The female expat experience


Perception of the male and female expat

“Your meet me call me, to piet padang.I LIKE YOU.SEE YOU BY.And I LOVE YOU,SORRY.”

It was the night before I left Padang, Sumatra, to return to Jakarta, when I received this sms from “Piet Padang”.

I had met some Australians earlier that trip at the hotel I was staying at. They lived in Padang for half the year to run tourist boats to the Mentawai islands.

They were heading in the same direction as me and offered me a lift to Senggigi Beach, where I was planning to get on a boat to Sikoai island and have some relaxing time alone. We all sat in the back of the ute (Aussie for utility vehicle) and took a ride around the mountains.

The others jumped out at their stop and left me and their driver, Piet, in the ute alone for the five-minute drive from there to the beach.

Within three of those minutes, he asked me for my phone number. Considering he’d just given me a lift, I figured it would be impolite to say no, so I gave it to him.

Over the next three days in Sumatra, he called me around 15 times. I wondered why Indonesian men got so serious about women, especially foreign women, so quickly. And then it hit me: sex. Derr.

The only reason this young man told me he loved me after knowing me for those five minutes was because he thought getting me into bed would be that simple.

This is no isolated incident. Ask any foreign woman living here if she has ever been stalked, and you’ll hear stories of incessant phone calls, men waiting at doorsteps and professions of love.

With these hasty declarations of adoration, which are obvious ploys to get bule (Westerner) women in the sack, a lot of female expats are naturally wary of Indonesian men.

It still seems that sex is something men have to convince women to do. If you, the woman, did choose to have a fling, you could imagine the feeling of triumph in the man’s head of the things he “got you to do”, without even thinking for a second about the things you got him to do.

Every day, I walk down the street and a bunch of local men yell out “Hello Miss”, which is usually followed by roars of laughter. For some reason, just saying hello to a foreign woman is a hilarious, witty remark.

Walking further, I hear a “pss pss pss” in my direction, like I’m some kind of animal whose curiosity would be aroused by the exact same sound every day.

The expat male, however, walks down the street completely unharassed, even though just as many women may look at him with the same lust. A quick look and a giggle among girlfriends is what usually happens, and that’s the end of that. The expat male walks away with dignity.

Yet in bars and clubs, where male attention might be more appropriate and welcome, the expat woman becomes invisible to the opposite sex. In this scenario, even I, all 5 foot nothing of me, am often too tall for Indonesian men to approach and often inappropriately boisterous. And I’m sure I’m often not girly enough for many locals’ taste, which seems to be long hair, a face full of make up, tight skimpy tops, short skirts and pair of wedges or stilettos, well, in this situation anyway.

So that narrows the expat woman’s options down to the expat man, and as I look around, I see that most of them are with Indonesian women. Why not? So many of them are beautiful, femininely petite and so interested in “the white man’s money” that they’re subservient when required.

It is such a common sight, as it is in most developing countries, to see rich old white men with young attractive Indonesian women in very unhealthy and imbalanced relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of friends who are in very healthy Indonesian/Western romantic relationships, and I do think it’s possible for a 25-year-old woman to fall in love with a 60-year-old man.

But when I see older bule men with their young Indonesian girlfriends, I feel they’re usually in denial about their age. They come here with the dollar, which buys them whatever they want — wives, mistresses, maids, masseuses, strippers and prostitutes. No wonder so many never go home.


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18 Responses to “The female expat experience”

  1. Nane Says:

    to tell the truth, I’m often slightly disgusted by the sight of a bule male with the face of around 50-ish and up with an indonesian female around the ages of 20-ish and below… It’s so obvious that it’s only materialistic love… not to mention that the girls (even with their skimpy tops and minis) doesn’t even fall into the category of pretty.. +_+ (muka wong deso..) but seeing a female expat going out with a local guy is not really a common sight… thus not really many people will have prejudice thoughts as to bule guys and local women…

    anyway, the sexism in Indonesia is still too obvious. Whether you’re bule or not, there’s always a sense that our dignity of slowly being crushed and stepped on… the only difference is.. that the the female expat is expected not to understand what harassment the local people are saying.

  2. Ganjano Says:

    In my experience, relationships between Indonesian women and Bule guys are not that easy. You hit the nail on the head when you mention money.

    It’s a real problem, and the longer I stay here the more it becomes a problem for me. And I’m in my twenties and not hideously ugly.

    I can see why, because of the money issue, why many guys become incredibly cynical after a spell here. Going out with a Indonesian girl can be confusing, deceptive and disheartening.

