Suffering In Silence Behind The Smile

March 26, 2012

Her smile is radiant, her posture positive and her voice is warm and friendly. A true professional at her job, she always has a kind word for customers, even those who think that wait staff are little more than an invisible underclass in Bali.

“How are you, Ari?” I ask her – not her real name, but it will do for the purposes of this narrative. “Good, good”, she says brightly, but the tiny tear glistening in the corner of her eye belies the words. Despite the drops I have just seen her instil at the back of the restaurant, her eyes remain red from recent weeping. I nod, and don’t pursue the obvious question. I already know the answer through our fragmentary conversations over the last six months. Bit by painful bit, her story has emerged, a jigsaw of interlocking disappointments that I have discovered is painfully common in Bali, especially for daughters.

Ari is a young woman who doesn’t usually complain, having one of those blessed personalities which are geared towards helping others, always putting a positive spin on events, and calmly accepting what the universe dishes out. There is not a trace of Pollyanna-like artificial cheer – what she has is utterly natural. What unfortunately, is also natural, is that some people can’t help but take advantage of pleasant dispositions like hers.

The well-spring of her sadness stems from the very people who are supposed to preserve her emotional well-being – her own family. She began work over four years ago. As in all Balinese families, all members are expected to contribute to the house-hold expenses, and she has done so unstintingly for all this time. That’s the tradition here – those who can, contribute. Those who can’t – through ill-health, age or misfortune – are supported by those who have been more lucky in the wealth-creation lottery of life.

But in her family, the checks and balances of this social survival system have collapsed into something toxic. Her father, a sturdy and healthy man, works when he feels like it, which is apparently not very much at all. The little money he makes evaporates before it reaches any bank accounts which might conceivably be used to pay for family expenses. Her mother doesn’t work. Her sister works, but has a school-aged son with all the attendant extra expenses that bedevil parents of students in Bali’s broken, ostensibly ‘free’ education system. Of the money supposedly sent by Indonesia’s central government to provide ‘free’ education, only 20% actually makes it to the schools. The rest disappears in the country’s vortex of corruption – meaning that parents either pay for everything, or their child is summarily expelled.

The family has two motorbikes – both bought on credit in Ari’s name – and she has somehow become responsible for both monthly payments. She can not therefore afford a bike of her own, so she either walks to work or cadges lifts from her friends. Her sister’s son, after approaching the father for help with purchasing compulsory text books (which his mother could not afford) was told, “Go away. I have no money. Ask Ari – she works.”

The demands on her for money are incessant. She has almost nothing of her own, and every rupiah she earns goes to support the endless needs of her financially dysfunctional family. She works double shifts to fulfil her ‘duty’ as the resident cash cow, and is slowly unravelling – a deeply saddening thing to see.

The final indignity that drove a wedge between her and her family occurred a few months ago. After a particularly harrowing month at work, where her boss made it worse by reducing everyone’s salary, she finally scraped together enough for the monthly payment on the family’s two bikes, and gave it to her father to pay. A week later, she received a call from the bank. “Where’s the money? Why did you only pay half this month?” Shocked, she confronted the father. He just shrugged. “I needed the money”, he said. She hit the roof and told him that she could not continue  like this. She asked him what he thought would happen when she eventually leaves the family home to get married.

His response was one which no daughter should hear. “You are not to get married. Your place is here, supporting your family.” And with exquisite cruelty, he didn’t stop there. “I will not pay for your wedding. If you desert us, you will pay for it yourself.” Of course, he has now screwed her credit rating to such an extent that she couldn’t now get a loan from the bank if she tried. Forget a wedding loan, or a bike of her own – she couldn’t even buy a Blackberry for herself on credit now.

Unsurprisingly, she left the family home the next day, and is now living with a relative. Although estranged from her father, she still feels duty bound to keep supporting her family, despite barely being able to support herself with what’s left. And her sister, fully aware of the situation in which Ari is trapped, is still using emotional blackmail to extort money. “You must give me 1.8 million for my son’s test at school! He will be thrown out if you don’t! Please, please, only you can help …”

No wonder Ari comes to work with the occasional tear in her eye. Knowing her story, I am enraged at a patriarchal system that allows the nominal ‘head’ of the family to treat his daughter like an indentured slave. I am incensed at the man himself for letting his greed and laziness nearly destroy his own flesh and blood. I look with despair at people like her sister, who are so artless as to believe that someone else has the responsibility to fix problems arising from their own inability to manage money.

And I look with wonder at Ari herself, a woman who, despite an occasional, but totally understandable tear or two, still manages to smile and stay proud, positive, strong and independent.  I couldn’t do that. Under the same circumstances, I would have turned into a screaming homicidal lunatic, trashed the entire house, burned the father’s armchair, taken both motorbikes and thundered off into the sunset. And to hell with my dysfunctional excuse for a family.

I saw one of those ‘inspirational’ quotes today – the ones that normally drive me spare with their facile, saccharin-filled self-evident pap. But for once, this one both resonated with the core of this story and helped me to understand what motivates Ari to keep smiling. It said:

Just because I laugh a lot
doesn’t mean my life is easy.
Just because I have a smile on my face every day
doesn’t mean that something is not bothering me.
I just choose to move on, and not dwell
on all the negatives in my life.
Every moment gives me the chance to renew anew.
I choose to do that.

Ari embodies the sentiments in that little bit of doggerel. I just don’t know how she does it. But I have a boundless admiration for the innate strength of character that lets her do it. And I am beginning to realise that in Bali, it is a necessary quality needed for survival.



