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The International Writers Magazine
:Dreamscapes story about Bali

Just Another Tourist
Bruce E. Pohlmann
'Being alone is being alive, being alive is being alone ‘
Paul Theroux, My Secret History

"I'm just another tourist, honey." Those are the first words that I can clearly remember my father saying to me. It was during my fifth birthday party at our family home in Singaraja, Bali. My mother was hosting her yearly gala party for me. Of course, my sister, Charity, was there, along with all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, and my maternal grandparents. That crew in itself totaled twenty-four people. But my mother really enjoys a good party, unlike Dad who is happiest sitting in the patched up blue dingy that he's had since I was three drifting in the coral reef in front of our house.

So, in addition to the family, there were all of my friends and quite a few children from the neighborhood whom I barely knew. At least that's the way my father tells the story. My mother insists that she only invited my very best friends, but if I had fifty friends when I was five it was the last time in my life. I'm a pretty friendly person, not the recluse that my father is, but I'm not the social butterfly that my mom and Charity are either.

Well at this party, I still remember this like it was just yesterday; one of the kids whom I didn't know said to me, "Who is that big white tourist?" I've always liked tourists so I turned around and said "Dimana?" This kid, Ketut, pointed at my father and said, "Him!" I hissed back, "Stupid, that's my dad, that's not a tourist." Well, this kid just looked at me like I was the one who was really stupid and said, "He's a tourist." Dad, leaning against the whitewashed kitchen wall taking photographs of the affair, overheard the conversation, gave the camera to my uncle, walked slowly out of the house, and stood peering in the window at me for a few minutes. I just stood staring back at him like he was an alien. First he smiled in a way that I now would call bittersweet, and then he came back in, hesitantly, tentatively, took me by the hand and led me up the white ceramic stairs to his study, and that's when he said those words to me. Those words pretty much changed the way that I've viewed things since then.

In fact, they really changed the way my dad saw things after that as well. I don't actually remember how our conversation progressed after that, but my father has told me the story about a hundred times since then. He actually wrote several articles about the cultural construction of the way people see color not too long after that incident which made him slightly famous for a short time in the anthropological community.

I insisted he was a brown person like me, actually, I didn't even have a solid idea about skin color then, but Dad says that he told me "Look honey I have white skin and you have brown skin. Tourists have white skin too. I can't be an Indonesian if I have white skin. Your mom is Indonesian, and I'm an American." I insisted that his skin was the same color as mine and that started him on his cultural construction of color studies which lasted, like most stuff does for Dad, until he felt that he had solved the problem and then he just dropped it, even though for years after he had published his articles anthropologists who were working in Bali would show up at our house and want to discuss his work. Dad would just shrug his head off to the side and say, "That was then and this is now. Been there, done that." One of the favorite sayings of my dad.

After that, Dad started teaching me English with a passion, and how to play the old piano that he had imported from the States, and how to recognize different instruments in Western orchestras, and how to cook Chicago style hot dogs. I can still remember Peter and the Wolf from those lessons, especially if I smell hot dogs and raw onions. The familiar, metallic rhythms of gamelan music stopped dancing out of my father's study up on the second floor of our large white house that stood like a sentinel overlooking the Bali Sea. Opera, symphony music, rock and roll, and blues tapes took over the section of Dad's bookcase reserved for music. He had entered his American renaissance period.
"Amanita," he'd say, and then take a drag off a Marlboro that he always had in his mouth, clenched between his teeth Franklin Roosevelt style, "you're a smart girl and you have the hard but exciting task of learning two cultures, and I'm going to show you how to live in the Western one that you've inherited from me. Some day you'll go to Berkeley and you'll need to know all of this esoteric knowledge that I'm going to teach you."

None of this made much sense to me then; I had never lived anywhere except in our house in Singaraja, and no one ever spoke anything other than Indonesian and Balinese in our house, even my father except when he swore. The films that we watched were made in Indonesia or India. I had never even heard of America at that point in my short, protected life. Dad stopped wearing sarongs and started wearing long pants when he went out and shorts when he was home working or just hanging out playing with Charity and me.

