14 things living overseas has taught me about myself

A few weeks ago, I asked on my Instagram, as I do sometimes, what people would like to know about my life here in Timor-Leste. One reply: What have you learned about yourself moving overseas?

I loved this question; I hated this question. It may surprise you to hear that a girl who’s published 192 sodden, reflective blog posts over the last two years doesn’t actually love reflecting on topics like this one; big-picture broad-brushstrokes spook me, and my oblique letter to my past self that I posted a couple of days ago is about as much lessons-learned as I could muster.

But perfect the enemy of the good, etc etc, and I know if I’d found this post two years ago (my litmus test and North Star for most everything I write here) I’d have loved it. I remember blithely telling someone before I left that I was going to become a good person living overseas; I suspect I haven’t, but that I’ve changed and it’s been good.

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself from two years in Timor-Leste.


You know, and don’t know, how to do heaps of normal things

Little kids will be really impressed that you can freestyle the width of the Baucau pool and will tell you this approvingly. You’ll immediately feel guilty, hot and worried, for a childhood spent on the West Australian coast and mandatory swimming lessons webbed into school curricula; why couldn’t you simply have faked drowning to avoid embarrassing the skinny splashing kids, ay.

Soon, you’ll realise this reaction was unrequested and unnecessary. And a couple of months later, haplessly clutching a knife and an intact mango still warm from the tree in the work kitchen, you’ll realise that, just as they don’t grow up swimming laps and don’t worry about freestyle, you’ve successfully survived 27 years without knowing how to cut a mango without losing a third of the flesh and it’s just one tiny emblem of a different normal for each of you.

You are skilled

And while you can be humble about it, it’s a bit of a waste of time for everyone if you downplay it entirely. Being in a different environment from your normal will give you new perspective and show you that your English skills, your writing, your editing, your knowledge of the thought paths people take to reach conclusions, your empathy, your ability to write tweets, are all skills and are all sought-after; they’re not quite the baseline default your insecure self first thought.

You are useless

But, you’ve concluded, to arrive in a foreign country with the assumption of helping assumes and requires a really hardcore skillset: at the very very least you need specialised technical skills in something lacking here–water engineering, professional sound recording, geospatial mapping, soil science, French patisserie–or fluent language skills, and ideally both. You have neither. It’s probably on balance fine to come here to volunteer and give it all a go; no gain no harm to the country, but if you’re really going to work in development you need savvier skills or a DFAT post.

You really like mashed potato

You sort of thought you didn’t like it, but you were wrong; you do, you like it a lot.

You hate being bad at things

You kind of know this one already but WOW you do not know the extent of it; two years of near-constant existence just slightly outside of your comfort zone will show you just how much you hate even the SLIGHTEST little bit of discomfort of unfamiliarity. Not knowing where to go to get your gas bottle changed. Using up $10 of pulsa in a single day again because you got the stupid code wrong. Running out of small-talk at a workshop with a person who insists they know you but you can’t quite remember. Not knowing how to fill your car tyres. Getting groped on the street and wondering if your FUCK OFF was too much or maybe not enough. Not knowing what people think when they hear about your Timorese boyfriend. Hating being served first at the workshop lunch but not knowing what to do about it. Fucking up vocab in Indonesian class again. Cringing over missed plans with a Timorese friend and not knowing if it’s a huge slight or a la-iha-buat-ida. Slipping on the hike in the hills and snapping I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine to concerned gentle watchers. Worrying about how much sugar is in this iced tea. Panicking every time one of your articles appears on ETAN. Downplaying how much work and effort you put into everything so it doesn’t even matter if it was bad anyway.

You will feel some degree of discomfort every day for two years. And, of course, you’ll learn that it’s fine. You’ll lean right into it. You won’t figure it all out–you’re still a stubborn perfectionist who hates to get it wrong; you’ll likely never learn how to delight in embarrassment–but you’re a thousand miles away from the uptight gal who first landed here, too scared to look up from her feet for fear of slipping from the path, missing the views; missing juicy colours. You’ve seen every horizon for two years.

You are bad at many things

Jogging. Indonesian. Telling jokes. Remembering details. Calling home. Knowing when you’re full. Dancing. Avoiding red wine on weeknights. Headstands. Small talk. Taking photos on manual mode.Just getting it done without a fuss. Baking bread. Containing jealousy. Organising household errands. Packing for field trips. Mending clothes. Meditating. Organising inboxes. Giving directions. Replying to messages. Listening to cool music. Confronting people. Accepting phone calls. Saying no. It’s all fine. You’re fine.

You will care about really different things from back home 

Not necessarily in the sanctimonious gal-goes-overseas-and-finds-greater-purpose thing; you’ll simply stretch the corners of your life out further and find new things to care about, to like, to worry about, to be interested in.

You’ll read more about communism and prison abolition, and you’ll realise you really like Lady Gaga. You’ll learn more about the subtle, under-the-surface nuances of Timorese culture; you’ll feel deeply troubled by the state of Australia’s aid budget and the reprehensible way we treat asylum seekers; you’ll get really preoccupied with whether Castaway has curry vegetable pies and where’s that one pizza at Mario’s that they could never do. You’ll eat less and less dairy and learn more and more plant names. You’ll find more things funny. You’ll worry more. You’ll cry in your car over a brief 15-word-long card; you’ll cry over the supermarket not having soda water; you’ll cry all the time, so much more than even you did before you left, I know! but you really will. You’ll become addicted to coffee and Twitter and self-reflection and Arial size 10 for your documents. You’ll change and mature your understanding of what it means for a country to be developed; it’ll crystallise in realising you ate Ryvitas and hummus for lunch in Melbourne and here every day you sit down for two hours for a cooked, meat-and-three-veg meal. You’ll cry over your neighbours’ beautiful children and how much you’ll miss then and how brave and intelligent and dedicated your co-workers are; you’ll cry because you can’t be bothered going out to get more gallons. You’ll grow interested in everyone and scream FUCK OFF at the boys on the street.

