I was an elementary school bully. On the first day of school, a boy named Ali suddenly threw up and ran out of class. It wasn't a pretty sight. We all chased Ali out of the classroom and started to taunt him, shouting that his stomach was full of disease. One friend said that Ali was contagious and that was it. The label stuck. For an entire year, none of us would sit next to Ali, talk to him, or even touch his belongings. We made his life hell for a whole year and he never did anything about it. He never fought back. He just took it.
I feel pretty guilty about it today. So of course I felt bad when instances of terrible bullying at Indonesian schools and universities started to grab headlines again. The university students recently caught bullying a special needs student at a university in Depok, West Java, said they were "just joking." But when does joking cross the line to bullying? I called up psychologist Tika Bisono to find out.
"Teasing doesn't stay with you and it could happen to anyone," Tika told VICE. "Bullying however, is intentional, and it targets the same person consistently. Teasing involves equality, the one getting teased can then tease back. Bullying is not horizontal. It's vertical. Someone has more power than the other person."
This power imbalance takes many forms. It can be that the bully is physically bigger, or better looking, or more popular, or richer. And not everyone realizes when they are the bully or even being bullied, Tika explained.
"Every age group has their own development process, where one needs validation and the respect of others," she said. "So the bullies and the bullied both have their own needs. For example, the bullied might need a sense of belonging. That's how he or she might be accepted in an environment. The bullies themselves come from a place where he or she didn't get enough respect and they try to break free from the oppression they felt."
And this all can have a lasting effect. We reached out to adults who, in the past, were either bullies or bullied in school to see how they feel about it today.
VICE: So you've bullied someone before?
Windriyanti: I did since everyone in my clique did it in primary school. So here's how it went: I was the new transfer student in 5th grade. It just so happened that I sat alongside the popular girl gang in school. There was this girl, Lily who we called Butet. She was often the target of ridicule by the gang, even before I moved there. Since I was sitting with them, I had this urge to participate in mocking Lily.
Why was Lily bullied?
She was often bullied in class for nothing. Initially it was just us calling her "Butet." I don't understand why she got called that, since she's not Batak. When you yell "Butet" without ill-intent, she would look up, but when you mockingly called her "Butet," she'd get upset.
What bullying incident left a mark in you?
In 6th grade, Lily started having her period before than everyone else did. We used to mock her about it: "Butet is menstruating, Butet is menstruating even though she's still a kid." I mean, we were all girls for crying out loud. We only wanted to tease her, but this one time during recess she went to the bathroom and didn't come back for a long time. Apparently she was cleaning her pad in the sink because she didn't have a clean one. We ridiculed her even more after that. It was so bad that she didn't come to school for a week.
How do you feel about it now?
I feel ridiculous. I'm so sorry that I used to think it was nothing but jokes. Even when I was in middle school, I already felt stupid about it. To think that I was capable of such a thing. Lily's confidence had been torn apart. I remember during a final PE exam in 6th grade, she didn't want to step forward. I didn't know why. Someone said she was having her period, but thank god nobody bullied her then. I learned my lesson: not everyone has the same mental and psychological toughness as we do. We never knew how they feel even though we thought we were just messing around.
So you were a bully?
Yeah, in middle school there was this special needs kid. At first, I felt sorry for him because he didn't have any friends. He was also the quiet type.
So then why did you bully him?
Dear Lord, I'm so sorry, but perhaps it was because he was not as intelligent as the others. This was apparent from his answers in class, his struggle to absorb lessons, and to keep up with conversations. So the other students found him incompetent. They laughed at the way he talked, the way he walked. Eventually I started to laugh at him too.
Has anything you've done really stuck with you?
He was fierce and often defended himself when he was getting picked on. This one time he got all hot-blooded in my face and I got upset and started bullying him. In middle school, I was somewhat the center of attention so other kids started to jump onboard and follow suit. I remember making him cry because we were fighting over a pen. He was more maudlin than other kids his age. The awful part was how the teacher just let us do it. So I bullied him more and more. I never touched him or anything though. I knew he probably hated me with a passion but couldn't do anything about it.
How do you feel about it now?
The last time I saw him, I was in high school. Apparently he didn't attend high school. I wanted to say hi but I felt bad. I wanted to apologize but I was too embarrassed since I knew how much he hated me. The guilt still haunts me until now, even now when I'm nearly 25. I still can't get it out of my head. It's like being chased by your past sins. When I finally got bullied myself, I thought, 'Oh, so this is what it feels like.' Then my guilt got worse. People can call me out on this, but I treat it as a punishment for myself. When I got bullied, I felt like karma did exist.
So you bullied someone in school?
In 3rd grade, I used to mock a friend who would bring pete [stink beans] to school for lunch. Her name was Dita and people would call her 'Dita Pete'.
Why would you bully someone over what food they ate?
We were 3rd graders who didn't understand anything. Our parents told us not to eat pete. We felt it was a taboo. So we bullied her.
What do you remember the most about bullying her?
Dita was a tough one. She would defend herself. But it was exactly because of that people avoided her and disliked her. Classmates started to tease her and I was in on the action. Once, I pinched her hand. Her mom came to school and complained to our homeroom teacher. Some of us got into trouble because of that. I don't remember how, but by the end of 3rd grade, I was already friends with her. I don't remember how it all happened. I don't know if it still leaves a mark on her or not, but hopefully Dita has forgiven me.
