On United Nations day, flags are displayed representing the
nationalities of the students
'This is my country. The bule (white people) shouldn't mess with our country,' he said, perched precariously on the back of a bench at an international school in Jakarta. Dae Sik was talking about Indonesia. He grew up in Indonesia, but he is technically South Korean. His passport says so, his name says so, and ethnically speaking he is. 'But, aren't you Korean?' I asked. 'Of course,' he responded, 'it's in my blood.' As far as he was concerned, nothing he had said was contradictory.
Dae Sik's high school is a multicultural bubble for expatriate and Indonesian children. Inside the security gates lies a well-maintained, oasis-like campus which belies the bustle and smog of Jakarta. As students flood out of the classrooms at recess, you can hear a Russian teenager speaking fluent, colloquial Indonesian to a classmate; Indian teenagers speaking English with an American accent, then switching to an Indian accent and back again within a matter of seconds, depending on who they are talking to; a Taiwanese teenager speaking English, Mandarin and Indonesian in one sentence. No-one bats an eyelid. It's just another day at an international school.
When Suharto was president, Indonesian citizens were prevented from attending international schools, which catered mainly to the expatriate communities. But since this restriction was relaxed, international education has become increasingly popular among the financially privileged, who praise them for the high quality of education they offer. While international schools are sometimes criticised for their exclusiveness, they celebrate the number of nationalities represented in their student body and teaching staff as a mark of their diversity. But despite international schools' ideology of 'global citizenship', students learn to internalise cultural hierarchies - meaning that student perceptions of popularity are sometimes coloured by race.
The popularity stakes
'So, who are the popular kids?' I asked a couple of seniors.
'Well, popularity isn't such a big deal here, but I suppose the white kids that like to sit over there are considered popular,' Melinda answered as she pointed at the benches near the high school office.
'The white kids?' I repeated suspiciously, as I was sure they were not all 'white'.
'Yeah, the white kids.'
I leaned over to do a double take on the group she was referring to. Many of them were Caucasian, but there were also two blacks, one South Asian, and at least three were of mixed Caucasian and Asian descent. Melinda did not notice the irony in her choice of words.
On another occasion, a couple of students from the group referred to as the 'white kids' helped the Korean students set up a tent during a senior sleepover at school. All were male. One of their friends came over and said, 'Hey, the white kids are helping the Korean kids!' There was a pause as we all tried to digest that statement. One of the 'white kids' broke the silence, 'Dude, I'm Pakistani.' The other 'white kid' added, as he held on to the tent he was working on, 'Yeah and I'm Asian. My mom is Chinese…and you're half Japanese.' It was only then that the student realised the inaccuracy of his statement.
What these kids understand is that whiteness is not always about skin colour. It can also be about looking and sounding as though you have been raised in a white dominant society. The student cliques perceived to be popular often have more Caucasian students than other groups. But they also have non-Caucasian members, who are usually highly westernised native speakers of English and who often also exude great confidence. The way they sit, walk, talk, move, dress and wear makeup all betray the western influences in their lives. As a result, they are perceived to be 'white'.
The school administration affirms the elite position of students socialised in Anglophone culture in subtle - and not so subtle - ways. The sports on offer as extracurricular activities, for example, much more attention is paid to sports like rugby and softball than to sports popular among the Asian students, who make up a majority of the school population. A shared culture also makes it easier for students from western countries to build rapport with the teachers and administrators, both inside and outside of class. Japanese students are generally silent in the regular classes taught by teachers from Anglophone countries, but become vocal and participative once they are in a class with a Japanese teacher. An Indonesian teacher also commented that her Indonesian students were more relaxed in her class.
Just as native English speakers are perceived as white regardless of how they look, Indonesian speaking students at the school - a group that includes Indonesian nationals of different ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese and Indians, and students of mixed heritage, as well as Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos and a Palestinian, among others - are perceived as being homogeneously Indonesian.
One of Dae Sik's friends, Andrew, has an Indonesian mother. His father comes from the United Kingdom, but Andrew considers himself more Indonesian than British.
'Here in Indonesia, I can make conversation with anyone I see. From Bali to wherever I go, upper class to lower class, even pedicab drivers and beggars,' he said, gesturing with his hand as he spoke. 'But then when I go to England, it's a different story. I don't really know what to talk about.' Speaking of the 'white' students, he says, 'When I hang out with them, I just don't feel that connection. It doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel comfortable.'
For the most part, the 'Indonesian' students like Andrew get along well with foreign students. But they sometimes choose to describe their relationship with 'white' students in nationalistic, anti-colonialist terms. When I asked Andrew what the school social hierarchy looked like, he answered 'Indo, bule and then Korean, and Japanese'. He described the 'white' students as 'arrogant', asserting that 'They walk around like they own the place. So we put them in their place.'
As Andrew's comments suggest, the dominant position occupied by the popular 'white' group doesn't go unchallenged. Indonesian students are generally from privileged backgrounds and don't shy from using their financial resources to vie for the top place in the school social hierarchy. Indonesian students counter the advantages enjoyed by foreign students by making a show of their wealth, for example, clubbing together to hire a posh Jakarta club (and some bodyguards) for a party. One student revealed that the actual cost of these kinds of functions is less than the other students think. But they leave other second guessing the cost in order to play up their financial capacity.
Teachers and administrators, as well as other students, like to point out that the 'Indonesians' tend not to mix, something that has a bearing on their standing in the eyes of staff, for whom the ideal student is the 'global citizen'. Indonesians add to the school's overall sense of diversity by their presence, but fall short on being 'international'. By contrast, English-speaking groups are generally perceived by staff to be the most international because of the mix of nationalities and physical differences represented in those groups.
Both the 'Indonesian' and 'white' groups are equally heterogeneous. But the labels they attract, for example, as 'white', 'Indonesian' or 'international' depend on who is calling the shots. And although westernised, English speaking students may be referred to as 'white' by the students when speaking of status, the fact that they share a sense of familiarity with western culture becomes invisible when internationalism is at stake.
Danau Tanu (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia.
This article is part of the Learning to Belong feature edition.