Today was a Muslim holiday, and school was closed. We awoke at 6:30 am and went to Borobudur, an historic Buddhist Temple originally completed between 750 and 850 CE. We decided to go as early in the day as possible because of the heat and the crowds. We were warned that small kids would want to take tons of pictures with us. I shrugged this idea off as inconsequential: a few kids would scream “bule” at us and maybe ask to take some pictures.
This wasn’t the case. In what can only be described as “meta” (Kelsey Grimes, BMC ’12), being at Borobudur was beyond surreal. Here we are, at this magnificent, ancient, temple, in awe of the fine detail in the stonework and the building’s remarkable preservation, and we were the ones catching the local’s eyes. Old women, young adults, and high school students all asked us to take pictures with them. We were addressed as “misses.” Most used their own cameras, but some were satisfied just with having their picture taken on one of ours. The students asked if we would practice speaking English with them, and at the end, asked us to write a note to them in autograph books for a school project. So, instead of being the only ones gawking obviously, we were joined by many locals on daytrips too.
Because I’d never experienced any sort of personal celebrity, it was a completely new experience to be the center of attention (for doing absolutely nothing other than being white). It was both flattering and awkward, and I know I’m not the only one in the group who felt self-conscious at times. This feeling of semi-discomfort was pronounced further by the obvious preferential treatment received by the most stereotypically American (read: light skinned) among us. Everyone wanted to take a picture with Aisha, Kelsey, Maddie and me, whereas few were as interested in posing with or speaking to Susan Gao BMC ’13 or Bridget Ackefi BMC ’12. When we were asked where we were from, in fact, Bridget and Susan were always second-guessed for saying “America.”
This resistance to the idea of Americans as anything-but-white was very surprising to me. Obviously, just as people in America have unfounded or distorted biases about Indonesians, it makes sense for Indonesians to have such biases about Americans. However, more than socioeconomics or privilege of any sort, this bias was totally based on skin color. We’d seen many adds for skin whitening creams since arriving in Indonesia, and knew skin bleaching was practiced fairly commonly, but the association between whiteness and American-ness was most poignant in Borobudur.
Obviously, American news and media are responsible for a lot of the reinscription of this stereotype, but it still came as a bit of a surprise.
Below are various pictures from Borobudur, most of which were taken by Maddie. Also note the shot of Kelsey taking a picture of a new friend taking a picture of Aisha — taken by Termana. The shots of mushrooms and Geronimo Juice (ginger, orange, mint) at the end are from lunch: we went to a restaurant that serves all mushroom-based meals.
In other news, today I caught a frog! I will post a picture of him in my next entry.