I grew up in a multicultural city, largely unaware of people’s skin colour. I never thought about whether my friends were black or white or any color in between. And then I came to Asia.
Farang, bule… what were you called?
Several hundred years of contact with white foreigners has led native Asians to come up with specific words to refer to white people. I was shocked that there are words for “white people”, and every white person is considered foreign. Regardless of background, even if you were born in Asia, Caucasians are considered foreign and labelled with these terms.
The Thai term farang, used to refer to white people, developed during the Vietnam War when Thais had more contact with white foreigners. In Indonesia white people are called bule, which can be defined as “albino” and is considered highly derogatory in some circles, but trendy in others.
In Java, the term londo is used. It comes from the Javanese word for Dutch, and refers to a time when Java was a Dutch colony and the vast majority of white people in Java were Dutch. Many other terms for white foreigners exist throughout the world including gaijin (outside person) in Japan, gabacho (antagonising Americans or French) in Mexico and laowai (old foreigner) in China.
Sticking out like a sore thumb?
I realised that no matter how long I spent in Asia, and no matter how much I was loved and appreciated by my Asian friends, to the average person in the street, I would always be a white foreigner.
My cousin recently cited this as one of her main reasons for returning to the UK after working in India for several years. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life being unable to fit in, always an outsider.
Travellers who stick to resort hotels and only come into contact with trained staff, as well as those on short visits, may not have to put up with any of this. However, anyone spending extended time in Asia, outside of an expat community, taking public transport, walking anywhere or eating locally, is going to attract unwanted attention based on their skin color and physical appearance.
Although my opinion is based on my own experiences as a white woman in South East Asia, I can tell you that black people also receive race-based, usually negative, attention. In fact, anyone who looks different will be made to feel it.
How to deal with unwanted race-based attention
Some of my friends respond to the attention by engaging with the people who shout at them, or coming up with a suitable reply. Others correct the poor English used—where I live “hello mister” is often shouted at foreigners, male or female.
Some people get bothered and shut themselves away in order to avoid foreigner-specific attention. Travelling by car or by motorbike definitely reduces the amount of attention compared to walking. Being in a group of foreigners may garner more attention, but it feels less personal as it is directed at the group, rather than at you as an individual.
There are people who enjoy the feeling of celebrity caused by constantly being stared at, while others just shut their ears and ignore it all. In my case, it totally depends on my mood.
How have you dealt with foreigner attention in Asia? Let us know in the comments below.