What Timorese people can teach us

A couple of day ago, I asked on Instagram what people would like to know about my life here in Timor-Leste. One reply asked me, “What can we learn from Timorese people?”

I’ve sat with this for a little while and have come up with six examples.

1. Laughter comes easily

My boss at Plan International, Dillyana, wouldn’t be five foot tall. Every time she has to give a speech for work, she eschews the microphone and announces, “maske hau kiik, hau nia lian boot.” Even though I’m small, my voice is big. I’ve heard her say it at least four times this year and every time, without fail, the room erupts in laughter. And my boss at my other job, Rob, is a foreigner who’s been in Timor-Leste for 15 years. Every time someone asks him how long he’s been here he starts, “I can’t remember…” then adds, “tinan lima-nulu, lima-pulu, or quinzie.” 15 in Tetun, Bahasa Indonesian and Portuguese, the three languages commonly spoken here. The recipient always burst out laughing.

To me, these don’t seem like particularly funny jokes. But Timorese people seem to laugh a lot more easily and readily than us foreigners do — and I’m not suggesting it’s because they’re simple, or incapable of operating at my obviously extremely sophisticated level of humour. They’re just more easygoing, more open to a joke, more prepared to have a laugh — which I think it a valuable reminder. Life can be hard enough, why not take every chance for a giggle?

2. Stress isn’t encouraged

When Timorese people describe being stressed they either say hanoin barak, literally, ‘think a lot’, or use the English word ‘stress’. I think the fact that Tetun evidently lacks a word for stress is telling — while people here of course work hard and get overwhelmed and burned out, just as we do, there isn’t the same culture of glorifying activity, busy-ness or overwork; nor is there of describing people in relation to their jobs (you’re as likely to say “Jose fuuk boot, Jose with the big hair” as you are “Jose who works at the Ministry of Finance”) — which separates identity from work or productivity and steps away from encouraging too much of it, and too much associated stress.

3. Thing happen slowly, and quickly

I’m writing this post on my phone on the plane on my way home to Perth for Christmas. Only at the boarding gate at Bali airport — 26 hours after I left Dili, and three months after I booked these flights — did I think to check someone would be home to pick me up at the other end. I’m blaming Timor: back in Dili, you can get away with leaving to the last week preparations for a 500-person, day-long event; you can call someone in the mountains in morning and be there and interviewing their child by lunchtime, with no other notice; you can plan a week-long comms trip in the airport on your way into Dili. Last minute isn’t as much of a problem as it is back home, and life is island-slow and easygoing — stress-free and sanguine. But if you really need something to happen, it can on a dime.

4. Collective ownership and responsibility

My landlord is an older lady who lives with her daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren in the house behind mind. The youngest grandchild is a baby, and for me, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be holding the child every afternoon when I return to the compound after work — his mother, grandmother, father, aunt, sisters, or a visitor. And the rent money I pay to my landlord isn’t only hers in the way it would be, for example, mine, if I was at home in Perth renting out a property I owned. Even though the parents of the four children are adults, the money earned by any member of the household is pooled to support everyone — chiefly, the four children — and similarly, the responsibility for raising them is more spread across the family.

I think there’s a lot we individualistic Australians could learn from the Timorese way of living more closely and communally. It’s not just the parents’ responsibility to care for or raise a child; it’s the whole households’s, the whole street’s. If I’m short of cash I won’t go hungry — I’ll go next door; if I live rurally, with no access to a university, my children will stay with my cousin, or my brother’s wife’s family, in the city while they study. Second cousins are cousins and cousins are siblings; families are closer and more knotted together and your safety net spreads wide.

5. Music and language are a given

A Timorese friend of mine who studied overseas wrote on Facebook once something like, “before I left I assumed everyone could sing really well and play the guitar really well and speak four languages.” Because in Timor-Leste, that’s not unusual. Most Timorese people my age grew up during the Indonesian occupation, with immersive Bahasa Indonesian in school and public, Tetun at home and at church, perhaps another family language like Mambae or Baikeno or Makasai, and then a new independence where Portuguese and English are taught in schools and government still operates in the colonial language — and that Catholic island upbringing of course encouraged singing, music, jamming, mirth.

My house in Perth has zero guitars in it; my house in Dili has 12 and a ukelele.

6. Being fat isn’t bad

In a Timor-Leste context — post-conflict, post-colonial, poverty rates still high, crop yields still low — you can appreciate that to be fat means to be well-fed; to be well-off. If you’ve got a kabun boot, a big gut, you’re clearly living the good life: beers when you want them, enough food, lots of sitting down and little physical work. Most of my female colleagues don’t want to be kiak, impoverished, and the men regularly lift up their shirt to proudly release their bellies.

But in addition to this, I think we image-conscious Australians can learn something about how nonchalantly people talk about weight here; how far away from ‘bad’ it is to be fat. I’m not well-placed to talk about this as a size-8 girl, but casting value judgements on people based on their weight is cruel and unnecessary, and we Australians can do a lot better. While Timorese people of course have their own trends and hang-ups — but watch an hour of Indonesian TV commercials and say you don’t want skin-lightening cream — with weight, at least, they’re a lot more comfortable, and a lot less cruel than we are.

Do you live in Timor-Leste? Have you noticed anything else we foreigners can learn from Timorese people?

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