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As a Westerner of European extraction it is interesting how my identity shifts when travelling around Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia the generic name for people like myself is bule, pronounced “bool-ay”. There is no derogatory implication in the term.

Over in Thailand I am considered a farang, although giving you the exact pronunciation is a challenge. The best I can offer is “fahr-lung” spoken quickly with uniquely Thai twist. Again there is no particular negative implication other than by virtue of being a foreigner.

That’s different from Singapore, where in Singlish (definitely the topic of a future post!) I might be described as an ang moh, although there are two subtleties. Firstly, the term (with Hokkien roots) literally translates as “red hair”, which may be somewhat incongruous if you have black, brown or blonde hair. Secondly, the full term is ang moh gui, which transliterates as “red hair devil”. The usual omission of the devil element gui could be either a mark of neutrality or a rascist hint depending on context and interpretation. I tend to think the former is much more likely, but I’ve heard the expression so rarely I have a limited feel for its use.

For me the most intriguing reference would be in Malaysia, where I would be labelled a mat salleh, a term that again isn’t insulting (or generally meant to be). Unlike the examples above though, I suspect Malaysia’s history with English speaking foreigners introduces another consideration.

As a Muslim nation intent on a more devout character, Malaysia’s lingering national consciousness of the colonial era and its associated Christian proselytizing possibly gives the term mat salleh a sharper characterisation.

Ah, Malaysia. Truly Asia! lah…

(Note: I could assert that Western males in the Philippines are often named “Joe”, a legacy of the huge numbers of GI Joes that passed through the islands during World War II, but without first hand experience or finding credible sources I’ll pause. Any reader with professional expertise or experience travelling in the Philippines is invited to clarify this point).

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