The second in our series of short interviews with teenagers and young adults of mixed Balinese / expat parentage who are in one way or another tied to Ubud. This time Rio Helmi talked to Wayan Jarrah, the 23 year old son of poet Ketut Yuliarsa and bookshop owner Anita Scheeres who together have run Ubud’s iconic Ganesha Bookstore for decades. Wayan has earned himself a BA in international liberal studies majoring in physics, English and Sanskrit. He is now doing an honor year in quantum physics. (with thanks to Kt Yuliarsa for the photos of Jarrah at his graduation and on his first day ever of academia – kindergarten in Padang Tegal, Ubud.)
Rio: Do you go by Wayan or Jarrah? Or is it different in Bali and in Australia?
Jarrah: Igo by Jarrah except with family and family friends, whether in Bali or Australia. I only started using Jarrah when I was at primary school in Bali, to distinguish me from the other Wayans.
Rio: Do you feel that you live in two worlds? How is easy is it to move between them if you do?
Jarrah: I feel the differences between the two societies more strongly now than I did when I was living there. I recognise that my experience was predominantly an expatriate one even though I used to identify as part of the mainstream Balinese community. It’s relatively easy to move between the expatriate role in Bali and Australia because they have many values and cultural assumptions in common. But to a large extent that is not the world of my cousins and my Balinese neighbours.
Rio: What do you like about being in Ubud when you are here, and what don’t you like?
Jarrah: I like to use my time in Ubud to explore the cultural activities here that are difficult to exhaust, because new museums, galleries and events keep popping up. The benefit of Ubud in this respect is that it’s small, so it’s not hard to get to most places of interest from my house. Since I don’t drive a car, I can get the benefits of good restaurants and other conveniences without too many of the frustrations of traffic. I am not particularly nostalgic for Ubud’s rural past because I think urbanisation provides opportunities and work, and you don’t have to travel far out to see the attractive rice fields that are featured in travel advertising and the rural poverty that is not.
Rio: Do you ever feel like your identity as being part of Ubud is challenged here? In other words is it easy to be fully accepted as a mixed race person? Are you more comfortable in Australia?
Jarrah: Ubud is the workplace and home of many people from outside Ubud, including non-Balinese Indonesians and expatriates, and hence there is a greater diversity of ways to be part of Ubud than might be the case for some other towns and villages in Bali. It is also easier to be accepted a mixed-race person in Ubud because my family is from Denpasar, which means that the ritual ties to local temples and banjars don’t really apply to me. I feel that my status is therefore based much more on association with my parents’ bookshop, rather than my participation in community activities or my position in traditional schemes of social rank. I have very similar interests and outlook to my parents, so I am pleased that I can be accepted in this role.
Because Australia’s notions of belonging to the community place less emphasis on ethnic and religious identity than Bali’s, it is easier for me to identify with mainstream Australian culture, at least in terms of my ethnicity. While in Ubud, I’m part of an economically powerful but culturally distinct expatriate community. So the question of comfort comes down to which kind of privilege is more important to me, which is a judgement I can’t really make.
Rio: Is language a barrier?
Jarrah:Yes, I would like to be much more fluent in Balinese than I am. It seems more urgent now than before, because the provincial government and media is increasingly promoting the Balinese language as a public language of culture, much more than when Suharto was in power. With the establishment of Balinese-language newspaper lift-outs, TV programs and websites, the sense is that command of Balinese is necessary to participate not just in traditional village and religious life, but also in urban and youth culture. While in Sydney, I work on this by watching Balinese pop video clips on the Internet, which are entertaining and use a low register and colloquial style that I’m interested in mastering.
Rio: A lot of foreigners have moved to Ubud. Does that make it better or worse for you?
Jarrah: Much better, since strictly speaking I am a foreigner who moved to Ubud in 1993. Ubud is strengthened by the variety of people who choose to live here because of the economic and cultural opportunities it offers. For example, you don’t have to approve of everything the expatriate artists Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies did in the 1930s to recognise that their impact on Ubud and Balinese painting as a whole was tremendously valuable. There’s a big problem with using the rhetoric of immigration control to deal with local problems like crowding and poor planning, because that rhetoric is almost always manipulated by leaders for their own benefit, not the benefit of the community at large. Blaming or seeking to control foreigners rarely fixes the practical social problems that get people grumbling, and gated communities are invariably poorer than open ones. This is as true of Australia on a national scale as it is of Ubud and other provinces in Indonesia, where there are big campaigns to convince people that they would be better off if foreigners were kept away. The sentiment should be strongly resisted.
Rio: You live a fairly intellectual and academic life. Do you think such a life would be possible in the long term in Ubud?
Jarrah: A great deal of academic study of Bali has been done for over a century by academics living here, but there’s a difference between having Ubud as an object of study, and having it as a place to build an academic career. In the short term, I could pursue research in some aspect of Balinese culture or society that would allow me to base myself in Ubud and maintain contact with Australia. Thankfully Bali is quickly embracing mobile Internet, which would make this much easier. But if I were to teach or establish myself in an academic community outside the field of Indonesian Studies, I would have to move at least to Denpasar, more probably to a Javanese city. I am more interested in formal academia than private study at the moment, so Sydney is still more suitable for me, but if I did become a private scholar I don’t think it would be too hard to move back to Ubud.
Rio: What do you think would be good for Ubud as a community? It’s inevitably changing all the time – do you think there should be a better direction for that change?
Jarrah: Whenever I am in Ubud I hear concern about the pace and nature of development, particularly in the town centre. However, I don’t find arguments that frame this concern in terms of modernisation or foreign influence to be particularly compelling. I think those arguments stem from a mentality associated with, but not unique to, the New Order: that it is possible to take advantage of economic progress in the service of traditional values. Making the issue about foreign brands and investment obscures the fact that Ubud’s quality of life depends primarily on how wealth and power is distributed amongst its own people.
I think it would be helpful to focus on the economic and governing systems in Ubud and how they can be made more open, rather than on the symbolism of Western stores springing up along the main road. One of the values of Reformasi is fair participation of everyone in economic growth. This would probably mean taking seriously the power of electoral democracy as a legitimate challenge to traditional economic and political relationships. How the multiplicity of local government structures in Ubud fits in to that is a complicated issue. I think that the instinctive response, which is to give more resources and power to the smallest traditional units of government like the banjar and the desa pakraman, isn’t necessarily the best one, because it can hamper our ability to deal with town-wide issues. I suppose I can’t really suggest a better direction, except for people to be open to the idea that the traditional methods of solving common problems may no longer be effective.
Jarrah: I would like to spend more of my time in Ubud, though I don’t want to move to Indonesia at the moment. I am very impressed by the way both my parents are able to easily divide their time between Bali and Australia, but I feel like I have more of my life invested in Sydney than they do. I’m fortunate to have spent much of my childhood in Ubud, and though I don’t regret coming to Sydney when I did, I do wish I had paid a bit more attention to the traditional aspects of Balinese culture while I lived there. Learning about these things now makes me feel somewhat like a stranger trying to bluff my way into my own house. I’ll continue to come back to Ubud and learn more about it, because that’s my way of maintaining my connection. Though no-one is completely free to pick and choose among cultures, I feel that I am able to engage with Balinese life on my own terms most of the time, and that’s very rewarding.