Thoughts on Tradition vs. Progress
Should progress undermine tradition? Or should we struggle for a middle ground?
At some times, I love Bali, the island where I’ve spent most of my life. I love the culture, the fresh air, the beaches, the friendly people, and the occasional uneven tans I get when I’m out on my motorbike not wearing a jacket.
And at other times, I hate the island. I hate the direction our development is headed towards, the negative effects of mass tourism, the emergence of gangs, the greediness of local politicians, and the lack of think-tanks where I can work at.
It’s the week of Galungan (a major Hindu celebration held every 6 months; it’s basically Balinese Christmas) and I am coincidentally in that “hate” phase. I just quit my job and am basically in limbo as I fret over the many paths I can take: either I focus solely on looking for master degree scholarships, finding a job in the big city of Jakarta because it seems nobody on the island wants to employ an IR undergrad, or leech off my parents until I self-publish my own novel. Because of this, I’m taking out my hate on the island, which I know is wrong, but I just feel so anxious.
Anyway, as part of the Galungan celebrations, I have to spend half of the week driving back and forth between the city and my childhood home. It’s an hour drive through lush rice fields and beautiful scenery. Back when I was a kid, I always looked forward to spending Galungan in the village. We would drive early in the morning, work our asses off on preparations in the afternoon, and spend the night in quiet, chilly darkness. The day before Galungan was the busiest. My house would be full of men and women and food. The men cooked delicious satay and lawar, which I would often steal and eat before the others did; and the women would weave young coconut leaves into beautiful offerings. As kids, me and my brother, when we were bored with our PS1, would either join the men burning satay or look for abandoned coconut leaves which we would use to whip each other with. Then, at lunch time, everyone would stop what they were doing and chow down together, chatting about life over a nice hot plate of rice and meat. After lunch, if there was no more work to be done, everyone would say their goodbyes.
It was an ineffective system, I would admit. We had a lot of people who were just there for the sake of being there and working on small tasks. We wasted food, of course, because we would cook in excess. It’s really the opposite of an effective industry, because people would come and help in their capacity. But, there was this intimate feeling of community. Everyone was there, not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to be there. My grandparents loved the atmosphere, because it was warm and fuzzy and made the house come alive.
That was ten years ago, in 2006. A lot has changed at my house in ten years.
For starters, nobody comes to the house anymore to make offerings or burn satay. It’s just the three of us (my brother’s in college on another island) and granddad (grandma bit the dust a year ago). We don’t have to make any offerings because we’ve already outsourced the work to one of our relatives. We don’t have to make food anymore because we outsourced that too. All we needed to do was pick them up when they were ready, not more than a 5-minute drive from the house. I no longer have to stay half a week at my village home, sneezing myself to death because I was allergic to down pillows. We would just spend half a day at the village house, do the necessary preparations, and go back home. It is quick and efficient, I would admit. But, something felt missing. Maybe I was feeling a bit melancholic and nostalgic, but something definitely felt off. There was no longer this warm atmosphere that I experienced as a child. I missed the smell of burning satay and the idle banter of the older men and women.
When I was an idiotic teen, I always found ways to criticize the inefficient Balinese rituals. There were too many people working on offerings, the offerings were too grandeur, we were spending way too much on food, etc. I had in my mind, back then, this idea of efficiency, that our cumbersome rituals could be streamlined. I dreamt that one day, the Balinese would no longer need to strain themselves in preparing grandiose rituals just to make themselves look good in society. Everything could be stripped to its bare essentials, reducing the costs of rituals. My family, after a long time, finally adopted this view and decided to streamline everything. At first I was happy, because this meant less time would be spent driving back and forth from the city to my village home and it would lessen the physical and economic strain on my parents (because she works the hardest).
But once my ideas were implemented, I feel that I’ve lost something. This was apparent today, when I revisited my village home. Though everything was finished quickly, I felt empty inside. There weren’t any people working on offerings, making food, and chatting. There wasn’t the smell of satay or the sounds of pigs being slaughtered. Everything was quiet and empty. Sure, everything was finished quickly and we headed back to the city before noon, but is this what I really wanted?
Which brings me (finally) to the issue at hand. Of course, I acknowledge that as a globalized island, Bali must cope with a clash of cultures. The Balinese culture is one of close-knit community and relaxation, as opposed to the foreign cultures that demand efficiency and precision. One way or another, a compromise must be reached between progress and tradition. We can’t have a Balinese manager taking too much time off because he gets called back home one too many times to tend ceremonies. The big question is: how much progress does Bali need? If we favor progress, we risk losing the cultural identity that makes the Balinese unique. But when we favor tradition, we also risk being an inefficient workforce by foreign standards. So, which is it?
We should think of the opportunity cost of progress. Imagine one day, when all religious rituals were to be stripped to its bare essentials without the superficial decorations. At the same time, the Balinese risk losing their cultural identity. This would have an effect on tourism, because tourists want to come to Bali and see the unique culture as promoted by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. On the other hand, we should also reconsider our religious ceremonies. Do we really, really need everything to be so grandiose to the extent that it complicates the lives of the people involved?
This is indeed a hard question that needs time and a lot of thinking. Right now, I believe the Balinese are at a crossroads. They need to be competitive in the global economy, but at the same time, they also need to protect their traditions. So, how should it be?