back in her hometown of Strasbourg she taught French as a second language to migrants and students and was moved by their problems.
The 2,000-year old city of Strasbourg is a good place to hone global concerns. It's up against the German border and a popular center for students from Asia. It's also headquarters for the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights. The European parliament runs sessions in the city.
Emilie's experience as a teacher gave her insights into the lives and concerns of people who'd come to France seeking a golden future far from their economic basket cases – only to tragically find no jobs, or just medial tasks – and discrimination.
Last year's street riots in Paris between mainly Muslim youth and the police, and the torching of hundreds of cars showed the crumbling chasm between those with the Euros and a future – and those without.
After graduating in French literature Emilie could have got a job in government schools. "There was no way I was going to work for national education," she said.
"There's such a great gap between top students in France and the rest, and the government doesn't seem to care. Students are divided – 'you're good, you're not good'.
"Many foreigners in France need help, socially and with language and culture. They're not getting it.
"I wanted to use my skills to help others understand more about the world, and give them the intellectual tools to succeed. My parents were from Italy. They moved to France after World War II for a better life, so I knew something about being an outsider, though in a mild way."
Knowing is not understanding, as Emilie is learning fast in East Java. But she'd already had a taste of that reality when she organized a humanitarian aid mission for a village in Kenya with a group of friends.
It took them two years to raise the cash and work their way through the spaghetti of international aid bureaucracy. But in the end 200 previously homeless families were properly housed.
"I didn't want to do this through an established agency," she said. "If I did that I'd have to follow their agendas, rather than mine. I know my own will."
After her Africa experience she wandered Europe in her quest for self-discovery but was keen to get into Asia. The French government offered her a one-year posting in Indonesia. She is now one of ten young French native speakers across the Republic passing on their knowledge of culture, language and teaching skills.
It's time for another pause in this storytelling, because a read back shows Madame is no simpering apologist for her background and views. So what's wrong with being a forceful female? Isn't equality supposed to be universal?
Not in the streets and villages of East Java where a tall, striking young self-reliant woman striding alone, using local transport, maybe smoking a cigarette can be a shocking sight.
"I'm prepared to change to meet local culture and modify my behavior in some ways, like dress. I'll open my mind, but I don't want to change being me," she said.
"I'd like Indonesians to be aware that all foreigners are not the same. I want to show something of European culture. People just know the stereotypes because so few get the chance to travel.
"We don't all want to stick together in groups, stay in big hotels and travel in private vehicles. Some of us want to explore alone, meet locals and understand more.
"I live in a kampong with a nice Indonesian family. Everyone is curious about my private life. In Europe asking such questions shows bad judgment. But I have to accept. I tell the truth, I'm Catholic, 25 and married. My husband is in France and we have no children."
The other shock was her students' attitudes. "I thought they were really lazy," she said. "I lost my temper for the first time, but that didn't do any good. People here are very kind but don't respect you when you get angry.
"I told my students (in the first semester she had about 50) that they were the next generation of hope, and Indonesia needed their knowledge and ability. They had the brains; if they didn't work hard now how could they do so in the future?
"They don't, but can still graduate. Some are very bright, but they have a romantic view of France
"I was advised by colleagues to take things more easily. This is the first time in my life that I've been told I'm working too hard!"
So have you had to lower your standards? "Yes. I expected this, but not so strongly. I appealed to the students to work together with me. That never happened. This has distressed me a lot."
What have you learned? "It is very hard to see things through another culture, but we must try. I know I'll be a better teacher when I go back to France because I'll be able to appreciate how difficult things are for outsiders. I should have done this when I was younger."
What do you miss most apart from family and friends? "Intellectual discussion."
Do you see yourself as a global citizen? "I'm not sure yet. Maybe."
An agent of change? "Ya!"
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 March 2007)