The nation of East Timor has had a highly influential, yet conflict ridden history, which has contributed towards its diverse culture and independence in the 21st century. Many of the features of its culture, such as its cuisine and architecture, reflect Portuguese, Indonesian, and Australian influences. This paper will expand upon these influences and highlight the significance of East Timorese culture.
The descendants of East Timor were originally from Australia and New Guinea, their heritage and traditions dating back to over 40,000 years ago. The original East Timorese populations migrated from Australasian countries, including New Zealand and New Guinea, and developed significant agriculture in East Timor. They were also involved in trade networks and links between China and Japan throughout the 14th century. Later in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese colonized East Timor and it effectively became known as Portuguese Timor. The western regions of East Timor were thereafter colonized by the Dutch (Traub, 2000).
Throughout the Second World War, East Timor was the focus of an extensive Japanese attack, which inspired the Allied Forces and Native East Timorese populations to defend its capital, Dili. The Japanese drove out the Allied Forces, including Australian troops; however, the Portuguese colonial forces reinstated East Timor as a separate state in the 1950’s. It was not until the 1970’s that rebel East Timorese forces attempted to claim independence from the Portuguese colonials (Anderson, 2001). Increasing tensions between major East Timorese political parties after their independence led to an expansive invasion by Indonesia in fear of the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. In 1976, Indonesia claimed East Timor as an Indonesian province, despite growing criticism from the United Nations on their use of violence and conflict to resolve diplomatic matters (Anderson, 2001).
In the 1990’s, the Dili Massacre sparked growing global concerns over the political and domestic state of East Timor. Australian troops were sent to East Timor in 1999 to assist with resolving conflict over Independence and with Indonesian authorities. In 2002, East Timor was declared an Independent nation, and its first president was elected in conjunction with the return of thousands of East Timorese refugees (Chopra, 2002).
The nation of East Timor is unique for its geography, history, and culture. Its culture is founded on the many influences of neighboring nations and those that attempted to colonize it in the early 17th and 18th centuries. Its cultural myths and traditions are based on Australian dreamtime stories. Traditional East Timorese people believe that a crocodile transformed into the shape of East Timor, as a punishment for not paying its debts to a young boy. Their cultural myths are highly creative and imaginative, hence reflecting an open-minded perspective on religion and life in the nation, as well as the influence of other nations, such as Australia and Indonesia. Most of East Timor’s architecture is Portuguese as a result of colonization in the 17th century, thus combining with Australian cultural myths and contributing towards the cultural diversity of the nation (Anderson, 2001).
There is a small minority of East Timorese architecture reflecting the nation’s progress throughout the 20th century from a colonized state to an independent nation. Traditional East Timorese housing consists of totem poles and are based on added layers. They are tall and confined, allowing multiple families to live on different levels of the house as a result of being densely populated and closely located to Indonesia (Chopra, 2002).
The art of East Timor focuses on poetry and literature, rather than paintings or traditional drawings. It has been heavily influenced by the politics of the region and significant contributions from neighboring nations, as well as from Portugal, Australia, and New Zealand. The nation’s poetry achieves two significant aims: to reflect the profound history of the nation and its diverse culture dating back thousands of years. Its poetry also compliments Australian dreamtime stories and provides a consistent account of the nation’s cultural and political progress throughout the ages (Anderson, 2001).
In contrast to its diverse array of culture and the arts, the nation’s religion focus is highly disjointed, as a result of Indonesia’s religious requirement that all citizens believe in one God. When East Timor became independent in 2002, its religious views became less restrictive and more open minded, with a number of new churches being built from a variety of different Christian faiths. However, East Timor is still a Catholic state and is divided into three main dioceses, including the Dili, Baucau, and Maliana sectors (Chopra, 2002).
The nation also has a strong sporting culture and has competed in the Summer and Winter Olympic Games in the last 10 years. Their sporting culture has quickly developed since its independence in 2002. Its two main sports are soccer and table tennis. Sport was a means of maintaining high morale throughout its conflict years with Indonesia and Portugal (Chopra, 2001).
As a result of its geographic location within the Indonesia islands, its cuisine is largely fish based with a variety of herbs, native vegetables, and rice. It has also been heavily influenced by Indonesia and Portugal cuisines, given their political influence over the last two centuries. The nation’s use of lamb and pork in its stews reflect this Portuguese influence. The country’s two main dishes are Batar Da’an and Tapai. The dish, Batar Da’an, is vegetarian and includes pumpkin, corn, and beans. The lower social classes of East Timor eat this, as its ingredients are prominent throughout the nation and sold cheaply at the local markets (Anderson, 2001). The nation’s boutique and classical meal is Tapai, which provides a more extravagant food experience. It includes a mixture of fermented rice with alcohol, providing a unique dessert. The upper classes of East Timor eat Tapai as it requires a more extensive process of fermentation and is traditionally made by servants for the royalty of East Timor. On special occasions such as the East Timorese National Holiday, tropical fruit platters will be served as a sweet, celebratory treat.
Recently, a large number of restaurants have been built along the beaches of East Timor that celebrate its native food culture. These restaurants have created additional East Timorese dishes, incorporating local ingredients and adding flare to their dishes and local cuisine (Chopra, 2002).
