Otherness (or adventures in alterity)

You can live in Indonesia for a long time. You can work here, get married, have kids, and even run your own business. But try and walk anywhere – except in some swanky air conditioned mall of course – and you shall always be reminded that, at the end of the day, you will be judged by who you appear to be – the pigmentation of your skin and that you are a foreigner – rather than what you think and what you have to say. In fact, the locals will not even bother to try to keep their thoughts to themselves; the cries of bule bule bule are incessant and almost as loud and clear as the local mosque’s call to prayer (well, maybe not that loud). No wonder bules soon learn to avoid walking anywhere.

You are of course the “other”. And you are damn well not gonna forget that.

But it ain’t only in Indonesia where “others” are made to stand out. In the UK, for example, you could be deemed as an “other” for being either too tall, too short, gay, poor, badly dressed, fat, ginger haired or, of course, “foreign”.

But things are thankfully not like they were. Liberal tolerance is the new mantra and otherness is cool. But now it ain’t only enough to know what it is like to be like the “other”. We have to become the “other” as well. Alterity they call it; or the act of exchanging one's own perspective for that of the "other".

In Indonesia, you can see this when some bules convince themselves that they really are Indonesian, ditching the beer drinking ways of their forefathers for flip flops, super strength kretek cigarettes, and sometimes even a black Tommy Cooper hat. But when the game is taken too far, it gets weirder and some bules will even refuse to speak English – even when in the presence of foreigners who cannot understand Indonesian! I have never really understood this transformation myself, but assume that it’s because they have become so disinterested in themselves that a change of identity becomes an attractive proposition.

But as for me, I think I’ll remain as an “other”. There’s no way I’m gonna start wearing flip-flops. Now, where have I put my Gudang Garam kreteks? I just can’t seem to find ‘em anywhere…


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