Posts Tagged ‘balinese’


Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”


The Indo-Strayan Cultural Divide

July 4, 2011

So I’m chatting in my execrable Bahasa to the staff at a little establishment I frequent, when the guy at the next table leans across and says in a conspiratorial voice: “You really should speak English to them, you know.” He actually says “Ya rooly should spoik Nglsh tooem ya know”, but as I modestly consider myself to be a UN-standard interpretatar of Strine, I understand him perfectly. I pause momentarily, thinking that perhaps if I agree with him, he will just disappear. But of course, given my unerring tendency always to test the depth of the water with both feet, I walk willingly into the verbal snare and ask: “Why is that?”

“Well,” he says, lowering his voice still further, “they all speak a foreign language here, you know”. “But it’s not foreign to them”, I reply, bemused. He is taken aback. “Of course it’s foreign; it’s not English!” he declares vehemently. He notes my look of puzzlement at this logical circularity, and continues patiently: “They’re not real good at English ya know? They can’t remember what stuff is called, that crazy accent is weird, and geez – they can’t even pronunciate words properly!”. He actually says ‘pronunciate’. I bring my glass to my face to hide my mouth. Please, lips – don’t unpurse, don’t even think about smiling.

“So ya gotta speak English to them instead of their own lingo, see?” he continues, “so they can learn stuff … like, well, English …” He trails off, shaking his head at my inability to follow his reasoning, or perhaps just losing his train of thought. “Look,” he says, dropping his voice to a whisper. “They’re pretty dumb with languages, right? So you hafta give them more practice. You speak that Indo stuff to ’em, they’ll never learn, see?” At this point, I can either walk away and cut my losses, or try to guide this slightly deluded character gently back to reality. Never being one for making wise choices, I soldier on.

“See that guy over there?” I ask him, indicating one of the wait staff, “he speaks English, German, Indonesian, Balinese …” My new companion cuts me off: “Whoa, whoa! Come on! Don’t double up here! Indonesian, Balinese – it’s the same thing!” So I try to explain that people from Bali speak Balinese, their first language, and they also speak Indonesian, which is the official language of the entire nation. I can see him trying to absorb this. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Why have two different languages for Bali?” So I explain that throughout the entire archipelago, there are more than seven hundred regional languages spoken, and that everybody speaks Indonesian as well as their first language so that they can all communicate with each other. He looks at me closely. “You some kind of perfessor or something?” he asks suspiciously. I don’t recall perfessing anything recently, so I suppose that makes me a ‘something’ – but I let it pass.

He looks a little bit uncertain now, so I press on, waving towards one of the restaurant staff: “As I was saying, that guy over there speaks Indonesian, Balinese, German and English. The girl next to him can carry on a conversation in Japanese as well. Some of the people at the place next door can even speak enough Mandarin to get by with their Chinese customers. And almost all people here speak English too.”

Then, because I have a cruel streak, I ask innocently: “By the way, how many languages do you speak?” “Uh”, he says, “Well, English of course, and uh … Australian”, he finishes gamely. I am humbled; I didn’t realise I was in the presence of a true polyglot. But wanting to wrap up the debate quickly, I tell him that I feel that he is being just a little unfair in his judgement that the locals are, in his words: “pretty dumb with languages”. Thinking about my own pathetic efforts to learn Indonesian (a supposedly ‘simple’ language), I tell him that the linguistic ability of the people here is, in fact, quite extraordinary.

He turns to me triumphantly. “See? That’s what I mean! Why confuse ’em all with seven hundred languages? All they have to do is learn English properly and they’re all sweet!” Faking genuine admiration in my voice, I admit to him that he has come up with an absolute pearler of an argument, and that he’s certainly got me there. I’m such a gutless wonder.

He leaves the restaurant a happy man. The staff who overheard our exchange look at me and roll their eyes as only Balinese can do. I leave thinking that some people will never, ever get it.



R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Respect (just a little bit)

September 7, 2009

I haven’t had a good rant for a while, and it’s time. Maybe I’ve gone native, but some of my fellow bules, here in Bali for their 10 day jaunts, are starting to bug me. What is it about visiting Bali that makes some people believe that ‘respect’ is a concept that is voluntarily surrendered somewhere just past the Denpasar Visa-on-Arrival counter and reclaimed once they have passed through Immigration back in their home country?

It’s certainly not the Balinese people, who are amongst the most respectful, beautiful, tolerant and patient people on this earth. It’s not the hotels and villas that provide a warm and welcoming environment for their visitors. No, it’s not Bali itself that is to blame – it’s the visitors themselves.

 It’s an age-old problem –  for some visitors, geographical and cultural displacement seems to trigger behaviour patterns  which are inappropriate, unseemly and downright insensitive. Much of this behaviour seems to flow from a belief that local cultural and social norms (and even laws) are irrelevant.  At the same time, there seems to be a parallel conviction that the mores and laws of the visitors’ home country should apply to the locals while the visitors are here. The paradox is that the worst offenders also believe that they are exempt from the social conventions of their home country during their stay.

When we have visitors who reject both the local customs and their own, yet demand total conformance to their own (albeit temporarily shelved) cultural values, we have a recipe for misunderstandings at best and social disasters at worst.

Seen recently:
A young lady, amply proportioned, wearing a tiny bikini top (which was a structural engineering marvel in itself), G-string and a transparent and very short sarong loudly berating a local who was reluctant to admit her to a temple in which people were praying. Now that may be decorative on the beach – if exaggerated gender markers are your thing – but totally inappropriate for a temple. Required reading: Temple Customs 101; Choosing the Right Clothes for You 101; Respect 101.

Then there was the overbearing ‘helpful’ visitor who barged in on two strangers who had just concluded a T-shirt purchase and dragged them away shouting “What? You just paid 90,000 for that?! Come with me and I’ll show you where you can get it for 30,000!”. The understandably upset vendor was summarily dismissed with a few choice Anglo-Saxon expletives, but still had the grace to keep his “Bloody bugil” response to a mutter. Required reading: Caveat Emptor 101; Bali Verbal Contracts 101; Keeping Your Nose Out of Other Peoples’ Business 101; Respect 101.

And of course, night-time brings out the the absolute gems. At a nice restaurant, the large, drunk, barefooted, sweaty, dirty-haired, singlet-over-huge-beer gut-clad lothario attempts to summon a waitress. As she tentatively steps forward, he raises his hairy leg to point past her with the sole of his foot, bellowing “Tee-Dack – not you fatso, the cute chick behind you …!” When the aforementioned cute one reluctantly comes over, he pats her on the head with one hand, on the bum with the other and loudly propositions her, taking offence when his romatic advances are rejected. Being of a somewhat decorous nature, your observer manages to prevent himself from vomiting in his scotch. Required reading: Hygiene 101; Balinese Taboos 101; Sensitivity 101; Travel Brochures to Anywhere but Bali; Respect 101.

I could go on; many of you will be pleased that I choose not to. Why do these eruptions of bad taste and cultural insensitivity happen? Is it that some people don’t see it as important to find out more about their destination before they leave home? Is it that they don’t care? Is it that the Westernised enclave of Greater Kuta promotes a form of tacky blindness that transforms normal people into cultural buffoons?

I don’t profess to know. But what I do know is that even if the perpertators of these disasters ignore all the required readings above, they should at least try to develop the most important quality one needs to survive and flourish in any culture – respect.

Then, and only then, in accordance with the best karmic traditions of this beautiful island’s culture, will I afford them respect in return.