A family abroad

December 18th, 2010 December 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — mcchez @ 9:08 am

Letter from Bali – XI

The conclusion of a Gregorian year is often a time for reflection.  For the icebound pensioners trapped in their houses or those unfortunates stranded at airports under thick falling snow this is an imposed ennui, the waiting and wondering born of suffering.  For a great many others the stock taking is coloured with spiritual meaning as the kaleidoscope of religious ceremony conjugates around the solstice.  Hindu Bali is no exception to this trend of spiritual climax, with its accompanying soul searching.

Two weeks ago it was Happy Galungan Day, now try to say that after three Bintang beers.  Last week it was Jambalaya and all the staff were gone again.  It is Myxomatosis ceremony this week that has dispersed the home help, they only materialize, fleeting rainbows after a monsoon shower, to glad hand an envelope of bonus salary – this is the time honoured recipe to stave off bad demons and retain harmony on our little island.    I’m being unkind of course, they are swell, I love ’em, and even I’d get myself to a church if the alternative was a day of drudgery wiping the white man’s ass, but I digress.  I suspect they are off next week too, I can’t remember why and I don’t give a fig either because my freckled bottom is on a plane to the Socialist People’s Republic of Vietnam!  Woo hoo!  I have been warned by a cynical fellow that that heathen culture only worships the dollar.  If so then it will at least feel more Christmassy than Bali, and Christmas always makes me think of home…

If you’ve been to Bali or read about this place, or perhaps, poor you, you’ve followed the ramblings contained in these letters?  In any case, if you have then you know that Bali is a little odd and perhaps the oddest thing about the whole odd place are the people who live here but aren’t from here, and the strangest thing about that group is how they themselves perceive it, that puddle of humanity who at least temporarily call this place ‘home’.

One little thing about expats… when you live as an expat you meet expats.  You can’t help it, it is a force like gravity.  I suppose if I was a banana tree I’d hang out with the other bananas, or maybe its just that other bananas would be the only things on the island that might tolerate me?  Hey, wait a minute!  But however it happens it is unmistakable; expats don’t hang with tourists or locals.

Tourists are a pain in the ass.  They walk around with obese cameras snapping away at grain crops, they stare at piles of garbage with disapproving superiority and ogle every piece of dirty rock willing it to be a shrine offering universal truth a mere finger touch away.  “Hey, haven’t you seen rice before, buddy?!”  They wear bizarre clothes that could only be carried off in the shopping malls of Bremerhaven or the little league bleachers of Omaha, outfits that make batik look sharp.  They are too white (and that is something coming from me), or too clean, and they wield gargantuan backpacks on a sidewalk only wide enough for one and a half Balinese butt cheeks.  They block the cashier for long groaning minutes while they look long and hard at the mound of dirty little notes they received as change, trying to figure out the zeros through the stains of a thousand sweaty palms.  “If it’s clean and red it is worth something – the rest you can wipe your arse with,” but they don’t listen, so you give up and stop talking to them after a while – I mean what’s the point?   They are here for another ten hours or ten days and then they go home.  They might be enjoying it or loving it or hating every humid filled moment of it but they explain those feelings in reference to an antithesis of home, knowing home is certainly not here.  They know they don’t belong here and we envy them perhaps that.

The locals, by definition, do; and we, the expats, have a symbiotic arrangement with them.  I would suggest that it is an obligate relationship, we both now depend on each other for our survival, but whether it is mutualism or commensalism or whether it is a parasitic relationship we enjoy together is a topic for another day, not this one.

A different type of local

When we, the expats, reflect back on the year and think of ‘home’, what do we mean?  And who exactly are we, us, me, the expats?  Thing is, we have our similarities, but just as many differences.  My Christmas gift to you then, I didn’t send a card, and please forgive the wrapping, is this.  It might prove invaluable should you venture into these  steamy climes:

A Spotter’s Field Guide to the Expat Species of Indonesia

The perceptive visitor to the archipelago might be able to sight each of these common variants of the family Notfromere Originali:

A thinning dome, expanding equator and enduring smile are all common traits of the ubiquitous animal Maidintheshade, locally known as the Caucasian Old Boy.  A favourable climate and exchange rate, and the profundity of locally available nutritional supplements that compose his diet, i.e. beer, nuts, coffee and tobacco, ensure his enduring attachment to the environment.  The signature of this subspecies is of course the mating ritual, where any vacuity in looks or advancing age or unorthodox physique is compensated for by the perceived security of his bank balance (surely exotic charms and charisma?) and leverage the long lasting affections of another animal, localus girlus hotten totty, to the despair of Darwinists everywhere.

