On foreigner privilege, gentrification, and racism: How one American digital nomad’s Twitter thread about Bali sparked backlash

Photos: Twitter and Unsplash
Photos: Twitter and Unsplash

Update Jan. 19: Immigration authorities in Indonesia said today that the American woman will be deported pending the next available flight. Read the latest update here.

Original story follows below.

An American digital nomad sparked an ongoing heated debate on Twitter after she wrote a thread about moving to Bali, which didn’t sit well with many Indonesians who have accused her of being culturally tone-deaf. 

The thread, which may have been intended as a guide to “how you can thrive in life,” starts out simple enough: the woman said she decided to book a one-way flight to Bali with her girlfriend after spending most of 2019 out of work. The island, where she’s been for a little over a year now, is where she has built her own graphic design business and where she lives for only US$400 a month in a “treehouse,” which is peanuts compared to her US$1,300 per month Los Angeles studio.

The woman described Bali as a “perfect medicine” for her physical and emotional health, and went on to list the benefits of living here: safety, low cost of living, luxury lifestyle, and acceptance towards LGBT people. She also shared her positive experience as a black woman with the black community in Bali, before wrapping the thread with a link to her US$30 e-book, Our Bali Life is Yours, which is “a guide breaking down how we did it and how you can do it too.” 

The woman in question has locked her account after the immediate backlash that’s been going on over the weekend and well into this morning. The thread was met with sub-tweets, thousands of replies and quote-tweets, where people called her out for her privilege as a foreigner in Indonesia and pointed out how her guide is basically a recipe for gentrification.

The thread was problematic for a variety of reasons, including the irresponsible labeling of Bali as “queer-friendly” despite the fact that members of the LGBTQ community in Indonesia live in fear of persecution and are targeted by authorities and conservative groups. Her idea of “low cost of living” also points to a deeply entrenched issue that shouldn’t be brushed off when talking about tourism in Bali, where a US$400 rent is affordable for a visiting foreigner but the provincial minimum wage is only about US$177.

Furthermore, it’s rightly disturbing that she would encourage people to skirt immigration rules to get around the imposed travel restrictions during a pandemic, especially when Indonesia is still struggling to keep the COVID-19 crisis under control.

With the nature of Twitter discussions tending to go in all kinds of directions, Indonesians have also been accused of perpetuating anti-blackness for calling out a black woman. However, it’s worth noting that while Indonesia does have its issues with racism, this particular controversy was never about race. It is not even the first time that a foreigner has gotten flak for abusing their privilege in Bali, often at the expense of local residents. 

Read Also Immigration revokes Bali spiritual community founder’s temporary stay permit after controversial crowded event

The woman’s thread compounds complex issues surrounding Bali, including its model of unsustainable tourism, which is illustrated with the province being the worst-hit economy in Indonesia due to the coronavirus outbreak. There are also problems at the official level, where authorities unofficially tolerate digital nomads who stay here for prolonged periods without paying due taxes. 

If anything, the viral controversy has shown that Indonesians are more vocal than ever about these issues. While official policy changes may take longer to manifest, ordinary citizens are clearly not backing away from telling foreigners to check their privilege. 

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