The Long Way Around

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In spite of all the motorbikes and dangerous animals, Malaysia is a much quieter country than the United States. Coming from a loud family, this was a shock to my system at first, but I have adjusted to the serenity. This adjustment also means that now if I notice things seem quiet here, it must be pin-drop, cricket-less silence.

This is how my school was last week. All of the students were taking school-based assessments, which seem to entail three two-hour-long sections for each of their classes. This means I did not get any time with them, save for occasional waves through classroom windows or brief chances to offer encouragement at the bookends of each day. Even the other teachers were perpetually busy proctoring or grading the exam papers, so I frequently found myself alone in the bilik guru. In some ways this was a blessing, as I also had a load of paperwork and reports to complete for the month of February. In others, it was demoralizing and lonely.

But even these negative feelings were a learning experience for me. They showed me with absolute certainty that interacting with the students is my favorite part of the job. Getting to impart knowledge, build relationships or just share an inside joke across cultures with these incredible young people is what drives me. This is not by any means an astonishing revelation, but it is an important confirmation.

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Semesra, the morning after a monsoon

In general, life here is still going great. I have been continuing to bond with my students, in particular the boys. A few of them have shown special talent for playing guitar, so I have started leaving my instrument at school for easy access whenever spare time presents itself. Still, I have been dealing with some personal angst, feeling as though I am unevenly splitting my attention between genders here. Granted, there are a lot of factors driving this. I am the first male ETA my school has had, which means – because of the gender norms here – the male students have not interacted with the past two ETAs nearly as much as the female students have. The boys are very eager to finally have their turn to befriend an American. Meanwhile, the girls generally love to spend time with me, but every conversation quickly devolves into being told how handsome I look and being asked if I am single. There are a few students who are exceptions, and I am trying to focus my attentions on them when I see them, but for the majority of my female students, the barriers of language and gender are proving hard to overcome. (Side note: I helped a few Form 5 girls with whom I am friendly on a painting assignment, and they gave it to me as a gift! I hung it above my bedroom door.)

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Speaking of bonding with the boys, the bilik guru is immediately adjacent to a homeroom of Form 5 boys who shout to me when I pass by in the corridor. Their enthusiasm and sheer volume anytime they see me makes them hard to avoid. In spite of being the lowest-performing Form 5 homeroom, they have captured my heart. They are like my very own Malaysian “History Boys”. Their focus subject is motor repair so they can work with motorbikes and cars when they finish school this year.16832310_10210027025527185_1121778876192014245_n

A funny story: They love to borrow my deck of cards to play with in their spare time. Last week, they came to me looking grim and told me they had lost the cards, which I quickly
forgave. A few days later, they brought me a new deck which they said they all bought together for me (questionable, as the cards were clearly used, but sweet nevertheless). Later that same day, when I walked by their classroom, I saw them playing with the original deck of cards! I think they scammed me just so they could keep my cards without having to ask permission whenever they wanted to borrow them. It gave me a good chuckle.

Since last time I posted, Semesra had its “Sports Day”. The event was similar to an American “Field Day”, but it had an unusual air of pomp and circumstance. Many parents and some local officials came to visit for the day. The students all wore uniforms and costume pieces to indicate which team they were on. They began the day with a big procession, marching across the school field as the sounds of marching band music were piped in. The athletic events were basically the finals of the track and field events that the students had been participating in every day after school that week. The top three students in each event were awarded medals and would go on to represent Semesra at the district-level competitions later in the year. I helped with timing the students during the track races; in between matches, students and teachers alike enjoyed watching me dance to the – for lack of a better word – eclectic playlist being played over the school speakers.

There were also competitions for the parents and teachers in which I was invited to participate. I raced car tires across the field with the fathers in attendance, and I competed in a balloon-blowing competition with the male teachers. I was handily beaten in both cases. At the end of the day, there was a big tug-of-war match between the four student teams. Ros assigned me to Team Yellow (Kuning), and I very intensely cheered them on. They easily beat Team Green (Hijau) but ultimately lost to Team Red (Merah). For some salt in the wound, I made a bet with Mamat, a Form 2 boy on Team Red, that if his team won, he could call me ugly (hodoh) and I would have to call him handsome (kacak) whenever I was asked. I have regretted said decision ever since, although it is actually kind of a fun inside joke I share with him. Ultimately, Sports Day was one of my favorite days of the year thus far. I was bummed it happened so early in the year, but my male mentor Haziq explained that if it happened any later the weather would be too hot and it would be dangerous for students’ health.