A dish that summarizes the influences of Indonesia and Portugal in East Timor is East Timorese lamb and tamarind stew. The dish has a rich texture as it incorporates tumeric, calf liver, and tripe. Its brown and orange color reflects influences from Indonesia and the islands in that it has a very well blended and traditional look (Anderson, 2001). The dark brown and orange colors of the meat and vegetables also highlight the elaborate and diverse flavor, feel, and taste of East Timor’s native vegetables and produce. The aroma of the dish is a combination of meat and fish with the flavor of the vegetables providing a particularly strong and rich aroma. The dish is also significant as it alludes to East Timor’s lack of an independent cuisine. Local East Timorese populations now claim that their cuisine is the culmination of a number of cultures, rather than their own. This dish provides some resemblance however, to East Timorese local vegetables and produce (Anderson, 2001).
The major religions of East Timor, as stipulated, are centered on Christianity, as a result of influences from Portugal and Indonesia. However, there are a number of smaller, more local religions which incorporate food as a significant indicator of life and death. The main use of food in these smaller cults is for assurance of health and prosperity. In these smaller religions, all food will be grown on the land and the future of the family will heavily rely on the growth of the crops from local rains, and the taste of the food provided by the land. In particular, the Animist religion rely on crops being grown in a small period of time, in order to provide for multiple families and the necessary minerals and vitamins for younger children in each family. If the crops grow quickly during a particular harvest and the taste of the vegetables or fruit provided is of a high quality, then it is believed that the family will receive good luck for their future crops and development of the land. If the crops do not grow sufficiently or in a longer period of time, this is indicative of bad luck and the family will resort to extensive praying and rituals to help ward off bad spirits (Anderson, 2001).
There is also a strong association between body, the land, and food. The land is regarded as a mother’s womb, which provides families with gifts, exemplified by the growth and final picking of crops. Much like a pregnant mother, crops will grow on the land and get larger and larger before being harvested. When they are harvested, the quality of the crops, much like a newborn child, is assessed and used as a primary predictor for the future of the family or the child in this religion. The homes of East Timorese, who believe in the Animist faith, are decorated with food or anything that resembles good luck and the potential for a good crop season. They will decorate their homes with ornaments resembling the land or an instance where good crops were grown (Chopra, 2002).
Food is also used in ceremonies throughout East Timor culture. When a groom and bride are married, food is exchanged between both families. Each family ensures that the food they exchange is representative of a good crop season or success in their family. Food is perceived in East Timorese culture as an indicator of economical progress or advantage. The richer the family, then the greater quality of food that is provided to other families at official functions and ceremonies. Poorer families limit the amount of food they exchange and work harder to provide a smaller amount of high quality food (Chopra, 2002).
The East Timorese people rely heavily on herbal medicine to cure pre-existing ailments. There are 40 different herbal medicines in East Timor, each with their own use and purpose. They are also eaten on a regular basis and mixed into normal East Timorese cuisine. Many of these herbal medicines are derived from the bark of trees grown in East Timor. Two popular herbal foods/medicines in East Timorese culture are poultice and the sap of Pterocarpus Indicus (Collins, 2007). Poultice is found in the bark from a Schefflera Tree and serves as an ointment, which is used to treat bone fractures. It is also regularly eaten to relieve the individual of internal pains, hence serving as an anti-inflammatory medicine. The sap of Pterocarpus Indicus is primarily swallowed to relieve the individual of mouth sores and ulcers. It can be chewed, swallowed, or gargled and has a sweet taste (Collins, 2007).
As a result of East Timor’s failing education and health system, its people stuggle to adequately assimilate into American society. Most East Timorese people make their living from fishing or working on the land, and use minimalist approaches in ensuring that their families are sustained each year. Their reliance on education is minimal and only since 2002 has the nation commenced developing an education system, which can provide basic numeracy, literacy, and language training (Wheeler & Ddunne, 2001). However, this is not sufficient in providing high school and tertiary education that parallels that of the United States. Their people would require extensive education and training in the United States, which additionally requires adequate funding and expenditure.
Furthermore, there would be significant language barriers for East Timorese people when considering that their national language is Indonesian and there are a number of sub dialects that their tribes and smaller cultures utilize. English is not their native language, and this would pose significant barriers when they arrive in the United States (Wheeler & Ddunne, 2001).
The large differences in culture between the United States and East Timor would also prevent the assimilation of East Timorese people into American culture. East Timorese people rely on their local knowledge of art and poetry to provide some substance to their existence and day-to-day living. Many of their traditions, which are derived from thousands of years of myths and ancestors, provide guidance on how they are meant to live their lives. For example, these traditions instruct East Timorese people on how to make particular dishes or how to construct housing (Traub, 2000).
The nation of East Timor is reflective of the culmination of a number of different cultures and influences. The nation’s many and varied traditions highlight the nation’s history of conflict and colonization by the Portuguese. However, these influences whether they are from neighbors such as Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, or from Portugal, have provided its people with a wealth of local knowledge and a diverse array of culture and character. The nations reliance on food, for example, is indicative of its rich history, culture, and reliance on ancestors in order to survive off the land. Despite being a minimalist nation, East Timor has sustained its culture and heritage throughout extensive conflict and has finally become an independent nation with a developing education and health system. The prosperous future of East Timor also highlights a renewed focus on East Timor governance and domestic progress.