The price of unconsidered change

saraswatiI 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.

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11 comments to The price of unconsidered change

  • Paula Conway

    Thanks for this food for thought, Jane. Similarly, I have wondered how I would have responded to life had I been born into a different culture, or an earlier era. It is hard to sort through the inherent “Paula-ness” to see how I’d cope with living behind the burqa or in a Victorian household, or, or, or… I presuppose so many aspects of today’s culture as being the right way to do things: women having access to education, decent jobs with decent pay, the right to vote, the right to own property, to decide who to marry, etc. Not all of these are applied evenly even in today’s world. Should they be? It’s one paradigm, not the only one. But, we easily fall into assuming everyone wants this. But as you know, our culture has some major turbulence which comes with the territory. I’d guess life can be much more steady without the rights I spelled out.

    You might not know this and it’s pretty shocking: women got the right to vote in Switzerland in 1971!

  • 1971? Switzerland? That is really shocking. Wow.

    Here in Bali, I met a non-traditional Balinese woman who lived by herself in the city and worked as a health professional in a small practice. She had so much power in the partnership that she could easily take off a month at a time to go traveling with her foreign boyfriend (a “naughty” thing to do in Balinese culture, according to her).

    She told me that most of the Balinese women she knew were really very content–in many ways, more content than her. They weren’t interested in “the world outside the compound,” as she put it. But she had always wanted to see the world, and once she did, she told me there was no going back, however nostalgic she felt. She now lived in a different paradigm, and even if her boyfriend left her and she was ultimately left alone, she wouldn’t be able to return to the old way.

    Maybe the most sustainable solution would be for cultures to make space for both choices, instead of having to make one right and one wrong. But that just might not be realistic–and it just might again be another American assumption: that everyone should make their own choices.

    Yikes. That’s a whole other contemplation.

  • Vivienne

    Hi Jane

    I enjoyed your observations on societal roles in Bali. I found it also interesting that in my brief 15 years of relationship with Indonesia and Balinese people I have not encountered the ‘boss’ syndrome or gender oppression in the kinship systems – especially in Bali.

    Instead I find Bali’s backbone of honoring the Goddess – sacred feminine sits at the core of their later merged Hindu philosophies that came with the Patriarch. As such despite tributing natural physical roles in family – i.e. male protection – you will find a high percentage of Indonesian women and Balinese women running the businesses and the homes – including the men in them.

    All seems to work well because Men are brought up to respect Goddess or femininity from an early age. Yes there are the patriarchal models withing the society but at the ‘family’ where the heart of Balinese culture still lies you will find that women can be genuinely respected and cherished.

    So many times – on a daily basis do I also hear tourists and western visitors to the island state how the Balinese environment, energy and culture brings out their own sacred feminine – not surprising to see so many women of all ages flowering in their femininity – and not one man seems to mind.

    Great site by the way.

  • Similar to your observations, Vivienne, I’ve generally sensed a great respect for women here, though there are exceptions, of course. And I’ve also heard many comments on the feminine quality of the energy here–the culture is unusually gentle, graceful and loving, in my experience. I think we in the West could learn a lot from the Balinese, if we can slow down and open enough to listen!

  • Phyllis Matyi

    So the other day on ABC’s News Program Dateline there was a report on a U.S. Woman voulunteer creating a midwife program in Bali. The report said Indonesian woman do not get sufficient health care, espcially during pregnancy, and that there was another aspect that Indonesian mothers can not leave the hospital with their babies unless th hospital bill was paid first. Mother’s then often had to leave and wait outside the hospital to be allowed in to feed their babies. So this Ameican woman had created a midwife school which were teaching woman how to provide more home deliveries.

    What is your experience there, in Bali, related to woman’s health care in this discussion?

    Related to Feminine Wisdom, there was the myth of the Flaming Womb in Indonesia about 1000CE which was a woman called Prajnaparamita- yes, The Prajnaparmita, The Great Paramita, and this woman was a full balance of feminine and masculine. Wisdom and Compassion. If her Sarong would happen to open the light of awarness would brighten all. The myth continues that Brahma’s son, disguised as a peasant, married the Flaming Woman and became the rulers of Indonesia….

  • The “midwife school” you’re talking about I believe is here in Ubud: It’s called Bumi Sehat and is greatly respected. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Balinese women’s experience with healthcare, but like most countries (including the United States), many people cannot afford health insurance, and there are scant resources to help those without resources afford medical care. Most health care providers here (as in the US) require payment upfront.

    Ah the Flaming Womb! I’m so glad you reminded me that Prajnaparamita holds this island. I’ll have to do some poking around about that.

  • “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.”

    THANK YOU for this! It is a reality I have to live with in my profession (jeweller) every day and one that quite a few people fail to appreciate. Any process-oriented medium demands a lot of repetition to master it, and no matter how clear my “vision” is inside my head, if I lack the skills, the tools, to realise it, then it will emerge half-baked, unfinished if I take it up before I’m ready to go all the way with it. Not that there wouldn’t be any space for serendipity as well, but more often than not half-baked is just half-baked, not “mmm! juicy”.

  • Patrick Powers

    Actually there is an orphanage in Bedulu. It is for children of the victims of the Bali bomb.

