By: Michael Milbank – Treasurer
Thunderbird prepares you for a number of things that you should encounter in the business world and in developing markets. However, nothing would have prepared me for the reception that we received in the villages of Bojonegoro!
Like a lot of Asian countries, Indonesia has an idiosyncratic fascination with fair skin. In the cities, almost every facial cosmetic product comes with an added “skin whitening agent.” This is something that I was aware of before we flew out from the USA, but what I did not fully appreciate was the extent to which we would be a minority within the villages and the attention that we would get as a result.
To put this into perspective, most of the villagers had never seen bules (white foreigners) before we showed up. We were very much a novelty and as the weeks progressed the shyness that permeates so much of Indonesian society was rapidly replaced by curiosity. The kids were the first to succumb to this. While some ran away and hid at the sight of us when we first came to the villages (bear in mind that Nick is probably the biggest person that the villagers have ever seen), they started to become bolder by the end of the first week and began waving to us and shouting out “hello mister!” whenever they saw us. By the middle of week two any uneasiness was dissipated by a pick-up football match between an entire village of schoolchildren on one team and Nick and myself on the other. As the game progressed a couple of kids joined our team and some of the spectators started chanting “Bu-les! Bu-les! Bu-les!” Sadly it was to no avail- the other side were a class apart and we got well and truly gubbed…Final score: Begadon Kids 27-ThunderBules 4. I somehow think that Nick and I will not be selected for the soccer team any time soon! That said, Nick did score a hatrick and managed in the course of it to acquire yet another nickname: “bule londo,” which was rather apt given his last blog (It means “dutch guy.”)
Nick’s height was a running gag throughout our time in the villages and was a constant source of amusement for many of the inhabitants. So too was Craig’s formidable arsenal of facial expressions. As the weeks went by, we gradually felt more and more like we were part of the village. Even so, we still managed to cause pandemonium when Asraa and I passed one of the village schools at break time. A sea of kids flooded out of the gates and swarmed us, asking us to take their picture and trying to practice their English…this would not have been too much of a problem, had we not taken refuge in a sweets shop at the time! When we made the fateful decision to buy them some candy it became like a feeding-frenzy at the zoo!
But it was not just the kids that changed their behavior. As time went by, Nick, Craig and I became witness to a phenomenon that started to become a regular occurrence for some of us as the weeks went by. It started when a pregnant lady shook my hand and then rubbed her stomach at a product demonstration we were attending. A couple of others followed suit and Craig was also asked to rub a woman’s stomach while he was doing his economic analysis. There was no explanation for this at the time, but all would become clear the next day. As Asraa and I accompanied a coordinator on the delivery of a water filter to a household in the village of Bonorejo, a number of women came out of their homes and started calling out to us in Indonesian. Our translator started laughing and told me that they were saying that I was a very handsome bule and they wanted to shake my hand. Apparently according to tradition, if a woman shakes the hand of a bule and then rubs her stomach, the baby will be born with the bule’s face…needless to say, this was both flattering and a little awkward at the same time…..If accurate, I could have a lot of explaining to do when I get home!
My embarrassment was complete when Ibu Betty, the coordinator started calling out to them in response: “You see! If you buy a Bening Satu from me, a handsome bule will come to your house!” And thus, in a remarkable piece of spontaneous marketing, I unwittingly became the face of the Bening Satu water filter….well, that’s something for the resume, I suppose!