I’ve recently completed the mid-term evaluation of my AVID assignment, which means I’m just over halfway through my 18-month-long placement in Timor-Leste. Here are nine things I now know that I wish I did before I started.
1. It’s really that slow
In the pre-departure training required as part of the AVID program, staff warn you repeatedly that working conditions will likely be much slower-paced than we’re used to back home. “Yep, I get it,” you think, impatiently, and then you’re thrust in-country and into a structured induction program that fools you into thinking you’ve got the pace nailed. Nope; that’s just because it’s an Australian-run induction.
I spent the first fortnight of my assignment proof-reading the same four-page contract, refreshing my emails, and following my boss to meetings conducted in a language I didn’t understand — so I of course spent the next two frantically making myself charts and lists and goals and meetings to try and figure out Exactly What I’m Doing and When It Will Be Done.
I know now: a country like Timor-Leste has its own way of doing things, and huff and puff and list-make as I may I’ll never change that. Why resist?
2. Small things will become very important
I’m not quite talking about oh, I moved to a low-income country and now material possession matter nought to me! — I’m talking about dumb, little things that you cling to, and trivialities that spur spack attacks. Just last week I sulked because my new white T-shirt got stained in the wash; today I gaped at the cashier at the supermarket because they didn’t have in stock the flavour of Fisherman’s Friend mints I like.
Small things will become very important. That cashier recognised me as I entered and pointed me towards the till that stocks Fisherman’s Friend, correctly guessing that I’d want them, and she laughed with me as she tried to convince me to buy honey flavour.
I know now: living abroad heightens every experience, and you need tiny tokens of familiarity to help feel at home. Also, hand-wash your whites.
3. You don’t know very much
Knowledge is currency in expat communities, and people jostle to be the most in-the-know. I think AVID does an excellent job of preparing us to be humble, gentle and indirect in our working relationships, but, of course, doesn’t socialise us for the expatriate zoo.
(Read this post to understand why I should be using the word “immigrant”).
I of course know impossibly little about Timor-Leste and development, but in addition, I know barely a speck about living as a foreigner in Timor-Leste. There’s nothing to lose in admitting that, in asking questions, in listening, and in approaching foreigner relationships as I would relationships with my Timorese colleagues.
I know now: Australians CLUMP.
4. You know more than you think you do
A confusing contradiction, as a life abroad often presents. Some of my greatest challenges this year have come from the tension between learning, practising humility and stepping back, and attempting not to devalue or degrade what I can contribute; what I do know.
Work has been challenging this year as I’ve struggled to navigate a gentler working style with the skyscraper expectations and razor-sharp self criticism I nurture in myself. It took a former colleague visiting Dili to remind me of what I’m capable of doing — I’d coached myself into thinking I was less useful than a broken plastic chair, which isn’t a helpful read for anyone.
I know now: to examine myself; to rigorously practise humility and openness. But to treat myself with the same fairness as I would another AVID volunteer, and to understand that recommending Dili supermarkets isn’t the exclusive domain of the 15-year expats.
5. Friends are your family
I”m not exaggerating when I say I would have left Dili in a fit in July had I not had the support of my friends, my Dili family. I’ve written before about how easy it is to make friends in a new country — everyone’s so open and welcoming — and I’m lucky enough to have a good solid gang around me here in Timor.
I know now: that even when you live in a different Australian city from your parents, they’re still there; they still know your environment and understand what you’re facing. Replicating that support, care and unequivocal love is key for navigating a foreign environment.
6. You’re the same person as you are back home
Even though a different environment naturally exposes different parts of yourself, at your core you’re still the same person you were pre-assignment, and in my enthusiasm and earnestness I sort of… forgot that.
I forgot I love apples, and tried to eat plain papaya for breakfast. I forgot I get tired socialising, and wondered why I’d either drink too much at Thursday nights out at Esplanada, or sit on my phone in the corner at dinner. My Kindle gathered dust as I read reams of online articles, wondering why I hadn’t suddenly transformed into an Efficient Travelling Reader.
There’s a balance that must exist between leaning in to your new environment — Dili is a social city! — with respecting yourself and understanding your limits. The examples I’ve provided are tiny tokens, but the same thinking applies to more challenging and ambiguous situations: listening to my colleagues take about dowries, or watching the women eat last at an event.
I know now: to keep my eyes open, to lean in, to know my limits, and to listen to my gut.
7. You’re going to get sick
I have listened to my gut more times than I can count this year. And I’ve lost all shame or shyness over talking about my bowels.
I had a reasonably robust stomach in Australia, took regular precautions with eating, drinking and cleaning when I moved to Timor, and was spectacularly felled by a gut parasite at the start of the wet season, from which I’ve yet to fully recover.
A smart friend of mine, who’s lived in Timor for decades, told me he had to sleep an extra hour a night for his first three years in Timor. “We’re like babies,” he explained. “There are just so many new experiences, our bodies need time to process it all.”
In addition to the newly churned-up muck from the wet season rains, I suspect my gut problem and its recurrence were results of my poor body continually adapting every day to new and different things.
I know now: there’s no use beating yourself up for taking time to heal; you can’t help anyone wringing yourself out. And, stop eating salad.
8. Be open to new things
Again, AVID did a decent job of encouraging us to be open-minded in approaching our assignments, but I wish from the start I’d applied that thinking to my out-of-work life, too.
Some of my greatest friendships have come from plopping myself down next to a stranger at beachside brunch and asking for a phone number. I’ve attended a wedding and tried Latin dancing and descended a mountain on a motorbike and learned to scuba dive and driven in convoy across the island because someone said “you keen?” and I went um I guess so yeah.
I know now: I’ll forever be a knock-kneed scaredy cat led by fear, but openness is worth is and it doesn’t just extend to my work. But, say no to salad.
9. Don’t forget to enjoy it
A piece of advice given to me by an old boss, which I’ve used to navigate my last few uncertain months.
“You’re always so rushed,” she said once, at the end of a busy cafe shift. “Slow down! What we do is fun! Don’t forget that. Don’t forget to enjoy it.”
For my first three months here I didn’t really give myself permission to enjoy it. I felt overwhelmed by the privilege and prestige of the program, and couldn’t believe or trust the investment they’d made in me (here’s a tip for younger volunteers: don’t read the LinkedIn profiles of your new AVID compatriots. It’ll make you feel bad and they’ll see you spying). I felt guilty about my housing allowance and cringed talking to my cleaner. Those frantic lists I made in my first few weeks at work were to prove my worth; to show I was contributing; to tackle my mental beasts yapping about how bloated, how useless both I and the program were.
(This article succinctly outlines my angst).
Then, as work slowed and I fell into the common six-month slump, I made myself miserable by indulging jealousy and comparing myself to everyone else. I enjoyed it, but with strings attached: this is good, but how good would this be.
Now, I’m realising. I’m still contemplative, but I’ve pulled myself out of the guilt-riddled mental vortex by reminding myself of points three, six and eight; by trusting the people around me and by working to know myself, my abilities and my limitations better. Adjusting my expectations and channelling my energy into the best possible work I can do.
And by giving myself permission to enjoy it.
For perspective, for sanity, for privilege, for the sheer joy of living in a place as beautiful and blistering as Timor-Leste — please, Sophie, do not forget to enjoy it.
I don’t think there’s any danger now.