foreign possibility

When I was 19 I spent six weeks backpacking in Western Europe with two friends from university. We heaved backpacks through Gare du Nord, lapped the oil paintings in London galleries, sprayed ourselves sticky with carton sangria at the running of the bulls, and gorged on mussels and half-litres of red wine in restaurants perched over the Italian Riviera. And, by the end, we also grew very tired of each other’s company — leading to a moment on a suburban train in Barcelona that has stayed with me since, and which I’m thinking about today in Dili.

I can’t remember the exact details, but we’d had to go somewhere to try and book a regional train ticket, or reschedule a flight, which required us to attend in-person a central office in the city. From our hostel we caught the metro into town — for once, travelling without our overstuffed backpacks — and, after unsuccessfully visiting the office (was it closed?), we returned home on the same line, weary and worn, and not interested in chatting to each other.

Now, I have fair skin that tans easily and dark brown hair. On that train I sat, alone, on a plastic seat, staring blankly into the faces of the other commuters. Watching them, I saw myself reflected in their eyes — just another bored Barcelonan, getting home at the end of the day. It was in that moment I realised that without the very visible markers of my foreign-ness on show — my lack of Spanish language, my Australian accent, my backpacker’s luggage and maps — I could fade into the background. There was no obvious tell of my outsider status. That anonymity felt liberating. I’m a person who gets self-conscious easily; who pays more attention to myself than anyone else ever would. But seeing myself blend in to strangers eased my own self-scrutiny.

Today, in Timor-Leste, I’m often mistaken for someone I’m not.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that to be a brown-haired, fair-skinned foreigner in Timor-Leste is to be assumed Portuguese by most Timorese. Regardless of your language, the people you’re with, or any other of the minute details that comprise and reveal a person, if you have brown hair, you’re Portuguese; if your hair is blonde, you’re Australian. If you’re Asian, or if your heritage connects you to any place in Asia bar Indonesia, you’re described as ’ema Xina’, which translates literally as ‘Chinese person’.

I don’t say this to criticise, or anything — if anything, I like it, personally.

When I’m told the total of my bill in Portuguese numbers or get a “como está” on the street I feel the same secret glee I did that day on the train in Spain. It feels like one tiny sign that the image people have of me isn’t quite the image I know to be true inside, which makes me feel less constrained; free of expectations and people’s pre-conceptions. More dimensional.

It’s like when I first moved from my hometown of Perth to Melbourne — a city twice the size, where I knew barely anyone and no one knew me, or my sisters, or the house my parents had lived in for 25 years, or the school we went to that my mother also taught at, or my family’s very recognisable silver Toyota Tarago — it was a time when who I was, who I was seen as, could be shaped more by my decisions and character than by the contours of me people had already sketched out.

But then, despite looking less like myself, I feel more an Australian when I’m in Timor-Leste.

I’ve written before about how being in Timor-Leste had made me reflect on how Australian culture manifests, in a way I never consider when I’m at home.

In that post, I wrote that I felt embarrassed when Timorese people asked me how certain customs — weddings, funerals, events — went in my culture. I’d never thought too hard about it, and felt reluctant to elucidate.

Now, with hindsight, I can see that I’d over-corrected in my response, feeling guilty and ashamed about elements of white Australian history: the colonial violence that created my country; the determination with which successive Australian governments strove to eradicate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whose cultures are some of the world’s most ancient and enduring; the utter disregard our leaders now have for the environment, for people seeking asylum, for people on welfare, for children abused inside our prisons.

There are certainly elements of being Australian that I’m proud of, and I identify very strongly with that place as my home, but writing that earlier post I felt reluctant to talk about Australian culture, for fear of inadvertently endorsing its bad elements — violence, individualism, racism. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am an Australian in a place that isn’t mine, and that people want to know about it.

Here, I’ve had to think about myself as an Australian in a way I never did when I was at home — where most of us are Australian; where I’m in the majority. Now, I examine my particular quirks, asking myself if their roots lie in my ancestry or in my personality, or both. I’m warm, goofy, and quick to laugh — is this the laconic Australian larrikin in me, or is it who I’d be regardless of where I grew up? I care a lot about my friends, and I’d like to think I’m helpful — is this the ANZAC mateship on display, or just what happens when you’re one of four sisters, who grew up in suburban Perth?

I’ve never spoken more about being an Australian — identifying myself as one, softening my accent, explaining my country’s geography and history to people who, understandably, don’t know much about it — than I have in Timor-Leste.

Speaking it to life I’ve consequently never felt more Australian.

I like it. I like the opportunity people give me to speak about the experiences I’ve had and the place I’m from. I feel silly pride when — despite my country’s dirty history here — Timorese people are happy to hear they’re speaking with an Australian. I’m grateful to be part of one of the bigger foreigner groups (I’m guessing we Australians are only outnumbered by the Portuguese); to have friends who share references, jokes, old favourite foods, the geographies of our cities (my neighbour in Bidau Santana knows the family-friendly buffet restaurant Sizzler Innaloo).

I feel grounded, safe, seen, implicitly understood; not requiring of explanation or introduction. Which is perhaps why I’m grateful to be mistaken for Portuguese sometimes — as comforting as it is to be seen, contoured, understood, it’s a gift to be able to slip by unnoticed, like I did that day on the Barcelona train.

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