Well not too long after that day, Dad got a job teaching second grade at the Jakarta International School, and we all moved to Jakarta. I was enrolled in school and began my long struggle through the world of the international schools. When I first entered school, I could barely speak any English. I could count to ten and name the primary colors and ask for food and to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but that was about it. I have to admit that I was never a very good student at the international schools that Dad taught at until he pulled Charity and me out of them and started teaching us at home. I was always shy around the white kids who spoke English like it was a durian - just gliding off their tongues so liquid, smooth, and velvety. I've always struggled with English, unlike Charity, who speaks it like it was her first language. And she doesn't even like durian; she calls it "that smelly, disgusting fruit."
We lived in a three-bedroom white stucco house with a large round swimming pool in South Jakarta. Dad's friend, Buck, shared it with us. Jakarta was a whole new physical world for me to explore and it dovetailed into the new emotional world that I found myself situated in. The thought that kept occurring to me over and over was: if my Dad wasn't who I thought he was, maybe I wasn't who I thought I was either. The move to Jakarta brought all of that out in its worst form.

Jakarta was a lot different from Singaraja. Singaraja back in the early 1980's was just a sleepy former colonial capital. We didn't even have sidewalks then and this was in the second largest city on the whole island. Dokars were still more common than private cars, and while we would occasionally see tourists down on Jalan Diponegoro, they almost never came past our house on the beach blanketed by palm and jambu trees. The beach road hadn't been built yet and the only way to get to our house was to walk down along the rocky beach or squeeze through the crowded alley.

Even at the age of five I knew almost everybody in the neighborhood as well as most of the merchants along Jalan Diponegoro. Jakarta was a pulsating, throbbing, dirty city that seemed to go on forever and ever. The ride from the airport to our new house took long enough for Charity, and me who was only three then, to fall asleep in the back of Buck's new Kijang. My clearest memory of my entry into Jakarta was thinking how would I get home if I got lost.

My entry at JIS was traumatic enough that the school's counselor called on my father and mother after the first month to discuss my seeming inability to speak. I sat stone still on the ring-shaped vinyl couch in our living room while this lady with whom I'd drawn pictures in her small, cramped office, told my father that I seemed to have a learning disability as the only thing that I had told my teacher was that I needed to go "potty."

My father was dressed in his white slacks with sharp creases and a new brown batik print shirt. His face flushed like it got when he and Buck would sit around on the weekends by the pool drinking scotches. "Well, I told Marilyn," he said so quietly that I thought he might be whispering so that I couldn't hear, "that Amanita doesn't really speak English yet. She's perfectly fluent in Indonesian however - well for a five year old, that is." My mother just smiled and pulled her skirt down towards her knees. Mom always smiled when people spoke English because she didn't understand anything they were saying. "They sound like birds," she often told me as I was growing up. "Don't worry, you'll get it. You talk to your father all the time in English at home, just don't be shy with the foreigners." That’s what she called anybody who wasn't Indonesian - foreigners. And that's where the second part of my problem came in. If foreigners were English speakers and my dad spoke English, then he was a foreigner. But Mom always called me and her and Charity Orang Indonesia. But if we were Indonesian, then where did my father come in?

Charity, for her part, never seemed to have these problems. She had light brown hair like my father and big brown eyes like my father and two dimples like my father and mocha-colored skin that was the color of my father's after he spent a summer at our family house fishing every day in his dinghy. I have my mother's short nose, chocolate mousse complexion, and large black eyes that hint at my Chinese maternal great-grandmother. It wasn't until years later, when I was a student at Bali International School that I met someone who could relate to the way I felt. Her dad, an American, was famous for his writings on Balinese art. Dewi's mother was from Peliatan, a village of dancers, musicians and artists. Next to my mother, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Plus she had this grace around foreigners that I really envied. Dewi definitely did not have this grace. She was as awkward and self-conscious around white kids as I was. She's just starting school at Yale now as music major. Dewi saved me, but that really is another story.

