An Education in Citizenship

[From my piece in The Bali Times, 2012]

Recently,, I purchased a bilingual language book called “Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan” (which translated means “education in citizenship”). I spoke in that article mostly about my own difficulty with learning the Indonesian language, but I’d like to say something this week about the actual contents of the book, which turn out to be as strange to the western point of view as the title is to the western tongue, leaving both mind and tongue to work quizzically at formulations that defy articulation within the framework of the conventions we bring from the west.

The first section of the book (vol. I) deals with differences in gender. We are told that mankind consists of people who are male or female. Mr. Mijan is a man, Mrs. Mijan is a woman, while Andi is a boy and Ani is a girl. So far so good. Mr. Mijan is tall and handsome; Mrs. Mijan is beautiful and elegant. Well, okay.

Andi, the boy, stands upright, wears trousers, and wants to be gallant like his father. Ani wears dresses and wants to look beautiful and elegant like her mother.

Can you tell yet where this is headed?

Sometimes a girl likes to wear pants, the text explains. Ani likes to wear pants when she plays outside because they make her feel more comfortable and free — and I quote: “Nowadays women wear pants. It has been common indeed.”


And here it comes.

“Although a girl likes to wear pants, a boy does not like to wear a dress like a girl. It is not proper for a boy to wear a dress.”

Now there’s a statement that is both wonderfully clear and wholly inappropriate as far as modern education in western societies is concerned. A boy can’t wear a dress? The hell you say! Of course he can. He can wear anything he wants. He doesn’t even have to be a boy if he doesn’t want to be. Don’t go confusing us with these black and white notions — in this brave new world, anything is possible (and everything too).

The volume goes on to instruct that there are certain activities that are appropriate for the male and certain that are appropriate for the female. The male, for instance, may be found repairing roofs, hefting shovels, pounding nails, whereas the woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the laundry room. The male wields the hammer and the hoe, the female the mop and the broom.

Now, for a person unfortunate enough to be as old as I, social mores like those presented in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan are not really foreign after all. At first impression they may strike us as foreign (as well as laughable), and yet if the mind has remained constant enough through the long decades of social conditioning, we will remember our own early years of instruction, the Dick and Jane books, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins — books which taught the same morals and mores as found in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan. The significant difference is that the latter was published in 2010, whereas the former were creatures of the last mid century.

Most of us who have come to this country from afar are aware of having travelled not only through space but through time as well. We step from the plane into both the orient and our own back yard, circa 1959, where boys wear pants and girls wear dresses, fathers are gallant and mothers are elegant, where men are men and women are glad of it, and so on as far as clichés can be extended. We find ourselves impaled upon a double edged sword, both edges of which are keen and true; and what we have learned through the decades and what we knew from the beginning are now laid neatly open in halves side by side. Neither the one nor the other knows for certain to whom it belongs. We are shocked by the sudden re-emergence in force of a set of notions we have come to see as antiquated and inappropriate, even humorous — and yet we are aware of some strange sense of propriety, right or wrong, residing in what we have learned to reject and shun. We call these notions truths, we hold them to be self-evident, when all they really are is easy. Life promises, once again, to become so very simple.

But it is not simple, is it? Much as we might like it to be, it is not. It is just this, in fact, that we have spent the last decades of our lives learning. It is this that progressive societies strive to acknowledge. And it is this that Andi and Ani will learn in due time as well — that the world is made not of factory pegs and slots, but of fabulous beings, no two the same, each more unique with every inspection.

Grow up well, little children. Do no harm. Love one another.

[Note: I am pleased to say, four years from the penning of this piece, that I now speak the language ‘floo-ent-ly’; which is to say that people can usually understand what I’m trying to say, and I can usually understand what they are saying, as long as they speak slowly and ‘bookishly’, avoiding the slang and colloquial conventions they would commonly employ in conversion with ‘normal’ people]

The Celebrity of the Bali Bule

[Biaung 2013. From my article in the now defunct Bali Times newspaper]

There are not many Caucasians in my neck of the woods, being as it is rather off the beaten tourist track, and as a result of being rare in this sense, I will often experience a bit of celebrity. Not like, say, Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga, given that people neither go into a frenzy at my presence nor violently protest it, but more like a giraffe or a duck-billed-platypus.

