I’ve got a few strong and loosely held opinions about foreigners in Timor-Leste who don’t speak Tetun, which is the only one of Timor-Leste’s national and working languages indigenous to this country. And that’s changed since I’ve been here, and will likely change again after I depart and when I return.
When I first arrived, self-righteous and fired-up, I thought it unfathomable to work here without the language; as I martyred myself through hours of Tetun study after class that airy early opinion calcified into resentful seething; how arrogant and obnoxious did one have to be to even ARRIVE here without Tetun (conveniently ignoring the fact that I myself had done just that only weeks earlier). And then, as I softened and melted in the easy tropical sun and met more and more highly skilled, hard-working foreigners doing good sound technical work in exclusive English or Portuguese I cracked open for myself ways foreigners could be useful — and permittable — without language skills.
Today to the office I wore a calf-length, porridge-coloured dress, my tan Saltwater Sandals, the blonde wide-brimmed hat my friend Maddie left behind for me when she left Dili, and carried the pale brown string bag my sister Molly bought me at Christmas. I emailed my colleague Alex text for a Facebook post, and he came into my room to chat about it. “Hi, mana Sophie,” he said at the door, in English. “I just saw your email.”
I replied in English; he sat down, we talked through the post for five or ten minutes and made a couple of edits before he popped a thumbs up and said it was good to go. Apart from that word mana, an unthinking term of address I’d use a hundred times a day, our entire conversation was in English; my language, not his. Twelve months ago I’d have been mortified with myself.
But today, Alex turned away from the laptop, and said approvingly to me, “xapeau kapaas,” or, nice hat. I laughed and thanked him, obrigada.
“Sosa iha ne’ebe?” he asked. Where did you buy it?
“Kolega mak fo,” I replied; my friend gave it to me. Alex said he was surprised; he thought I’d bought it in Dili, because the straw of the hat looked like the material bote, woven baskets, are made from. I said lae, kuandu bainhira nia fila fali ba ninina rai she left it behind for me. Alex then noticed my dress and burst into a big grin.
“Kor hanesan,” he said. Same colour. And my shoes, and my bag. Hanesan. And then somehow we moved on from my outfit and were talking about what it was like to learn English during Indonesian time, which he’d done, and how I’d heard recently from someone that even though they taught English back then they didn’t teach well because they didn’t really want people to learn, and he said yes that’s right and then I said the name of the person who told me this and he realised he knew her so we talked about her for a while, and about Australians who have been in Timor-Leste for a long time, and about how his wife has just returned from Adelaide and where was I from and but I was going back to Melbourne and that’s right that’s because my doben is over there and he foin lalais hetan bolsa estuda which is why I must leave Timor soon and yes is he Timorese, didn’t you know already? Hau rona maibe hau la hatene, yes, he’s Timorese, yes, he used to work at UN Women, oh, his mother taught your kids maths? And yes, his parents do live in that suburb, and no she’s from Jogja not from Java-Java and actually I’ve just last week started Indonesian classes and what you really think it’s a language easier to learn than Tetun? Why? Tanba Tetun kahur, mixes, languages; sim, yes, maibe hau toman ona lifuan Portuges because they’re similar to English, nee loos, then he said he used to live in Felix’s parents’ suburb and I said mana Betty lives there too and yes that’s right he said uluk hau mos iha ne’eba and we would have kept going but then someone came in looking for him and it was nearly two o’clock and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet so I told Alex hau sidauk han and hau ba ona and he said ok bye and did another thumbs up.
This isn’t to show off my sparse Tetun skills, nor is it to boast about my, ahem, captivating conversation with a colleague. This moment today just split open a tiny new idea for me; a way of making languages work at work — of understanding that Alex’s English is far more sophisticated than my Tetun is or will ever be, but that our language barrier doesn’t necessarily prevent us from getting on, from having a pleasant chit-chat together, from developing respect or understanding, from working together.
I don’t think my ability to chit-chat gives me permission not to try to work in Tetun, to learn more, to force myself to practise all the time, but there’s a line I’ve recently found for myself between feeling self-righteous and special for labouring through a broken Tetun work conversation and actually just using the language that’s clearer and more efficient for my time-strapped-English-fluent colleagues. Today, it worked.