Humans Of Bali: Adam Handoko

Humans Of Bali: Adam Handoko
Bio Bus Founders, Class of 2015 with Adam in the middle.

“It’s a whole different perspective to be in, having grown up here. We’re not in Bali by choice. I mean, you’re lucky if you can afford to go to Bali and be a tourist or be an expat here. I think from their point of view, Bali is a place to travel to, Bali is a desirable destination. Whereas people like us, it just happens to be the place you were born in or the place where you had to grow up in. I think in a way we kind of take it for granted as well.” But for some of us, it’s not the picturesque bucket list destination vacation. For some of us, it’s just home. With its own batch of favourable and not so favourable aspects to it.


Adam Handoko, originally from Jogjakarta, moved to Bali when he was two years old, and this island has been the only home he’s known since. Adam was also a former student at the Green School, and I got to know him through a mutual interest in the musical instrument Marimba (we were in a band together) as well as being a part of the Bio Bus program together. Adam was actually one of the founding members of students who first launched the Bio Bus.

When I first approached Adam about interviewing him for Humans of Bali, I was not entirely sure what topics I wanted to bring up. But within the first few minutes, I realized that his experiences growing up in Bali, and being a third culture kid here, is perhaps one of the most speculated perspectives. What is it like to have grown up on an island like Bali, one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world? What is it like to grow up in a space where you are local, but still slightly disconnected from the surrounding community? “I don’t know what exactly to call myself,” Adam voiced. “If I call myself Balinese, there’s a lot of weight that comes with that statement. I don’t participate in Balinese community events, gatherings, or religious activities. But at the same time, I don’t feel any particular kinship, any particular ties to my Javanese background. Other than my accent when I speak Indonesian.”

“I think a lot of people are also getting more and more aware that Indonesia is not just this one entity where everything everywhere is just one culture. If I tell someone that I was from Bali, they will react differently than if I told them I was from Jogjakarta,” Coincidentally, those are two of the more well-known places in Indonesia. Famous for different reasons and attracting different people. When speaking about Indonesia, we tend to define the country as one giant entity, as Adam mentioned. Yet as citizens, we know it is made up of a wide variety of groups and ethnicities. Our national motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ meaning, Unity in Diversity relates to the large number of diverse subcultures within Indonesia, and how we are a nation united despite these differences.

And yes, when stepping out of the homeland, or on a larger scale, it is a nation united. But looking deeper into it, at times, moving from one culture to another, one island to another can bring about a very drastic shift in your sense of belonging. Indonesia is a land filled with lots of little connected clusters. And no matter what ethnicity, the strength of a community bond is immense. Being from one culture (ex. Javanese) and moving to another (ex. Balinese) can bring its own difficulties in getting a sense of you who are. And I was particularly interested in Adam’s perspective, not only as a Javanese growing up in Bali but as an Indonesian growing up in an international school, primarily occupied by an expat community.

“When I was little, before I moved to an international school, I was really under more traditional Indonesian upbringing. I had religious inclinations; I went to a local public school. I grew up with all these cultural values and Indonesian perceptions of what’s right and wrong.” He explained. But the thing is, as I just mentioned above, “You come from Indonesia, doesn’t mean you belong anywhere in Indonesia.” “I grew up Indonesian, but it’s a very particular type of Indonesian. It was Javanese Indonesian. More specifically, Chinese Indonesian. And to go even further, it’s a Catholic Indonesian, Indonesian. So it’s a very niche demographic to be in. Especially here in Bali, being a place that’s predominantly Hindu. Without a robust Chinese-Indonesian community.” So, despite being raised with an utterly Indonesian background, Adam revealed that it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say he even belonged in Bali, even before moving to an international school and had an altogether different culture exposed to him.

