One Person’s Normal Is Another’s Neurosis

By Vyt Karazija

Back in our home country, our lifestyles can feel comfortable and secure, simply because we know the rules of social intercourse – whether we choose to adhere to them or not. Bali feels exotic to us, not just because of the climate, the scenery and the look of the people, but because everything is done slightly differently here.

There is a delightful openness here that seems to characterise human interactions. For some visitors, this is a refreshing change from the suspicious and reserved insularity of some of our larger western-style communities. It is a difference that can be seductive and compelling, and one which encourages many to return time and time again.

Other visitors say it feels invasive – at least at first. The natural tendency of local people to be friendly and curious about the lives of guests on their island can cause consternation, or even offence. A friend on her first visit here came back to the safety of her hotel, exhausted and perturbed.

“One of the locals stopped me in the street,” she related breathlessly. “He asked me where I was going!” She thought about this amazing encounter for a moment. “Then he wanted to know where I’d been!” She shook her head in wonder. “And then he asked me if I was married! And when I told him no, he actually said, “‘Why not?’ The cheek of it! ”

She was upset about “being interrogated” as she described it. It took quite a while to explain that this was perfectly normal in Bali, and that, by local standards, this was entirely normal – an acceptable curiosity fuelled by genuine interest. I tentatively suggested that a response of “not yet” to the question about her marital status might have been met with a sympathetic smile instead of an incredulous query. As a single, successful and independent woman, she didn’t really like that, and told me so emphatically. But, a week later, she said, “I get it now. They value marriage and family so highly, don’t they?” They do indeed.

The more I stay here, the more I like the little differences in cultural mores. They get me into trouble occasionally, but they keep me on my toes. At first I was a little put out at finding someone perched on my bike when I came back to it. I used to think, “Hey! That’s my property!” – without actually saying anything, of course. Now it’s “Hello, how are you?” followed by smiles all round and sometimes an interesting conversation before I’m on my way. It’s no big deal. Bali sometimes feels like one big, shared space, and I’m told it’s good to share.

The role of religion is different here, too – it’s a big part of life in Bali. Most of the predominately Hindu population is quite devout, yet they have no issues with people having other belief systems. Unlike some of the fundamentalist-influenced communities elsewhere in Indonesia, the spirit of religious tolerance flourishes here in deed, not just in word. However, it is still unwise to declare yourself an atheist or agnostic – that will get you some really strange looks. I did once, and the genuinely concerned response was, “Oh, you poor man – I will pray for you.” Even government forms here require you to choose an established religion. Leaving that section blank is not an option.

On a more secular note, I like the way the girls smile and flirt, make direct eye contact and touch your arm in the course of normal conversation. Here, it’s a customary social activity that has nothing remotely to do with any sexual come-on. The local girls seem to be slightly shocked if anyone takes it as such, because most are quite shy. I just wish some visitors to Bali would understand that before taking friendliness as an open invitation to proposition and grope. Things can appear quite distorted in the mirror of one’s own culture.

But the social norm thing works in reverse, too. I confess that for all my worldliness (ha!) I am still somewhat startled when I ask a shy and demure local how they are, and they forthrightly say, “Not good. I have my menstruation today. Too much blood!” Yikes! Actually, too much information! Unfortunately, when that happened with one of my domestic helpers, I seized on it as a great opportunity to demonstrate that I too was an über-cool person who was unfazed by open discussion of natural bodily functions. So I pointed out the cupboard where I keep an emergency supply of feminine hygiene items for villa guests in case she needed anything. She went bright crimson – an astonishing feat for someone with her complexion. The next 10 minutes were spent in shared giggles and whispered conversations with her sister, who happened to be visiting at the time. I guess you can’t win them all.

Then there’s the language. Many locals translate fairly literally when using English, which can lead to misunderstandings. I had some business dealings with an agent whose office was a long way away from my home. An attractive woman, she said she would happily deliver some crucial documents once they had been stamped by relevant authorities. A week later, when they were ready, she sent me a text message saying: “Is it OK if I come and play at your villa now?” Ye Gods! Do I say I’m busy? Do I break out the champagne and get fresh pool towels? Luckily, my Bahasa-literate friend laughingly explained that the Indonesian word for “play” and the word for “visit” were one and the same. I think I missed an embarrassing encounter by that much.

The rules are a little different here. I’ve survived by keeping an open mind, putting my preconceptions to one side and just riding the complex currents of this society while learning what works – and what doesn’t. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but hey – isn’t that best way to learn?

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