Feeling foreign

Yesterday, the gas bottle underneath our stove ran out, and I’ve spent the last half-day trying to get it replaced. It’s proving a little tricker than I first thought.

I couldn’t separate the bottle from the hose that connects it to the stove, so I asked my housemate to try when he got home from work. He couldn’t get it, either, so we exchanged a couple of Bintangs for our neighbour’s help. Bottle successfully freed, I drove to Gino’s – but they were already closed. This morning, I tried Tiger Fuel, but they wouldn’t change our large bottle for one of their small ones, and referred me back to Gino’s. I returned to hear the gas was out. “In the afternoon,” the security guard said. After work today, I went again – to hear they’d again run out.

I’ll try again tomorrow.

It’s becoming a big job, but the thing that’s making it most difficult? How big I’m making it in my head.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve had a few things go missing in the last few weeks – a camera, laptop, phone and bank card – and my housemate and I have also bought a car, which requires registration and ownership transfer. I’ve had a list of administrative tasks to do piling up for the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been doing my studious best to avoid them.

Because tasks like this spotlight the thing that I hate most about living in Dili: feeling uncomfortable in everyday situations.

Even in Australia I get nervous doing small tasks, and it’s made much worse in Dili. I feel anxious not knowing the correct places to go or words to say. I’m insecure about my broken Tetun and whether my requests will be understood. I feel apprehensive about the complexities of completing tiny tasks and blow them up so big in my head, I lose sight of their true size and my ability to accomplish them.

Smash cut to two weeks ago, when I was driving a Tetun-speaking friend to the beach.

“Your car feels kind of … wobbly,” he said as I turned on the ignition.

“I know,” I snapped. A pause. “Sorry. I know it’s like that. I just need to get the tyres pumped up, but I don’t know how to do it.”

A glance from the front seat.

“You know they do that everywhere, right?”

You can’t drive five minutes in Dili without seeing a hand-painted FASE MOTOR sign indicating a streetside car wash, where you can also get your tyres filled. I knew.

“Look, we can do it right now. Turn left. It’s just up ahead.”

“But how will they know what I want?”

“Um, you can point Look, I’ll do it for you.”

They spoke too quickly for me to understand, but my friend and the carwash attendant exchanged approximately four words – likely “fill this tyre” and “25c, please” – and the whole thing was over in about a minute and a half. The same song was still playing on the radio when we left.

When I lived in Melbourne, I had a dear friend, a Sri Lankan who had been living abroad for something like six years. He speaks fluent English, listens to metal music, smokes more cigarettes than he probably should, and reminds me of all the other progressive, introspective, novel-reading young men I knew in Melbourne. Except, of course, for the fact that he’s a brown guy living in a whitewashed city, which makes him stand out.

“You know, Sophie,” he said to me once, “In Sri Lanka, I’m normal.”

A throwaway line that’s stuck with me ever since.

Just because of a lick of an accent around some of his vowel sounds; the colour of his passport cover; the depth of the black of his hair – because he looks and sounds fractionally different from the kind of person we hear most frequently from.

I felt sad when I heard that, because I knew how unlikely it was that I’d ever get to see him in Sri Lanka – in an environment where he felt good. Where he fit in. Where he felt … normal.

And today, it’s making me reflect on how lucky I am.

I’ve never not felt normal. As a white, young, English-speaking, able-bodied, straight-passing woman living in Perth, Western Australia, I’ve never had to confront the feeling of being an outsider. I know people who leave the house every day to threats of violence and abuse. I know people who can’t be sure their basic food, sanitation and clothing needs can be met. I know people who live in cities where not a syllable of their native tongue is spoken. And here I am in Dili worrying about a four-word-long conversation whose purpose could be achieved by pointing?

I feel shy and uncomfortable in the majority of situations I find myself in here, but I’m lucky for the fact that I get to choose when and where I’m in them. I’m a foreigner here in Timor, but I don’t always have to feel like it.

Last week, in my Tetun class, my teacher and I spoke about how I needed to get the car washed (another task on my list of things to avoid). I asked him, innocently, how I did that.

He burst out laughing.

“You — you just ask!” he hooted, between ragged breaths, like I’d told a joke and he knew the punchline.

I immediately tensed up.

“Yeah, I know — but how do I ask?”

Once he’d regained his composure, he explained where to go, what to ask, how to say I wanted just the outside of the car done and not the inside, and even gave me an estimation of the time it would take and how much I should pay. It was a perfect opportunity to learn new vocabulary, to chip away at a task that I’d made feel impossible, and, by explaining to my teacher how machine car washes work in Australia, to connect across cultures with someone in my life here (and, if I’m being honest, to save face a little).

I got the car washed fine. I got the tyres pumped up fine. The gas bottle’s still empty but I’ll get it replaced fine, too. Of course.

I wrote yesterday that none of the problems that I have here are really problems at all, because they all have solutions, and most of them are easy. And I’m reflecting today on how lucky I am to have things like car tyres and FASE MOTOR being my biggest issues.

I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. To be pulled and stretched and challenged by this time in Timor. To be tested, but to have a safety net. To choose when and where and how I face difficulties. To be able to lean into discomfort and get through it fine. To have people around me who understand and help.

I’m so lucky.

And I’ll remember that tomorrow when I return to Gino’s for gas.

5 responses to “Feeling foreign”

  1. […] written before about how uncomfortable I feel doing everyday tasks in Timor – I’m self-conscious and awkward, and I tend to […]


  2. […] force yourself to go and exercise and reap the flush of energy. When you’re panicking over to-do tasks in a second language, use the opportunity to learn the actually-useful Tetun vocabulary that’ll make it […]


  3. […] Feeling burdensome and worthless has opened the gas under my self-critical nature, leaving me feeling guilty, lacking and out-of-place. […]


  4. […] A favourite topic! Perfectionism. The time I fucked up Korean pancakes. The time I fucked up a reading list. The time I fucked up a list of goals. The time I fucked up a driving lesson. The time I fucked up a work meeting. The time I fucked up filling my car tyres. […]


  5. […] In Timor-Leste I am, of course, the customer–pulling together clumsy, mispronounced words to get around with; smiling blankly at incomprehensible replies; offering $5 notes to avoid examining all of my one- and five-cent pieces to figure out quickly what amount tujuh-puluh sen might be and whether I have it. And here, I’ve been the recipient of remarkable kindness, generosity and patience–from the Timorese strangers who willingly towed our broken-down car an hour from Lospalos to Lautem, and who then drove us six hours back to Dili the next day; through to the colleagues who remember to speak slowly and drop in English clarifiers for the unusual words they guess may be new to me; to the friends to patiently explain to me the very basic steps for doing everyday but unusual-for-me activities like filling my car tyres. […]


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