by Diana Darling.
This piece was originally commissioned by the group Afi Pasar Malam in Paris. It was translated into French and published in the issue no. 19 of their periodical Le Banian (in June 2015), whose theme is “Foreigners in Indonesia”.
Living as I do in Ubud, Bali, I cannot speak for foreigners living in other parts of Indonesia, nor even in other parts of Bali. Ubud is not like any other part of Indonesia. Indeed, as the self-proclaimed “heartland of Balinese culture,” it’s a bit unreal. But it is packed with foreigners – both tourists and expatriates – and it makes a living from foreigners. Here I reply to the questions posed by the editors of Le Banien.
How are foreigners perceived?
Foreigners in Ubud are generally perceived as money bags. Their purpose is to spend money. Unlike normal (Balinese) people, tourists require luxury in their accommodations—air-conditioning, spring mattresses, sheets, private bathrooms with hot water—and are pleased to spend a fortune on finicky food and imported drinks. They buy handicrafts of dubious utility and almost anything else you put under their nose, and they pay to watch Balinese do the most ordinary things, like dance and carve and conduct their religious ceremonies.
Some tourists want to stay on and live here. They’re willing to lease a plot of land for a gazillion times what the rice crop is worth, or to live next to the graveyard or on the edge of a river gorge, impervious to snakes and demons. They are gullible in business.
Foreigners are not only rich and reckless, they know everything. They are always telling Balinese how to do things—how to manage their trash and their traffic, how to run their schools and medical clinics, what sort of fertilizer to use, what to do with stray dogs and cats, and even how to wash their hands.
And although they might not express it this way, Balinese are also likely to see foreigners—particularly Western foreigners—as self-centered, promiscuous, competitive, squeamish, short-tempered, helpless in practical matters, at once exhibitionist and prudish, and terribly concerned about being liked.
Is it possible for a foreigner to become a full member of the community?
In a word, yes. But it should be first be said that being a full member of a Balinese community is not easy for the Balinese themselves. For all its embrace of modern technology, Bali is still a very conservative society. Complex archaic rites in its Hindu-Buddhist-animist religion are still very much alive, and these make great demands on the time, cash, and skills of village members. Because of this, local communities often impose fees on expatriate residents and even on other Indonesians from outside the community. To Balinese this is only fair: they themselves pay heavily in fulfilling their many ritual duties to the village—why shouldn’t foreigners, who breathe the same air and enjoy the same blessings of the gods, not do their part? This is not always understood by outsiders, who sometimes feel discriminated against.
On the other hand, any foreigner wishing to join the community is welcomed with delight and a measure of astonishment. Mixed marriages are not uncommon, with foreign partners happy to learn the difficult language and religious practices of their adopted family. Academic researchers often form close friendships with the families of their Balinese informants, and join in their activities as best they can.
It should also be said that the more integrated a foreigner becomes in Balinese society, the more he or she is expected to conform to its demands. For young mixed couples, this can lead to tensions when the romance of living à la Balinaise begins to fade. Conflicts may arise over foreign notions of, say, child-rearing or inheritance customs or personal liberty. Divorce among mixed marriages is also not uncommon.
Is there intercultural exchange?
This is very hard to judge. It is a peculiarity of Bali, and of Ubud especially, to be seen in terms of its religious and artistic culture. In other words, there is built into the relationship between Balinese and foreigners the huge, exotic edifice of Balinese society and ritual. This is partly because of Bali’s early destiny as a tourism destination, which has fortified Bali’s cultural peculiarity.
Also, much of the exotic quality of Bali’s image is that, until about twenty-five years ago, life was mainly agrarian and very low-tech, not greatly changed from the Neolithic way of life it had experienced for centuries. To people from industrialized countries, subsistence farming itself is exotic—and in a gentle, fertile land, it can be tremendously charming, especially when the inhabitants dance wonderfully to complex music, worship their gods with trance and fabulous offerings, and decorate their temples with outlandish art.
All this tends to put the spotlight on Balinese culture, rather than encourage cultural exchange, as in the following:
Bali: Look at me!
Bali: I bet you wish you could do this.
Foreigner: You’re right.
Bali: Ask me anything you want to know about life or the universe.
Foreigner: Ok. What’s the purpose of life?
Bali: To honor the gods, serve society, and conserve nature.
So far, the admiration is one-way. Only in academia is critical thought applied, and almost always with the greatest tact and sympathy. On the other hand, perhaps only on Facebook would you find the following:
Foreigner: Tell me, how do you conserve nature when you fell the forests, cover everything in cement, and pollute the rivers, the air, and the sea?
Bali: You don’t understand.
Foreigner: How do you serve society when you sell your agricultural land to outside developers and allow yourselves to be ruled by corrupt leaders?
Bali: That’s none of your business.
Foreigner: Are you aware that Balinese tradition defies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Bali: What are you talking about?
Foreigner: Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” That doesn’t apply to women in Bali. Look at the marriage and inheritance customs, the whole patrilineal system…
Bali: But that’s our culture.
Foreigner: And how do you honor the gods when you fail to serve society and conserve nature?
Bali: How dare you ask. Let me see your passport.
all photos ©Rio Helmi
Part 2 will appear on Sunday 5th of July