by Susi Johnston

Wouldn’t it be great if all “regular” and “long-term” foreigners in Ubud would learn Indonesian well, and these discussions could go on in Indonesian, and include the many active and concerned members of the local community? I’d like to underline that hopeful vision. If you spend three months in Ubud and cannot carry on a basic conversation in Indonesian, then you’re not integrating or interacting with your environment in a responsible way.

If you arrive in Ubud and plan to spend more than a month or two, you should feel obliged to begin an Indonesian language course immediately. I recommend Cinta Bahasa (they’re in Ubud, Canggu, Kuta and Sanur). And IALF (in south Denpasar). Also Rosetta Stone (if you have self-discipline). The longer a foreigner spends in Ubud without gaining communication skills, the less sympathy I tend to feel when they run into difficulties.

Twenty years ago, and prior to that, there was really no way to carry out the normal activities of daily life in Ubud without speaking Indonesian and/or Balinese. This motivated foreigners to learn to communicate and adapt to their new surroundings. And almost all of us did, and did so quickly and and diligently with motivations that were based equally on self-interest (for effective functioning in whatever activities we wished to pursue) and respect for the community/culture where we found ourselves taking root.

Things are markedly different now, with a largely isolated and independent foreign population that operates within its own sphere, with far less awareness or concern for integrating into the environment they’ve transplanted themselves onto. A situation like this is very labile, and prone to conflict, resentments, misunderstandings and mutual suspicion and alienation.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, and previously, foreigners in Ubud were acutely aware that they were unusual creatures present within a self-sustaining community and culture, and that there was no way to enjoy any benefit from being there without learning to communicate, and learning to comprehend the structures and dynamics of the Ubud “world” they had landed in. And they did. Those who didn’t tended to be “ejected” sooner or later by a peculiar kind of “immune system” of Ubud whereby they simply found themselves not happy, or not well, or angry, or beset by unsurmountable problems largely of their own making, and left, or were ushered more or less graciously to the door.

If I can put a finger on the essential difference in the nature of the relationships of foreigners to Ubud in the 20th century, as contrasted to those of the 21st century, I would have to say, it’s about perceiving oneself as a foreign guest in a complete and self-reliant culture which one would benefit by learning to understand by observation and cultivation of communication skills and relationships . . . as opposed to the 21st century perception of oneself as a self-determining, self-focused individual coincidentally set down within a increasingly large and increasingly unimpressive non-Balinese and self-created semi-culture with its own norms, values, strata of status, and objectives, that operate largely without any regard or relationship (other than transactional ones, like leasing land or shops) with the pre-existing and persistent and inevitably dominant culture of Ubud.

It’s peculiar. There seems to be an encapsulated “Foreign Ubudian” culture that runs its own course regardless of Ubud itself. It makes one wonder what benefit this global, diverse culture gains by locating itself in Ubud, as opposed to, say, somewhere in East Java, or in Kintamani or in West Kalimantan or Ujung Pandang or pretty much anywhere else. And one wonders, all the more, what benefits, other than limited financial ones, accrue to Ubud itself; the Ubud that existed before the capsule of Foreign Ubudianism set itself down like an alien spaceship.

I encourage all MA and PhD candidates who have fields of academic interest related to this type of dynamic/phenomenon to consider looking seriously into this peculiar situation as the focus of their theses or dissertations. They may be working for degrees in anthropology, sociology, economics, politics, psychology, history, southeast asian studies, or any number of other disciplines. There’s very rich, fresh, and unexplored material here for serious consideration, with tremendous potential benefits to not only academia, but to the complex processes of interaction and integration among societies previously simply stamped “exotic” or “primitive” or “ethnic” or “indigenous” or whatever . . . and the global neo-society that is perceived as normal and universally accepted and dominant. There is so much rich material here and now, in Ubud, for consideration by those few people who truly care to dig and seek “what is happening here” and “what does this mean” and “what can be better understood in order to facilitate more ideal outcomes” . . . . so . . . go for it . . .

I hope we see a crop of well-considered theses and dissertations on “21st Century Ubudianism” . . . that reach beyond just the Ubud ambit and give us valuable perspectives on how this human project is re-shaping itself in so many places, so we can perhaps navigate the currents of change that our ship of fools is being swept through now as the 21st century flows forward.

First posted yesterday (8th April) on the Ubud Community Facebook page; published here with permission of Susi Johnston.