How do you feel about bullying now?
Being in a circle friends with certain gangs in school was tough... you can be seen as the enemy over some pretty petty things. Even during graduation, people would still call her 'Dita Pete'. Because of this bullying she never had a close friend, even by graduation.
Thankfully, she didn't become quiet or frustrated. My smart-ass assumption is that she tried to ignore everything happening around her in school since she had to stay there anyway. Do I feel sorry? When I found out people were avoiding her, I felt so guilty. If I recall correctly, I approached her every now and then, just making small talk. I do regret never officially apologizing. If I ever get a chance to, I would do it in a heartbeat.
How were you bullied?
In middle school, I was a punching bag.
I had a birthmark and I never retaliated. So they saw me as a pushover. Perhaps they saw me as someone who was weak and cowardly.
What do you remember most about being bullied?
There was this one guy named Jati who would just yell "hey, mole," referring to my birthmark. I looked up while trying to hold in my anger, then he said "your mole is annoying" as he tried to kick me. I avoided it and it got worse from there. His gang showed up and cornered me. They kicked and slapped me. This was in 7th grade.
I also remember when I was campaigning to become the leader of school student organization, I got mocked by those bullies. They snatched my campaign flyers and stepped on them in front of me. Still in middle school, we had this leadership training program and we had to spend the night. When I was asleep, Jati smeared balm on my genitals.
In high school, I didn't get bullied as much. But in college, it happened again and that really discouraged me. From high school until college, I was always mocked for being stupid and clumsy. Even my inner circle of friends would say 'Olga is dumb.'
How did getting bullied affect your life?
The pressure got to me and I almost killed myself during the last Ramadan. My mental health was broken. Thankfully, there were a few trustworthy friends who helped and encouraged me. Shout out to Che, Fajar Shohibu, and Ganda.
What do you feel today about those who bullied you?
I still hold some grudges, but I try to contain it in front of them. Not a single one of them apologized, but they tend to avoid me now.
How did you deal with all of this?
One way to deal with negative thoughts when there's no one around to listen is to talk to a video camera. Whenever I enter a new circle of friends, I'm also more careful and I try to form a new image. At the moment, I'm also active as part of Ultras Persita, North Legion. I try to find something that makes me happy. Some might say my passion for Persita is a bit over the top, but whatever, I can yell to my heart's content in the stadium and it makes me happy. Often I yell at players, not out of bad intention, but as a cathartic release from those who were mean to me.
How were you bullied?
Initially it was just verbal, but later on got more physical. In high school, I was bullied by kids who were in the same extracurricular classes as me.
Why did they bully you?
It was nothing personal, but they just disliked me. They thought I was disrespectful to the seniors and never said hi. They thought I was being unfriendly when in reality it was because I was the silent type. I'm not an easy-going "people person."
What incident haunted you the most?
When I was alone one time I got attacked. They circled around me and then they verbally and physically bullied me since I was small and skinny. They even insulted my friends saying they didn't teach me how to behave. They pulled my hair pulled, spit on me.
How did those incidents affect you?
I definitely hold grudges. In the sense that I couldn't accept what they did to me, but since I was outnumbered, there was nothing I could do. My mental health was shot. I became more and more quiet and got scared every time I saw one of my 'seniors.' Even until now, I walled myself up against 'seniors' because when I speak up, people tend to hate and avoid me. I never get to completely be myself, even now. I feel ugly, like a loser… it's hard to increase my self-esteem. That's my main issue.
What do you feel when you think about all of these memories?
The positive thing is that now i'm not at all judgemental at all. I'm unaffected by gossip. As for my grudges, I'll just prove to everyone that I will become successful and I will surpass those who bullied me.
Why did you get bullied?
It was during primary school. I was accused of having a contagious disease by the boys in school. I don't even remember what it was called. Since I didn't go to the teacher, people avoided and bullied me for more than a year. Finally it was reported to the teacher by another girl. The bullies didn't apologize at all. They got punished by the teacher. At home I also got mocked by my older brother and his friends. They said I looked older than my brother. I didn't do anything at first but eventually I broke down in front of my brother and mom. It was only then that I told my mom that I was being bullied in school.
Why did they bully you?
I never asked them. It was never mentioned and I never saw them again. I suspected it was the way I look. I was not attractive in their eyes. My uniform was worn-out and old, that sort of thing.
How did it affect you?
Well even now I hardly ever talk about this topic. Even telling you about this makes my heart beat fast. It left such a mark and now I'm not very good at socializing with people. It's hard for me to make friends because I am afraid of being judged. It's hard to enter a new circle of friends and meet new people.
What do you feel about those bullies now?
I've forgiven them a long time time, but I'll never forget. I met one of the bullies once and he said hi. I didn't remember him at first but when I did all I could remember was him bullying me. Bullying someone is never justified, no matter how 'bully-able' someone is. Bullying happens when someone feels superior and the bullied can't do anything about it.
It doesn't matter how bad or light the bullying is, it's still wrong. People often think of bullying as just joking around. But joking around requires both parties to laugh, it's an equal relationship. If only one gets to laugh, then there's something wrong with the joke.