Political correctness has not made it to Bali. The people here express themselves directly and aren’t compelled to choose language to protect someone’s feelings which works, because most people aren’t particularly sensitive, and take things in stride. As an American and, even worse, a Californian, I wasn’t prepared for such blunt observations thrown around in casual conversation. Like when I was told how to differentiate the two Ketuts that work at our landlord’s house. “One is fat Ketut and the other is old Ketut –so simple.” Right, so simple! Or, like our friend’s driver, who is convinced that anyone involved in questionable behavior is certain to be from Java (and shares this freely with any passenger in the car). He has implicated everyone from suspiciously friendly women loitering at the warungs (cafes), to rude taxi drivers, to anyone having a bad hair day. “see that woman….ugly, frizzy hair….from Java.” Actually, I haven’t had a good hair day since we arrived; it hadn’t occurred that I might have Javanese roots (i know, bad pun). In the U.S. we would be much more covert about our observations. We would never talk about people so openly. We’re a civilized society –we have the decency to do it behind their backs, (or at least under a fake name on the internet).
Here in Bali, neighborhoods are called villages. We live in Nyuh Kuning (“New Kooning”), home to one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ubud –the Monkey Forest. Income from the Monkey Forest, (that isn’t siphoned off into government officials pockets), comes into the village, thus we have clean roads and a large soccer field at the end of our street. During the week, it’s used by the school in our village and on the weekends by the neighborhood kids. Last weekend Marc and Fletcher decided to walk down and join the group of neighbors that had gathered for a casual baseball game. The participants included a few kids from Green School and several local Balinese boys. After the game was over, Marc arrived home with Fletcher and two local boys that had followed them home after the game. They seemed curious about where the new people lived. When they noticed our pool they both lit up and one of them asked (in sign language since neither spoke English) if they could swim. Marc and I weren’t sure — being the responsible Americans, we felt we should obtain the proper authorization from their parents after an exhaustive discussion about the boys swimming experience, assessing if they needed adult supervision or, if they could be watched from the side. Obviously, we wouldn’t be far from the pool – that would be irresponsible. Anyway, I think one of the boys picked up on our uncertainty and fled the scene while, the other took our conversation as a big thumbs up and just the time he needed. When I turned to give him an answer, he was already happily immersed in the pool wearing nothing but a giant smile. Oh geez! Now what to do? The only responsible thing was for Marc to get in with Fletcher so, he could supervise. So, the three of them swam. Allie came out, but quickly retreated to her room at the surprising sight of a naked, brown boy in our pool. I nervously stood by waiting for his parents to storm in and accuse us of kidnapping their son. But, that boy didn’t care. He swam like a mad man. I’ve never seen such flailing by someone who wasn’t in the final throes of drowning. He was everywhere –jumping off the side, paddling furiously on the raft, splashing Fletcher and Marc and giving the impression that this was the best thing that had happened to him in a very long time. He left it all there in the pool. And then, as abruptly as it started, he was done. He got out grabbed his clothes and was gone. I’m not sure where he lived or how he got there. All of us looked at each other wondering — what just happened?
The next day I was sitting at my desk on the computer when I noticed three boys had come into our yard. One of them was our friend from yesterday and he wanted to swim again. And, he brought more friends. I was home alone and had no interest in getting in the pool, nor did I want them to swim without speaking with their parents. Again, his friends picked up on my hesitancy and were gone. He, on the other hand was not to be so easily dissuaded. I started to panic. I was trying to make gestures like “the kids are at school – no swim today” –not working. I tried to speak really slowly and explain the pool was not “open” –again, nothing but, an eager smiling face looking back at me. Finally, after what felt like forever, Wayan came around the corner and I grabbed him and begged for help. Wayan looked at the boy, knelt down and talked to him. I’m not sure what he said but, in a few minutes the boy left –still, with a hopeful smile on his face. When I asked Wayan what he told him he said — “it’s okay, he’s an idiot.” I was shocked by his frankness and more than a little uncomfortable. I laughed nervously. “What?” So, he said it again. “That boy is an idiot” But, there was no malice in his words — to him, he was just giving me an explanation. I felt for the boy. Couldn’t we call him “special” or “differently abled?” I would have been so much more comfortable with that. But, that obtuse language would be silly to the Balinese. Despite the frankness of his words, Wayan was extremely patient and compassionate with the boy. His message did not convey judgment or criticism, just information he thought I should know. So, while I stood there obsessing about labels, analyzing which would be most compassionate and least offensive to use in this situation, that boy was cheerfully walking home, dreaming of the next time he would experience the sheer pleasure of swimming in our pool. Much like the day before, when I stood on the side of the pool, fretting about the risk of someone getting hurt, unable to surrender and enjoy the beauty of Bali, with my family, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, that boy saw what he wanted, dove in head first, and extracted every ounce of joy his little, flapping limbs could grab.
And he’s the idiot?