Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The problem of isolation and emphasis on the family

Until 1999, Timor was closed off to the rest of the world as Indonesia sought to retain its tight grip over a defiant populace. This combined with their poor levels of education has resulted in an inward looking people seemingly not very interested in anything outside their own country. Time and time again I come to work and ask my Timorese colleague who I share an office with if she had heard about such and such (eg Hurricane Katrina in the USA or the Bali bombings round 2) and my telling her is the first she has heard of it. Admittedly, I hear all my news from Radio Australia because I cannot understand Tetun enough to watch, hear or read news from various media sources within Timor, but it astounds me that she never seems to know anything!

My colleague is also terribly preoccupied with what I consider small things mainly focussed on her family, which includes five children, a husband, mother, various siblings and their children and extended family. From what I can gather, there appears to be a clash between the traditional and the modern in her family and she is firmly placing herself in the latter camp. However, this causes her much resentment regarding demands from the traditional elements of her family. She is clearly trying to break free of the traditional way of life, which frankly, I do not blame her for doing! I also acknowledge that given her family commitments, she probably doesn’t have time to pay attention to issues outside her family!

Family is the strongest focus for the Timorese and given I do not share this in common as I do not have a large extended family nor a sense of obligation to be overly dutiful to those I do not like very much, I find this greatly frustrating about the culture. Apparently, the strong family bonds have their benefits but from my perspective, all I can see are the many negatives (incredibly patriarchal and hierarchical). Frankly, I find it suffocating and I’m a mere observer! I am also constantly grateful for my independent, individualistic cultural background.

Here is a passage from the Draft Domestic Violence legislation that the government of Timor has been sitting on for two years without passing it into law:

The unity and integrity of the family is the foundation of East Timorese society. The community, along with religion and traditional leaders, continuously strives to defend the value of family unity. At the same time, the number of domestic violence offences seriously harms the family unity in Timor Leste. This domestic violence law is, therefore, founded on the principle to protect and defend the unity and integrity of the family.*

My question is what and whose families? Homosexuality and same sex relationships are not worthy of protection in the Constitution. The UN transitional administration originally wrote them into the draft Constitution for the new country but the Timorese interim parliament (or government) removed any reference to them and the final version passed sans any mention of homosexuality and same sex relationships. Daniel says that this emphasis of Timorese society on family is no different from Australia where both the Liberal and Family First parties (and increasingly Labor) constantly remind us about family values. However, here it feels absolute whereas in Australia, there is space for alternative lives that give expression to what it means to be a loving human being, and I know which I prefer.

My colleague is also preoccupied with workplace issues such as her unhappiness in the job, her salary, the apparent backstabbing of fellow colleagues, and gossip. I find it incredibly challenging working in such close confines with her, as generally speaking, I am simply not interested in her small little world and all its pettiness. I can never talk to her about ideas or issues gleaned from reading books, watching films, listening to the radio, or simply showing an interest in anything outside the familial, (she appears to do none of these things). I really need to engage with people about bigger issues and I have absolutely no opportunity to do so at work. I therefore totally rely on Daniel to provide it for me.

I guess I had unrealistic expectations about the sort of women I would be working with. Mostly I have found them very uninteresting and uninspiring. It could also be their age as most of them are much younger than me (at a guess only 20% of my Timorese colleagues are my age or older which bears out in the figures given in the previous post Work culture, values and demographics). Perhaps as my language improves I will have the confidence to talk to other colleagues and find something worth staying here for two years. As obviously, not being fluent in the language contributes to my sense of isolation.


* Draft Domestic Violence Law, Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste National Parliament, 2003, Chapter II: Principles and Objectives, Section 2: Principles, page 1.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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