Why an American Digital Nomad’s Tweet Sparked Outrage Among Indonesians

Why an American Digital Nomad’s Tweet Sparked Outrage Among Indonesians
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

An American woman living in Bali during the pandemic angered the Indonesian public by seemingly inviting foreigners to the island despite a travel ban. Here are some of the factors that fueled the outrage.

Kristen Gray went viral for a tweet on January 16 about moving to Bali. Gray, a U.S. citizen, said she decided to move to Bali in 2019 with her girlfriend, Saundra Michelle Alexander, after losing her job.

Gray and her partner had planned to stay for six months in Bali — to “stack some bread and elevate our lifestyle” — but they ended up staying for more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gray said her move to Bali has been a “game changer.” As a digital nomad, she was enjoying her life in Bali for its “safety, low cost of living, [and] luxury lifestyle.” She also cited the island’s Black community and queer friendly outlook.

At the end of the tweet, she promoted Our Bali Life is Yours, an ebook she wrote with her partner. The couple also offered consultation on how to enter Indonesia during the pandemic.

A few days after posting the tweet, Gray was arrested by local authorities for violating immigration laws, including spreading information that could “unsettle” the public. For example, she said Bali was queer friendly and claimed that foreigners could easily get past borders amid the pandemic. The couple was deported soon after, on January 21.

This story reminds me of Joseph DeVito’s concept that communication always exists in a context — physical, cultural, social psychological, and temporal. When someone communicates their thoughts to others, including through social media, the context cannot be separated from the content.

I believe Gray’s tweet went viral because she was not aware of, or did not care about, the context in which she speaks, and it is something that most Indonesians are naturally attuned to.

The first and most obvious context is the Covid-19 pandemic. Gray’s tweet, which seems to be an “open invitation” for foreigners to come to Bali when Indonesia is still struggling to overcome Covid-19, is very insensitive.

Indonesia has the highest number of Covid-19 cases among Southeast Asian countries. This is in part why the government announced a temporary ban on all foreign arrivals on January 1, 2021.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Passengers wear protective masks at a domestic departure terminal at Ngurah Rai International Airport amid Covid-19, Bali, Indonesia, March 13, 2020.

Also, Indonesian netizens still remember the mass yoga event organized at the House of Om Community Center last June. More than 60 people, mostly foreigners, attended the event. Government officials said the participants, who did not practice social distancing and wear face masks, violated Bali’s Covid-19 health protocols.

In this context, though Gray did not break health protocols or ask others to do so, for example, it is easy to understand why her tweet about “getting into Indonesia during Covid” immediately sparked outrage.

Second, Gray’s tweet assumes a tone of superiority. The problem is not that she enjoyed privileges in Bali as a digital nomad, but that she showed off her luxurious lifestyle on social media.

Gray might have forgot that her Twitter readers are not only foreigners but also Indonesians, who may have experienced discrimination when visiting Bali or experiencing economic difficulties due to Covid-19. Many of them, unsurprisingly, criticized her for gentrifying Bali.

Last but not least, her description of Bali as a “queer friendly” place is problematic for many Indonesians. Outside the immigration center, Gray told reporters, “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia. I put out a statement about LGBT, and I am being deported because of LGBT.”

But Gray probably did not understand that the government, along with many Indonesians are homophobic. LGBTQ people are often persecuted in the country for being who they are.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that a government minister’s comment on excluding LGBT people from university campuses “grew into a cascade of threats and vitriol” against the LGBT population by state commissions, militant Islamists, and mainstream religious organizations.

In this context, we can understand why authorities cited Gray’s description of Bali as a queer-friendly place as one of the reasons to deport her.

Social psychologist Benny Siauw warned that Gray’s statement calling Bali queer-friendly could have a negative impact on LGBT Indonesians, saying it might lead to anti-gay persecutions in the future. LGBT Indonesians are also afraid that the affair may have long lasting repercussions for the minority group in the country.

Kristen Gray, accused of being insensitive and culturally tone-deaf, flaunted her privileges as a digital nomad amid outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The incident is a reminder that one needs to understand contextual nuances before speaking publicly, especially when the statement can potentially harm a vulnerable population.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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