Thanks to Ros and her family, I finally got a baju melayu – a traditional Muslim Malay outfit that is worn on Fridays for prayer and on special occasions such as Hari Raya. It was hard to find one in my size, so Ros had her 6’5” brother-in-law send an old one to her mother, 17358975_10212597966286869_6032040182610038669_owho tailored it to my size. It is in the Johor style, meaning the shirt is worn untucked and the collar is loose. I purchased a genuine Terengganu samping from Cikgu Nawawi at my school for RM100; it is beautiful, ornately laced with gold thread. Our principal, Tuanhaji Mohamad Ismail b. Suhada, purchased a songkok for me to complete my outfit; as it turns out, they do not make them big enough for my huge head, but I am squeezing into the one he gave me and I treasure the sentiment behind it. I love being able to wear my baju as a symbol of respect for my students’ culture; I was worried at first it would be culturally appropriative, but the whole school seems genuinely excited to see me in it each Friday.

We have had three English camps since I last wrote a blog. The first was our statewide “fairy tale” camp in Ipoh. It was an intensely stressful but ultimately fun bonding experience for the 15 of us. We got to Ipoh very late Friday night after Clay and I went to the wrong mall on the entirely opposite side of the city. Turns out there are actually three malls in Ipoh called “Aeon Mall”. While walking through the wrong mall, we were cornered by a Chinese woman named Hazel who recognized us as Fulbrighters and ranted to us for a half hour about racial inequalities in Malaysia; it was a fascinating cultural experience that we are still deconstructing three weeks later. After realizing our navigational error, we drove across the city and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning making props and decorations for the camp. After getting a few hours of shuddeye in a gorgeous homestay, we trudged back to the (correct) mall and set up shop before the stores had even opened.

Each of our schools brought 6-8 students to the camp. We played Jack and the Beanstalk Jeopardy, did a Peter Pan obstacle course, deconstructed The Little Prince, built popsicle-stick houses for the “three little monkeys and the big, bad tiger”, and even tried to reenact The Wizard of Oz together. (Side note: I never realized how ridiculous that story truly is until I had to explain it to a bunch of ELL kids.) I served as co-Emcee for the event with Sarah N., which was a tad nerve-racking with a few timing curveballs thrown at us, but we handled it like champs. The highlight of the day for me came at lunchtime when one of the Perak State Library officials invited me to perform with a group of buskers in the mall’s courtyard. The band – Rock 7 – loved jamming with me; every time I finished one song, they asked me to sing another. I performed an original song I wrote in high school called “The Glass Half Full”, followed by Andy Grammer’s “Keep Your Head Up” and John Legend’s “All Of Me”. Ros noticed me singing with them and streamed a Facebook Live video of the performance for the world to see. Busking was something I never imagined I would try, much less in Malaysia, so it was a cool experience that I will surely remember for many years.

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The second English camp, the following Saturday, was Casi and Sarah N.’s “Chicago Camp” at SMK Sultan Azlan Shah in Lenggong in northern Perak. Clay and I slept over in Kampar the night before, visiting the local board game café before bed. We left with Sophia at 6:00 AM, stopping at McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich (and, in Clay’s case, a Coke). Clay, Sarah S. and I ran a “Second City Improv”-themed station at the camp. In ironic fashion, we decided not to plan a lesson but rather to just improvise one. We were unsure how it would go over, but it ended up very successful. We played “Whoosh!”, built a “human machine” together and then did some improvised scene work. After the camp ended, we had photoshoots with the row of Nissan Almeras in the parking lot and the school’s “Perak Excellent” graffiti wall. On the way home, we visited a nearby waterfall, the most gorgeous one I have ever seen (sorry, Niagara). Clay and I were disappointed when we were told we could not swim in it as the waters were infected with leptosclerosis, even though the locals still dove in as if there was no problem. On the way home, we naturally stopped at McDonald’s again for a late lunch.

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The photo doesn’t do it justice. It was magical.

