"Miss, our new ETA is coming!"
Clearly the whole keeping a blog thing didn’t end very well. In the craziness of the last few months, spending time with my students seemed far more worthwhile than finishing up blog posts. I can say I at least tried to keep it up. I’ve got about a half dozen posts all in various phases of completion. They cover topics ranging from palm oil production and the joys of pickup soccer at the hostel to my struggles with ensuring I don’t present my experiences in a way that perpetuates a White Savior complex and my fears/guilt upon returning home. However, I don’t think I’ll ever end up posting those, even if I do finish them. However, one post has been writing itself in my head the last few nights and in order to be able to get a good night sleep again, I should probably write it down.
So this will be my last post. To those of you who have read them throughout this past year, thank you. Thanks for wading through the stream of consciousness, the misspellings, and the rambles as I tried to work through all the thoughts in my head as I sought to make sense of the most challenging and rewarding year of my life. I hope you learned something from them. I certainly learned through writing them: about myself, about this experience, and about a country that became a home. If nothing else, I hope I provided a small window into a country that few of us know anything about and among all of hatred, xenophobia and islamophobia plaguing our country, showed you that often times the “others” are no different than us and often times act like any teenager in America.
And with far too much babble already, here’s my final post – an open letter to the new SMK Mengkarak ETA.
Dear New ETA,
Today was your first day of school. How are you feeling? How did your speech go? Feeling like you’ve been thrown in slightly over your head and are still trying to figure out how you’ll keep yourself afloat? Don’t worry. I have no doubt you will do far more than keep afloat; you will soar and accomplish things throughout your year that you never thought possible.
Sir Arif sent me photos of your welcome ceremony. You look beautiful in your baju kurung. It might still feel like a shirt cage right now, but in time you’ll come to love them (they make it so easy in the morning, but def mess up your sense of what “goes together” fashion-wise upon return to the US). I hope you and your roommate can make use of the box of them Erin and I left you guys. They were some of our favorites.
Did the students talk to you? If they didn’t, don’t feel bad. They tend to be malo malo kuchings in the beginning. But trust me, they’re thrilled to have you there and are so excited to get to know you! You’re all any of them could talk about when they’ve messaged me over the past week. Give them a few weeks and soon you’ll never have a moment of silence walking through the school. Cherish those morning greets of “good morning, miss!” Hi Miss!” “How are you Miss?” It will be one of things that you’ll miss when you’re gone. Did you hear a chorus of “Miss, so beautiful!” as you walked to the hall from the principal’s office? Did they ask “have you eaten yet?” at least a dozen times? Did they tell you all five of their names names so fast that you feel like you’re never going to learn them? Don’t worry, you’ll come to know them and nicknames are always encouraged (personally, Snowman was one of my favorite nicknames of last year). I hope the first day went wonderfully for you.
I know you already received a letter from me. In the craziness of end of year chaos last fall, MACEE asked each of us to write you a letter about the town (#onlybera) and the school for you to receive when you found out your placement. I hope that letter helped to assuage some of your nerves about SMK Mengkarak before you arrived.
But I feel like I didn’t really give that letter the full attention it deserved. In part it was because with everything else going I wasn’t in a mindset to shift through the massive amount of information I had gained in the year and nicely compact it into a one page letter. More so though, if I’m being honest with myself and with you, it’s because I never really expected you to read that letter. I thought I would be the one opening it up during my second year of orientation as I began my SETA experience. But if I’ve learned anything from Malaysia, it’s that things don’t work out as planned and that is almost always for the best. While I am selfishly sad that I can’t be there for another year with my, no your, students, I am so excited that they get you. They get to meet a new ETA, learn about new aspects of American culture, be exposed to new classroom techniques, enjoy new English camps, participate in new after school activities and get to find new ways to connect with you.
So consider this letter my supplement to the information I already gave you (also before I forget yet again to include it - if you’re ever sick, go to Clinic Yap in Triang – it’s across from SJ(C)K Triang’s field - the doctor is great and speaks good English, although if you do in with an ear infection from scuba diving be careful, he has a tendency of jabbing the ear camera a bit too hard into your ear to show you what’s wrong). This is much less of the logistics MACEE wanted (i.e. what resources the school has, good restaurants, location of banks, etc.) and much more about the people that make the place so special and that I hope you get to know.
I hope you make the English room your own. Arif told me he and the rest of the English panel have finished decorating it. I expect it looks wonderful. Did they get a door knob for it this year? When you enter it, you’ll find a box I left for you. In it you’ll find some letters from 5 Effective students, as well as dozens of welcome cards that they wrote for you. I hope they help you realize how excited the school is for you to be there. There’s also some small things to help with the days when home is feeling awfully far away. I hope your Pahang cohort enjoys taco nights as much as ours did. There should be enough in there for at least a few evening gatherings.
Throughout the year, I hope you find ways to make this room your sanctuary, your workplace, and a place of countless memories. Encourage the students to hang out there and I guarantee you’ll be humbled be the amount they’ll open up to you. And just a side note, if you need a nap local during Ramadan or an out of the way place to quietly down some peanut butter while everyone else is fasting, it can serve that purpose pretty well too.