I’m unusual. I’m odd. Children cannot help but shout at the sight of me. “Hey bule!”*  Either that or they shy away hide behind a parent or a nearby tree. Some of them merely stare, like little deer caught in headlights. The older boys, the adolescents, have learned some English, and they like to employ it whenever opportunity knocks. “Hey, Mister! Beer! Obama! Boom-boom!”

Honestly, it find it all purely delightful.

I suppose this is because I a so accustomed to being fairly perfectly anonymous.  In America, if you are not Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga or some reasonable facsimile, people simply don’t give a damn. You may as well be a fire hydrant or a telephone pole. And if you were to pipe up and say, “Hi,, how ya doin’?” or “Hey, where ya goin’?”, the stranger so addressed would more than likely avert his eyes and walk a little faster, taking you for some kind of weirdo or pervert. Either that or he’d flip you the finger, if he had enough time to bother.

I’m not saying it has always been that way. It’s more of a recent development, over the last half century or so, a period of time that has seen the division of community into small, somewhat paranoid special interest groups, isolated cliques through which society in general is negotiated with watchful caution, being considered vaguely dangerous and by and large threatening.

I’m reminded here of a scene from the old movie Blast from the Past. In this movie, Brandon Frasier has from childhood been sequestered with his family in a fallout shelter since 1950 or so., the father having mistakenly believed that the world above had been wiped out in a nuclear war. When finally Brandon emerges from the shelter, some time in the 1970s, one of the first  creatures he sets eyes upon is a black female mail carrier. Astounded, nearly frozen with delight at the novelty, Brandon finally exclaims, “Oh my lucky stars–a Negro!” In the deeply segregated society of the 1950s, one simply did not see black people, nor did black people see white people. We knew of each other’s existence, of course, but to behold the actual creature was extraordinary and inspired and inspired a certain sort of amazement, a passing enchantment.

So it’s kind of like that. Oh my lucky stars, a bule! And why not? Brandon’s character intended no insult, but merely expressed a child-like wonder at the brave new world he had suddenly entered. Here was something beyond the pale of everyday experience–the environment of the self-sufficient yet hopelessly remote fallout shelter–and by extension, the social environment of 1950s America. In the same way, these people who greet me in Bali mean no insult or intrusion. They simply acknowledge the uncommon event and are driven to connect, and thus take part through speech.

The beach nearest my home is not a tourist beach. There are no shops or cafes, no chaise lounges, no sellers or hawkers. From Padang Galak to Ketewel and beyond, the sand is black, and hot like smoldering coals. People don’t swim or snorkel here, partly because it’s a rather dangerous sea, and partly because you’d come out looking like a loaf of poppy-seed bread. It is local people who frequent this beach, to fish, to collect black and white rocks for sale to the warehouse down the road, or attend a ceremony or a ritual bath; and in the evening they come to stroll, to chat, to let the children play in the lake-like shallows left by an outgoing tide.

It is here that my celebrity seems most noted and esteemed. Everyone wants to say hello. They need so say hello. They alter their path to approach nearby, to smile, to wave, to say hello. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where do you live? How many children do you have? It is simple; it is the same; and yet it’s newly pleasant with every occasion. I am alive, after all, and they are alive, and we are alive together on this one small island, in this huge, non-negotiable, impersonal world.

“Om, Om,” one man exclaims, calling me “uncle” as he turns his little daughter by the shoulders to face me. “Minta uang dari Om,” he tells her. Ask for money. And I am slain by the innocence of the thing, the faith of the man, the sky anticipation in the eyes of his little girl. Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened.

Sadly, I am helpless to help them. Silver and gold have I none. My pockets are quite empty, and my wallet as well. But such as I have, I give. Friendship. Kindness. Humanity. Celebrity.

[*Bule: In general, any person who is not Indonesian; more specifically, a Caucasian person]