Sunday, November 06, 2005

Asking, giving, taking: cross cultural issues

This morning when Senyora Domingas was walking across our garden, I noticed the hair clasp she had her hair tied up with looked remarkably like the one I have. Out of curiosity, I went looking for my clasp and couldn’t find it. I then began to feel very uneasy and wondered if indeed Senyora had taken mine. I looked again but still couldn’t find it. I expressed my concerns to Daniel. We waited for Senyora to return across the garden and then spied on her through the window. There was no mistaking it; she had taken my hair clasp! I was so upset. It may seem very insignificant to have a $10 hair clasp taken by our landlady (and despite the fact that I have no hair since clipping it all off in frustration with the weather and water pressure) but it is a breach of trust. I now wonder what else she may have taken or will take in the future without asking.

Timorese culture is communitarian (what’s mine is yours). Extended families live together and support one another; there is neither privacy nor boundaries: much like Indigenous Australian culture. My Western, individualistic culture says that what’s mine is mine and if you want it, you ask first (although even then I probably won’t give it to you!); and there is a respect for privacy and personal boundaries. However, I cannot explain this to a Timorese woman who has never lived outside her own culture/country why asking me for money, or taking my things is so upsetting. I regularly feel put upon by Timorese women’s demands (not to mention the boy children and young men who sell wares on the street and won’t take a polite “no thank you” for an answer) and now I feel the sanctity of my home has been broken. Compounding this is the language problem of not being fluent enough in Tetun to say to Senyora in private: “Senyora, I have noticed you wearing my hair clasp. In my culture, if someone wants to borrow something of another person’s, they must ask first. Knowing that you have taken something of mine has really upset me. Could you please ask me in future?”

These cross-cultural issues are very difficult to deal with as I have experienced my fair share of them since arriving in Timor and all of them involve Timorese women asking for money or taking possessions from me. My young university friend Zelia, met with me last week to tell me that the items she wanted were more expensive than she thought at $50 a pop and that she felt this was too expensive for me. I said that perhaps I could buy her one of the items if she gave some thought as to which would be more beneficial to her in her studies. She then asked me if I could lend her $10 as she had run out of money as her parents had failed to send her any due to the cost of a “kore metan” for a relative (for an explanation of “kore metan” see previous post A culture of dependence). I really do feel very put upon by all these demands! I don’t like feeling like this but like the Timorese, I cannot change the mindset I have been given by my culture.

Sometime last year, I re-read an article by Peter Singer concerning his idea that everyone on a comfortable income has an ethical obligation to donate a percentage of their income to organisations working to alleviate poverty and suffering in the developing world. Then in light of the Boxing Day Tsunami that devastated much of Asia and our commitment ceremony where we requested our guests to donate to NGOs in lieu of gifts, I felt it was time to start meeting this obligation. Despite not being on the average Australian income, I felt I was comfortable enough.

I now give 8.5% of my income to OXFAM, UNICEF, IWDA and Animals Australia through their respective monthly giving schemes, even though I am on a much-reduced income due to my volunteer status. Furthermore, when a disaster strikes such as the recent earthquake in Pakistan, I also give money to an aid agency as the situation warrants. Having lived in Timor for four months, I have seen the devastating effects of poverty up close and if anything, living here strengthens my commitment to donating money to NGOs. It is also important to me that my money goes to community projects, not individuals who are singled out from the rest of their community as child sponsorship schemes do or what happens when I am asked by an individual Timorese woman for help (they all need help!). (For a critique of the child sponsorship method of giving, see the New Internationalist article.)

I just wish that my giving to NGOs would help alleviate my sense of guilt at feeling put upon when individuals ask for my financial assistance! Daniel has suggested I actually tell people when they ask that I already give some of my money to NGOs working to help people in their country and that as a volunteer there is only so much financial assistance I can give. It’s difficult though because I have noticed that women tend to get asked more than men and although I have had four instances of it since arriving, Daniel has had none. Moreover, because we are volunteers who live in a Timorese community, don’t inhabit the “malae” social circles, catch local buses and eat in local restaurants - we have far more interaction with locals than other more wealthy “malae” do. They are typically here on well-paid short term contracts, living in gated communities, driving 4WDs and hanging out in expensive “malae” eating/drinking/entertainment establishments. It’s certainly not something that AVI raised or addressed in the pre-departure briefing: the frequency of being asked for money and suggestions as to how to handle it."

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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