^ [ Password: mud ] ^
Shortly before coming to Malaysia, I discovered a script for a play entitled The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It was a one-woman show on Broadway in the ‘80s starring Lily Tomlin as twelve characters loosely tied together through their relationships to social fads of the era. The narrator is a crazy old bag lady named Trudy who believes she is performing the play to introduce a group of aliens to American culture.
When I began introducing my students to the concept of “drama”, I could not help but think that I must have looked like this crazy old bag lady to them. I intentionally embodied a big persona in class to show the fearlessness and self-deprecation required to be a performer, but was often met with horrified stares and uncomfortable giggles instead. Early in the aforementioned play, Trudy discusses the aliens’ inability to differentiate between a real Campbell’s Soup can and a Warhol painting of one; similarly, I found that my students had trouble deciphering what of my behaviors were purposefully outlandish and what genuinely came from me. Over time, even I have had trouble separating my true self from the “character” I play here.
Ros noted a few days ago that I’ve seemed a little off for the past couple weeks. Part of this can of course be attributed to the stress of planning the trip. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, the constant level of attention drawn to me can be exhausting, especially given the parts of myself that I must constantly alter or suppress to fit within my host community. Coming back from spring break, the perpetual need to spread a positive image began to chafe on my morale – first at home, then at school. At a certain point, I could no longer tell when I was actually happy from when I was just showing face.
On top of this, last week was a big emotional drag for me, knowing that my closest friends in the United States were reuniting without me at Mask and Wig Club Night. I always saw this day coming, but it did not make it any less crappy in the moment. All week, I was barraged with GroupMe notifications and Facebook posts reminding me of the year of experiences back at home that I am missing out on. I would sooner classify this as extreme disappointment rather than homesickness, but all week I felt like I would have given pretty much anything to be home for just that weekend.
This internal disappointment was compounded by the mountain of work on my plate to prepare for my lawatan to Kuala Lumpur. To be clear, this is not meant as a complaint. I was happy to do the work necessary, and incredibly blessed to have such a supportive team behind me in the Semesra English Panel. Still, as I was grappling with a mild depressive state to begin with, digging up the energy and optimism required to prepare for the trip was a Herculean effort. Thus, even as I went to bed the night before the event, I found myself curiously unenthused, my judgments clouded by otherwise lingering thoughts.
Waking up the morning of, however, the anticipation and passion that went into planning the project finally caught up to me. I smiled the whole way to school, even as I lugged four cases of water onto the buses and firmly reminded the students to be respectful and engaged during the day’s events. Before I knew it, we were on the road. I rode the first hour of the journey on the Form 4 bus, though the students were very tired and mostly slept or sat quietly.
The biggest adventure of the day came in the form of a special camp banner. Some context on this: the Embassy stipulated in our grant letter that their logo needed to be displayed at the event, and since we had no control over the programs for the performance, a banner was the only logical option to satisfy this requirement. Plus, Ros and I agreed it would look nice in the photos from the day and could later be used as a decoration for the CUBE. I stayed up very late Monday night designing a professional looking banner so I could print it in Teluk Intan after my Embassy luncheon on Tuesday. The next morning, I excitedly showed it to Ros only to be met with a blunt, “So boring! It should look more fun.” Thus, with only half an hour before leaving for the print shop, I had to design a brand new banner. Luckily, I am a pretty expert Photoshopper, so I whipped one up in a jiffy. Ros was still disappointed that I had opted not to put her and my faces on the banner, but she approved it nonetheless. In short, preparing the banner was a whirlwind, and a frustrating one at that.
Fast forward to our bus ride to KL, about half an hour after we left school. I suddenly realized that, in the hubbub of the morning’s preparations, I had left the banner back in Sungai Ranggam. I placed it on the bench next to the bus with the teachers’ personal bags, perhaps subconsciously hoping that someone would notice and grab it were I to forget. Lesson learned; I was wrong. As it turns out, the poster rolled in between the slats of the bench and onto the ground where no one saw it. Fortunately, Semesra’s amazing security guard, Pak Cik Ibrahim, drove by the school and found it. With the help of one of our bus drivers, we got in contact with another bus headed to KL from Manjung and they agreed to pick it up for us on their way. Crisis averted, but it gave me some heart palpitations for ten minutes or so. (Major props to Haziq and Kalmeet for keeping me level-headed during this.)