  1. It’s the Ari’s of the world… put so many others to shame… A very poignant and moving story…

  2. Very sad

  3. An inspiring tale, Vyt.

    I wish Ari all the best.

    Can we help?

    • I wish. When it’s something simple – like a friend’s bike getting wiped out by the ubiquitous Balinese hit-and-run rider – we can help with repairs, or by paying for medical care. But in a complex case like this, as always, the solution is at a different level to the problem. Throwing money at this particular problem would merely ensure that it will disappear even faster into the whirlpool of greed.

      Until the ingrained cargo-cult mentality is expunged from the psyches of some people here, venal attitudes will continue to wreak havoc on families, and poison relationships between locals and bules.

      I’m not holding my breath until that happens.

  4. I remeber u writing about the same girl last year. Makes you think we are lucky with all we have, although we often forget that and still complain a lot about issues which are nothing compared to her problems.
    I’m happy I’m able to help some of my friends and their families in Bali to make their life a bit nicer and easier.

    • Different girl this time. Similar problems.

  5. A heart wrenching story, no doubt, but there are always two sides to a coin. Moreover, something really bothers me about this story, and the issue I have gets right to the core of the Balinese.

    It is highly unusual for a Balinese to share such personal information with anyone aside from another family member or an extremely close friend. This is particularly true when matters of family respect and honor are involved. As an aside, I could also say the same for the Javanese.

    One needs to consider the complexity of a typical Balinese compound…several generations all sharing the same space as well as wives, (often from outside the village) taken by the adult males living in that compound. None of us brought up in the West are used to this sort of communal family living.

    That said, are there dysfunctional families in Bali? Sure there are. The Balinese are no less human than any others, and they can just as easily fall prey to bad behavior and bad parenting.

    But, and unless you’ve actually lived in Ari’s compound with her family, you only know one side of the story. All too often it is the flip side of the coin where the real truth can be found.

    • Good points, Roy. As everywhere, the truth has many facets in Bali. I too have found that, as you say, “it is highly unusual for a Balinese to share such personal information with anyone aside from another family member or an extremely close friend”.
      I have known “Ari” for quite a few years, the last three of which I have been living in Bali, where I see her almost every day. It is only in the last 6 months that a bi-lateral trust has developed sufficiently for her to share some of her more private feelings, and for me to accept these, without scepticism, as one aspect of her truth.

      And no, I don’t presume to understand the complexities of Balinese life, after a mere 3 years here. At best, after another 10 years or so, I can peel away another layer of the onion. Life here is even more complex than that of my own European heritage of large extended families with highly complicated interlocking obligations and responsibilities. That background helps me to appreciate Bali life, but is insufficient to fully understand it. No matter – what is important to me is the process of learning itself, rather than the achievement of some sort of epiphany of understanding.

      As far as “Ari” is concerned, I will probably never know the objective truth – if such a thing exists – behind her story. In telling it, I am not trying to pontificate about Balinese family customs, merely to shine a flash-light on some aspects of it. And if some aspects of it are jarring to me – then I will voice my opinions about those too. Facts can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but all opinions are valid.

      Maybe one day I will discover more about the intricate personal dynamics that brought “Ari” to this point, but it doesn’t really matter if I do. “Ari’s’ situation is a story within a story, itself part of an even larger story – a matryoshka doll which can never be fully disassembled. And that’s OK.

  6. Good additional points and thanks for sharing them. I’ve been personally peeling away the layers of the onion, as you so eloquently put it, for about 14 years here, including marriage and raising three sons to be Balinese first. That onion never seems to get a bit smaller either, but of course that’s no reason to give up trying.

    Kind regards, Roy

  7. Is Ari of the younger generation that are daring to share a little more of their world to outsiders?
    Is she a part of the generation that hopes that by telling her story she may get help whether that be financial or emotional?
    Love your stories even the sad ones….

  8. The trouble is, that Ari’s story is far too common.
    How many Balinese men actually DO feel the need to work? Not many. Many independantly working women actually conceal the true amount of their wages, so as to keep a litlle financial security.
    This is the negative side of, never worrying about the future. Not all is roses, is it?

    • All one can really say is that it is different here.
      But yes, I guess there will always be a few thorns amongst the roses when Bali culture clashes with western economic realities.

  9. I disagree that Ari’s story is far too common, at least not as truth anyway. That’s not to say however that Ari’s story, as so well conveyed by the hosting blogger, is necessarily bogus, but one gets a bit used to such stories here, and as I mentioned earlier, there are always two sides to a coin. I really want to avoid any judgment that Ari’s story is contrived to solicit help (as in monetary) but this sort of thing does happen here from time to time.

    Whenever I’ve found myself touched by a Balinese conveying their own horrific predicament, and I feel an urge to help, I make it a habit to do two things: One is to take this person to “my” trusted Balian, who can spot a lie far better than I can, and also to call on the afflicted person’s family compound with typical Balinese gifts of coffee, sugar and maybe even some rice in hand. A little first hand view is always helpful, especially so when one is very used to Bali kampung and compound living.

    I also vehemently disagree with the comment that most Balinese men don’t feel responsible to contribute to the compound family income. While I personally know very well some incidences where that is true, that gross generalization is not even close to the reality here…at least not the reality I’ve been living for the past 14 years.

    I take personal exception to gross generalizations about the Balinese wherever I find them on the internet, and I always urge others to think before making such generalizations which are factually untrue.

    I’m not trying to be contentious; rather I am only trying to offer balance and some truth.

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