I’m not a movie star or even some reality TV twit, but I am famous. And like Brad and Angelina, I too suffer the perils of celebrity. Of course, I should point out that unlike Brad and Angelina, my entourage usually consists of a rowdy group of screaming children and the occasional goat. Though I do own a couple of Gucci bags, they’re the kind with the misspelled labels – one of them is actually called Gucki – and the poorly hidden “Made in China” tags.
I’ve been living in West Sumatra, Indonesia for almost two months now while my husband teaches at a nearby university. Yet the novelty of being one of the few western women around town hasn’t worn off. Just yesterday, I managed to turn the heads of more than twenty students in a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken getting takeout. One girl almost knocked her younger sister over trying to get a better look at me. My husband, on the other hand, is infinitely less popular due to the small but steady stream of Australian surfers flitting between Padang and the Mentawai Islands. “You’re just not exotic enough,” I sniffed while the young girl at the counter giggled nervously throughout my entire order. He looked so dejected I almost felt sorry for him until a wide-eyed four-year old proceeded to beat him over the head with a balloon. “Children seem to like you, though.”
I’d been to Indonesia before; it’s not as though the attention should come as a huge shock. But I'd lived in the sprawling capital of Jakarta where foreigners receive nary a glance, hailing a taxi on the street. On Yogyakarta’s Malioboro Street or Bali’s Kuta Beach, I’d always garner a small crowd, but they were usually eager touts selling batik paintings or bamboo didgeridoos, rather than admirers. Here in the city of Padang, I attract attention simply for my looks, not necessarily good looks, as my husband pointed out. “It’s your translucently pale complexion – kind of like the wall lizards. I’d attributed his comment to sour grapes until an immigration official apologized for one of his officer’s stares. “He tells me you are the whitest person he’s ever seen,” he explained.
Although being famous has its perks, it’s not as fun as I imagined it would be. For one thing, spontaneity takes a back seat when you’re in the public eye. Gone are the days of stumbling out to the local store for a loaf of bread (or in this case, beef satay or a bag of fresh mangos) in a spaghetti-splattered T-shirt and cut offs. I have an audience here, an audience that’s easy to please, but an audience, nonetheless.
Being stared at everywhere I go is not something I’ll ever be able to get used to. Nor is it something I want to get used to; having this much attention is starting to make me – well, weird. My self-consciousness is so acute now, it is bordering on egomanical paranoia. I actually yelled at my husband the other night when he failed to notice the two pieces of rice stuck to the front of my shirt after I’d gone out. He looked at me like I was nuts. “You were just throwing out the garbage.”
He was right – I was going nuts because the true pitfall of fame is fame. It’s not normal, under any circumstances to be that hyper aware of yourself. In fact, I’m so conscious of people watching me that I’ve begun to see myself as everyone else does – in the third person. I went to the market the other day and the whole time I was thinking: there she is, picking up a dried fish head and smelling it, and now watch as she tosses back her head and laughs heartily at her husband’s lame joke. This is not egomania; it is madness.
Celebrity is nothing more than a privileged form of alienation. People smile and even make me feel like I’m something special; I try not to kid myself. I’m famous for being a foreigner – that’s it. The attention was fun at first, now I long to hang out with everyone else, scarfing down nasi goreng and ogling the next new face that rolls into town.
It’s not all bad – Indonesians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met; their graciousness often exceeds their curiosity. But as a writer and socially-inept human being, I’m more comfortable in the role of observer than observee. I’ll certainly miss Indonesia when I finally leave: the people, the chaos and the almost ridiculous beauty of this country – hard not to miss. I’ll be ready to reclaim my anonymity though, as just another nameless face or faceless name when I return to the U.S. in ten months.
That said, the next time I am back in the states, and I’m standing in line at the DMV, shifting uncomfortably behind a guy talking loudly on his cell phone about the merits of his SUV’s “hemi", it will be all I can do not to march up to the clerk and demand in the immortal words of all fallen idols: Do you know who I am?