One Very Big Happy Family

By Hannah Black
The Bali Times

SILAKARANG ~ When I tell people I live with my Balinese in-laws in their family compound, I generally get one of three reactions: most are just curious, some respectful and others’ faces are taken over by a mask of horror. I never in a million years thought I would live with my in-laws, much less 18 members of my husband’s extended family. But I chose it, and in the two years since I moved in I’ve learned a huge amount about myself, as well as other people.

Living with so many people obviously has its pros and cons. I love that I’m never lonely, but I hate that I’m never completely alone. Admittedly, I do have a house in the back of the compound where I can close the doors and be quiet, but bar locking the front door, which is not something I’m comfortable doing, there’s no stopping family or friends wandering in for one thing or another.

It’s quite amazing when you think about the amount of privacy Westerners are used to. Growing up, I was always taught to knock on a door (and wait for an answer) before entering a room, a practice generally unheard of in a Balinese compound. It isn’t seen as rude at all to wander into a room where someone in sleeping, watching TV, or doing just about anything else. Either they don’t do things they wouldn’t want to be caught doing or they feel no need to be secretive about those things.

Because of the number of people living in the compound and the fact that families naturally grow with births and shrink with deaths, bedrooms are often swapped and used as the situation demands. There is no being precious about how you like your room organized or being upset if someone sleeps in your bed while you’re out. In comparison, I remember being outraged as a teenager if I knew someone had even stepped into my room when I was out; and woe betide anyone who actually dared to touch something.

Perhaps the irony is the only place a Balinese person is truly alone is in the bathroom, because many Westerners I know, myself included, have no problem showering and doing other selected bathroom business with husbands or wives, family members or even friends in the room. I often think of Westerners as being much more conservative than the Balinese when it comes to bodies and their functions, but since I moved here I’m just not sure that’s right. I suppose this could also have something to do with most modern Western bathrooms being designed not just for functionality like a Balinese kamar kecil, but also for relaxing and spending quality grooming time in.

I believe lack of personal space in a compound is also at the root of a lack of displays of emotion you may notice in the Balinese. If someone is angry or sad, you’ll rarely be able to tell unless you know him or her very well. In the same vein, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone in my compound walking on eggshells because someone is upset or angry. Maybe it’s just the lack of space that doesn’t allow feelings to get in the way of daily duties. Everyone must get on with what they’re doing because there’s no time to waste tiptoeing around a grumpy uncle or brother.

I’ve often wondered how the lack of privacy affects marriages in Bali. With usually at least one child sharing the marital bed, and rules against public showing of affection, there is obviously a lack of alone time for parents, which is often said to be critical for a happy marriage. It also seems that rowing couples have no space to fight things out; so they don’t. Only twice in my three years in Bali have I heard a married couple arguing in the compound. Is it possible that without the arena for a fight, there can be no fight? Whilst this shows the Balinese are great at swallowing their emotions and opinions, psychiatrists would probably tell you humans need an outlet for pent-up anger, and all the withholding will just end in disaster.

However, without all the over-analyzing of feelings and need for personal space, families in Bali seem to make things work. They grow up, get married, have children and for the majority of Balinese males, die in the same house they were born in. Often rooms are added on, but in most cases the size of the compound’s perimeters will stay exactly the same their whole lives. As nice as the thought of being happily settled in the same house with no worries about having to move as your family expands is, it still begs the question: What do you do when the mood strikes to crank up your music and dance around in your underwear singing into your hairbrush?

Hannah, who holds British and American nationality, is mother to a year-old baby.

Filed under: My Compound Life

One Response to “One Very Big Happy Family”

  1. denise qualtrough Says:

    hannah, what a fantastic read . felt like i could see the compound & feel the place. well done keep up the good work.