More recently a related organism has been sighted though its range and numbers are more limited. Julia Wantobe or Love Eat Prey can be found conjugating in organic tofu cafés and raw food restaurants throughout the island of Bali.  A niche predator she is of advancing years but focussed with a single mindedness that is likely bourn from the scarcity of her diet.  Indeed, there is growing body of evidence that her ambition may be entirely mythical allowing her the distinction of being the first mammal to sustain itself entirely on imagination!  Best viewed from a distance as her conversation tends to the delusional and desperation has been known to be contagious.

Husbandus Absentus, or common Nester, is foremost distinguished by a gin glazed look in her eyes.  She has an encyclopedic knowledge of pizza restaurants, grilled cheese sandwich parlours, water parks, jungle gyms and toy shops on her island, and will have memorized the location of every toilet of grade within a five mile radius of her coop.  Though not necessarily carnivorous, she never the less strikes fear into school administrators far and wide.  This subspecies conjugates with others of her brood, often in ceremonies known as ‘coffee mornings’ or ‘ladies lunches’.  She haunts and sustains the institution known as ‘spa’.  On first viewing her purpose appears to be one of endurance, a perpetual waiting for Friday and the arrival back of the ephemeral ‘husband’.  Closer observation often proves that this is not the case, and that the sole motivator of Husbandus Absentus is to secure the next children’s play date and with it, snatched liberty.  Approach with caution and expect the erratic.

There are others, like Robinsonus Crusoenis, the abandoned hippy washed up in the foamy shoals of free love now found wandering parties like a beach bound Don Quixote, trying to find the 60’s again in the bottom of a coconut juice, unaware or unaccepting that the millennium has been and come and gone.  Engage as you will, the creature is harmless but may consider you nothing more than a hallucination.


{Image removed here for copyright reasons}


Identification of your Expat can be complicated by diseases that these creatures carry, the symptoms of which might appear to the untrained eye to be a new genus in its own right.  At the moment the island is suffering from an outbreak of Yoga Flu.  In its severest form the affected expat becomes puritanical, the flesh falling away from himself until the victim is buff enough to induce the healthy derision of those who aspire only to see their toes, let alone touch them.

Another plague endemic among expats is Aspiration Posteritis, symptoms might include an overwhelming desire to jot down all manner of rubbish in print.  Like yoga, there is no current vaccination and the condition is so prevalent that at at times it may seem as if the entire expat population is doing it, or planning to, or did it…  write that is.  The conversation isn’t why or if or should, but relates to publishing, genre, influences, blogging, and word counts towards its final terminal stages.  Current research supports the hypothesis that this may be a local mutation of the wider pandemic, mid life crisis and suggests a course of antibiotics, while others favour the traditional Balinese prescription of public stoning set to gong music and clapping.

This letter started about ‘home’ and I think it is the hardest thing about expat life, the realization that you’ve slipped your anchor and are now adrift.  What then is home?  Home is where you lay your hat, home is where the kids are, home is where family is, home is where you grew up, home is where you live now, home is what you make it, home is what is in your passport, the world is your home!   Trite, but I suppose each has a grain of truth in it.  Yet these miss out on something that I think is important to what is ‘home’- acceptance.  I think you need to ‘belong’ before you have ‘home’ and it is a stumbling block for the expat.  The expat may desire to call a place home, but the locals, surely, cast the final vote.

I think you see this in immigrants.  The first generation can call it ‘home’ all they want, but it isn’t really – they’ve been cast adrift.  Bali, as mentioned before, has a homogenous, resilient, sustaining and exclusionary culture.  It is friendly and visible, but they won’t let you in.  Expats here have married ‘into’ the community and are still outsiders after decades.  The old white guys trotting out the tales along the party circuit have lived here now for almost forty years, they speak fluent Indo., they have a host of mixed race children between them, and yet they still get the shake down every day of their lives, “Taxi boss?”.

Maybe they don’t care or maybe they don’t think about such things, but I think they do, like I think we all do, even if it is just at Christmas.   So Happy Holidays and Galungan greetings to you all, wherever you are and wherever you call home, whether you have one or not.  I raise a glass and wish your health.  Merry Christmas.

“And lo! The shepherds looked up and saw a star… “


5 Responses to “December 18th, 2010”

  1. Vanessa and Peter Says:

    Wishing you all a very happy Christmas

  2. Toshiki Says:

    Happy Festivus to the McChez family. Happy pho slurping in Vietnam.

    See you in March.


  3. Vietnam! wow hope you enjoy that place.A place in my memroies that automatically recall rioting American students burning flags in protest to the draft and TV scenes of napalming villages and screaming ,fleeing,burning villagers(children included).I’m sure now it just a sea of two-stroke cycles and Nike factories. I always enjoy your posts,even when it seems a little obsessive about toilets.

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