    However, some guys clearly think that that gives them the right to treat Indonesian women with the distain they think they have a right to. The kind of sixty year old assholes you see in bars being total pricks but nevertheless going home with good looking girls on their flabby arms. That my sound like a win to some guys. The truth is they are doomed to – and they know it – to insufficient relationships where money and loveless sex are the overriding themes, and however they brag about snagging a hot babe, everybody will be aware of the cold hard cash at stake and underneath everything, and will be aware of how pathetic and sad the whole situation really is.

    Who is the worse off?

    Of course there are exceptions, where real love does exist, even when the age gap is immense. egf. There’s a twenty five year gap between my parents and money was certainly a factor there, but they are very much still in love 32 years on. There are similar examples here.

    But in INdonesia, even if you’re not a sixty year old asshole oil grunt, it is pretty difficult to avoid the money issue. It has been a factor in all my relationships here so far and I’m starting to wonder if Indonesian girl-bule guy relationships are worth it. Imagine falling in love with someone, and them having money become more and more prevalent in that relationship. The economic disparity that exists between bule and most Indonesians is always a factor and I’m really starting to wonder if it is ethically appropriate to even enter into one.

  3. Ganjano Says:

    …that is, enter into a romantic relationship as a bule man on a bule salary with a partner who is on an average local salary.

  4. lovelli Says:

    Yeeha! This is certainly one of the best pieces in Om’bak (one, it’s really honest and two, you hit all the right spots, Ange) I must say.

    Relationships (or relationshits) aren’t really my thing, but harassments surely are. Being female alone in Indonesia seems to be an invitation to all sorts of that. I get the “pss pss pss” and “Hello” plus some other bonus words like “Cewek” or “Neng” or “Mau ditemenin Neng?” or other versions of it, like “Sendirian aja?”, “Yuk sini sama Abang”, the list is long, and in one of my luckier nights, a loud whistle or two.

    Your story got me thinking more about how I see ‘bule’, though. To be honest, I could never picture myself in a relationship with one.

    Despite people endorsing me to find rich, white anglo-saxon men–whom they said were perfect for a woman like me, whenever I try imagining myself with one, my mind just goes blank.

    Literally. You know how you get flashes of images in your head when you’re playing with ideas and thoughts? In my head is this two-dimensional black screen. I hope this doesn’t make me less a person.

    (Btw, I just learned that Jakartans have a slang word for shallow: cetek. It’s usually used to describe a pond or pool being not too deep.)

    A couple of years ago, my cousin, 32-year old female, married a Dutch 10 years older. Whenever I go out with the two of them, I would see women’s faces changing and hear negative comments, like “Ih, ayam!”.

    Ayam (literally means ‘chicken’ in English) is a term used to refer to women who sleep around or sex workers. Apparently, some people think that going out with a foreigner equals sleeping around and/or being a sex worker.

    However, I do believe that love should not be restricted to a certain race or even a certain sex. But people are entitled to have preferences. And although striving to find out what it really means to be in love, I do believe that it has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin or age. But money is a different thing, it probably could buy you love.

    And, responding to Ganjano’s post, I really believe that economic disparity, although an important factor in any relationship, shouldn’t be a reason not to have a relationship with an Indonesian. Or anyone, for that matter.

  5. Novia Says:

    Female bules aren’t the only victims of opportunistic Indonesian men. A friend of mine, born and raised in Sukoharjo, Solo, but has flawless british accent, made the mistake of answering a call from a number she didn’t recognize and speaking in english. She’s been plagued by calls and text messages ever since, in just the sort of broken, awkward english you described at the beginning of your essay.

    And yes, I too detest Indonesian women who see male expats as gold mine. Because of them, I can’t walk beside my very white, very tall Dutch friend and not think that people are looking at me and thinking that I’ve sold myself, my soul and my country to the ‘kumpeni’ (the Dutch East India Company).

    Having read this, though, I’m glad I don’t frequent bars and clubs. That way I don’t have to worry too much about attentions coming from male expats–not that I stand a chance of attracting said attentions in the first place, mind, since, a rarity among Indonesian women–at least those who flock clubs and bars–my face isn’t heavily made up, I look ghastly in miniskirt and downright laughable in stilettos, and I’m neither petitely feminine nor interested in ‘white man’s money’. In fact, like Lovelli, I can’t imagine actually living with a rich, white, Anglo-saxon who probably wouldn’t understand why I love listening to Doel Sumbang’s songs.

  6. anandaayu Says:

    This is a sensitive subject. Bilangela has told me that when she wrote this she tried not to be offensive but not to be apologetic as well.

