I HAD AN INTERESTING exchange with a Balinese woman named Rumini, a traditional painter who shares a tiny art studio with her husband. I was taking a walk through the rice fields with my friend Aaron, and we stopped by to chat and admire her paintings. Aaron had recently arrived in Bali for a visit and she asked him where he was staying.
“Near the beach,” he told her, “But once my girlfriend arrives, I’ll probably move into Ubud. She’ll like it better here — and she’s the boss!” He said this with good cheer, and Rumini smiled.
“That’s so nice to hear,” she said. “It’s not like that here. Bali is very male dominated. The man is always the boss.”
“It used to be that way in America,” I said, wanting to be encouraging. “But it’s really changed a lot in the last 40 years — even in the last 20. That’s pretty fast, when you think about it. So give it time. It’ll change.”
Rumini’s face fell. She dropped her paint brush and came toward me with a sense of urgency. “No, you don’t understand,” she said, looking right at me. “I don’t want it to change.”
I was stunned. “Oh, okay,” I mumbled. I didn’t know what else to say.
I’ve since contemplated that moment a great deal, and the process has been illuminating:
When I said, “It’ll change,” my statement was filled with assumptions that Rumini simply didn’t share. First, I assumed this change would have desirable results. Second, I assumed she would want it to change. And more broadly, I assumed that every woman, regardless of culture, would see such a change as progress. All of these assumptions seemed obvious to me. Why would I think otherwise?
Rumini’s baffling reply was a great gift. It made me see that all of my assumptions about change are not obvious truths, but cultural beliefs prevalent in the West and particularly strong in America. I got curious. What if I looked through Rumini’s eyes, tried on her view, unnatural as it felt to me? I wanted to find the wisdom there and look at what might be frightening to her about my casual embrace of change.
First, I looked at the benefits of stability that Rumini enjoyed. Here’s one: She was raised in a family of painters and so had been taught to paint from a very young age. Though she was only in her 20s, she already had a great mastery in her work from those years of practice and apprenticeship. Art was part of her conditioning, as natural to her as breathing. Being the cultural center, Ubud is full of such prodigies and this suggests that individual talent (so revered by Americans) is not as important to mastery as deep and continuous immersion in practice. The holding environment created by passing on a skill for generations can nurture excellence, and wholehearted embrace of change compromises the benefits of lineage and the mastery it affords.
Second, I looked for the benefits of women and men having distinct and prescribed roles in Balinese culture. Here is an obvious one: according to various child welfare organizations active here, there are no Balinese orphans. Since extended families live together in compounds and the women share the task of mothering all of the children there, if a child’s mother dies or gets too sick to care for her, she has 8-12 other “mothers” she has been close to all her life who can step in. Given this, these organizations need not open orphanages in Bali. Here, they sponsor only day schools and learning centers. It’s hard to see this as anything but a remarkable benefit.
Finally, given the stability of roles, both in work and in home life, the big questions that so many Americans spend years trying to answer — like “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” and “What is my unique contribution?” — are just not an issue for Rumini. She knows who she is, where she comes from, and what she needs to do, so she can just get on with it. When I think of how much energy I’ve spent doubting my direction in life, wondering if I made the right choices, wondering if I was really fulfilling my so-called potential, Rumini’s position starts to look like a welcome relief.
This isn’t to say that I would want to trade places with her. My conditioning is too strongly in favor of the value of change and equality for me to go that far. But thanks to Rumini’s honest reaction, I am looking closer at how this western assumption plays out in my life and in the world around me. With diligent attention, I’m hoping I’ll begin to recognize more clearly the delicate interdependence of the things I value with the things I don’t like so much. They aren’t always so easy to untangle, and seeing this can help us protect what is precious in our rush toward a brighter future.
Rumini’s lesson in the benefits of stability and careful change is a sober reminder that unconsidered change embraced casually and assumed to be good — however “right” or “bright” it may seem in theory — won’t necessarily move us forward. In fact, it might land us in an alienated, mediocre world filled with orphans.
In many ways, it already has.