Three quick pieces of advice

I received a lot of advice before I moved to Timor-Leste — advice that covered everything from what medicines to bring over, to where to do my language lessons, to how to deal with creepy bosses, to how keep busy when bored. Over the last two years, I’ve turned over, considered, accepted and disregarded these in turn, and to  my carousel I’ve added a few small-but-mighty pieces of advice I’ve picked up from others along the way. I’d like to share them, in case they can help another new arrival find their footing.

Here are three quick pieces of advice for anyone newly moving to Timor-Leste.


You won’t change certain systems, but you can change how you move in them

In the first few months of my first job here I attended a lot of formal, traditional cultural ceremonies, where we’d serve ourselves lunch from huge tables lined with platters of food, where my boss, as the most important person there, would eat first, with hundreds of community members waiting patiently in the sun behind him. Often, as a pale-skinned foreigner accompanying this ema bo’ot, important person, I’d also be pushed to the front of the line. Those first few ceremonies I’d cringe in line, feeling silent and guilty and sick over the women who’d worked all day to prepare the meal and who’d eat scrap leftover hours later, after everyone else had heaped their dishes. I never said or did anything; what can I do?

I mentioned this to a friend, who had attended similar ceremonies and who had already lived in Timor-Leste for a few years before that. “Should I just insist?” I asked, despairingly. His reply was frank and fair.

“They’re never going to let you eat last,” he said. “They’re too hospitable for that. But you can change the way you eat first.” He mimed being me at the front of the lunch line; politely gesturing for someone to cut in front of me; pasting surprise onto his face when that invisible stranger insisted; nodding thanks as he slipped in; waving thanks to the women carrying dirty plates. He advised me not to take huge helpings of the beef and pork — expensive parts of the meal often not eaten frequently in the rural areas we visited — and to be polite and deferential in how I accepted that inevitable position at my boss’s elbow.

Entertaining guests is important in Timor-Leste; here, I’ve received some of the most generous hospitality I’ve ever experiences. And hierarchies run deep. Even just last week, on a field trip with some older, Australian men, I refused their offers for me to take from the dinner buffet first and insisted that they ema bo’ot go first. I’ve far from changed this practise — in fact, I’ve internalised it — but my friend’s advice was sound and useful: my despair won’t change the fact that the women work hard and eat last, but I can be polite, humble and grateful about the way I participate in this.


People will have different approaches, and they’re not all wrong

If you’re anything like me, in your first early months in Timor-Leste, you’ll be desperately trying learn things, to process things, to see patterns and to understand. If this is like that, then that will be like this. Bad news. I’ve heard from several foreigners who have lived here for decades — people who have built their homes, their families, their lives here — that the longer they live here, the less they understand about Timor-Leste. We can set aside our expectations now.

I received some good advice from a friend of a friend who had spent some time working in agriculture here — the very sector I entered when I first arrived in Timor-Leste.

“People can get very invested in their approaches, so we should be respectful of that, while challenging some ideas, too,” he told me of the people working in the agriculture sector. He explained that the sector is complicated, and people who are highly specialised in certain areas can become convinced their field offers the only solution to its myriad problems — but, of course, solutions aren’t always that straightforward. There are programs that contradict one another, he said, no clear way to learn it all quickly, and many dedicated, skilled people working hard in this field — but they don’t always stick around for that long.

Don’t expect it to have neat answers. Don’t assume that there’s a single thread to pull that will untie it all for you. Don’t hitch your apple cart to a single person or a standout program. Don’t assume that because someone does this and not that it means that that’s wrong or this is right. It’s all just different, and none of it’s necessarily wrong.


Don’t forget to enjoy it

Close readers of this blog would have seen this piece of advice come up before; when I worked at a little Italian pasticceria in Melbourne, the year before I moved to Timor-Leste, my boss one day quietly watched me fly around the shopfront, clattering plates and mashing cutlery at the end of a busy shift.

“You’re always so rushed,’ she said, mildly, of my tense, breakneck pace. “Slow down! What we do is fun. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget to enjoy that.”

A throwaway comment from a person likely just wanting to avoid their china being smashed, but something I’ve not forgotten and have repeated to myself many times since.

“I use it as a anchor line,” I wrote in an early blog post about a dreamy dive trip to Adara. “When I’m huffing down the street after missing the microlet I wanted – don’t forget to enjoy it. When I’m stumbling and sweating through ordering lunch in Tetun in front of my Timorese friend. Don’t forget to enjoy it. When I’m bemoaning my cheap-beer-induced soft belly – don’t forget to enjoy it.”

And again, in a reflection on what I wished I’d known before I started my AVID assignment.

“For my first three months here I didn’t really give myself permission to enjoy it,” I wrote.

“I felt overwhelmed by the privilege and prestige of the [AVID] program, and couldn’t believe or trust the investment they’d made in me. I felt guilty about my housing allowance and cringed talking to my cleaner. Those frantic lists I made in my first few weeks at work were to prove my worth; to show I was contributing; to tackle my mental beasts yapping about how bloated, how useless both I and the program were.

Now, I’m realising. I’m still contemplative, but I’ve pulled myself out of the guilt-riddled mental vortex by trusting the people around me and by working to know myself, my abilities and my limitations better. Adjusting my expectations and channelling my energy into the best possible work I can do. And by giving myself permission to enjoy it.

For perspective, for sanity, for privilege, for the sheer joy of living in a place as beautiful and blistering as Timor-Leste — please, Sophie, do not forget to enjoy it.”

I extend the same to you. Reflect on what you do know and have faith in yourself, without getting worked up about How Things Should Be. Understand that some things aren’t fair and it’s not up to you to magically solve them — but that doesn’t quite give you a free pass, either. And it’s going to be really easy to get broody and bogged-down, but trust me; there’s a lot here to be grateful for; a lot here to love; a lot her to enjoy. Don’t forget.


Do you live in Timor-Leste? Got any advice for a newcomer? Drop me a comment with your thoughts below.


One response to “Three quick pieces of advice”

  1. […] 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. […]


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