My exotic culture

When I first moved to Timor-Leste, people would ask me, earnestly and curiously, how we did certain things in my country.

Weddings, funerals, Christmas celebrations, the bride price negotiation upon a new engagement… just as I felt in coming to their country, they were keen to learn more about a new culture. Mine.

But I initially didn’t understand. I’d couch my stories in the caveat of, “well, this is what my family does…” or hesitantly mumble, “um, we just do like, um, normal..?”

Wide-eyed and brand-new, I think I was determined to be respectful and humble, and thus centring conversations on my experiences seemed out of step. And as a white Australia aware of the atrocities my ancestors committed in colonising that country and claiming it for our own and continuing benefit, I conflate my total experience with my whiteness and feel reluctant to celebrate, for fear of appearing proud of the violence my skin colour and accent absolutely represent.

And it took me twenty-six years, until I was living away from my own, to realise that Australian-ness isn’t ‘normal’; it isn’t the central, neutral experience from which all others derive or deviate. To be a white Australian woman is default for me, of course, but it isn’t neutral. I’m embarrassed to say that I thought we were normal and everyone else was a bit different.

But we’re different too. Of course. And where perhaps I previously thought of culture as this foreign, exotic, grandiose thing, I’m beginning now to see it as perhaps the collection of beliefs and values and ideas and ways of doing things of a particular group. Which we middle-class white Australia, of course, also have.

Here in tiny Timor-Leste there’s no one homogeneous capital-c Culture; there are 13 municipalities and 30ish language groups and people identify strongly as being from Venilale sub-district of Baucau municipality in the same was as I’m a proud West Australian and of course even within families you’ll have different ways of doing.

So I thought it time to turn my anthropological lens back on myself.

Here are some small examples I’ve found of my Australian culture, as revealed to me by my life in Timor-Leste.

We don’t comment on someone’s weight

It’s very common in Timor-Leste to neutrally and matter-of-factually comment on someone’s weight or size, as in, “she looks healthy,” or “her hand-me-down clothes won’t fit, she’s big“, or “that short man over there?” in a way that made me realise the same thing is taboo in Australia. We just don’t really call men short if we can, because our ingrained patriarchal culture tells us men should be big and strong and tall and muscular, and as a result to call someone short is to insult their very manhood; their social standing. So too women — we should be soft and small and delicate and pretty, says our sexist culture, so we fret ourselves in circles trying to avoid saying the technically neutral term ‘fat’, because we’ve charged it with meaning it doesn’t have in places like Timor-Leste.

It’s rude to spit

The first time someone spat on the floor near my feet, I nearly jumped in shock. But again, here in Timor-Leste, it’s not uncommon — ladies in the market shooting betel nut gobbies onto the dirt; guys hanging out the sides of microlets shooting spit onto the road; or colleagues in the office spitting into garden beds. I don’t know if it’s also considered impolite here, but its prevalence makes me realise how uncommon and startling it is to see someone spitting publicly in Australia.

We smile in photos

Countless times at work I’ve aimed a camera in a Timorese person’s face and said, “hamnasa!”, smile. Nine times out of ten the person has returned a stony, stern expression, multiple shots in a row. Even allowing for a potential misunderstanding caused by my poor pronunciation, the frequency has made me realise that it’s an overwhelmingly commonly thing in Australia to paste on a grin as soon as someone points a camera towards you, and that’s not necessarily the norm in other places.

We live separately 

My boyfriend Felix and I live in what to me is a very normal set-up: we rent a three-bedroom house from a landlord, which we share with two other people. We each pay rent monthly and we’re very well-looked-after. But meeting the surprise of a couple of Timorese colleagues when they realise my Timorese boyfriend doesn’t live with his family, and hearing another emphasis to me that she and her husband live separately from her parents has made me begin to realise it’s still a little odd in traditional Timor-Leste to rent a house before you’re married, and for childless people to live alone. Where in Australia, it would be very odd for my white family to co-habitate with my white cousins and aunt and uncle and a family friend and their grandchild all under the same roof, in many Timorese and Indigenous Australian communities that set-up would be very normal.

Our speech is sometimes indirect

“Yeah, nah”, “nah, yeah”, and “you’re not wrong” are staple phrases in my Australian vocabulary. But I know if a Timorese person asked me, “do you want to go to the markets tonight,” and I replied, “yeah, nah”, they’d have to confirm whether I’d be going or not. But an Australian would intuitively understand that yeah nah means ‘no’, nah yeah means ‘yes’, not far means ‘pretty close’ and you’re not wrong, well, I think, does what it says on the tin. And our mates — very rarely our actual friends.

We celebrate busy-ness

The year I lived in Melbourne, 2016, my Thursdays would go something like: wake up at 5:45am, cycle to the gym, do an hour-long body pump weightlifting class, grab coffee with my housemate, cycle to work, work a seven-hour cafe shift, then cycle to dinner or drinks with another friend, returning home sometime after 10pm. And I thought it was a relaxed day because I wasn’t at my office job that forced me to think incredibly hard.

I still describe this with a horrible bead of pride in my chest; but it’s normal in our competitive, capitalist culture to strive to be busy, to be productive, and to to erroneously conflate productivity with worth. This is how I’ve been conditioned by our culture. If I told this routine to a Melbourne friend they’d probably nod approvingly; if I told this to a Timorese friend they’d probably lose interest before I got to lunchtime.

That’s not to say Timorese people don’t have a work ethic, nor is it entirely capitalism’s fault for my own inability to know my limits and to set solid boundaries for myself. But to have an afternoon nap, to take a two-hour-long lunch break, or to spend the weekend at home resting, all things incredibly normal in Timor-Leste, would likely be met with gentle embarrassment or disdain back home.

We don’t mind people seeing what we buy

One reason kiosks and stores in Timor-Leste put every single item, no matter how small, into a black or opaque plastic bag, is because some Timorese people don’t like others seeing their purchases — which I guess makes sense in a much closer, more collectivist society than my own. But in my individualistic, isolated culture, there’s no taboo or invasion if people see me walking home from the supermarket with a bag of apples or a six-pack of toilet paper. Perhaps I’m reassured I know no-one on my walk home, thus affording me the same privacy as Timorese shoppers’ black plastic bags.

I’m interested in learning more about myself here and am curious to know if any other Australians living abroad have experienced this instruction on their own culture while living overseas. What have you noticed about us?

The photo at the top of this post is an illustration of MY culture: expensive juice, a borrowed book for Instagram, a merch-y tote. Basic, wholesome. I love it.



4 responses to “My exotic culture”

  1. […] Styrofoam, supermarket produce packaging or that insistence on putting every kiosk item in a tiny plastic bag. But. Shopping in a Perth supermarket reminded me of how good Dili markets are for avoiding the […]


  2. […] awkward outsiders who don’t really speak the language and don’t really know the culture, and to live in Timor-Leste without screwing majorly up because of that is just about as good an […]


  3. […] A perspective on my ‘interesting’ culture […]


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