Close Quarters but Very Separate Lives
By Hannah Black
The Bali Times
SILAKARANG ~ One thing that continues to puzzle me about the compound I live in is the family dynamics. In the Balinese tradition, my father-in-law and his two brothers stayed in the compound after they were married and are now watching their sons raise their families in the same space. They have lived together their whole lives, yet now they rarely speak to each other.
Physically the three families are about as close as you can get without things getting awkward, but they live very separate lives.
Each family has their own section of the compound: the youngest brother’s at the front; my father-in-law, the middle brother, in the middle; and the oldest, who recently passed away, at the back. My husband, Ongky, and I mixed it up a bit by building our house just behind the compound, in the only available spot, near the pigs. Family members rarely wander into each other’s sections and have their own kitchens and bathrooms.
There seem to be unspoken rules of compound etiquette, some of which are confusing to me and I’m still figuring them out. I often have to ask Ongky if it’s okay for me to do things – wander around in my pajamas; leave our daughter Lola, 1, with his cousins; etc. I probably get away with a lot – for example, Ongky and I are much more demonstrative than any other couple in the compound, but we definitely know where to draw the line.
I do float between families quite a bit for socializing, but for things like eating, making offerings or showering when we mysteriously have no water but everyone else does, we use only our immediate family’s area. I’m offered food just about every day by cousins, aunts and uncles, but generally only eat with them during special ceremonies (or if they have something really, really tasty).
The oldest members of the family are the least likely to be seen sitting on someone else’s stoop, the youngest the most likely as they run and play all over the compound.
I’m somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to this. Whether it’s because I’m forgiven for not knowing the rules or because I’m still seen as somewhat of a guest, I’m not sure.
The most curious thing about my compound is a huge rift between the front of it and the back. There might as well be a Grand Canyon-sized abyss in the middle of the compound for all the time the cousins in the front third and those in the back third spend together. There have been inklings at some kind of feud between the oldest and youngest brothers but for all my hinting at wanting the dirt, I don’t think my husband will ever tell me what went on.
Another odd thing is family members’ reluctance to come in my house. My husband and I have been in this house for a little over two years and I don’t think some of his cousins from the compound have ever been in it. Don’t get me wrong – tons of them were bursting to get in and check it out as soon as we moved in, but some still shout from outside and won’t even come up the three steps to the front porch. My father-in-law still seems shy to come in, which I actually find quite endearing.
Often a family member coming home from work will completely ignore those they walk past. Perhaps it’s the Westerner in me needing to make small-talk and or a well-mannered hello every time I walk past someone, but I find it awkward to walk past someone with no acknowledgement of their presence. Again, this doesn’t seem to apply to me, as when I come home I get a barrage of questions: “Where have you been?”; “Who with?”; “What did you buy?”; “How much did it cost?” Perhaps in couple of years I’ll be ignored just like everyone else.
I suppose before I moved in I pictured an environment where everyone shared everything and loved each other, but I know now I was definitely idealizing.
I see that people don’t always stay in the compound because they want to, but because of family obligation and economics. I also see that the Balinese are generally happy, loving people, but they have the same family problems people face all over the world.
Families who don’t all live together don’t always get along, so why should those that do?
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