Eventually it was decided to keep me in regular classes and get me extra tutoring in English which my Dad ended up doing himself in order to save money. During the four years that I went to JIS I only made one friend and that was the daughter of our gardener who came to work with her father every day. Ratna and I would sit out in the back by the pool playing with the collection of teddy bears that my father always brought home for Charity and me when he came back from a business trip out of the country. When Ratna wasn't around to play with, I'd help my mother in the kitchen and ask her how many more days until we had a vacation and could go home. When Dad returned each afternoon from school, he and Charity and I would go into the living room and he'd teach us English using charts of vocabulary words illustrated with funny pictures that he'd draw at night just before we'd go to bed.
I did learn English during those years in Jakarta but unlike Charity who would then go and babble English to anyone around, I would save my precious English words for my conversations with my father. I always felt like I was speaking to someone else, someone different from me, someone other, when I spoke to the white teachers and kids at school. Dad was still Dad even if he was a foreigner. Our conversations were always held in English, except when we had a non-Indonesian speaking guest and Dad was mad at Charity or me. Then he would scold us in Indonesian in a really quiet voice that told us without even having to listen to what he was saying that he was really upset.

After Jakarta, we moved on to Suryabaya for a few years, and then a few more years at Medan in Sumatra, and finally on to the international school in Bali where I completed eighth grade. As there was no high school in Bali, my father was left with the dilemma of what to do with me. He had already sailed past the age when he had always said he wanted to retire, but Charity had only just completed sixth grade and tuition at Bali International was expensive. Dad decided to put in two more years so that Charity could finish eighth grade there. He enrolled me in a home schooling course through an organization in California. After Charity finished eighth grade my father retired from teaching at the age of fifty-five and devoted himself to giving Charity and me the best high school education possible. My friends all thought that it was great that Charity and I didn't have to attend regular school classes, but we knew the real story. My father not only taught us the required courses as set out by the home schooling organization, but he also taught us his own required "electives" as he called them. So in addition to Math, English, Science, and Social Studies, he also taught us courses on Anthropology, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Drama, Marine Biology and Computer Science.
Our friends wondered why we spent more time studying than they did when we didn't even have to go to school, and it was hard to explain to them just what my father was up to. For that matter, sometimes it was hard for me to figure out what he was doing. The transformation from whom I had been to what I was going to be had already taken hold; I just didn't know it yet. Charity reveled in her difference; she'd flirt with Indonesians and foreigners. I'd stay in the background quiet and watchful, never wanting to be noticed for being someone different.

When I arrived in California to begin my studies at Berkeley, it was hot. The intensity of the heat surprised me and made it seem even hotter than it actually was. My aunt picked me up at the airport and drove me out to her house in Albany, a little town filled with university people just to the north of Berkeley. Aunt Virginia had a small two-bedroom ranch style house just north of Solano Avenue. The streets were wide and drenched in sun. Each yard was neatly trimmed with bright green grass and small, sculpted trees. Street numbers were stenciled in black and white on the curbs in front of each house. I wondered how my father felt living here in this orderly town for so many years, and how he survived the leap to the disorder of Bali. When my mother came back from her first trip to America with my father, I asked her what it was like and she just used one word – rapi (orderly).
I hadn't seen Aunt Virginia in the five years since she and my cousins had come to Bali for a visit. When I stumbled out of the customs area at the airport, I staggered right past her like I was trapped in a dream even though I could hear her calling, "Amanita, Amanita!" I'd expected her to look older than she did, but she had this veil of serenity like life hadn't fazed her at all. I thought that it's very Indonesian, and as I was thinking that, I was wondering what is "Indonesian" anyway. Am I "Indonesian" or is my sister who never says a sentence that doesn't have at least one English word in it, or is my mother who has the Imeda Marcos shoe fetish and goes to Singapore every July for the sales on shoes and then sits out on the seawall in front of our house slurping up bakso in stiletto shoes and a sarong?