    However, I do think that there are parts that can be slightly overly generalizing and could be slightly offensive in the blog post as well in the comments.

    Parts that bothered me in the blog post as well in the comments are:

    Bilangela’s line saying: “So that narrows the expat woman’s options down to the expat man, and as I look around, I see that most of them are with Indonesian women. Why not? So many of them are beautiful, femininely petite and so interested in “the white man’s money” that they’re subservient when required”.

    and Nane’s: “It’s so obvious that it’s only materialistic love… not to mention that the girls (even with their skimpy tops and minis) doesn’t even fall into the category of pretty.. +_+ (muka wong deso..)”

    In my opinion, Bilangela’s line could fall into stereotyping Indonesian women to be feminine, small, materialistic, and subservient. While Nane’s comment on the girls not falling into the category of pretty for having a muka wong deso (literally translates as ‘peasant face’) was a bit elitist and it limits the notion of beauty in a certain way.

    It’s very easy to fall into stereotyping when talking about inter-racial relationships. I have had my share of people thinking that I was a slut and a prostitute when I (an Indonesian woman) walk with my partner (an Australian man). At first it was hurtful. And I would get paranoid and assume that everyone was thinking badly about us. In the end, I decided to not waste my time worrying about other people’s opinion.

    I understand Bilangela’s attempt to share her subjective experience living in Indonesia. It must have been frustrating for someone being harassed in a foreign country and nobody should have to ever deal with that. However, jumping into a conclusion that most Indonesian men are disrespectful to women, that they perceive western women as easy and that all they want is to sleep with western women is unfair. The same goes to thinking that most old Western men who have relationships with young Indonesian women are escaping feminism from their home land looking for the companionship from subservient Indonesian women.

    Men on the street that harass women are jerks. I agree. Women who are only interested in a guy’s money are deceptive. I agree with that too. But, that does not have anything to do with race or nationality. It’s a combination of lack of education and economy power in a patriarchal society.

    The problem in Indonesia is class distinction. So many of the poor don’t get the opportunity of good quality education and have yet to be exposed to the notions of gender equality. This, instead of promulgating stereotypes, is what needs to be address.

  7. Made to Order Says:

    I agree with Ananda Ayu (of course). This generalisation that Indonesian women are after white men’s money really shits me as someone who is in a mixed relationship myself.

    It ignores the fact that class difference isn’t such a big issue for many here. Despite widespread poverty millions of Indonesians can be classified as middle class and many more would be regarded as rich by anyone’s standards. Many relationships between foreigners and locals happen from a position of (at least relative) income equality and education. It’s not a case of impressionable village girl with an exotic peasant face being swept away from filth and ignorance by fat rich white guy. While of course it does happen, people have to take their blinkers off a bit.

    And for those times where there is a big discrepancy in income, take it on a case by case basis, please. A lot of relationships here are just that — normal relationships.

    I mean I know, I’ve been to Blok M, looked at it, laughed and told people how outrageous it is, but that’s not reality for everyone. It’s a stereotype people have to stop labouring under.

  8. Ganjano Says:

    Yes, it’s class, always class.. witness Widjaja and his fourteen wives…

  9. bilangela Says:

    OK…I did expect such responses. Of course these are stereotypes and I am in no way suggesting that these situations are always true, or even most of the time true. I do think that we are so afraid of stereotyping at times that we sometimes don’t talk about things that are going on.

    Being Indian in Australia, every relationship I’ve had has been interracial, and I’ve been to countries where people would think I was my partner’s prostitute. I think that assumption should never be made, and it’s not one I make when I see a Westerner/Indonesian couple.

    Everything I wrote is from the perspective of an Australian woman in Indonesia. It’s more about how I feel about prospects with men here. To me, when I go out, I do see so many Indonesian women as I described. My comments were certainly not meant to be all-encompassing, but I think it’s a valid observation.

    And of course class distinction and education are huge factors in this issue, which is why I mentioned that less equal relationships happen in all developing countries.

    That is my very point; there are a lot of men who take advantage of the fact that they have money and that a lot of the women here don’t have money. (Again, I’m talking about a minority). And I suppose there are women taking advantage of the situation too. I don’t think most interracial couples are like this at all, but I do think it happens often enough to be worth discussing.

    When I first came to Jakarta, a friend of mine who had been living here for years told me I had to get over the sight of rich, old bule men with their young Indonesian girlfriends. Because it’s so common, people don’t think twice about it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an age gap in relationships, but I think the incidence of it here is so high, that I question men’s motives at times.

