By Vyt Karazija
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 wellbeing – her own family. She began work over four years ago. As in all Balinese families, all members are expected to contribute to the household 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 percent actually makes it to the schools. The rest disappears in the country’s vortex of corruption – meaning 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 textbooks (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 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 Rp1.8 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.