So while we malae all know that back home to query a person’s marital status, or even single / dating status, is quite the faux pas (such that I have seen clever advice in the past to get around this, e.g. asking ‘So, am I getting you into trouble by talking to you?” when attempting to ascertain the partner-status of a dreamy potential).
In Timor where it is Opposite Land, however, it is a perfectly normal question to ask in the context of polite introductory chit chat. Hello, how are you, what is your name, are you married? It’s a conversation point, rather than cause for gasps and shocked looks. (‘How old are you?’ is another common polite-in-opposite-land question, which is totes great because it then leads to detailed conversations about whether one looks one’s age, and how one is REALLY old to not be married and have 5 kids already, at the tender age of 27. As if the Australian / Western media weren’t doing a good enough job already pushing that fear on everyone.)
So, I have had some amusing conversations about marriage here. My two favourite so far:
a. The guys who fixed my airconditioning took a fairly routine conversation (all in Tetum, she proudly adds, I understood it all) – ‘How old are you, do you have children, are you married?’ – to ‘Ah, not married. You should not get Timorese husband! You should marry Australian man! Timorese man has no money. Australian man work hard, have lots of money!’
...Thanks for the advice, fellas.
b. Right at the end of one of my first interviews in Baucau, after telling me I must not write only bad things about barlake in my thesis, one of my interviewees - a sub-village chief, so reasonably wealthy – that when he wanted his son to go to Australia and study, he could contact me and give my family lots of buffaloes. :cue wide grin:
So it’s lucky that I have an enormous extended family, Mum, Dad, you can count the number of my uncles and ask for heaps of buffaloes [yes this is one way of determining amount of barlake. Another way is to ask based on what the mother’s family received, but I think this way is better given we didn’t have barlake for you, Mum].
Based on my research so far, I reckon I am worth at least 28 buffaloes - that is, 2 buffaloes times 6 uncles, plus another 2 for my brother, plus some more buffaloes for my parents - and $3000, not to mention sundry pigs, fine material, ceremonial swords and jewellery. Awesome! We will make out like bandits! I sure hope this son is cute and well-versed in anti-domestic violence rhetoric!