  • In reply to the question about women’s health care in Bali in connection to birthing. I shared monastery space last year while visiting Dalai Lama in Dharamshala. The people who graced my presence were a group of women and many with their supportive partners – from around the world – mostly USA – who are alternative medical practitioners who specialize in Chinese medicine for women – particularly acupuncture and herbs. Many of these medical women are certified mid-wife as well – certified meaning under first world credential of registered nurse and midwifery at least – some with obstetrics and pediatric qualifications.

    I went with their group leader to the school where she set up a temporary clinic for the women and children in McLeod Ganj – and they came by their hundreds every day as these women did ‘practical’ for a refresher of post four year training in this specific field. They decided to do their refresher in a way that would concurrently help others – and they did – still do. My heart goes out to all of them for their selfless efforts.

    The relevance to this – is that the group leader and facilitator is indeed a resident of Bali who continues efforts at the Women’s clinic in Ubud but also conducts other training and sessions around Bali – then with her husband life partner visits India and the like in spare time to do more work there.

    Her name is Soma Devi Glick – Doctor of Oriental Medicine and you may contact her on She has moved to Kerobokan but services the island.

    The women I mention? Many of them will be back – next time in Bali again – doing the women’s work.

  • Another recent statistic released to me yesterday – for those stats driven. Bali has a low percentage of children in poverty.

    I have been experiencing Balinese public health care and there are horror stories. I have also been in United Kingdom where the public health care was so overloaded that the horror stories are above mention people who lose limbs when operated ‘by accident’ and other negligence cases. When in Australia I collapsed in the emergencies waiting room of St Vincent’s hospital and was left on the floor unattended while they stared at me and walked around me – after coming around several minutes later – the Triage (nurse on admission) said to me ‘that’s right you just lie on the floor over there’ – it became apparent she thought I was an Aboriginal street person – and I waited another 4 hours to get treated while in anapheleptic shock. I had in the mean time dragged myself into the public bathroom and passed out again in there – but came to, found water and started to compose myself. I got back to desk and the triage finally admitted me after abusing me some more – only because I had a blood pressure machine on me by this time and it dropped dangerously low as I passed out again. She decided she better let me see a doctor.

    This type of behaviour is not unusual anymore from public health care in first world system. I had attended an Australian public hospital as I had just arrived in the country – I didn’t have the medicare or insurance records and this was why I received the treatment at emergencies. But a week before I arrived someone else died in a nearby hospital in very similar circumstances – they had a cardiac arrest and didn’t make it back out of the bathroom – after also being ignored in the waiting area. I literally had people stepping over me in a hospital. Recently attending public care at Sangla – I know – no one would leave me there unattended if I collapsed on the floor. And that is the difference between Bali and other countries now. Other countries care for people based on money and status. Bali cares for its people based on kinship. Whatever you do – don’t lose this asset.

    Yes there are horrors – there are human rights abuses in every country – but the clan system in Bali ensures that people ‘generally’ get cared for. In a patriarchal discriminating world – it is the best. Around the world in the home, behind closed doors, in relationship, women continue to receive low treatment and their children. It is not a third world problem – the stats in countries like USA are super high and at least 75% of cases go unreported.

    There are issues is Bali with attitude to mental health and some real cruelty in practices of chaining etc. These older diabolic practices are slowly dying out. Health care for women in Bali could best be centred around the roles of women in society. There are also issues here with orphanages and ‘false’ charities – serving as fronts for other things – such as sex trade and sweat shop work. Tourists should take care to ensure bonafide charities are supported when donating – and the others – well human rights watch will be investigating – be assured.

    Despite those percentage statistics of children in poverty – I know that the poor of Bali remain among the UN designated poorest. It seems deficit in such an efficient system that caste elitism feels appropriate that the poor deserve their lot and should be left to fend for themselves. This is perhaps where education and re-awakening may assist – stemming from the patriarchal Hinduism that superimposed and morphed with the older Gaia or Goddess culture.

    Yet Bali’s real problems will possibly not come from lack of infrastructure and services – but from the paradoxes that industrialization and urban growth in capitalist markets arise. For example the ‘build it and they come’ mentality on tourism has exploded areas like Ubud. In other tourist oriented areas this phenomena has resulted in a mini boom and enjoyed wealth of community – only to then suffer a rapid and severe downturn – when the tourist population they feed on dies off again. Why do they die off? Because the reason the tourists are attracted is for the unspoilt nature and culture of the area. A building boom results – traffic chaos, pollution of beaches and waterways, and fouling – and tourists move on to a new ‘unspoilt’ mecca. All those new business and shops that cater for the tourist market remain empty and those who invested are left with huge burden of debt. The beauty and heritage are destroyed.

    It is time for a world of sustainable application to development, lifestyle and accessibility to medicines and care.

    Blue Lotus Sumer Tara

  • @ Patrick: Yes, thanks for the clarification. I meant to say in my blog that there are no orphanages needed in Bali, not that none existed.

    @ Vivienne: Thanks for the low down on healthcare and the resource. It sounds like you have had your share of difficult experiences in “developed” countries–where it’s great for the few, not so great for the many.