On the street where I live, at the corner of the city’s most accredited college campus, stands a billboard depicting a giant female face. In the image, the woman strokes her cheek as if it were not her own. Beside her, gleaming in white letters beside a skin-care logo, are the words “Putih: itu bersih” which means “White: it’s clean.”
Ironically, just down the street is Yogyakarta’s most swanky internet café, where children and religious youths copy R-rated films onto their USB drives, from which they learn just how far the “White World” deviates from Indonesia’s almost-Victorian conception of “clean”.
Between advertisements and media, we’re all a bit confused: how should Indonesians see the pale Westerner? I have no wish to invite pity for white “bulehs” whose unfounded privileges far outweigh their flak; nor do I wish overlook my darker-skinned ex-patriot friends, who – just as much or more than I do – exude a sort of Western mystique, but it seems that it is mostly among white-skinned women that “exotic” is often confused with “easy.”
I now have two older men contacting me with aims to establish friendship. Both men I have only seen once; both – without prompting from me whatsoever – have sent me messages via phone and Facebook in apparent hopes to get in touch with my Western-ness. The only difference between these two men is that one is the wholesome-hearted Hary Burger, who is merely curious about my culture, and the other is a 40-something-year-old bachelor (or, who knows, family man) who has singled me out for instant intimacy.
If we compare messages, it looks like this:
Messages from Harry Burger, who now we can only call “Hary” since he no longer works at a burger stand:
“I have a plan to go to cinema and make a dress, blouse, or gown for Miss Julie.”
“But maybe I need preparation, because I’m busy today…Miss Julie too.”
“Right now, Hary works at a business/shop (T-Shirt Store) at Kawasan Wisata Malioboro. Hary works to sell/business/shop T-shirt on the length of Malioboro Street from the Northern point to the South.”
“Does Miss Julie want to visit or come to Malioboro?”
“Would Miss Julie like it if Hary bought a gift especially to anniversary Christmas?”
Let’s compare this with messages from the man I met at my neighbor’s house, to whom I foolishly gave my contact information. Perhaps I’m wrong in presuming his messages have sexual undertones or that his interest in me has anything to do with my skin, but I should also note that it is extremely rare for a Javanese man to contact a self-respecting woman—particularly a stranger— so forwardly:
“Remember me, Jul?”
“We met each other at the place you lived before you moved, when Julie gave American chocolate to the neighbors. You looked beautiful and pure. My name is Iwan.”
“Honestly I want to be close friends with you, Jul.”
“Julie wants, right, to be close friends with me?”
“Thanks ya honey for your number, and thanks also for the delicious chocolate.”
“Honestly I would like it if we got to know each other.”
If we were to combine all messages and shuffle around the words a little, it would sum up the confusing projections I get as a light-skinned foreign woman living in Indonesia:
My name is chocolate. I want a pure American. I have a plan to be close friends with you Jul, right now, but when we met each other, you moved. I want to be close. I want to go to America, but need preparation. Miss Julie. I would like to know your dress, blouse, gown; the look and the length of each; to close in on you. Before Christmas, I want you do be my gift: pure like honey, because pure is delicious. Honestly, are you pure? I would like to know. You are too busy. I want to be friends with an American, but honestly I need chocolate like me. Chocolate is beautiful too, and you, American, have to go back to the place you lived before. But thanks, ya, honey, for your visit. Remember me.