“Sometimes, even when I say I’m Indonesian, the expectations that that carry, I’m not really part of it,” Adam observed, additionally mentioning how he first moved to an international school when he was 11 years old. “I’m Indonesian by blood, but culturally, I’m not super Indonesian. I don’t feel like I belong to any particular Indonesian community. But at the same time, I’m not strictly a part of the foreigner community either.” Adam spent a few years at the Canggu Community School, before moving to a boarding school in Australia for a year, and then moving back to spend his last year at the Green School. At first, entering an international school took a bit of an adjustment, and was a culture shock. “But even after a while, I still felt kind of like an outsider, like I didn’t belong,” Adam shared. And I think we’re seeing this happen a lot with locals and foreigners alike, here. Not necessarily in a school environment but in the way that “we’re kind of seeing a fascinating rise in population of children, and even people our age who aren’t children anymore, born in one culture but are exposed to another culture, kind of like a third culture kid.” Children of expats who, Bali, is the only home they’ve known. And yet ultimately, they are not Balinese, so it becomes almost disconcerting to identify yourself.

When asking him what the reason behind that one year in Australia was, he responded, “I just wanted to try it.  At the time I felt like, and I still do, I want to be out of Bali. Not in an awful ‘I completely hate this place way,’ but it’s kind of time for the bird to leave the nest.” And here’s where I relate in the sense where, one of the most common comments you get growing up in a place like Bali is, “how could you ever want to leave?” When the reality is, much like any other place in the world, it is vastly different to be visiting Bali, than to be living in Bali. When people go on vacation, they are leaving behind the stress and difficulties of their home environment of their day to day reality.

As a tourist in Bali, chances are you’re going to be staying in a nice hotel or villa. But the majority of Balinese people don’t live in a place like that. What people are escaping from is very much real here too. We who live here face the difficulties of our day to day reality. And I think there’s a disconnect of this understanding that, by living in Bali, it does not mean that we grew up in paradise island. It means we grew up in an island known as paradise, but still very much having to face the demands of our financial world, our societal expectations. Yes, I grew up near the beach, but that didn’t mean I neglected my school projects and spent my days lounging in my beachfront lodging, collecting coconuts, and having smoothies for breakfast lunch and dinner.

Don’t get me wrong; I am incredibly grateful and blessed to be able to call this island my home. But at times, I believe there is this image of perfection, endless summer, no care in the world kind of lifestyle that people fail to include “the other side of paradise” into their perceptions. For a start, “Indonesia is not a very privileged place to grow up in.” Adam divulged. “For instance, it’s incredibly difficult to travel with an Indonesian passport. Healthcare here isn’t all that great. Which, at a time like this, is a concern. Wages are insanely cheap. So even if you do manage to get a visa [with the Indonesian passport], you also have to deal with the confusion of how you’re going to pay for the travel.” So while we do agree that Bali is a lucky place to have grown up in, in a sense, it is almost like you’re trapped too. In addition to this, I asked him if he would consider spending retirement years here after going out and experiencing the world outside. “I have thought about it, but I haven’t really come to a conclusion,” Adam responded. “Yeah, Bali is a nice place to retire in. But that’s also because I have never really seen other places that I could retire in. I’ve been here all my life. And these are the kinds of questions that I think I would have the answers to, once I’ve been out a bit more. Which is another reason I want to go out.”

On top of that, Adam brings up another relevant thought, which is that “Yes, Bali is a nice retirement place. But do people come here because they want to experience Bali, or do they come because they want to experience what Bali promotes? Which are cheap tourism and cheap services. If you come from a privileged place, Bali is kind of just a very easy place to be in.”

So from the perspective of an ‘insider,’ what is it like to have grown up in Bali, Island of the Gods, and watch it become what it is today? I grew up in Canggu. Back when it was pretty much still a village. The main sound from the streets would usually be a Banjar meeting being called. We were often one of the only families at the beach. Echo Beach was pretty much the only restaurant. Mostly, the only expats I saw around were my friends from school who grew up in the same area. And I’ve been seeing this come up a lot recently, where people are bringing up statements and thoughts on ‘what Canggu used to be’ and the tourist destination its become now.

“Well, first of all, I feel like there’s this cool thing to say that’s like ‘hey Bali used to be this dream island and everyone was a rice farmer'” Adam started.

