‘Everything OK?’


After a year in Bali we’ve come back to our house in Adelaide a month ago, and I’m sorting through the impacts of Balinese customs and beliefs. I’m also trying to nail the essence of the ex-pat lifestyle that I found so enjoyable. In the first week, I was loosely observing a note to self to hang on to some changes in me; notably being more outgoing and socially adventurous, while at the same time becoming a better listener. As an expat in a popular tourist destination, the chances of meeting fascinating people are multiplied, and almost nobody seems affronted if you start chatting. (Although, I digress, Russian and Chinese travellers often seem unsettled by these social probings. One Russian woman told me it was just a fact of life in her country that if you don’t know people well, it’s better to be cautious.)

A few weeks later I find I keep slipping back into my quieter self, and I have to make an effort to chat with every check-out operator, every person I know vaguely, even everybody at a dinner party. I’ve been rebuffed by a couple of people—one man who was tucking into fish and chips outside a local shop paused to look mildly annoyed at my ‘that looks so delicious’ , followed by a super-lame ‘nice day for it’. OK, we spreaders of kind outreach can’t expect to win them all, but I am determined to stay on-message with this one.

One Bali behaviour I came to love is best summed up by the phrase ‘bagaimana enak?’ which, loosely translated, means wherever there is the possibility of unnecessary confrontation or blaming, the right question is ‘How do we make things OK between us?’ –or you can just say ‘enak?’ which means ‘all OK?’ Imagine a car has cut across in front of you on your bicycle. The instant Western reflex is to apportion blame, with a presumption of wrongdoing by the other party. ‘Dickhead’, WTF? ‘I can’t believe he did that’. And so on. This dialogue is usually muttered in private, but when it becomes spoken out loud to the supposed offender, matters can escalate quickly.

The Bali way assumes that no-one would want to hurt someone deliberately, and that accidents do happen. The key thing is to check that everyone is OK, and if an argument does start, to jump quickly to ‘bagaimana enak?’—‘how do we get to win-win?’ So the person that almost ran into me on my bike looks anxious for a second, then, seeing I am unhurt, breaks into a beautiful smile and asks me to join in celebrating that we have all survived intact. Which turns out to be surprisingly easy. Instead of riding on grumping about people who shouldn’t be on the road, I find myself smiling about how kind Balinese people are, and how much I love being amongst such a civilised lot.

The very day I came home, a person sped past me on a noisy behemoth of a motorbike, a bit close for comfort. Immediately I started mouthing off quietly. ‘Grow up pal, who are you trying to impress?’ ‘Look who’s got an early Christmas present!’ Etc, etc. Then I remembered. So I tried; ‘It’s OK, I’m not in danger, it’s a busy day, he might be late for work.’ Felt better and rode home in peace. The Bali way.

I’m going back for a short visit in a few weeks. Excited already at re-joining the expats and a few Balinese friends. Changing gears in my social behaviour and learning slowly about the aspects of Balinese customs that still have much to teach me. I’m not starry-eyed—some of the traditional beliefs are sexist and racist, some of the fatalism about the future feels like abdication from responsibility and opportunity—but no culture is perfect. I’m sure I can wring some more personal well-being out of Bali yet.

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