What did I do wrong?


Even though we rearranged ourselves in "proper" order, and eventually took the picture, it took me a while to figure it all out. In Bali, Mt. Agung is the considered the center of the universe in spiritual terms. Those of higher caste, age, or other forms of status should always be situated closest to it, particularly in ceremonial contexts. The corner of every house compound on the island has a shrine indicating the direction of the mountain and every temple is also oriented towards it. For most Balinese (in Southern Bali), this is to the Northeast. If one must go between the mountain and a person of respect in a formal setting, one should try to move quickly or hunch over, doing both with clear embarrassment at insulting the person. I did not realize that I had initially positioned myself between the king and the mountain by standing on the left. I did not understand at that moment that I should have stood to his right. They were lenient because I was a foreigner, but it was a stressful and embarrassing moment from which I learned a great deal.

 Note: This critical incident illustrates just how complex a seemingly simple act can be and how much meaning and significance may be attached to factors which most US-American are totally unaware of. Indonesia is much more high context than America and the implicit cultural knowledge which is shared by Balinese will not be obvious to casual observers. Finding out what is going on will often require some tactful questioning and intercultural sensitivity on the part of study abroad students, especially in more High Context cultures.