Diversity and Cross-Cultural Issues in East Timor

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In East Timor, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in East Timor.

Outside of East Timor’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of East Timor are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in East Timor, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States, political discussions need to be handled with great care, and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in East Timor

East Timor has a remarkable degree of ethnic diversity, although it might not be readily apparent to an outsider. Its people still draw the greatest distinction between those who are from the island and outsiders, who are known as ‘malae.’ In recent years, most foreigners in East Timor have arrived as advisors, governors, decision makers, and other people of power. There are few examples of “blending” with the local population because of the positions of dominance that most of these foreigners have enjoyed. Peace Corps Volunteers are among the first outsiders to break this pattern and demonstrate the power of diversity among equals, since they are expected to live on the same terms as the people with whom they work. This is a new phenomenon in East Timor, and it carries a certain amount of responsibility in that Volunteers must show a degree of sensitivity not usually expected from a ‘malae.’

Volunteers are readily accepted into their communities. However, for many, constantly answering personal questions, the lack of privacy, constantly being asked for money or goods, being considered rich, and the need to be aware of a variety of social mores can be real problems. As in most eastern Asian countries, the culture does not allow women to exercise the freedom to which North American women are accustomed. As a novelty in the community, Volunteers, especially women, are often the subject of considerable gossip.

The Peace Corps staff in East Timor recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Machismo is a term usually associated with Latin cultures, but in East Timor the same phenomenon is manifest in both obvious and subtle ways. East Timorese men and women accommodate male dominance in work, home, and community matters, often unaware of the negative consequences it may have for their personal development. Female Volunteers are sometimes targets for harassment, particularly if they disregard East Timorese norms for behavior and dress. Female Volunteers in East Timor may face the kinds of unwelcome attention from men that all local women face.

Male Volunteers, on the other hand, may feel victimized by being viewed as sexual competitors. Volunteers must be very careful about developing or even appearing to develop relationships with East Timorese. Dating implies a commitment to marriage. Physical intimacy in public, such as walking hand-in-hand with a person of the opposite sex, is almost never seen, even between married or engaged couples.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

East Timor has been a crossroads for migration for thousands of years, so the Timorese people themselves display a wide range of physical characteristics. A casual observer might notice strong evidence of Asian (particularly Chinese and Indonesian) features, as well as Polynesian, Melanesian, Papuan, and Australasian characteristics. Portuguese settlement on the island contributed to some European elements. As a result, Volunteers of color should encounter few problems, especially in comparison with other parts of the world. The East Timorese categorize anyone who is non-Timorese as a malae (foreigner), irrespective of ethnic background or skin color. They also tend to hold similar stereotypes and assumptions of all malaes.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

East Timor’s terrain is extremely rugged, and transportation may be a serious issue for senior Volunteers. Public transportation is rudimentary at best, and the longer travel distances require great stamina. Living conditions are also quite basic, requiring a genuine willingness to “rough it.” A frequent issue for senior Volunteers is the difficulty of learning new languages, which may be exacerbated in East Timor because of the island’s linguistic diversity.

At present, there are no project sites in urban areas and no plans to place Volunteers in such areas, which enjoy better standards of transportation, housing, water, and electricity.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Gay and lesbian Volunteers should be aware that homosexuality is considered taboo by most East Timorese, and thus they must exercise discretion when it comes to their sexuality. Dili has a somewhat more metropolitan atmosphere than other places in East Timor and there is an open gay community. However, Volunteers must reconcile their lifestyle to the mores of conservative rural communities to develop productive social and professional relationships. That being said, gay and lesbian Volunteers have served successfully in East Timor. They have the full support of Peace Corps staff and experience has shown that they can also rely on the understanding and support of other Volunteers in East Timor.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

People in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country have little experience with those who have no religious affiliation or who belong to other religions (with the exception of Islam and Indonesian Hinduism). They are likely to be curious about, and some may even be suspicious of, non-Catholics, which could lead to seemingly rude behavior. On the whole, however, East Timorese tend to recognize a difference between belief and practice, and non-Catholic Volunteers might simply state they are not “practicing.” Those who feel uncomfortable skirting the issue in this way are likely to find that if they state their beliefs in a non-challenging way, they will be accepted by the community.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

The Peace Corps makes every effort to accommodate Volunteers with disabilities and provides assistance in training, housing, job sites, and other areas so that they can serve safely and effectively in their country of service.

However, Volunteers in East Timor will face particular challenges because there is almost no infrastructure to assist those with disabilities. They may also find, as in many parts of the world, that some people hold prejudicial attitudes and discriminate against them. Peace Corps/East Timor is committed to helping ensure that all Volunteers have a full and rich experience in the country.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and its challenges. It helps to have someone by your side with whom you can share your experience, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. It is important to remember that you are in a foreign country with new rules and you need to be open-minded about cultural differences. A couple may have to take on some new roles. A married man may be encouraged to be the more dominant member in the relationship, be encouraged to make decisions independently of his spouse, or be ridiculed when he performs domestic tasks. On the other hand, a married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or may be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. One spouse may be more enthusiastic about Peace Corps service, better able to adapt to the new environment, or less homesick than the other. Competition may arise if one spouse learns the language or other skills faster than the other.

Serving together in East Timor will likely bring welcome attention from your friends and neighbors. Marriage is a valued institution and most couples marry quite young. It will be quite easy for you to integrate into social activities that are only open to married couples. However, there are culturally specific challenges. For example, Timorese husbands and wives do not touch each other in public (or even in the privacy of their home if others are present). Additionally, most Timorese feel quite strongly that all married couples should have many children and you will likely get many questions about that subject. While these issues may seem minor, some couples have reported that they can become quite frustrating over the long term.

Married couples will be offered the choice to live separately or together during training. Living separately enables each spouse to give undivided attention to acquiring the language skills needed for his or her assignment and to spend more time in cross-cultural interactions with members of the host community. Couples who opt to live apart during training will have opportunites to see each other as the training schedule permits.