The third English camp was at Sophia’s school, SMK Idris Shah in Gopeng. It was themed around the “Friend It Forward” peer mentorship program instituted by the Perak ETAs the year before us. I have opted not to continue the program at my school for several reasons, but it was cool to see it in action. Essentially, the camp was a training day for the “senior mentors” in Forms 4 and 5 who will run programming for younger students throughout the rest of the year. Sophia’s students were much stronger English speakers than mine, so it was easy to communicate with them. I ran an activity to define “leaders” and “mentors”, but I was also pretty sick. I got easily exhausted in the heat and spent the latter half of the camp resting in the bilik guru so I would not put a damper on other camp activities. I felt like a buzzkill but I was really glad I could be there to support Sophia. I even got a cool shirt out of it!

On a vehicular front, things are on the up-and-up as well. Knock on wood, we have not gotten into any car accidents since that first week. We finally got good ol’ Molly Brown back from the dealership, new tire and all (and I even wrote a song in her honor!) With Ros’ approval, I have started parking in the lot of the Teachers’ Quarters outside the school grounds and walking to school instead to avoid potentially scratching the car again on those stupid pillars. When I first started parking at the Quarters, I would walk out the front gate and along the main road past the students’ bus stop until I reached Semesra. After a week of doing this, Haziq noticed and showed me a gate behind the Quarters that leads directly into the school parking lot. Once again, I played the role of the ignorant American unnecessarily doing things the hard way.

In other car news, we recently had another adventure with the Kampung Gajah Police Department. The Monday after our state camp, we were given the day off from school by our JPN Officer, Mr. Faisal, for a celebration in Ipoh. Clay and I got up early to stream the Academy Awards and Esme and Sophia were planning to join us so we could then all carpool to Ipoh together. Somewhere around the Oscar for Best Costume Design, we got a phone call that they had been in an accident nearby and needed to be picked up. It turned out they were in the Kampung Gajah Town Center – only 1 km away from us – when a motorbike rear-ended them, shattering their back windshield. Luckily, they were both safe and the motorcyclist only sustained minor injuries to his hand.

Clay and I, now pros at navigating the Malaysian brass, guided them to the Police Station, accompanied once again by our landlord’s poor, sweet daughter Amalina who graciously translated for us. By the time the report was filed, we realized it was unfeasible to make it to Ipoh, so we drove with them back to Kampar instead, got pizza and smoothies and watched Begin Again in Sophia’s bedroom until we all felt better. Even though it was a traumatizing experience for our friends, it ended up being a memorable day, and we all counted our blessings that everything worked out alright.

Building off the Oscars talk, I have been watching a lot of movies here. Moonlight, Get Out, Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Edge of Seventeen, Children of Men… the list goes on. Clay and I are super thankful to have a cinema in driving distance of our house. We have seen four movies there so far (and counting). We went to see Logan with Ros, her husband and a Form 5 student named Naim. The movie was fantastic, but Ros caught me tearing up at the end and hasn’t let me live it down.

A few days later, we went to see Kong: Skull Island with one of Clay’s students and her sister, Aina. Aina is an Instagram celebrity in Malaysia with 25.6K followers and counting. Naturally, she made us take a ton of selfies together to share with her fans, boosting Clay and my burgeoning fame in South Perak. Aina is also an interesting window into Malaysian views on beauty as she appears to bleach her skin, rendering her complexion several shades lighter than that of her sister. Considering the Western obsession with tanning, it is intriguing to see Malaysians exhibiting the opposite trend.

Skin bleaching is not the only trend here I find perplexing. When we went to dinner after seeing Logan, Ros’ husband felt a little ill so he went to a nearby clinic for a bloodletting procedure, something that I do not think has been actively practiced in the USA since the days of William Henry Harrison. There is also a fascination with ghosts here, and they are actively blamed when someone has an “off-day”. One of my girl students actually had a case of hysteria where she ran through the school screaming and crying before passing out in front of my principal. (Fainting seems to be a trend here as well.) Given that the notion of “meddling spirits” is virtually absent from Western belief systems, I wonder if perhaps this culture enables certain students to act a little nutty sometimes, knowing that the behavior will always be excused as being out of their control. I mean this of course with the utmost respect toward the Islamic faith; as more of a man of science myself, however, I cannot help but question this when I see completely rational students acting erratically.