    I appreciate everyone’s comments because I know it’s a sensitive topic. I feel like it’s one people talk about a lot, but feel uncomfortable with in a forum like this. Why do so many of us feel we can say such things with our friends but not in a more formal space? The reason I wrote this post was because I had the same conversation with three people in one week. Indonesians and Australians. I feel that this is the point of Om’bak. Please, keep your opinions coming!

  10. Mr. Scotch Says:

    Some horny men they are, eih? Could it be that their view on ‘bule’ women distorted by the movies they’ve seen. They often depict free sex. But of course sex (most of the times) involves a man and a woman, so logically Indonesian (horny) women should also yell and roar ‘Hello, mister’ to ‘bule’ men… but I don’t find Indonesia women that aggressive when it comes to sex.
    But hey, what do I know…. nice entry!
    Cheers 🙂

  11. Jen Says:

    When Belford and I were working on a story about Indonesian jails, we faxed the department of corrections to ask for permission to go into one.

    That evening we both received rather odd phone calls, asking us if we wanted a “tour guide” and “services” in Jakarta. The caller stopped bugging Belford once it became obvious that he was male, but I continued to hear from this guy once a month or so until I left Jakarta. I’d get a regular text message along the lines of “Hello jenny I offer services for woman only you” and occasionally, an enquiry as to whether I would like to have sex with the caller. The amazing thing was that no matter how abusive and rude I would get (because after a while it became rather annoying) he’d end with “ok, sure, but do you have friends who would like it?” and then sure enough, call back a few weeks later to find out if I’d changed my mind.

    So somewhere in the department of corrections, there’s a guy who moonlights as a male escort.

  12. bellesbits Says:

    I quite like being a female expat here. Every day is amusing. Two different men scream out ‘bule’ upon seeing me everyday, one on my ojek ride on the way to the office and one on my ojek ride when I leave at night. They do not know each other.
    To both of them, upon hearing ‘ hello bule’, I shout ‘hello Jawa’ in return.
    To the ones who pssp pssp at me, I pssp pssp back. I delight in the Indonesian phrases or attempts at English that are thrown in my direction. At last, someone to practice smart-arse comeback lines in Indonesian with.

    I’m not trying to dismiss Bilangela’s concerns. One of my scariest times in this country was in a mosh pit at a concert for street musicians, where myself and a friend were attacked- invasively touched, poked, prodded and pushed by dozens of young men who noticed us dancing. Was it because we were bule? Or women? Was it because we were both? I don’t know, there weren’t any other women in the crowd.

    But I think you really give men on the street (in any country) more power than they’ve got when you pay any regard at all or take their woop woop calls seriously. In the same way I think sexist idiots making ‘women belong in the kitchen’-quality jokes in Australia deserve my pity, not anger, for their unfortunate brain cell count. Really, that’s all you’ve got? It’s so pathetic it’s hilarious.

    Whenever I start talking back to them the most typical look on their faces is one of surprise and embarrassment. (Or perhaps, one of confusion, since my Bahasa is so bad they probably have no idea what the ranting white madwoman is saying).

    I think I should note that in this country I’ve met some of the nicest and generous friends I’ve ever known. They also happen to be Indonesian men. Incidentally.

  13. September Says:

    I’m not the only guy that read stuff like on the net but I wonder if I’m the only guy who is struggling not to fall into that stereotype.
    And I emphasize the word struggle because it’s hard for guys to keep their gonads in their pants, and I’m sure this applies to women too, although gonads would be replaced by… okay I’m going off tangent here.

    Love is such an ubiquitous thing. Sex has a much simpler definition.
    Both are integral aspects in a relationship. But whether love and sex in a relationship are integral as complements is, very often, blurry.
    In that sense, it’s tough not too fall prey to sexual advances when most of us, I think, don’t even know what love is.

    Whether it’s the fault of the men or the women, for me, is a tough call. Call me overtly impartial but I tend to blame society so I don’t have to pass judgment which in turn makes it easier for me to move on.
    And I think it’s important all the men and women who are involved in interracial relationships, is to just move on.

    It’s hard enough finding love that sometimes you just want to play with the cards you’re dealt with and face your choices.
    I guess what I’m saying is, bule man&gold digging women or rich woman&hot indo/latino lovers, are not always a bad thing.
    At least I won’t be saying that (even thinking that) to just all of the stereotypical interracial couples I meet.

