Tag Archives: Society

On being kept at arms’ length

I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.

I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.

Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed

Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.

This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.

And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.

But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.

And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.

Ants: Part II

So last week I had to get ants off my mind, which now seems a little absurd and entirely self-indulgent but since I promised a Part II, I guess I should follow through. And really this should be the more interesting of the two because not only am I going to include some videos but I’m also hoping to make some more insightful commentary. Granted, said commentary surrounds ants and their behavior, but there are some parallels between the eusocial insects and things here in Bali.

The first has to do with traffic and driving.

Now, I’ve written in these pages about the traffic in Jakarta, and while the traffic in Bali isn’t quite as bad it’s not exactly flowing. Many of the roads are too narrow, the ones that are wide are over-crowded with both cars and motorbikes, and, most relevantly, drivers here have their own ‘style’ of driving.

This ‘style’, for lack of a better term, is both aggressive and passive. It ignores much of the standard rules, like staying within one’s lane and/or waiting for a clear opening to enter a road, and yet it has its own conventions. For example, a high-beam flash that would ‘I’m yielding to you’ in the US, here means the opposite; essentially, ‘Get out of my way.’

But amidst this significant amount of confusion, ignorance of traffic protocol (because despite the actions of drivers here, the written rules of the road are just about the same), and the limited road-space that only becomes more limited with the lack of parking (cars (or buses or) can be parked seemingly anywhere here; on the curb/sidewalk, on streets that should be one-way but aren’t, behind a row of already parked motorbikes… you get the picture), it all works. The point I’m trying to make here is that Indonesian driving; especially the way motorbikes crawl through traffic at stoplights and find spaces unusable for cars ,is a lot like watching ants. The patterns can be hard to visualize or understand but they’re there and there are, maybe not rules, but guidelines. It might look messy and confusing and borderlines dangerous, but there’s a system. I think.

Next, I want to return to a book I cited in Ants: Part I and one that I’ll refer back to again, Bali: Sekala & Niskala, by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. In Eiseman’s chapter on cremations he writes:

“When the big day is finally picked, an unbelievably complex, interlocking series of preparations is set into motion. And yet, in spite of the thousands of little details that must be attended to, there is no checklist of tasks, no boss who assigns jobs and see that they are carried out. Somehow it all works out, in typical cooperative Balinese fashion.”

Now, I mentioned above that ants are ‘eusocial’, which, according to Wikipedia is the “highest level of organization of animal sociality,” and because of this, ants are able to achieve pretty remarkable things. Here’s where the videos come in:

(Ok so no videos at the moment because of some technical difficulties but here are some snapshots from the vids)

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 4.19.57 PM

Some ants at my house doing some very impressive ant things. I’m pretty sure those are fish bones and they’re trying to carry them up the wall. I came back to the house like three hours later and they were still working on it.Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 4.20.35 PM

 

 

So while it’s always dangerous to compare things like a human society, with all its intricacies and conscious thought, with that of a chemically-automated social structure (Maybe? Don’t ants communicate with chemicals? But I guess so do we in a lot of ways, too. Right?), but I’m going to do just that.

Balinese society – especially the way in which everything gets done with no outright or imposing leadership and how everyone knows their task, seemingly without being told – looks a lot like ants to me.

So there you have it; just around 1000 words on Ants and Bali. I’ll be moving away from Formicidae-related topics next week so stay tuned and make sure to check out my podcast with Louis Rive. It’s called The Frying Pan, and this week we’ll be talking about the frustrations of foreign bureaucracies which is a lot more interesting than the bureaucracy itself.