Clay has been grappling with a “trend” of his own. On a ride home from school, our good pal Mr. Poobalan stopped on a bridge above the Perak River, handed Clay a bag of garbage and insisted he throw it out the window into the waters below. Clay hesitated, but agreed upon further pressing. He came home feeling ashamed and ethically corrupted. A few days later, it happened a second time, but Clay adamantly refused so Poobalan just did it himself, citing his Hindu beliefs as a reason. Out of curiosity, Clay and I began to research both online and through conversations with other Hindu individuals, but we have not found a single source to corroborate that their beliefs mandate throwing garbage in rivers rather than landfills. Perhaps this is an example of, as Clay and I like to say, #JustPoobalanThings.

Below are some of the other random stories I wanted to share from these past few weeks:

  • One of the teachers at my school, Cikgu Abdullah, enjoys spending time and sharing his culture with me. He purchases breakfast on the way to school each morning and then invites me to sit and shares it with me: assorted kuih (my favorite: a sweet green roll filled with shredded coconut and brown sugar) and nasi lemak (coconut rice with spicy sambal, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and ikan bilis, tiny dried fish). It is consistently a highlight of my day.
  • Last year’s ETA, Lainie, painted a map of the United States outside the CUBE room. She made it green but painted in purple her own state (Minnesota) and the home state of the ETA before her, Sondra (Washington). Now that I am settled in here, Ros invited me to color in my state. I chose Pennsylvania because I still consider it to be my true home, even though my family lives in Maryland now. Lainie also painted a variety of American landmarks around the outside of the map, so I added the LOVE Statue from Philadelphia. I am not a great artist, but I think I did a good job with it. I was going to paint the Liberty Bell at first, but it struck me that sharing the notion of “Brotherly Love” with my students would be more impactful than just exhibiting another symbol of American pride.

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  • Ros is eager to redecorate the CUBE Room. To get the ball rolling, I held a student competition to design a new sign for above the door. [For context: the old one was printed on foam board and typed in – wait for it – COMIC SANS. When I saw that, I knew an update was mandatory.] Two girls in 4IS, Hafifa and Hafizah, submitted beautiful, colorful, hand-drawn designs, so I scanned them, fixed them up in Photoshop, added a touch of my own in the middle and got approval from Ros and Tuanhaji. Ros then took it to a shop in Teluk Intan and had it printed on a beautiful canvas banner, which we then stapled to the doorframe of the CUBE. It is so fulfilling to see that I have left a visible mark on the school already. I am proud of the banner and hope it stays long after I have left Semesra.
  • In the middle of this exam week, Semesra suffered a burglary overnight. The criminals broke into the bilik guru and stole money from several teachers (though, surprisingly, they seemed to organize my desk for me as well). A couple teachers found notes on their desks reading, “Maafkan saya, Cikgu.” The robbers also attempted to enter the CUBE (as evidenced by splintering wood around the door handle) but they could not break through the padlock. They stole the central security camera storage unit from the main office, and they even broke into the computer lab and stole the hard drives out of the computers. This was an upsetting event for my school, and the mood was very somber the following day.  The teachers speculated that perhaps it was because of an event happening at the school the following day, in which any parents at the school below a certain income bracket would be given RM100 subsidies for each of their children. They gossiped that perhaps the crime was committed by the Bangladeshi workers who had been setting up for the event the evening before. I questioned this assumption, only insofar as I am aware of racial tensions in Malaysia at the moment because of increasing rates of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While the assumption may still be accurate, I choose to view it as another cultural learning opportunity, equivalent to the current American rhetoric on Mexican immigrants.
  • Last week, I was watching a movie with Clay in his room when Ibrahim knocked frantically on the door. He let us know that the Minister (like a Governor) of Perak was going to be visiting the homestay at 4 AM the next day for morning prayer and asked us to move our car. We then heard him all night mowing his lawn and preparing his house for this esteemed visitor. The next day, we came to find out that the Minister never showed up! Poor Ibrahim looked so disappointed, but hey, at least his lawn looked nice!
  • Ibrahim is also in the process of building a new patio (or, as he pronounces it, “pay show”) for his house. When construction began, Clay and I had no idea how large and ornate it would end up being. Three weeks in, it is still not finished but it looks gorgeous. Ibrahim is very eager to have us use the patio once it is complete; I am sure we will take him up on that offer.
  • Last Thursday, Clay and I stayed home from school because we were visited by Becca and Vaishali, two of our MACEE coordinators. Kampung Gajah was the only Perak placement Vaishali did not visit last year when she was an ETA, so she was excited to see our humble abode. Becca took Clay and I for one-on-one conversations to check in. I’ve genuinely been doing well here, so I felt like I did not have much to say, but it was still nice to vent and talk out the struggles and successes I have been facing thus far. Afterward, they took us to a lunch of our choosing; after some fickleness, Clay and I settled on a chicken restaurant in Kampar called “Wing Zone”. It was a nice dose of American cuisine, some food for the soul. Over lunch, we shared cultural stories and joked about Becca someday starting a New England cult.
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My new “Mate”, Andika!

