A different kind of celebrity

18 Sep

Note: Some may be wondering what the response has been here to the YouTube film that has sparked protests around the Muslim world. While there have been protests in major cities, so far the protests have been relatively peaceful. Police have had to use tear gas and water cannons to control the crowd and there has been burning of American flags. This is obviously unsettling, but I just want everyone to know that where I am I have been largely unaffected. So far I have not felt any adverse reaction to this being an American living in East Java. All of the Muslim people I know are peaceful and life has been going on as usual. Additionally, Peace Corps does an excellent job of keeping volunteers updated on developments as volunteer safety is a priority. If you are curious to see where protests have been happening The Atlantic Wire has a map of where protests are taking place. I think it’s also important to remember that words said or actions taken by some do not represent everyone or even the majority in any given group. It saddens me that individuals can incite so much anger and hate, especially as someone who works towards breaking down stereotypes and barriers everyday between Muslims and Americans. That’s all I will say about that, and now to our regularly scheduled programming…


It’s not a word that’s meant to be derogatory, but it still gets under my skin.

It means foreigner. Typically it refers to Caucasian people, but it can suffice for any foreigner.

There’s also Tourist and Mister. The latter of which I believe is actually intended to be polite.

Regardless, to me it says, you and I? We’re not the same.

You’re different.


Sprawled out on my unbelievably comfy bed back home and leafing through pre-departure pamphlets I came across a section that described the rock star-like treatment Peace Corps Volunteers often receive in the communities they serve. At that point in time, this prompted a bit of contemplation and a blog post on the topic of anonymity.

Little did I know this would actually be one of my most difficult challenges—dealing with all the attention I get.

Hey, it’s hard being popular.

I knew I would stand out. But, as with most things there’s a big difference between knowing something and experiencing it.

The Celebrity Thing? Pet?

I actually began this post about a year ago, back when the overwhelming response to my new presence was a daily preoccupation.

I quickly learned that the best way to feel less awkward when people stared at me was by greeting them. So I developed a compulsory habit to greet everyone! Maybe I’m super friendly or maybe I’m just acknowledging that, hey, I see you looking at me.

If I was going to leave the house, which became one of my only safe zones where I didn’t feel the pressure of constant attention, I would psych myself up and plot out where I would go and what time so as to avoid as much undue attention as possible. This is difficult considering I live on a main road with constant traffic. Every honking horn and shouting person would (and still does) spike my anxiety when walking or biking down the street. Anxiety being a word I never used before coming here.

We’d experienced this kind of attention during our three-month pre-service training in Malang. However, once at site and on my own, I experienced it on a whole other level. Some handle it well, basking in all the attention. Others drown in it. I’m still fumbling around on the shore.

I was suddenly intriguing, strange, and astounding. Everything I did was either scrutinized for its foreignness or praised for no noble reason at all.

“Why do you tuck a pencil behind your ear?” “You are so beautiful, what kind of soap do you use? Your skin is so white.”  “You live here and you can speak Indonesian? You are so smart!” “You’re from TV, right?” “Can I take your photo?” “Can I have your autograph?”(Yeah. It’s been that bad.)

It didn’t matter what I said or did, people were entranced.  In due time, I learned to play the part. I answered the predictable questions like an actress doing a promotional circuit for her new film. I also learned a few crowd-pleasing tricks. Want to send a room into a fit of joy and laughter? Throw a “Matorkasoon” out there. It’s Madurese, the local language, for thank you. Or go traditional and eat with your hands rather than a spoon. Insist you love sambal and that the food is not spicy enough. All equal bonus points for the Bule in likeability. All Indonesian habits, yet when it comes from a foreigner, entertainment.


Before volunteers are placed in a community Peace Corps must do site development. During this process they visit the potential school, potential host families, visit the local police office and generally check around to see if the place is going to be a good fit for a volunteer and likewise could benefit from having one. During these visits, PC staff runs through their spiel. They introduce the organization, what we do and what we can offer you: a shiny, sparkly, new volunteer. A limited time offer!

PC doles out host requirements. The home must have a bathroom that meets basic hygienic standards. PCVs must be provided their own room that can be locked, a bed, a desk, a cabinet or storage space for clothes. They also need a window, so they can get proper ventilation and a touch of sunlight. You can’t just stick us in a stuffy, poorly lit corner. We’ll wilt.

Once a school and community are selected there is a principal’s conference on the last few days of pre-service training. I recall at the conclusion of this PC staff giving the principals certificates for finishing the training and a hearty “Congratulations.” In my mind this read as “Congratulations on your new volunteer. We hope you enjoy her, and don’t forget to feed her.” Then following our swearing in ceremony, as freshly minted volunteers, we were carted away to our new homes.

So I haven’t always felt quite human here. Sometimes I feel like a novelty item, a prop, sometimes a pet or some kind of strange celebrity. Whatever I am to people here I’m certainly something else, and people calling out Bule! Tourist! Mister! is a constant reminder of that.

It was difficult growing into this undefined role I was slated to fill…

It didn’t help trying to keep a low profile with my face pasted on signs at school and the main road running through town upon my arrival.

Note: The blanked out parts of this sign include my school’s name which I’d rather not make public.

Some breakthroughs and embracing it

Fortunately after a year of being here that initial newness has worn off. Most people I interact with daily are now accustomed to my presence and strangeness. I’ve also learned much better how to deal with this and how to minimize unwanted attention. My only form of transportation—public transportation still poses issues by tending to prompt unsolicited conversations.

I’m also learning how to embrace it.

Last week, at the request of my school I was in a parade celebrating Bondowoso’s birthday and Indonesia’s 67 years of Independence.

It was a very public spectacle as Bondowoso City, the regency’s capital, has a population of about 73,000. Many of the residents came out for it, lining the streets throughout town despite the midday heat.