We paused halfway to the city for breakfast at a rest stop. I had pau kacang and teh ais, walked and chatted with the ever-curious 5IR student Syuib, and took some “fly” selfies with my 5IK buddy Shahrul Nizam. Cikgu Guna then surprised the teachers with Dunkin Donuts, so I had a nice double-dose of carbs for breakfast. I switched onto the Form 5 bus (spreading the wealth) and we hit the road again, halting briefly at a toll plaza where the Manjung bus passed our long-lost banner across into our window. Our buses arrived in Kuala Lumpur shortly after noon and parked at a mall close to the theater for lunch.
During this break, Ros and Amy decided to take me on a special little shopping spree for my impending 23rd birthday. Ros wanted to buy me a shirt or outfit that I could wear both in Malaysia and back stateside, hoping I would think of her whenever I wear it. I jokingly retorted that I only wanted a gift if it was Despicable Me Minion-themed. At one point, I tried on a red baju Melayu that I loved, but Ros hesitated to buy it because she felt it would only be wearable in Malaysia, not America. It was a fair point on her end, but later I went back and bought it for myself anyway as a birthday (/ proactive Hari Raya) gift – a steal at only RM100. Ultimately, Ros decided to get me a kurta as my gift. Much to her chagrin and Amy’s entertainment, I held a little fashion show, trying on a bunch of different colors before picking the one I liked best. I settled on a black shirt with gold accents. Ros said it looked handsome on me, but shook her head again when I told her I felt like a Malaysian cowboy wearing it.
At 2 PM, we re-boarded our buses and drove over to the Panggung Bandaraya theatre. In the lobby, I secretly purchased magnets for each of the chaperones as thank you gifts, and even bought one for myself along with a souvenir program. After meeting our Mud representative, the extremely helpful and professional Ms. Hera Keziah, we were led into the theater and seated in rows 2-8. Regardless of how close we were to the stage, it was a fairly intimate performance space, reminiscent of the Helen Hayes on Broadway. Also, we made up the vast majority of the audience, with only about 10-15 other tourists at the performance.
The show itself was exactly as I anticipated, a perfect blend of the diverse cultures that make up Malaysia. For example, there were three leading men: one Malay, one Chinese and one Indian. Given that my school’s student body is 100% Malay, it was important for the students to see firsthand that Malaysia’s history is not centered solely around their ethnic group (a lesson many white Americans could afford to learn too). The show was not exactly Broadway-quality, but given the relative lack of musical theater in East Asia, it was still a pleasant surprise. The cast was incredibly talented, the music was reasonably catchy and the sets and costumes were memorable.
There were three main highlights of the show that will stick out in my mind for many years to come. Firstly, there was a segment in which the leading Indian man went to a temple to pray for help. Behind him was projected a statue of a Hindu goddess. At one point, the statue came alive on the screen behind him, and he and the goddess danced an intricate ballet together. Seeing a live actor – who, I should add, was quite graceful for a 200-lb. man– dance in unison with a projection in this sensitively choreographed, spiritually motivated context gave me goosebumps.