“But on the other hand, I strongly believe that Bali and its people deserve the change as much as any other place, to develop. To make progress and change. But also, at the same time, it’s important to question how you want to change.” “What kind of people do we think Bali should be?” “And unfortunately, right now, I feel like the development in Bali has been facing a very Western influence. Because Bali is just meeting the demands of the Western tourist base. And this Western influence also carries with it many of the harmful mistakes that Western development has made. And I think times like these, when tourism has slumped, it’s also an opportunity, if they want to take it, for Bali to kind of figure out its own identity. Aside from being this tourist island. What else do we do? What other value do we have in this world? And do we even need to prove that value to the world? Can we just have ourselves be this insular entity and have the values to ourselves?”

Adam, like me, has grown up in Bali. Has seen it change and grow in its own way alongside us. I think that, in the rapidness of the developments, what we forgot to include is making this island just as accessible to the people living here. We took in such a high demand of foreign tourists that it seems almost as if we’ve forgotten to cater to a local market as well. Right after graduating, Adam took an internship opportunity at the Green School. “I interned at the Bio Bus for about six months, but that didn’t last too long because immediately after, I kind of had to start earning money for myself, so I couldn’t stay.” He divulged. “Since then, I’ve just been working jobs that I’m not particularly passionate about. Very much more about survival than anything else.” About 5 or 6 months ago, he was offered a job at the Green School and has been working there since. And here’s another thing I wondered about. How easy is it to find work here, as a student or recent graduate, based on survival? You don’t often hear the words “I spent the summer working at an ice cream store” from the youth here, the way it commonly is in many other places. “People who work in Bali are typically what you would call digital nomads,” Adam shared. “I think you’re also kind of limited in the options that you have,” “Of course like any other place, more specialized positions will require more qualified persons to be in that position. I barely graduated high school when I started working. And there were not that many options that I could choose from. And I am also extremely lucky to have had the upbringing that I had, that definitely played a role in my employability.”

Besides there being a lack of options, I think there is almost an expectation that if you move to Bali, you’re not looking for basic work. And this is a two-way street, something I think is perceived by locals and foreigners alike. “Yeah, people who move to Bali and are looking for work, if they’re Indonesian, yes they’ll be drivers or waiters and whatever.” But if you’re an expat moving to Bali, you don’t find yourself in that line of work; you’re kind of more privileged with your choice. “There’s almost this entire race dynamic,” Adam remarked. “I’m very aware of how locals tend to see foreigners as inherently more capable. There have been cases where I have a friend who is in a more managerial position who gave foreigners looking for work, a basic or entry-level job. And the other employees would go, “What but they’re a foreigner, should they not get a higher position in the company? And she would just say ‘so what? They’re unqualified,” It is perhaps another thing that needs to rebrand. How we view ourselves (as locals) and our level of expertise in comparison to outsiders. And I think it also goes back to that point of how, a lot of people who come to Bali as tourists don’t necessarily come to Bali because they want to experience the island. There’s this job that you could easily get. You get paid enough to live here and party and whatever it is you want to do.”

 The title and image of “Paradise Island” is something that tourism has bestowed upon Bali, and at the same time, Bali has taken ownership of that title. With this in mind, it can be quite easy for stories of a “dark side” or the “ugly parts” of paradise to become viral. But what I’m saying is that none of that is new. Yes, Bali is a dream island, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own underbelly of less desirable attributes. With all that is happening, and despite the saddening economic impacts the current situation has had on this island, I believe there also is space for an opportunity—a time for Bali to rebrand itself. As mentioned previously, find out what our values are and how we’d like to present it to the world. The world is changing. Tourism in the coming months and the way people want to experience travel is also going to change. And with the way its impacts have hit the island, we cannot move forward, depending on tourism as the primary source of our economy. As the majority of humans around the world are sitting at home in isolation, we, too, as an island must step back and reflect on how best to move forward. We must ask ourselves, how can Bali develop in a way that is transparent and real, beneficial for locals and expats alike, and move into a future that can sustain us in a good and reliable way.

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