After avoiding any extra attention as much as possible for the past year, on Thursday I willingly submitted to it, and I enjoyed it.

I was paraded through town as a blatant ornament of my school, the town, the regency.

The reactions were nothing new—pointing, laughing, the double take and nudge to their neighbor while mouthing “look” in Indonesian.

Babies uttered jibberish and motioned to me. They can’t speak but they still know I’m different and acknowledge it.

Teen girls giggled nervously, pubescent boys attempted to outwit each other and provoke a reaction from me that would garner laughs and thus peer approval. The elderly smiled endearingly. Small children waved furiously until I waved back.

For once I didn’t mind it all. The difference was I was knowingly seeking this attention.  Rather than NOT seeking it and getting it.

I smiled, waved, gave thumbs up and even blew some kisses. I was ridiculous and I know it, but when else would I be in a parade? Why not go all out?

I spoke with a friend back home a few days prior to this. When I told her I was going to be in a parade her response was, “You’re going to have a hard time when you get back and no one cares who you are.”

Yes and no. I dream of being able to blend in and people watch again. (It’s no fun to people watch when people are just watching you.) Yet it’s nice to be liked without putting a whole lot of effort into it. I distinctly remember the warm and fuzzies I felt one night after unexpectedly seeing a teacher’s wife at a local ATM. As I was exiting the booth she recognized me and excitedly spurted out “ I like you. You’re beautiful.” It made my day, like finding a five dollar bill in your pocket or getting a free bagel. When else do people throw around compliments like it’s nobody’s business? When else does something as simple as greeting someone in their native language (or even yours) elicit such an enthusiastic response? It may not have a lot of depth to it, but it still feels good.

I work hard to assimilate, to blend in, to do things the Indonesian way. But at the end of the day I won’t be Indonesian. I won’t blend in. Even in donning a kebaya, three wigs, two sets of fake eye lashes and six layers of foundation. People see through that.

And they ask to take pictures with me.


Ending thoughts and related reads:

  • It’s a toss up. Sometimes I enjoy the unjustly privilege I receive for being a foreigner, but most of the time I just want to be treated like everyone else. This GQ article hits on that. On that blurry line of just wanting to fit in but never being able to, and of getting special treatment because you are a foreigner.
  • I feel for real celebrities and respect the ones who maintain good PR despite their lives constantly being invaded. It’s tough to balance wanting to be a pleasant person yet keeping your sanity. Melanie’s blog post hits on that.
  • Extra bonus: Jay’s post on why Surabaya is a good escape for PCVs. (He also contrasts the ideas of what constitutes rural and urban in Java.)
  • Also check out my page on What it’s like to serve in the Peace Corps for other insights and articles to what the PCV experience is like.

11 Responses to “A different kind of celebrity”

  1. jalford1 September 18, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    There’s an article by an ex-pat in Japan that I read a couple weeks back about “microaggressions.” It’s pretty interesting.


    • Nicole September 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Definitely agree with the notion that it’s draining and makes me want to hole up. I thought I was crazy for feeling that way, and generally feel like so much more of a homebody than I did in the U.S. Thanks again for sharing an enlightening article John!

  2. thegreenstudy September 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    This is so interesting and well-written. It’s easy to imagine why a celebrity occasionally wants to punch out a photographer. It would be difficult to always be on guard like that. It sounds like you are representing we “foreigners” very well. Thank you!

    • Nicole September 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      I try to do the best I can. Actually the link John posted above about “microaggressions” also describes what it’s like pretty well. Anywho thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. V September 20, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    I can totally relate as a black girl who went to China. I had people try to take pictures of me when I wasn’t looking and even try to touch my hair and skin. The celebrity status was cool in the beginning but it started to get frustrating when I realize that could not do anything without anyone in a 20 feet radius staring at me.

    • Nicole September 20, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      Yeah, as difficult as it is for me sticking out, I believe it can be more difficult for black volunteers here. From what some friends have told me and what I’ve witnessed, they often get people questioning that they are actually American because some Indonesians will assume since they are black they must be from Africa. Additionally, Indonesian culture hails lighter skin and long black hair as beautiful (even though many Indonesians themselves have darker skin and Papuans have black skin and coarse hair.) Therefore they get the celebrity treatment too, but they also get people asking about their hair, their skin, asking why don’t they try to lighten it or straighten it. I’m curious in China did you experience that as well, or no?

  4. Sarah September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm #


    Thank you for being so honest. It is not great to hear that this issue still plagues us a year from now (gulp, I’m not looking forward to that!) but it’s good to hear that others are feeling the same way I am. I’ve only been here almost 6 months, but already feel crazy from the attention! We should chat sometime! Will you be swinging by IST at all?


    • Nicole October 1, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      Hey Sarah, definitely! I’ll be around the weekend between your guys’ first and second week. I’ll also be helping out with some training on dealing with challenges or “rough spots” in service and intercultural effectiveness which I believe is scheduled for Monday the 15th. I will tell you good news though, as I said in my post, over time you learn how to better handle the attention and how to better deter unwanted attention. It doesn’t go away but it’s gets easier to deal with… all part of our adaptation here!
      See you in two weeks!

  5. fairyedensor January 29, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    wow, I am sorry you feel that way. I am Indonesian living in east Java, Banyuwangi. actually we -like what you said- treat the foreigner like a celebrity. I did treat them as one though. hehe… I used to ask them to take a picture with my friend.
    now, read your post I think I know how you and they feel. I felt guilty. I never thought that they feel this way.

    • Nicole January 29, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s nice when Indonesians understand that it can sometimes be stressful. And the thing is, it doesn’t just happen here, it happens in many places where someone is a foreigner or looks different. It certainly is a different and interesting experience though!

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