  14. Mr. John Says:

    Lots of bule women get stalkers, but there are a hell of a lot of bule men who get stalkers too. In three years in Jakarta I had 3 or 4 of varying degrees of seriousness. That said though, being twice the size of any Indonesian girl means that I never really have to fear for my personal safety, women are in a different position in this regard.

    One method I’ve found to make would-be sms-stalkers (surprisingly common) lose interest is responding to leading smses with “Sopo ki?” (Javanese for” who is this?”). They lose interest pretty fast…

    Strangely this works even better than ignoring them, I have ignored one particularly persistent stalker for more than 2 years now and she still smses me a couple of times a month…

  15. nyscha Says:

    This is a really sensitive subject, but I can totally understand.
    After living in Jakarta for 10 years now, I’ve gotten used to seeing interracial relationships where the guy is really old and just happens to be white and the girl is younger and just happens to be an Indonesian in skimpy clothes. At first I thought nothing of it, but after a while it became a pattern. And after it became a pattern, it became a stereotype in my head. Inevitable really, the way our brains function to record data and summon them again in the form of a stereotypical judgment.

    A girlfriend of mine from school (who is Indonesian and around my age) has never gone out with an Indonesian guy, her boyfriends were always ‘bule’ or ‘arab’ or ‘orang negro’ and they were always older and rich. Incidentally, she wasn’t too abundant in the economic department either. It shames me to admit it now, but back then, I thought she was “one of those girls”.
    I talked to her about this stereotypical judgment I had (yes, I have no shame really), and she wasn’t at all shocked.
    She said, “Yeah, you can think of me as ‘ayam’ if you must label me, and yes, money plays a huge part in my relationships, but I do love my boyfriend and I’m not fucking anyone else but him, so really, what’s the problem?”

    Personally, I’ve never been in a serious relationship with a ‘bule’ before (occasional flings and 8th grade puppy-love boyfriends don’t count) but I don’t limit myself to a certain race or age when it comes to boyfriends.
    I do sometimes wonder though, if I ever got into a serious relationship with someone who has a different cultural or racial background as me, how it would turn out.

    Bilangela, I’m relieved to find a post that talks about things people think about but never talk about, like “a big, pink elephant in the living room” that everyone so intently ignores.

  16. ed Says:

    Suppose the relationship between an expat and an Indonesian is healthy. If I married my Indonesian Muslim girlfriend and changed my religion to match hers, then how would my children respond to that? How would my parents respond?

    How easy would it be for an Indonesian to find good work in an English-speaking country? I know that sounds like an arrogant question, but I think it’s a realistic question — if I couldn’t speak English very well, then I could never have found a job here in Jakarta.

    Could a Westerner stand living away from home for all of his life? Personally, I don’t think I could stand living in Jakarta for a long time. And yes, my girlfriend agrees that Jakarta is horrible, but realistically, can Indonesians live in other countries happily? It just seems that Indonesians generally are SO attached to their families. Yes, I’m ignorant about this, that’s why I’m asking.

    Any thoughts from other people in a mixed relationship who want there to be a future?

  17. SuicidalCat Says:

    Dear ed.

    Below is my experience as an Indonesian having spent some time living overseas and having had interracial and inter-religious relationships.

    “Suppose the relationship between an expat and an Indonesian is healthy. If I married my Indonesian Muslim girlfriend and changed my religion to match hers, then how would my children respond to that? How would my parents respond?”

    My parents did not respond well, neither did hers. We ended up breaking up. Not because of our parents but because it ended up being a long distance relationship. I personally think your children would be fine.

    “How easy would it be for an Indonesian to find good work in an English-speaking country? I know that sounds like an arrogant question, but I think it’s a realistic question — if I couldn’t speak English very well, then I could never have found a job here in Jakarta.”

    Good work? Yeah sure. Career? Probably never. And if you don’t speak English at all… well there’s always an abundance of Chinese restaurants (ducks to avoid racist comments).

    “Could a Westerner stand living away from home for all of his life? Personally, I don’t think I could stand living in Jakarta for a long time. And yes, my girlfriend agrees that Jakarta is horrible, but realistically, can Indonesians live in other countries happily? It just seems that Indonesians generally are SO attached to their families. Yes, I’m ignorant about this, that’s why I’m asking.”

    We are VERY MUCH attached to our families, but this depends on the Indonesian’s attitude. Less open minded people, which is often a by-product of language and communication (and to a lesser extent culture) barriers, will find it excruciatingly difficult.

    But you know what, love conquers all (aaww… just don’t puke on the keyboard, those things are a bitch to clean).

  18. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    The topic is quite trendy on the Internet right now. What do you pay the most attention to while choosing what to write ?

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