When I first arrived in Indonesia, I was warned that in certain places I would feel like a rock-star. Children would call out to me, “Hey Mister!” and others would ask to take my picture. I was told that I would generally be the center of attention most places I went. I listened to the warning and thanked the messenger, but then I quickly dismissed it. Why would anyone want to take my picture? What could possibly make me interesting to strangers on the street? At that time, I could not have imagined being on stage at a televised dangdut concert three weeks later. (Dangdut is a type of Indonesian music heavily inspired by music from India.) I had no idea how real the warning of rock-star treatment was actually going to be!
During my work with Serasi, I became aware of what we learned to call “The B Factor.” The “B” in The B Factor refers to the Indonesian word buleh. Originally, this word referred to natives born as albinos, but it eventually came to represent all Caucasian people; now it covers all Westerners. Walking down the streets in many Indonesian cities, I am greeted by people calling out, “Buleh, buleh!” I typically smile and wave a polite hello, or if I’m feeling particularly entertaining I’ll call back with a few Indonesian greetings. This is usually followed by a long deep laugh from the initiator of the conversation.
The B Factor extends beyond the street. Stories were told by Serasi team members of attempting to rent cars in remote locations only to be denied again and again until a buleh appeared. Once the Westerner arrived, cars suddenly became available and nearly anything was possible. When the local TV station in Palu learned that Serasi had two buleh interns in town, the entire office was invited to be VIP guests at the station’s monthly concert. We had front row sofas, drinks, and food. The station manager and many of the station employees regularly checked on us to make sure that we were enjoying ourselves. On three different occasions I found myself on stage as some sort of combination of back-up dancer and comedy act. The experience was one I will never forget.
I’ve also learned that The B Factor is more than entertainment. While working in the field, it was clear that although I was only the intern and had little experience in most of the project areas being developed, everything I said was taken as fact. Even when I did my best to hedge my comments against this possibility the response was always agreement with my statement. The Serasi Program Officer with whom I was working could speak for thirty minutes without being able to convince the local representative of a particular idea, and a quick statement from me could easily change a mind. I was benefiting from expert status based on my ethnicity, not on any level of knowledge.
This aspect of The B Factor comes with a great deal of responsibility. Having all eyes on me for the majority of my time in Indonesia has been a new challenge. Although it can be nice to have every word I speak be respected and believed, I have had to be intentional in remembering to speak cautiously when helping to brainstorm ideas, for as soon as I speak an idea the brainstorming screeches to a halt. In our efforts to help communities around the world, it is important to be conscious of the cultural clout that accompanies us. Working in an office of Indonesian nationals and spending time with local people in the field, it is important for me and all expat workers to remember that we are only guests in this place and that the decisions should be made by the people. Even when we aren’t interested in making the decisions for the local people, it is also important to remember how highly our opinions are respected, regardless of how well educated they are. We are here to help, but if we are not conscious of the weight of our words, we may well end up doing more harm than good.
This is not only true in the development field, but also in the church. Even when we think we’re experts, or if our degrees and clothes make us seem that way to others, our words often carry more weight than we recognize. We are not called to fix people’s thoughts or make them see our way. Rather, we are called as shepherds to help guide and lead others to see for themselves. Serasi’s system of using local staff in Palu seems to help avoid forcing decisions here. This system is designed to support peace-building in Indonesia by allowing the local people to make their own decisions, and it appears to be a good way around the overpowering influence of The B Factor. In our work in the church, or elsewhere in the world, it is important to remember to guide and encourage, not dictate and blame. The more people are allowed and encouraged to use their own ideas to help themselves, the more likely the effort will last.