May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
Often what isn’t acknowledged is that life as an expat is a competition. A competition for occupying a space of cultural authenticity of which every other expat is a challenger. New usurpers to a malai’s mantle of detailed understanding of the complexities and pitfalls of living in Timor Leste arrive everyday. It can be important to a malai to demonstrate they are embedded deep in the cultural context of working in a foreign landscape through the establishment of a number of Timorese friends, access and comprehension of cultural practices, where to get the most sort after second hand clothes, or even the ability to reel off a dozen Tetum words for “dick head driver”. More often than not, the greater the insecurity felt about their position of importance in their workplace or in the wider development hierarchy, the greater the need to legitimise the decision to work in Timor through a lens that emphasizes cultural or soci-political interest with the Povu. This can be done foremost by upon arriving in Timor Leste through the choice of where to live.
People like to reaffirm their salary (or lack thereof) and chosen location of habitation as a means to substantiate the genuineness of their participation working and living in a foreign country. In this regard expats often like to claim they live in the community. For malai their inclusiveness in their community provides the evidence that they are adept at challenging a myriad of cultural hurdles and assists in the idea of superior mettle.
Expats particularly guilty of this way of thinking often like to indulge in self propagated visions of themselves as the centrifugal force of a community with much of the local activity revolving around them. The fantastic reparte they have with the local kiosk owner…. the high 5s they are giving to the local kids…..the warm bondia they give to the paun man when they are exiting their driveway in their large 4wd drive…. – These are all actions that evoke images of a person tightly interconnected to their community and accepted by them. In a word that makes a malai swoon with self satisfaction, they are ENGAGED.
Many malai living in Timor feel they are individuals who live ethically with a strong critical grasp on their moral compass and will make decisions less based on money and more on what is equitable. This often tends to complicate individual challenges to other expats cultural integration or justifications for their own socio-economic positionality as the vast majority of the Timorese belong to political-economic strata far below the one they occupy. Therefore such challenges are often (but not always) invalidated if directed at malai earning less or whom operate greater grass-roots participation, as often these malai are perceived as occupying a cultural space of greater community interaction.
Instead scorn regarding housing or lack of local engagement travels upward through the malai class hierarchy. This means that those in the districts claim a greater community experience than those renting a nice house in Farol owned by one of the Gusmao family. To these malai the thought of buying your vegetables anywhere else than the market seems down right ludicrous and they might proudly boast that the local bengkel only charges them half as much mark-up compared to other expats because they talked about the world cup once last year. These are the malai that like to inform those in Dili that real Timor is out in the districts.
Often an expat living in Dili seeking to replicate the authenticity of their district living brethren, will not hesitate to describe their community as a centre point of crisis violence and current gang presence. However, their deep-seated understanding of Timor politics and dexterity to navigate the tangled cultural pathways that so many other malai get lost in, endows them with the prowess to harmoniously receive acceptance in their neighbourhood and opens doors of greater possibilities.
Those Farol living malai can in turn pass judgment on how removed from REAL Timor the Australian Compound residents are, possibly because they don’t have access to a local kiosk. These malai are baffled by the short-sightedness of the medium-term civil service consultant paying an astronomical $3000 per month for their gated community apartment when their $1800/month Bebonuk house by the beach is a steal and commands far better community interactions while assisting the struggling local land owner / govt elite. The adept bargaining of the local security guard’s salary down to $80 a month cements how well integrated they are and aware of how inflated incomes can cause bubble effects with local economies and sow jealousy and discontent in the neighbourhood.
The only place Australian Compound or Palm Springs residents can turn to for veridicating their choice of living arrangements are consultants staying in Hotel Timor, who in the expats mind couldn’t possibly properly engage with their work trapped behind the security of room service, wifi and pool. Further more, these rich development tourists could never comprehend the special “always smile when I see him” relationship the Palm Springs resident has with the night guard.