(Published in the Bali Daily Newspaper, March 2014)
Nowhere in the developing world do expatriates bang their own drums like they do in Bali. In Goa, Kathmandu or Tangiers they would be humanely culled and deported for racism.
A glance through Facebook’s Bali Expatriate page reveals the full horror of the situation. Imagine if Sydney’s considerable Balinese population started an expat page with postings such as: “Never employ a local: they start drinking beer at 4 p.m. and have appalling punctuation.” The Balinese would be beaten up on the buses!
Ten years ago I wrote an article for a Balinese magazine about the “Rise of the Super-bule”. I identified a rabid new sub-species of expat who drive S.U.V. aggressively, honk at temple processions if they get in the way and complain bitterly about the Balinese treatment of their dogs.
It was a satirical piece and I never imagined that the movement would grow to evangelical cult proportions. Super-bules now control great swathes of Seminyak, Lembongan and Canggu. They frequent restaurants with ex-pat maitre d’ and only eat cup cakes formed with white hands. For the most part they seem completely uninterested in Balinese culture.
They have their own magazines whose ads only portray Balinese as either masseurs or drinks waiters.
Expats used to settle in Bali to learn from the Balinese — many now only want to teach them. Bali now attracts more investors than artists.
To be fair, the Balinese are partly to blame for this weird mutation of the guest population. For decades they have allowed expat investors to run rampant through the rice fields, and to enter the small scale business market traditionally run by the Balinese. The Balinese tolerance has been interpreted as weakness and the guests are turning on their hosts. Plus the Balinese tolerance is straining at the seams.
The situation is exacerbated by the Balinese doing things to annoy their nature-loving expatriates. Some villages have recently started chopping down trees, for example, to fill in the sky with giant billboard-size photographs of politicians in pious attitudes. And they litter. ‘They litter’ is the most quoted phrase on FB’s Bali expat page. Followed by ‘They don’t look after their orphans/dogs/greenbelts/restaurant hygiene/homicides/break-ins.
It’s not that all the FB banging on is without results: the expat community’s Bali crime page (30,000 members!) has been partly instrumental in the placement of two new (empty) traffic police kiosks on Kuta’s Bemo Corner, for example.
Some funny paradoxes emerge when comparing the parallel universes. Mention odalan festival and expats froth at the mouth — “waste of money” many scream — but mention Ubud Spirit Festival and their hips start to sway. Expats think green while the Balinese think greenbacks — for too long all development has been good. The Balinese are embracing consumerism and urban sprawl with their trademark creative zeal while expats are embracing bamboo.
The giant red-brick Banjar Tuban complex — a masterpiece of Majapahit modern — now has the island’s largest digital advertisement display screen slapped onto its façade. Expats fear that the Balinese are fiddling while Bali turns into a cheap urban tourism paradise.
The expat community seems to be more concerned with environmental issues than the government. It is the expats who are leading the Balinese surfing community in a much needed clean-up of Kuta Beach, and spear-heading many environmental conservation education programmes, many sponsored by long-term expat companies.
There is no doubt that the expat community feels the need to empower itself in order to deal with the recent appalling spike in violent crimes directed at tourists and expats, and the perceived lack of efficiency by the tourist police. Social media hubs like Facebook Bali Expat page now provide a help center.
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Balinese, many of whom have day-jobs within the expat universe, are not affected by the cultural shift taking place and the universes rarely collide. Bali keeps up its culture, between the megamalls and budget hotels, and the expats have invented a full raft of amusements that just don’t involve the Balinese, except as masseuse, maids, drinks waiters and pedicurists. There are of course many notable exceptions, particularly in Ubud where the traditional and the expat community share many interests and cultural pursuits. But, still, you can count the numbers of expats who regularly attend their adopted villages’ temple festival on one hand.
The BBC Travel page on-line recently listed Bali’s up-coming Melasti processions of the gods to the sea as one of world’s top ten festivals to visit in March. Let’s see if the number of expat participants can rise to rival the usual two tourists in g-strings.
The expat’s spiritual needs are catered to by cakra-buffers flown in from California but their dietary desires have spawned a generation of Asian-confusion gastronomic excellence.
Meanwhile the Balinese have embraced Pizza Hut with a passion and are starting to worship at the altar of the Mall Mamon. The irrepressible creative energy of the Balinese perhaps needs a bit of re-direction, from community leaders committed to positive environment-friendly change.
And the more rabid expats need to put a lid on it — they are giving a bad name to the many who love the island.