Archive for the ‘malae’ Tag

Settling in

Wednesday, day 31

The house I live in is owned by a family with four children; the are helped also by the younger sister of the mother, a girl who is the same age as Valda, who helps in my house.

The younger children are curious and chatty, and are quite entertained by my presence, a lot of the time. The other day we went for a walk into town with the two older children, and each time I heard one of them mention the ‘malae’ I would ask playfully, “who’s that malae you’re referring to?” They’d laugh and point to me.**

But there are nicer ways of referring to someone when you speak about them than just as ‘the foreigner’, and later on that day I was highly amused to hear the younger girl seriously going through my photo album with another person, explaining who each person in the photos was (according to what she remembered I had told her earlier):

And this one is Mana Osmina’s mother, and this one is Mana Osmina’s father. This is her grandfather, and this here is Mana Osmina’s sister, and her sister’s husband.

“Mana Osmina? Why does she call me Mana Osmina?” I asked Valda. “Oh, she doesn’t remember your name,” came the reply, “so she has just made one up.”

I feel quite touched to have graduated from being malae to having a name bestowed upon me by my young neighbour!

Last night I decided to treat myself in the evening to a DVD. While in Dili I bought myself Mad Men series 3. I made myself comfortable on the verandah with my laptop and got the DVD started. Before long, Aji, the boy, and the oldest in the family (aged 5), had joined me. I explained to him that the program was called Mad Men, and translated ‘mad’ as meaning crazy or angry. I could see him taken with the idea of crazy rather than angry and dug myself a little deeper into my hole by trying to say that the mad men of the title weren’t necessarily crazy in the Timorese sense of crazy.

Hmmm. Aji wasn’t interested, but amused himself for the next little while asking, each time Don Draper came on the screen, “Is that the crazy man?” and, “ Look, now the crazy man is talking to the woman/with the pretty little girl/driving the car”. It was quite a surreal experience, actually, especially given that no-one I know perceives Don Draper as particularly crazy.

** The funny thing about the ‘malae’ question, and who that refers to, is that they have named their pig Malae! I laughed so hard when I first heard this (they didn’t tell me, I heard them referring to the pig in this way. “Why do you call the pig Malae?” I asked two of the younger children. Their older sister emerged from the kitchen laughing and said it was because their pig’s pale skin was the same colour as malae skin, that’s why. So the answer to my question, “Who’s this ‘malae’ you keep talking about, was in fact, “the pig”.



Monday, day 15


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.