You really like pepper

You found it really weird when a friend who recently moved here didn’t have pepper in his house after a month of Dili living; turns out, pepper’s one of the first things you’d buy for your house, and it took Timor to teach you that.

You will learn that some Timorese people suck

Almost all of them don’t suck. Some do.

The men who masturbate in plain, uncaring, threatening daylight; limp dicks hanging as you jog along the water. The scrappy, bored not-quite-kids who think it’s funny to follow you, silently, for a hundred metres, to slide a hand under your dress and into the leg of your knickers to grab you just outside your house (while their sisters cook and clean and child-mind at home). The self-inflated old men who sit smug in air-conditioned offices sucking up big government contracts while their staff toil on a hundred dollars a month.

Circumstances here go a long, long way to explaining a lot of that–in a deeply traumatised, post-conflict country rebuilding after decades of violence, death and destruction, with few jobs and little money, which has been completely taken advantage of by people and countries including and especially my own, it’s understandable that bored boys will lash out, that people will take the opportunities they see, that some people need to get off in public.

But two years of time with the women and children will tell you new things about this country and will temper and revise your early, self-conscious, one-dimensional gushing of how Timorese people are amaaaazing, just such queens, such champions, yaaaass.  You’ll learn in fact you were right for the very most part; Timorese people are warm and brave and stoic and gentle and funny and resilient and wicked and clever and kind and complex and dignified and the best, the very best, but that your praise is patronising before you know people; don’t be reductive. And yeah, actually–a few of them suck.

You will learn enough Tetun to get by

You won’t believe me now, but you will.

In your first week here you were on Facebook, stalking the profile of a distant friend-of-a-friend who’d once lived in Dili. You gaped jealously at her replies typed in Tetun to Timorese friends and expat mates; you feel sad for knowing you’ll just never get that good. But just this week you went back and you checked; she knows no more Tetun than you do; you got there. You’re there. You’re not perfect but you’re probably enough.

You’re not perfect but you’re probably enough

Not just with Tetun.

You are good at many things

Making pickles. Speaking English. Reading books quickly. Drinking red wine. Making falafel. Walking quickly. Tasting coffee. Writing emails. Writing blog posts. Laughing easily. Choosing clothes at the OB markets. Editing English. Staying hydrated. Expressing your emotions. Being vulnerable with people. Giving it a go, even when you don’t want to. Organising trip logistics. Befriending the neighbours. Self-awareness. Wearing hats. Making hummus. Finding joy. Calming down the baby. Calming down yourself.

You don’t like everyone

Two years ago you thought you didn’t know anyone you didn’t like; moving to Timor has taught you that the very very best and the very very worst people wash up on island shores. There are about five people you now loathe, and many more you’d feel very bored talking to at a party.

You don’t really like yourself 

In a new environment isolated from your normal-normal you’ve had the space and time to see that a sinister root of low self-esteem lies beneath your every bad quality; that you haven’t given yourself permission for many many many years to just sit quietly and contentedly with yourself and like what you find. Here in Dili’s dust and warmth and golden sun you’ve slowly and cautiously given yourself permission to be more comfortable with yourself, to meet yourself and like what you find, to be quietly proud of yourself and to see what you’re doing is good enough. Melting like butter in the warm tropical sun, shedding everything and seeing yourself inside it all.





6 responses to “14 things living overseas has taught me about myself”

  1. […] salt. We laughed over the fact that relocating ourselves from our default lives has forced us to question and assign deliberate value to everything: for me, pepper is imperative; for him, optional, and I never would have thought of this had I not […]


  2. […] learn things about yourself, you’ll grow, you’ll change–you think for the better–you’ll lower […]


  3. Jill and John Raynor Avatar
    Jill and John Raynor

    I can’t begin to imagine how much you’ve grown Sophie! 🙂


  4. […] I feel safe in Timor-Leste. Three quick pieces of advice. 19 smiles. What I learned about myself from living overseas. One thing foreigners can do to help. Dear Sophie, 749 days ago. Homegoing. Landmarks in learning […]


  5. […] Dili that I’d improve and grow, moving overseas; I reflected recently about what I’ve learned about myself living overseas. In that post I wrote about mashed potato and sleep-ins; hardly the profound truths I may have […]


  6. […] You’ll learn things about yourself, you’ll grow, you’ll change–you think for the better–you’ll lower your expectations of yourself and grow kinder and warmer and more compassionate; you’ll feel stupider and more awkward and more uncomfortable than you ever thought possible; you’ll dig the depths of your thoughts and push them out further; you’ll radicalise, a bit; you’ll listen to more pop music and say when you don’t know. You’ll pick fights and bruise your own pride. But beyond all of that, further than whatever you’ll learn, you’ll just want to be here. You will see how much there is for you here, how much there is within you here, and you’ll just want to be here, more than anything anything anything else. […]


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