UCLA undergraduate students participated in an immersive summer program to gain exposure to Balinese culture and history as part of the Julia and Ken Gouw Centennial Scholarship for Study Abroad in Indonesia.

Compiled and edited by Lydia Joe (UCLA, 2020)


Soaking up the heat of summer, Kitty Hu, Irene Sumampouw, and Elizabeth Campbell participated in the two-week language and cultural immersion program at Ngurah Rai University, allowing them to fully experience Bali beyond the classroom. They ventured out to visit historical sites, stayed with host families, and volunteered at local schools. Upon returning, Kitty, Irene, and Elizabeth reflected on their encounters and experiences and the impact this program had on shaping their identities and learning philosophies. 

Sightseeing beyond the classroom

Irene described how the program taught them how to be respectful visitors of the island. Cultural immersion meant not just learning during class times, but also interacting with host families and locals throughout the rest of the day. “We were constantly practicing the Indonesian language, as well as being attentive and applying the cultural beliefs we learned in class throughout our trip.” Elizabeth lauded how their teacher, Pak Nyoman, brought them to “see all the best sights, like Puri Agung (the King of Ubud’s home) and waterfalls.” Irene noted that they were also able to plan their own excursions to different destinations, such as Tanah Lot. Since the sightseeing was partly tailored to the student’s own interests, there was a personal touch to their adventures.

Kitty regarded tourism with a more critical lens. While she admired the welcoming locals and gorgeous landscapes, she noticed other aspects surrounding the tourism industry. “We were at a waterfall swimming around for approximately 1.5 hours and saw so many couples come, pose for a picture, and go. The same happened at the Chinese temple. And the same with so many other incredible cultural, environmental or historical places here. Locals mentioned that people sometimes come and think that Bali is its own country.” She stressed the value of focusing on what we can learn from these tourist sites beyond just documenting a visit. Her observation is aligned with growing concerns of global influences and environment costs related to sustainable tourism in the country.

Tradition intertwined with daily life

Elizabeth elaborated on her navigation of Balinese culture within the city and with the people themselves. She explained that exploring Balinese culture was so fascinating. “We learned about caste systems, how names are given, and about Balinese Hinduism. I loved seeing how intertwined their religion is with their everyday life.” Her experience was made even more special when she got to share an intimate look at how Balinese Hinduism was practiced. “It is a beautiful religion that I didn’t know much about before. When I told my host dad that I learned about it in class, he let me watch him make the offerings for their gods.”

Kitty mentioned how important aspects of Balinese Hinduism were manifested in the daily life through architecture and lived experiences. She reminisced, “On one of my favorite nights in Bali, and one of the last as well, I decided to take a walk through my neighborhood. I felt like a kid slowly wandering throughout the streets, waving at grandmas, kids, dogs, plants, and smiling at little things that I saw. The intersection of religion, culture, and tradition is so prevalent on the island, and it’s beautiful to see those elements aesthetically with the penjor (bamboo structures), temples within each housing complex, and the architecture.” The warm intricate facets of Bali touched her. “My heart is so full.”

Cultural exchanges through volunteering

A portion of the students’ time was spent doing service centered around English language teaching. Elizabeth volunteered at an elementary/middle school, getting a first-hand look at how schools operate and interacting with kids who were “bursting with questions about America.” Even though she was there to help them practice English, she explained, “the kids mostly wanted to hear about what America was like or they wanted to teach me more informal Indonesian words.” She happily revealed, “I ended up being taught instead of teaching!”

Irene’s favorite part was also the volunteer component of the program. The highlight of her trip was seeing the excitement on the students’ faces every morning. She was able to take note of the cultural differences between American and Indonesian students, hoping to pursue her career interest working with children.

Explorations of identity

Both Irene and Elizabeth saw the program as a channel for them to strengthen their ties to Indonesian culture and have a stronger grasp on their own identities. Irene shared how her main motivation for attending the program was to experience Bali since she immigrated to America from Jakarta as a small child and has only been back once in 17 years. Because she fears losing the traditions and language skills like other young Indonesians, Irene wanted to learn more about her culture and express her Indonesian identity to her family but also grow more content with her own notions of identity.

Elizabeth also wanted to do a little soul searching. She is half Indonesian but was never taught the language at home and therefore always felt disengaged with her Indonesia heritage. After only two weeks in Denpasar and living with her host family, she discovered a missing piece of herself there. She now feels like she is able to better understand and connect with her family members. Elizabeth hopes to return to Bali next summer to practice her language skills, learn more about her culture, and even visit her host family.

Kitty shared a quiet, yet beautiful piece to sum up her impression of Indonesia. It was from her encounter with a local woman about the Indonesian flag and the Indonesian Independence Day. “A mother sitting next to me on my train ride from Jakarta to Bandung said that the red symbolized brown sugar + courage, while the white symbolized coconut + holiness. The two foods were primarily eaten during the fight for independence, while the people needed bravery and faith to win. I’ve read about other symbolic meanings as well, but I kind of like believing in hers.”





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Published: Monday, October 21, 2019