My week with Aunt Virginia is pleasant but enervating. Every morning there is a huge breakfast with eggs and toast and fruit (she must think that we all eat like tourists in Bali), she takes me on drives to check out interesting sights in the Bay Area. We go to campus to check on my dorm room (which will be ready and available on schedule - I'm sure not in Bali anymore), and I stand in line to sign up for courses. I sign up for Anthropology 3 - Cultural Anthropology - taught by one of my father's old students who is now a famous anthropologist. I wonder if he would remember my father who taught him once almost twenty-five years ago for a semester. My aunt asks me why I've signed up for an anthropology course since I'm planning on being an architect, and I tell her that I just wanted to see what the course would be like. Of course she knows that it has something to do with my father, her brother, the reclusive intellectual, but she lets it slide and I feel really good about her then like I could share some things later on and she would probably understand them.

The week passes quickly, and I move into my dorm in Barrington Hall. Even though I've been there three times with my aunt, now that I'm alone waiting for my roommate to show up, the place seems tired and depressing. The tan walls need to be painted and seem dull compared to the brilliant white of our walls in the beach house in Singaraja. In spite of the Lysol odor drifting in from the corners of the room, I can smell the scent of the last inhabitants. I wait anxiously; pacing, opening and closing the two small widows, until midnight, but my roommate never does show up. I drift off to a tense sleep; this is the first time in my life that I've ever slept in a room by myself. I wake up at three a.m., and then again at five a.m. I miss the surf pounding on the sea wall in front of our house. Later, the alarm wakes me up at seven, and I shower and put on my new jeans and the rainbow tee shirt that Dad designed that says SINGARAJA, BALI, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. I stride over to Kroeber Hall for my first lecture in cultural anthropology. It's warm already even though it's only eight o'clock; clusters of students lounge around the fountain in front of Kroeber Hall guzzling coffee out of large Styrofoam cups. I push open the two glass doors and head for the lecture hall.

The class is slow, the professor is overly witty, and most of the time is spent dealing with the details of the course. I glance at the syllabus that has been passed out at the start of the class. The reading list is extensive, but I only see the name Robinson: two articles on the construction of color on the island of Bali. The other readings fade into the recesses of my consciousness. Only later do I see Mead, Bateson, Geertz, Boon, and Barth. My father has mentioned all of them, and I have read most of their works on Bali. I have my first section with the graduate T.A. immediately following this lecture. I'm panicked. Should I go, should I drop the course now and see if I can sign up for beach volleyball? My father's voice is there pounding: play out all interesting possibilities.

I shuffle out of class with the other three hundred students and make my way to the discussion section that is also held in Kroeber Hall. A tall, angular man, probably not much older than me is standing nervously in front of the class. He coughs a few times and smiles. He is blond and Nordic; silky corn yellow curls ring his tanned forehead. Charity would go crazy for him. It seems as if I have seen him somewhere before, and I puzzle over this as he calls off the names of the students in the section. They all respond. It's an automatic thing. When he reaches my name, he pauses for a second, looks around the classroom, fixes on my tee shirt and stares at me. It's more than a second, and everyone else in class looks back at me slumped in the last seat in the farthest corner. "Amanita Robinson," he says slightly confused. "Yes," I answer, blushing madly. He pauses for another moment, and then finishes the list. He launches into his beginning spiel. His gaze continues to fix on me; he seems to be speaking purely from memory with no thought as to what he's saying. The other students keep glancing back to see what he’s staring at. My tee shirt feels damp, and I want to be back on the beach in Singaraja where I know Charity is sitting with my cousins eating bakso and gossiping about boys, enveloped in the coolness of the midnight sky; a heartful of stars punctuating their dreamy talk.
"We'll be spending a lot of this course discussing the island of Bali in Indonesia. I know no one has had time to read the literature for the course, but has anyone any comments that they'd like to make before the course begins." His gaze becomes even more intense than before. I sink lower in my seat, continuing to blush madly with the strains of Peter and the Wolf and the smell of Chicago-style hot dogs overwhelming my senses.

© Bruce Pohlmann Ph.D.

A few words about myself. I am a teacher in an international school in Sumbawa, Indonesia. I was originally trained as an anthropologist many years ago. I have been living in Indonesia and Pakistan for the past 15 years. I have been the editor of The Papers of the Kroeber Anthropological Society and Iteachnet magazine (an ezine for educators). I have published several travel articles for Escape from America magazine.

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