Ahead of my recent trip to Indonesia, I expected to fill my memory card with photographs. I envisioned capturing beautiful landscapes — volcanoes tapering into the sea, ancient temples at sunrise and the occasional dish of gado-gado. Never did I imagine that so many cameras would be pointed at me.
My time as a target of photographers was brief. It began after my wife and I left the south part of Bali, and ended when we reached Bandung and Jakarta. But for two weeks in East and Central Java, my image landed on dozens of other people’s memory cards.
Here’s the way it usually happened: We would be at a museum, temple or famous volcano — the sort of tourist attraction where everyone walks around with their camera or smartphone in hand.
I might be taking a photo of the attraction, talking to my wife or taking a lunch break, when a group of excited young Indonesians would approach and ask if they could take a picture with me. In the typical pose, I would simply stand there and smile, but sometimes I would bashfully give a thumbs-up or form a peace sign like the ones around me, even though both gestures were considered “uncool” in my country. The photographer would then thank me and move on or make small talk for a few minutes.
Often there would be others waiting their turn in a makeshift meet-and-greet line. This kind of experience would have seemed normal to me if it weren’t for one thing: I’m not at all famous.
Neither celebrity status nor supermodel good looks (I wish!) explained my sudden popularity. As I came to realize, it was the color of my skin that had attracted all of the cameras. My wife had fielded far fewer photo requests (a disparity I fondly pointed out), but it wasn’t because she appeared any less photogenic, it was because she wasn’t white. You see, both of us were born and raised in America, but my wife’s ancestors came from Korea, whereas most of mine originated in Europe.
I have to admit that I enjoyed posing in so many photographs. The requests were flattering and allowed me to imagine, for a delusional instant, what it felt like to be a real celebrity. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but consider how my experience had differed from what an Indonesian tourist would encounter in the United States. With the hope that many of the new friends beside whom I posed will visit my country someday, I think it only right to prepare them.
No one will ask to take their picture with you. Not even once. It won’t be because you’re any less rare of a sight in our country than I was in yours —Indonesians make up less than 0.5 percent of our foreign tourists and immigrants.
It won’t be because you aren’t better looking than Americans, many of whom are massively overweight compared to their Indonesian counterparts. And it certainly won’t be because you aren’t more deserving of attention than half of our celebrities today. No, there are three different reasons why you won’t see any lenses pointed your way when you visit my country.
First, Americans like to believe they’re colorblind, and we’re always striving — in public, at least — not to draw attention to one another’s skin color. A white American who had rarely before been in the company of non-whites wouldn’t ask to take a photo with a black American stranger, because the request would likely offend.
Second, there aren’t any skin colors that are as rare in America as white skin is in Indonesia. Asians make up about 5 percent of the population in the United States, Africans 13 percent and Hispanics 16 percent. This means that, unless an American lived in one of the more remote parts of the country, the sight of a face unlike his wouldn’t be so uncommon that he would think to take a photograph — if it were socially acceptable.
Third, Americans are generally more wary of strangers than were the Indonesians I encountered. Maybe it relates to the prevalence in our country of telemarketers and door-to-door salesman. In any case, a stranger’s request to take a photograph would be received suspiciously by many Americans, who would worry they were about to be taken advantage of.
There are many tourist attractions to see in the United States, and plenty of cultural differences that Indonesians might find interesting. Plus, if I spot you lost on the street or struggling to order at a restaurant, I promise to return the kindness you showed my wife and me on countless occasions. Just don’t expect me to take my camera out.
Scott Akalis is a social psychologist and writer who lives in Chicago.