Parabens to us – Laura and I have just finished our first week of Tetun classes!
It’s Saturday morning and I’m out in the nuns’ courtyard, drinking a cup of coffee (hau hemu kafe) with my laptop open in front of me. I’ve organised to move out this weekend so three of the nuns just stopped by to receive my payment for the room – as we transacted we talked about my family, my work, and Tetun classes, and they told me earnestly to please come back anytime and we’d speak to each other only in Tetun. I returned the enthusiasm of their farewell wishes – the nuns are beautiful; warm and sweet and welcoming, and in barely a week I’ve come to feel very comfortable, supported and at home in the little convent guesthouse – but I did screw up my face in concern when they mentioned our future conversation, because I can more quickly imagine my athiest self joining their ranks than I can me conversing fluently in Tetun.
Class has been hard! In the best possible way, of course – I can’t remember the last time I had to learn something completely new, from scratch: all the things I’ve learned in the last few years have been extensions of things I’ve already had a foundation in, like learning the route to cycle into Melbourne city from following the number 11 tram route; developing additions to a Live Below the Line copy deck after churning through the previous year’s; or stretching out my own vocabulary by substituting synonyms of words I already know. But Tetun class was an entirely different playing field, and though my head is swimming this morning, I know it’s the best possible thing I could be doing.
The DIT library, viewed from the Tetun language classrooms
We attend Tetun classes for a month, going for four hours each weekday morning to the Dili Institute of Technology. There’a robust little Tetun-for-foreigners program there, and five other malae were starting lessons as the same time as Laura and I: three Kiwis, from New Zealand’s (AVID equivalent) VSA program; one Indian woman; and Cathrine, a young doctor from Guyana, in South America. The classes have followed the same format every morning: we arrive at 8:30am, take our assigned rooms (me, Laura and Cathrine are in the larger classroom at the far end of the block, farthest away from the teachers’ office and the hariis fatin – bathroom), wait for our rotating teacher to arrive (on Monday and Thursday we had Mestre Alex, on Tuesday and Friday Mestre Mario, and on Wednesday Mestre Vincente), then komensa the class. We have a deskensa uitoan (small break) at 9:30, then a longer coffee break at 10:30ish, and then a final deskensa uitoan at 11:30, before finishing class at 12:30pm.
Critical kafe break
It seems like a fair few breaks, but they’re all essential – by the time they roll around our brains are soaked sponges, and we need a breather to consolidate and digest. The coffee break, in particular, is great for the fact that it pulls together all the students and teachers for a chat and a cuppa (the teachers are so patient with our halting attempts at conversational Tetun, and generously offer corrections and new words in addition to the curriculum they churn through in class). We’ve also been visited a couple of times by some malae – Angela, another AVI volunteer teaching English at DIT, and a woman named Catherina, who introduced herself simply on the first day as an expat linguist who’d been living in Dili for 15 years, and who patiently clarified my bumbling confusion over the age cutoffs for titles like mana (older sister) and alin (younger sister or brother). Returning to my classroom later, I saw the author’s name on the front of my textbook, and realised I should have called her senora: polite, helpful Catherina is the head of the language program at DIT, wrote her PhD thesis on Tetun, and a decade ago authored the book I’m glued to as my lifeline for learning this language.
(The book, and the teachers: as a visual learner the written words are essential for my comprehension, but I wouldn’t speak a single word were it not for the gently challenging exercises – for each new topic, our teacher writes some words on the whiteboard, speaks with us, asks the group to go around asking each other questions and answering, all in Tetun, and then returns to the textbook and whiteboard for practise dialogu and to revise our new words before proceeding to the next topic). After the last short break, we usually learn maybe one new topic, before spending the last 15 or 20 minutes of the class revising what we’ve learned up until that point – usually a vital injection of confidence for me at that stage!
“Can you write that down please?” – my most-repeated phrase in this class
Most afternoons this week Laura and I have returned to the AVI office after class, to continue our induction activities – we’ve had briefings on government and economics in Timor, disability in Timor, and participated in a self-directed tour of Dili with mana Alita, and a history tour of Timor’s background and significant locations. That will continue next week – we have a briefing on gender and culture and a medical tour and briefing – but more “free afternoons” pop up in our schedule from next week and I think the last fortnight of class offers entirely free afternoons.
It’s my intention to use those afternoons for Tetun revision, getting settled in my new home, wandering my neighbourhood (seeking opportunities to practise Tetun with vendors and taxi drivers), and relaxing, reading and journalling. Depois klase Tetun, hau ba uma ato koalia Tetun ho lee hau nia livru.
Livru Tetun! And a notebook I’m filling with embarrassing phonetic pronounciation reminders
We’ll complete 80 hours of language class before we start work, which I feel good about – while I’m boastfully scattering my Tetun throughout this post I actually feel very unsure and lacking with the language, and quite sheepish and embarrassed for finding it so difficult to pick up: it’s a language with no plurals, tenses or genders, and I’m struggling like I’m a week into Russian taught in Wapri.
I don’t mind that feeling, though – it’s uncomfortable and a little confronting to be constantly sitting with this feeling of panic, embarrassment and confusion, it’s a good challenge and I’m enjoying having my mind stretched out (to be honest at the moment, it’s feeling more like a ripped hamstring, but if I’m patient and let this first week settle down I’m sure I’ll feel more stable). It’s an opportunity to practise humility, grace and patience, and all that self-development is coming with the critical advantage of knowing at least a rudimentary amount of the language of the country I’ve come to visit.
This place! The street outside the nuns’ – this is where I’ve been living this week
Next week, when I’m sweating through another class mispronouncing another easy Tetun verb, I’ll remember the nuns’ smiling faces and generous suggestion of Tetun conversation; I’ll imagine the feeling of being able to introduce myself to my new colleagues in their language; and I’ll double down on my commitment to myself and my placement to as much as I can throw myself into learning this language and its quirks and cultural customs.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of days about my role as a malae in Timor, and about the broader implications of my presence here. Turning over what good development means to me; what self-determination and capacity-development could mean in practise (separated from neat buzzwords); what value I add or support; how I can do my work most effectively and sensitively; and symbolically, what my presence in Timor represents. I’ve gone down a couple of existential rabbitholes that I’ll likely stew over in my journal and transfer the important points of to here later, but to begin, all roads seem to point to hurling myself into the deep water of Tetun class as a solid starting point. The end of my first week of class is a good point to quietly congratulate myself for getting through, and then re-committing and consolidating my intention to learn, learn, learn (aprende, aprende, aprende).