After an orientation period lasting about a week and a half, we students were finally sent off to our first homestay. The experience primarily forced me to put into practice the Indonesian social customs about which we had been learning to navigate during the orientation period. The true test of my ability to navigate Balinese Indonesian culture began in my homestay.
The language barrier proved difficult for the first day. There are a thousand ways to say something, but I only had a limited amount of vocabulary in my arsenal to communicate it. Thankfully, my homestay mother and I quickly learned how to effectively communicate with each other. I grew used to their dialect of Bahasa Indonesia and kept picking up new words—often referring to my language notebook (and occasionally Google Translate)—while they discerned which words and phrases I knew, thankfully using excessive hand gestures when they spoke. In a homestay situation like mine, all parties involved had to adapt to the pressures of the language barrier. I felt quite reassured to know that it was a learning experience for the both of us.
On the material aspect of my first homestay, I find the environment was less unfamiliar to me than I expected. I’ve posted some images of the place in this post, and to me it is quite reminiscent of a high-class US apartment. I must admit, after spending a few nights alone in such opulence and after seeing the other host students’ homestays—all which were markedly different and foreign—I felt disappointed by mine. It was too familiar, too Western to my eye. However, after stewing over my situation for a few days, I had an innocuous conversation with my host mother about the purpose of the little house in which I was staying. It was a guest house, but one meant for their eldest son and his family, who lived in another city. It wasn’t meant to solely accommodate Western visitors like myself. My experience with my first homestay may have been atypical in comparison to the other students, but it no less represents a part of Balinese life. In other words, despite the luxury of my living situation, I am still getting a Balinese experience.
And I do believe that I am becoming used to Balinese Indonesia. Already I have begun to experience a tiny bit of reverse culture shock and a great distance from Western tourists. Rural Bali, such as Tabanan and other places without tourists, differ significantly than those with tourists. In Tabanan nearly everyone one passes on the street wears relatively modest clothing: shoulders and knees are covered, necklines are modest. However, in the areas of Bali that are heavily populated with tourists, the styles of dress reveal significantly more skin. Our SIT group briefly visited a couple of such places, namely Ubud, and the sight of people in tank tops and shorts took me aback greatly. The sight of such clothing—and the sight of similar clothing being sold in local shops—impressed upon me that I was in a mini-world meant solely for tourists. If the SIT program was located in an area more heavily populated by tourists, we would have less access to the culture into which we are currently trying to integrate. With that said, I wonder to what extent do these areas represent the varied cultures of its people, and how much does a tourist-heavy town alter itself in order to cater to them?
An incredibly important difference between tourist locations and rural Balinese villages is that most of the Balinese there speak English very well. It is very difficult for me to utilize my Bahasa Indonesia skills because, admittedly, the fact that English is the dominant language spoken there makes me lazy to practice it. Yet, there were many instances in a sprawling marketplace where I wandered into shops, and their owners spoke too limited English. The moment I spoke Bahasa Indonesia to them—and better still when I asked permission to bargain price with them—I could visibly see their faces brighten. While I cannot reasonably speculate any further as to what specifically ran through these shopkeepers’ minds, I know that I myself felt like less of an invader within their space. Because of the opportunities granted to me by the SIT program, I have taken the time to learn their language and communicate with them effectively, instead of expecting them to adhere to my own, incredibly tricky, language of English. In an area such as Ubud, with tourists crowding the streets and shops, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all Balinese people in the area speak English perfectly and are able to communicate in English at the same level as native English speakers. It would be naïve of me to expect it.
Thank you, and until next time!