From the outside, we were four friends having lunch together in the food court.
Later, as I walked down my street at sunset with a bottle of wine in my bag, I was a girl passing by her friend’s office to say hi.
Then, I was a guest at a birthday party — smiling for selfies, shrieking at jokes, and explaining which part of Australia I’m from to curious questioners.
And now, I’m by myself, at home, reflecting on a day that looked charmed from the outside.
But, of course, that’s only half the picture.
I spent most of today in an apprehensive fit, nervous beyond belief about the situations Timor was forcing me into.
Which, of course, is exactly what I came here for.
At lunchtime, I was in the ANZ branch at Timor Plaza shopping centre, trying to retrieve my bank card, which was swallowed by an ATM late last night. A Timorese friend of mine happened to walk in, and invited me to join him for lunch later with two other friends in the food court downstairs. I grinned and nodded enthusiastically — and mentally prayed that my card would take hours to find, so I’d have an excuse to decline lunch.
Not because I didn’t want to go — I was just scared to.
And I knew that wasn’t a good enough reason to say no outright.
I feel self-conscious around fluent Tetun speakers; I’m sometimes embarrassed around Timorese people because I’m not fluent with the innumerate tiny unseen social cues; and I was intimidated by the thought of joining these particular people for lunch, because I know how intelligent and well-spoken they all are.
Not 30 seconds after the friend left I was called to the desk and my card handed over.
I joined lunch.
Later, after work, I was walking down my street to the corner where I’d arranged to meet my Tetun teacher, Alex. He’d invited me to his birthday party, and because street addresses don’t exist in Dili, we’d arranged to meet at a landmark in between our places, and he’d direct me to the party.
He’d reassured me his house was very close to mine, so I walked from home instead of taking the car.
“Sophie!” The female voice stopped me in my tracks. Waving from an office verandah was a new Timorese friend of mine. “Are you walking home?”
She was quickly joined on the verandah by another friend of ours, who lives close to me and who knew I was walking in the wrong direction. I explained the party, they commented on the wine I was carrying, and the three of us chatted for a while; then, I said my goodbyes and headed for the corner.
The whole time worrying my wine was too fancy. Wait, I shouldn’t have brought wine. When was I going to give it to Alex and what was I going to say? How do we greet each other (do Timorese people do the kiss-kiss or is that just malae?) and oh god how do I say “nice to meet you” in Tetun? I can’t remember where the restaurant landmark is oh I bet I just walked straight past Alex? And am I going to get on his bike or just keep walking and what are those girls thinking I bet they’re just laughing at me now as I walk away and am I late or am I just malae late and I’m actually early and geez I hope there’s another malae here and should I have eaten a snack this afternoon or will there be enough food and the wine really is too fancy but I can’t not give it.
Later, I was sitting smiling on Alex’s verandah with a glass of red, chatting with his colleague about his hometown in Liquica; laughingly refusing requests to dance; watching people kiss goodbye; posing for selfies with the cousins; and giggling with another colleague, a former teacher of mine, who accused me of hiding from the DIT staff in these months since I’ve finished classes.
Fun and light and frothy.
Perfectly masking, of course, my panic over the embarrassment of Alex realising I didn’t bring my car like he thought I would. “No problem, mana,” he said, hesitantly, on the corner. “Ah, just go straight, and I’ll wait for you outside my house. It’s only 10 minutes more.” Oh, ok. No problem maun.
I walked with gritted teeth the whole way.
And the mental spasm over whether I should dance or not and what does it mean to refuse. And oh god I’ve been taking to this one guy all night and no one else and maybe he’s bored of me but is too polite to say. And am I eating too much food or not enough and is this second plate the meal in Timor that turns me fat, and geez why am I still worrying about that but then I am three times the size of every person I selfie with and do they think it looks good or is it weird having a giant white person in every picture. And how will I get home and should I ask Alex and what time do I leave and I need to pee but maybe I’ll hold it because malae aaalways need to pee and is there meat in the cauliflower dish I bet there is but I can’t leave it on the plate and man I wish I was back at DIT because at least there they expected very little of me and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak Tetun and hey Soph is this the third night already you’re drinking wine and how do I say goodbye should I do the kiss-kiss thing then or still no oh god pay closer attention.
And now, I’m at home, trying to distill my thoughts about today into something that makes me understand.
Why was I so worried?
I found out in October last year that my application for my AVID assignment had been accepted. And I was terrified. I didn’t want it. I wanted to turn it down.
I’d applied because then, I’d just returned to Melbourne from a fortnight in Dili with work, and was surprised by how much I liked the city — and jarred by how bleak my future employment prospects looked on the other side of that trip, which was the last piece of work I had to do for my old job.
I started applying for jobs — tens of them — and popped a couple of AVID roles into the mix.
Then I got my acceptance and my heart plummeted.
I didn’t want to leave Melbourne yet. I didn’t feel ready. I’d moved to the city barely a year before and loved it fiercely — and didn’t yet want to let it go. My ears were deaf to rationalisations about how the city would still be there post-Timor — sure, Melbourne geographically would still exist, but I couldn’t guarantee the friends and customers and people and routines I’d build around myself would still be there next time I came back. And that made me feel desperately sad.
My other reason for wanting to turn down the AVID role was sad, too — but in a totally different way.
I was scared.
I was scared to leave Australia. I was scared to do something different.
I was scared to go out of my comfort zone.
I wanted to say no. I wanted to stay home.
But then I imagined myself in 10 years’ time. “Oh, I had the opportunity to move to Timor-Leste when I was 25,” I heard my future self saying. “So how was it?” my imaginary friend replied.
“Oh, I didn’t go. I was too scared.”
No WAY was I letting that happen.
I said yes to the assignment. I said goodbye to Melbourne. I moved to Timor-Leste and — in addition to some beautiful moments and gorgeous new friends, greeted a veritable suit of awkward and uncomfortable situations, which continue to present themselves faithfully most days.
I’d expected an international move to be hard, but looking back, I think I sort of expected it to be like, confronted with the desperately unfair reality of poverty hard; not felt a bit awkward not knowing if to take seconds at dinner hard.
I’ll take a small moment to reflect on the fact that nothing in my life in Dili is really all that hard, and I’m really lucky to be fretting over little things like this. I’m healthy and privileged and wealthy and people here are very kind and forgiving; there are few situations I find myself in where my behaviour could have really destructive consequences.
But I still think it’s worth reflecting on — because the absence of tragedy doesn’t necessarily make something perfect.
I wanted to move to Timor to challenge myself. I wanted to force myself into a new situation — one that would push me and surprise me. I wanted to grow; I wanted new experiences.
Food court lunch with Timorese friends. Figuring out with new mates whether to take wine to a party. Explaining Perth’s location to a middle-aged uncle on a verandah.
Unsexy and underwhelming examples, perhaps – but still new experiences. Still a different life from what I had in Melbourne 12 months ago.
Still something I’m scared of.
And this is what I moved to Timor for.
So, a message to myself, for the next time an invitation to lunch, or to chat, or to a party comes my way: very good things are almost always on the other side of scary things. And it’s always better to push through the scary thing to get through to the golden good side. Soph, just look at your move to Timor. Look at lunch. Look at the walk. Look at the birthday party.
I still couldn’t figure out how to farewell Alex at the end of it.
But, hey — there’s always his next one.
The photo I’ve used as the cover for this post is a picture I took on my verandah while I waited for my Tetun class with Alex a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of the most normal, boring, safe places for me in Dili – and twelve months ago, I didn’t even know it existed.