A couple of days ago, I was chatting on the verandah at work about children and families with a colleague, leaning deep into a wicker chair as we watched the afternoon rain stream off the roof. I told her, idly, that people here are often surprised to hear that at 27, I’m not married — explaining that it’s common in Australia to get married around 30.
My colleague, Rosa*, isn’t an idiot — she knew that, and told me she’d also only gotten married at 30, which by Timor-Leste’s relatively conservative standards is nearing the old-maid side of the scale.
“I needed to focus on my family first,” she explained. “I worked so I could support my parents, build their house, care for my siblings. Then, I got married and had a family of my own.”
As she told me more about her life — working full-time, managing the cooking, cleaning and maintenance of a household, raising with her husband her two children aged under four — I sank further and further into embarrassment for the lecture I’d just given her about how much I love reading; how much I like coming home from work to a book. “I’d like to do that too,” Rosa said, matter-of-factly, “but I had to give up on time for myself.”
This is the part of the story where I could get extremely self-righteous and self-flagellating and loudly explain to you just how terrible it is that Timorese people have so much less than us; that we totally take for granted our creature comforts; that coddled foreigners like me don’t understand the value of hard work, it’s terrible isn’t it, yes yes isn’t it.
But I’m learning now that inducing guilt like that doesn’t really do anything; in fact, in making people like me burrow into shame and self-loathing, that hand-wringing is having the opposite effect of its intended lesson: I am in no way compelled to do anything to make Rosa’s life easier by becoming so supremely and hatefully preoccupied with my own.
I’m realising, now, that this is perhaps what people mean when they say things like Timorese people don’t want your pity. Before this week, I’d perhaps spun too far away from that; blankly braying about how cool and sassy and uhh-maaaayzing my Timorese colleagues and neighbours and friends are in a desperate, self-conscious attempt to put as much distance between myself and pity as possible. I don’t pity them; no way no way; they are queeeeens.
And while that may be true, they’re also still fallible, normal people, and it’s a pretty heavy cross to bear to thrust an unrequested burden of excellence or uh-maayzing-ness upon them.
Particularly with every other thing they’ve got on.
Rosa’s husband also works, and at home he helps out a bit – washing clothes, buying food, bathing the children – but Rosa takes on more household chores, and both have duties to their extended families that us foreigners don’t really have in our own lives. Where all the money I earn is my own, if I were Timorese, my salary would likely go into my household, or I’d be an option for family members seeking funds for a family visit or a funeral or a contribution to a meal, a birthday, a trip, an emergency, a dowry, a present, a bus ticket. Where I have the fortunate combination of a steady salary and a tendency to laziness and can afford to pay for a house cleaner, Rosa’s family cleans and manages their own house, just like mine does back in Australia. Where I have a partner who’s as scared of thinking of children as I am, and the good luck to have grown up in a country where my childless-at-27 status is the thing to be expected, not something that’s unusual, in Timor-Leste a marriage at 25 isn’t odd, and growing up here I’d have been in line for my second child about now.
And here in Timor-Leste, as I’ve said before, I’m far more independent and far wealthier than my Timorese peers.
Stewing in my own guilt won’t do anything for Rosa, but neither will doing something like throwing money at her — she hasn’t asked for it; she hasn’t asked for anything. She doesn’t need my pity; she doesn’t need me.
But that, of course, doesn’t quite wash my hands of this small, new realisation that my day-to-day life is different from hers, and there are a couple of tiny things I can do to make her life a little easier — in the same way as I can be a bit less bloody lazy and try and make life easier for my mum** back at home, too.
For Rosa, I can listen quietly and sympathetically when she talks about her life, and not interrupt her to tell a self-congratulatory story about my reading habits. I told her the other afternoon your culture is very strong, and you work very hard – not to tell her something she doesn’t know, but because it’s comforting and validating to for me to hear things like that, so I can try and give them out, too. I can buy her a gift in Australia that’s clearly only for her — not money, a potential insult, that could be absorbed into the household before hitting Rosa’s pocket — a necklace, a nice scarf, a small bottle of perfume; I can try not to be annoying at work and get my paperwork correct for her first time round and speak to her in Tetun not English to make things easier for her; I can be generous with the small creature comforts and paths of ease I’m lucky to have as normal in my life here.
And I can do this in Australia, too! How dim of me to only think Timorese people struggle with making time for themselves; to assume indirectly that only Timorese mothers and parents manage full-time work with full-time household stuff. Turn your eyes back home and take care of your own family before fretting about someone else’s.
I think it’s natural for people to care; normal for people to want to help when they see something bad, unkind or downright terrible happening. And Rosa’s life sounds a fair bit harder than mine. But I now think it’s perhaps more valuable for me to sit with the feeling of discomfort, awe and good luck before immediately snapping into action, to make sure I’m doing something that’s really useful for the person I care about.
* Like I did with the post I wrote about my cleaner, I’ve changed Rosa’s name not to erase her from this story but to afford her some anonymity and privacy in a post that’s more about my processing of my thoughts than it is of her experience.
** In my household, my mother takes on the majority of housework. This is specific to us and isn’t supposed to be a lazy statement about gendered divisions of labour!