The perfect malae

Last night, at a party, I was telling an incredulous friend an anecdote about a foreigner I’d worked with in Dili who, despite two-plus years of living here and the relatively simplicity of the language, couldn’t speak a word of Tetun.

“And that’s not even the worst bit,” I said, caught up in my own story, holding for a beat, the sentence hanging in the evening air. “He wasn’t even embarrassed about it!”

My friend smacked her hands together and gasped; the audacity, we thought, and I poured more red wine into my tumbler.

My friends and I have a certain sort of shorthand we use to describe foreigners, malae, who meet a set of standards of good behaviour.

When you say of a fellow foreigner “they’re a good one,” you’re tacitly scrolling through and marking a long checklist including but not limited to: they speak, or are trying to learn, Tetun; they live somewhere other than a $3k-per-month bougie gated compound; they don’t socialise exclusively with other foreigners; they don’t receive a hardship allowance in their work; they don’t expect daily interactions here to conform to their way of doing; they travel, or want to travel, outside of urban Dili. They’re interested in a life outside their own. In short, they’re a good malae.

I take a smug kind of self-satisfaction from running others through this test and finding myself better-positioned, which is something I’m not proud to share. But in an often-uncomfortable environment that remains unfamiliar and awkward to me, I tend to ruminating, to moral self-flagellation about all the things I do wrong here, so taking comfort in my attempts at learning Tetun feels harmless and fortifying.

But I read this week a good piece in BRIGHT Magazine: When Diversity Is Just About ‘Optics’, It Doesn’t Count, which has stopped me in my tracks.

Written by a white woman to other white people, the piece argues against performatively woke white liberals who value the appearance of diversity over the deliberate and careful inclusion of a diverse range of perspectives.

It describes two different mindsets progressive white people have to diversity: one which genuinely understands the value of a diverse community, one prepared to redistribute power, endure discomfort, and do the hard work required to change and grow.

And a second, described as follows:

The second white progressive mindset on this issue is defined not by actually valuing diversity and inclusion, but by doing just enough to be perceived as valuing diversity and inclusion. You are not interested in experiencing discomfort and its rewards (learning, integrity, innovation), but escaping critique.

The article cautions that this second perspective may give exhilarated do-gooders license to fail to do the work of redistribution their newly woke world-view requires. “Thinking you’ve done something moral,” says the article, “might mean you give yourself permission not to follow through in other ways.”

This article is making me reflect on my Friday-night red-wine conversation and the perfect malae checklist. While acknowledging our chat was intended as harmless, gossipy, private fun, I’m now wondering if that mental scrolling reveals something more sinister within me; a self-determined absolution of my responsibility to bridge the gap of inequality that exists between Timorese and malae simply because I’ve acknowledged its existence. Acknowledging, says the article, that inequality exists, without wrestling with my own complicity.

Do I think my month of Tetun classes excuses my ridicule of those who don’t learn? Do I think my living next door to my Timorese landlord gives me permission to befriend a group of people almost all malae or overseas-educated Timorese? Do my eleven months of working for a local NGO now give licence to my UN contract?

Am I performing as a perfect malae and washing my hands of doing any of the real work required to bridge the very real gaps that exist between myself and others?

The article concludes:

If you want to move past thinking about optics, the short answer is to not think about them. Just do the work. Build the diverse networks. Shed the outdated ways of working. If you genuinely believe your organization would be better off if it weren’t so male and white, then optics are irrelevant.

There’s a great Secret Aid Worker article from the Guardian that asks why us foreigners are paid so much more than local staff in the countries where we’re living, and I’m returning to it now as I contemplate the edge of my malae responsibility and what I’m capable of doing.

Inequality objectively exists between Timorese people and foreigners here. The overwhelming majority of us make a lot of money for Dili, live in lovely houses, and have a degree of social and economic mobility and purse of disposable income many Timorese will never see in their entire lives. But that’s not to say they’re poor and sad and helpless; nor is it to undermine the situations in which us malae are objectively at a disadvantage: we have no family or social protection here; our bodies are poorly suited for new diets and climates; even when we put effort into language-learning we’ll forever lack the cultural understanding, fluency and intuition that Timorese people are born with. For me, as a white Australian, I lack the cultural wealth many Timorese families have.

But in the areas of relationships, language, wealth and social power, there is a lot I can do to endure the discomfort real change requires and really appreciate that, if I believe a diverse society is one which is fundamentally better, I can be reflective and hard-working and make sure my steps to progress are more than a perfect malae checklist.

A final note.

I realise the irony that this post reads as performative; like I’m relieving myself of the very responsibility I’ve newly self-assigned in a very woke thousand-word unpacking of my privilege. But this is a reflection, a first step, shared publicly in the hope other people in similar positions see something in it that might be useful.



4 responses to “The perfect malae”

  1. […] View Original: The perfect malae […]


  2. […] of the AVID program– which I actually think for the most part is excellent– and of foreigners working in development more generally, but for now, I’ll leave it at the memory the other week of returning to the […]


  3. […] written here before about how I think good foreigners in Timor-Leste are the ones who cause little harm and make things about people other than […]


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