Secondly, another point in the show represented the village of Kuala Lumpur being flooded by monsoon rains. Initially the staging of this moment was very standard:, with rumbling thunder sounds piped into the theater and bright “lightning” strobes flashing. However, as the “rains” continued, the crew employed a truly magical theater device as a giant mud-colored cloth came shooting out from the back of the stage over the heads of the audience, while blue lights flickered above to simulate the rushing water. For a good twenty seconds, it truly felt like we were drowning in a mudslide, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it in all my years of theater-going. (Take a hint, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. #BroadwayBurn)
The third, and undeniably most memorable, moment came during a scene set at a feast in a kampung. One of the actors came into the audience and hand-selected our good friend Cikgu Guna to come onstage and participate in the scene. He joined an ensemble member to help make chicken curry for the party guests. He then got to use a giant pot and wooden stirrer to make a percussive beat that the cast followed for a traditional saucer dance. Funny as it was to see Guna looking awkward onstage, it was even more thrilling to see how enthused the kids were at watching their teacher make a fool of himself. Don’t worry, we still haven’t let him live it down. The next week, I even made him his own personal certificate like the students; it read “Best Actor – for excellence in cooking chicken curry”! He’s a great sport.
At the very end of the show, the whole audience was invited onstage to dance with the cast. The students were shy as always, so I led the charge and dragged Danish from 4IK with me to encourage his friends to follow. Ultimately, the vast majority of the kids ended up joining in. Ros filmed it for posterity, but I will always remember the mental snapshots I took in that moment – my teacher colleagues cheering us on in the audience, and my students giggling eagerly behind me as they, in an unconventional way, performed on-stage for the very first time.
After the show ended, we stayed behind and took photos with the cast. Then, six actors held a thirty-minute question-and-answer session for the kids. I had the students prepare questions in advance, but many of them were too nervous to stand up when the time came. Thus, the teachers ended up calling on students to ask questions. After a few of them broke the ice, more hands shot up. They were actually very thoughtful in their inquiries, and the actors gave great responses – articulate, but at a level that the students could understand. Before wrapping up, two of the performers wished the Form 5 students luck on their SPM exams and encouraged all the students to work hard every day so they can someday achieve their dreams. Hearing these words from actors – mini-celebrities in their own right – seemed to register more with the students than the constant repetitive reminders that their teachers give them on a day-to-day basis.
After the Q+A, the students were led (one form at a time) on a backstage tour by several stagehands and the Stage Manager. They got to touch the props from the show, take selfies with the set and ask questions about how things work behind the curtain. They all seemed particularly enthralled by this unique opportunity, given that it’s something even most audience members do not get to see. A few of the girls posed eagerly with umbrellas from the monsoon scene, one boy had fun poking the baby doll prop and some of the kids even tried to replicate Guna’s chicken curry cooking. After our tour, we bid a fond farewell to Panggung Bandaraya. I gave a big thank you to Ms. Hera for all her help in making this possible and she asked me a few questions about the Fulbright program, encouraging me to let other ETAs know about the work of her organization. Duly noted!
An added bonus of the trip that I did not realize in advance was that the theater is located just across from the Dataran Merdeka, essentially the Malaysian version of Independence National Park in Philadelphia. It was there in 1957 (atop one of the world’s tallest flagpoles, still standing) that the British flag was lowered for the final time and the Malaysian flag was first raised. Then, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Chief Minister of Malaysia, led a crowd of citizens in chanting the word “Merdeka!” seven times to announce that Malaysia would henceforth be an independent country. While we waited for our buses, the students and I spent about 45 minutes taking pictures on the field, playing games and even filming a Mannequin Challenge (shout-out to Kalmeet!) Given how exciting this moment at Dataran Merdeka was for me, I can only imagine how thrilling it was for my students to see (many of them for the first time). I still remember my first time visiting Independence Hall in America. Even throughout college I would get chills anytime I walked by it. It’s funny how we, as individuals, can feel so connected to the history of our homelands despite how rapidly and significantly our national identities have evolved over time.
At one point during our time on the lawn, we saw a small fire in an alley across the street; I rhetorically asked what happened, and my sassy 4IS friend Hafifa responded that some locals were just trying to kill a mosquito, which I found hysterical. A few minutes later, Guna came over to ask if I had remembered to bring the banner from the theater with me. I of course launched into a panic, thinking I had lost it for the second time in a day. He smirked smugly and pulled it out, neatly folded, from behind his back. Kalmeet could not stop laughing. They apologized through their cackles, but said, “Nate, you should have seen your face!” Cruel and unusual as this prank may have been, these two moments showed me something important. My community at Semesra finally is comfortable enough with me to be able to make jokes, use sarcasm and poke fun. They feel safe enough to realize that I will laugh with them instead of taking offense, to know that we are on the same page. This realization was one of the day’s major victories for me. In hindsight, maybe misplacing the banner was one of the better mistakes I’ve made.
