FOREIGNER!

Monday, day 15

Ma-LAE! Ma-LAE!

This is the cry that greets you wherever you go in Dili – maybe even in Timor. Malae means ‘foreigner’ and it is what someone who looks foreign (in particular those with Western, European features) gets called. Older people might comment on it to each other as you walk past (“ Hey look, a malae riding a bicycle”), but younger children – particularly the under-7s – have a way of rushing to the side of the road and shrieking “Ma-LAE!” at the top of their voices. I’m writing the second half of the word in upper case because that is the way the inflection and emphasis seems to go, getting higher pitched and much louder until it is a squeal of excitement for the second syllable.

It’s pretty funny. Groups of kids will egg each other on, so that the cries of “malae” will still be going long after you have passed. Very young children are well-trained in yelling “Malae!” at the white-faced foreigners, but tend to get incredibly shy when you smile in response and greet them, or ask  “Diak ka lae?” (How are you?) At the second-hand clothes stall the other day, one little tyke in his sister’s arms squealed “Malae” at me, but wriggled his head into her neck when I stopped to greet him. His sister was laughing at him. “You don’t need to be scared,” I told him reassuringly in my excellent Tetun. “I’m just a malae. La bele moe!” [=No need to be shy]. But he continued to duck his gaze, until I said my good-byes. At that point he looked up and began to grin at me, and to look excited at the sight of such a strange person again. Then he waved, and kept waving (to the amusement of the rest of his siblings who had also gathered by this time) until I’d crossed the street.

Is ‘malae’ a rude thing to yell at someone? In our culture it would be rude to shout “foreigner” at someone as they walked past. But Malae is the Tetun word for foreigner, and this is a culture that I gather does tend to speak in a very direct way, and has no qualms about making casual observations out loud (Eg. “Hey, you got fat!”).

Perhaps after a while it gets tired. I imagine you sometimes get weary of being the subject of scrutiny for so many people. You’d probably like to be anonymous and a bit invisible sometimes. Craig told me about a time recently where a young kid yelled ‘Malae’ at him and, being in no mood for it that particular day, he showed him the finger. Not a good thing to do, not an appropriate reaction at all, he admits. But, he says, it was perhaps one of the clear signs that it was time for him and his partner to move on, and say goodbye to Timor. Enough of the cold-water mandi showers, and the power blackouts, and the motorbikes from work that are unreliable, while other staff hide the keys of the ones that do work, and the days where water mysteriously and inexplicably stops running from any of the taps on the block. And people cheerfully pointing out your weird foreign-ness all the time.

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