3 things I’ve learned in Timor-Leste

Three small but significant lessons living in this place has taught me.


1. Be nicer to foreigners

As a teenager, I worked behind the counter at a busy shopping centre bakery. We had a fair few customers who spoke English as a second or third or fourth language, and I remember always feeling so impatient with their slow, clumsy orders; with the fact that they didn’t understand the standard chain of questioning (don’t order your second loaf when you haven’t told me how you want your first one sliced, geez); and with how slowly they counted out their change to pay; causing customers to pile up behind them and my teenage stress levels to rise.

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.

What Timor-Leste has taught me: Patience and radical kindness from strangers makes a significant difference, and I can afford to pass down the kindness I’ve received here.


2. Be more generous and less discerning with money

I’ve always known intellectually that most Australians are wealthy compared to the rest of the world (an ‘average’ Aussie salary sits well within the top 1 per cent), but until I was thrust into a city that reminds you of economic difference every day, I didn’t give much thought to it.

Friends will know how embarrassingly tight I used to be with money–I’m infamous in my group of school friends for once charging interest to a friend on a festival ticket I’d bought for her–and even now I’m sheepish spending $5 on cous cous or adding my $12 groceries to mine and Felix’s shared bills app. But. Timor-Leste is training that out of me, showing me that, thanks to a stable economic base and excellent earning capacity, even if I feel like I’m doing it tough I will Always. Be. Fine–and that, despite my most romantic ideas about helping in a foreign country, what I’m really most useful for here is spending money. Buying coffee from Timorese-owned Black Box instead of getting imported Portuguese beans from the supermarket. Not worrying that my wardrobe is overflowing because the shirt I like at the secondhand clothes market is just three dollars, and even if Fran can negotiate it cheaper it’s three damn dollars to a patient seller and it’s fine. Sending a paragraph for a Timorese friend to translate instead of stingily trying to do it alone because it’s ten cents a word and supporting skills here.

What Timor-Leste has taught me: I have access to more wealth and greater opportunities than I’ll ever be able to take or use, and being less tight-fisted helps everyone.

And this goes for spending at home, too.


3. Do things right, but make sure they still happen

When I worked at Oaktree, the Australian anti-poverty organisation that brought me to Timor-Leste, I was idealistic, ambitious and perhaps self-righteous about the best way to do development work (which, incidentally, is an unhelpful word that implies countries like Timor-Leste, which may lack infrastructure and financial wealth, are somehow culturally, emotionally or artistically lacking in comparison to countries like Australia).

I was, and to an extent still am, utterly preoccupied with not just spending money or trying to do good or going to a place, but carefully evaluating the skills and experience of what me or Oaktree could do and understanding deeply the environment in which we were doing it, in order to do development effectively and with little harm.

I still feel like this, but I’ve softened in Timor-Leste. A couple of years ago I saw that brilliant First Dog on the Moon cartoon that won a Walkley Award–where one dog’s drowning and the other’s on shore deciding whether to save it, or perhaps whether it’s a trick, or will it create a dependency, or will other dogs then want saving too, or perhaps it’s the dog’s own fault, and eventually deciding it’s tragic but for the best to just let the dog drown.

I don’t want my preoccupation with doing things right to completely curtail me from doing them at all.

As I work this year to shed the chokehold of perfectionism, I’m trying to force myself into doing things instead of fretting through them. That doesn’t necessarily mean I should try things with wild abandon, without consideration–but it does mean I can work to set aside my preoccupations with Doing Things Right; stop thinking so much about myself–will I get in trouble for doing this wrong, will people laugh at my ignorance, will I not be able to buy myself brunch because I have to donate to this fundraising thing–and just Do The Work, too.

What Timor-Leste has taught me: You’re not as capable as you think you are, and that’s fine–but don’t let your perfectionism hinder your ability to try.

First Dog on the Moon Walkley Award-winning cartoon 2012

I’ve also written for The Cusp about lessons I’ve learned while living overseas — read more here: 7 Things You Learn Living Overseas.

2 responses to “3 things I’ve learned in Timor-Leste”

  1. […] being in Timor-Leste: it’s living in a place that isn’t my own, as a wide-eyed outsider constantly second-guessing everything I thought was normal and neutral and given; being constantly forced to examine myself, […]


  2. […] Three things Timor-Leste taught me […]


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