  • After months of waiting, I finally got a haircut here. There is a small barber shop in the KG Town Center called “Mate”. Clay approached it very skeptically as he self-proclaims his hair as “sacred” to him, but I was very excited to give it a shot. Come to find out, the barber is a hipster 24-year-old guy named Andika. He is fresh out of school and is trying to make a name for himself, having just opened the shop on December 12. The shop has a cool vibe; it’s basically a glorified closet covered in wood-paneling with three barber stations set up. They also have a guitar and a ukulele, and actively encouraged Clay and I to play for them when they found out we were musically-inclined. I gave no specifications for my haircut, but I love the new ‘do Andika gave me (for only RM10!) He buzzed the sides but left the top pretty long. Having not changed my look in 22 years of life, it’s refreshing to take a new hairstyle for a spin. I even went and bought gel, which I’ve been using every day at school. (My boys tell me I look “smart”, and my girls just squeal when they see me.) Andika even gave me his phone number and invited us to hang out sometime, which I fully intend to do. Either way though, Andika will definitely be getting my business again. If you’re ever looking for a trim in KG, I highly recommend him.
  • I neglected in my last post to mention that I took a risk and applied for a grant from the U.S. Embassy to run a special camp for my students later this spring. I wanted to take my “speaking workshop” students to see a musical in Kuala Lumpur. I found an awesome show called “Mud”, a government-sponsored show that tells the story of the founding of Malaysia in English! I worked hard on the application and submitted it over a month ago. I just got word a few days back that the Embassy is fully funding my proposal, so it’s a go! I am completely elated and will be sure to write more about this as the planning progresses.

So, needless to say, life here is very busy. And yes, it is all very stimulating and mostly very positive, but it is also exhausting. Maintaining my stamina is a daily struggle. Every afternoon, I punch my card and saunter out of school desperate for a nap.

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Still, I find enough little moments to keep me feeling strong. Remember how I mentioned parking outside the school grounds earlier? Well, as I saunter out each day, I see the gate Haziq showed me – the one leading directly to the parking lot of the Teachers’ Quarters – and after a second of contemplation, I pass it by.

Sure, the long way is less convenient, and walking along the main road after school is more risky, but that extra minute of walking allows me to pass the students’ bus stop on the way back to my car. That extra minute lets me see their smiles one last time before I go home for a lonely night of lesson planning and YouTube binging. That extra minute gives me one more chance to remind them I am here for them.

As I prepare for spring break – meaning I am now a quarter of the way through my time in Malaysia – I can’t help but think back on the question AJ posed to us during Orientation: “What are you doing here?” Three months in, I have found many answers to that, but it’s funny to realize my top one is the same as it was back home. No matter what continent I am on, I am here to help the kids who need me most. No matter how busy I may be, I will always spare an extra minute for them.

Yes, even if it means I have to walk the long way around.

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“Fadzeilo!” “Najumbo!” “Adudu!” “Amirnang!” These goofballs barely speak English, but I love the poop out of them anyway.

Teaching and learning,

Nate

[PS: I’ll be out of commission for the next week because I am travelling to Bali, but expect another blog shortly upon my return!]

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One thought on “The Long Way Around

  1. What a wonderful post, Nate! Once again, I laughed, gasped, got goosebumps, and teared up. You are an outstanding writer, and you have a beautiful soul. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud than to know I raised a son who takes the long way around. I love you, kiddo!

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