After re-boarding the buses, we stopped just outside the city limits to have dinner and allow the students to partake in their Maghrib (evening) prayers. All of the teachers except Haziq went to Burger King and had some hilarious conversations. Then, while most of the teachers went for prayer, I swung by Baskin-Robbins to get myself a congratulatory milkshake. I met up with some students waiting for the bus and they tried for the millionth time to get me to confess to having a girlfriend. I jokingly told them I was dating the bus, and then pretended to make out with the windshield, which got a hilarious variety of disgusted reactions.
On the ride home, I sat between Ros and Amy. We watched a bit of a movie that was playing on the television at the front of the bus. In the clip we saw, a man named Jijoe fell in love with a girl, and only seconds later was shockingly hit by a truck and killed out of nowhere. Jijoe has since turned into a running joke for us; anytime we are doing something fun, we say, “Too bad Jijoe couldn’t be here!”
I’ve always had great conversations on late-night bus rides. From Devon Prep field trips to Mask and Wig tours, some of my strongest friendships have been built on heart-to-hearts had while driving at night. Sure enough, Ros and I kept this tradition alive. I opened up to her about my anxiety, my parents’ divorce and even my illness in 10th grade. Thankfully, she was very receptive to all of it, listened calmly and interjected only to express support or ask clarifying questions. It further cemented my belief that I am the luckiest ETA in the program, if not the world. At times, she may be a little too much like my mom, texting to check on me every five minutes, but Ros truly cares about me and wants to make sure I know I am wanted, accepted and loved here. Difficult as it is at times being apart from my friends and loved ones, it is hard to feel homesick due to the care and friendship Ros has shown me.
Yes, there may be days when I feel sadder than usual, when I miss home or just seem un-energized, but these are normal. For every “off” day, I will have an “on” one too. Ros need not worry because I will surely tell her if something ever is wrong, and I know she will be the first person to jump up and help me fix it. Of all the blessings that have come from my time in Malaysia so far, my relationship with her tops the list. I truly hope, as we’ve discussed a few times now, that our friendship will continue beyond my time here.
We got back to Sungai Ranggam very late, close to 10:30 PM. The students trickled out, and I thanked them all for their cooperation and optimism. I parted ways with the teachers, breaking a cultural rule by giving Ros a “thank you” hug (with her consent, of course). I then drove home in my good pal, Molly Brown, with some showtunes blasting through the car stereo and a delirious grin on my face.
As I cautiously navigated the dark bumpy roads to Kampung Gajah, I thought back on the ending of that Lily Tomlin play, when Trudy finally brings the aliens to see her show. She asks them what they think of the experience, only to learn that they spent the entire time watching the audience instead of the play onstage. When she tries to correct them, they reply that the show is nothing special; instead, they find true magic in the shared experience of human beings – mostly complete strangers – building a momentary community by sitting quietly in darkness while collectively discovering and processing their emotions.
I then reflected on that afternoon, sitting in a theater for the first time since leaving America. In that moment, I found myself playing the role of the alien, looking around at my students, watching smiles spread across their faces. Perhaps we are still mostly strangers to each other, but shared experiences like this are strong enough to break through even the thickest cultural barriers. With every laugh, sigh or gasp I heard, an intoxicating sense of fulfillment inflated inside my chest. I breathed out my earlier disappointment and inhaled fresh satisfaction. I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything, even Club Night. In that moment, amidst my own momentary community, I found my genuine self once again.
In the words of the bag lady: “The play was soup. The audience, art.”
Softening in the spotlight,