I hope you work with the English panel to plan lessons. But more than that, I hope you talk to them about every topic under the sun. From religion and politics to recipes (Faz has a fondness for Rachael Ray) and fashion. They are some of the most incredible people I have ever had the privilege to know and they want you to succeed more as an ETA than you’ll ever realize. Never hesitate to reach out to them. I hope you can teach them about the aspects of America you love and the aspects that make you sad. Don’t shy away from the tough conversations, you’ll come away closer for having had them.
I hope that you get to know Teacher Gan, Teacher Guan, Teacher Yee, and Teacher Jesse. I know they can be intimidating, but trust me, they’re some of the most carrying women in the world. Your desk is probably in their pod and don’t be surprised if occasionally (more like every day) you find small treats or snacks waiting for you when you arrive. Especially during Ramadan, I hope you take advantage of the chance to join them in the kantin for meals. It’s an incredible chance to learn about another side of Malaysian society that can sometime be drowned out. Also, if you ever feel like repaying them for all their kindness, they’re big fans of Swedish Fish and Teacher Yee loves hummus (learn how to make this in a blender, it will be a dietary staple throughout the year).
I hope you never turn down an invitation to the kantin, even if you just have a drink (I highly recommend teh o ice halia – I didn’t realize it was an option until much too late). Getting to know the other teachers over meals is a great way to immerse yourself into the school happenings, from the latest gossip to what events you might want to join. I hope you try everything they serve at least once. On a personal note, I highly recommend the tempe, sting ray and ikan patin (all served with a side of sambal of course ) I hope you get to know Ma and Cik Ma. If you do, please give Cik Ma the biggest hug from me and tell her I miss her, I have the blanket she gave me on my bed, and I hope her mother is doing better. If you want to improve your Bahasa Melayu, they’re the best teachers I had there.
Lastly, I hope you open up your heart to these students in ways you never thought you would and ways you’re not necessarily prepared for. I hope that you can talk with Asmadi about his hopes of becoming a lawyer and how his PT3 exams went (if he asks you if you enjoy romantic scenery, just go with it). I hope 5 Science becomes your student guides to life at SMK Mengkarak and you go to them on days when the schedule is strange, you have no idea where half the students are, and you’re just generally feeling uniformed. They are so looking forward to serving as your guides if you give them the chance (they also want to invite you to spend time after school with them, but they’re not quite brave enough yet to ask – give them some time). I hope Erni and Naim approach you about help applying for AFS, something they both would be perfect for and would change their lives. I hope you get to know 5 Innovative. On first meeting, they might come across as troublemakers, but I promise they are some of the best students at the school. Give the girls, especially Wrena, Abby, and Bina a big hug for me and the boys, particularly Haikal, Nukma, Shafiq, and Azry a fist bump and a “chun” for me. I hope you share your love of dance with 5 Effective. They’ve got some incredibly talented dancers amongst them. I hope you let Franky help you with translations with 3C just does not get what you’re asking and continue to encourage his dream of moving to New York someday. I hope you take up the Asli students on their offers to see their villages and I hope you realize far sooner than I did how great spending the hours after school at the hostel can be. I promise as good as a nap may sound, an afternoon at the hostel playing pickup games will always leave you feeling more rejuvenated.
More so than anything though, I hope you take these suggestions and turn them on their head. These are the things that made me love SMK Mengarak so much. As a result, I hope you come to love them too and find their specialness. But I also hope you find your own people and students and activities that make you wake up every morning feeling like you have the best job in the world. I hope you find ways of connecting with the students that never necessarily meshed with me and my approaches to learning. I hope you put on English camps that I never even thought of and that you find ways of sharing your talents with the school in ways they’ve never seen before. I hope you get to know the teachers I never did and find your own favorite dish in the kantin and beg Cik Ma to show you how to make it. I hope you find out a million things about SMK Mengkarak that I never knew. I hope you find a way to make it your home. I hope more than anything, you find the things that will make you love your ETA experience. That is my biggest hope for you.
Sorry that this letter turned into a novel (now you can even better understand why I had such a hard time with the short MACEE letter). But like many things in this letter, I don’t think the length really matters. Largely because, I don’t think you’ll ever read this letter.
In the MACEE letter I wrote you I included my contact information and my hope that you would reach out. However, I also included a note saying that I would understand if you chose not to. I promised I would not contact you unless you first reached out. I said I would understand if you wanted this year to be entirely your own and choose not to color it with knowing about the experience I had had there. So far that is the route you have chosen, and while selfishly it saddens me if for no reason other than I would love to see the photos you post and see the students happy, smiling faces, I understand it. If I was you, I don’t think I would have reached out, at least not yet. I would want to have carved out my own niche at SMK Mengkarak, found my own “favorites”, my own routines and my own teaching style before opening myself up to seeing a year full of photos (and the occasional blog post) of the ETA who came before me. If you change your mind, I look forward to the day I hear from you. There are countless other things I’d love to tell you and even more so, I would so love to hear how your experience is going.
If that day never comes though, I hope you at least know that a stranger 15,000 miles away is cheering for you. She is sending you as many good vibes as she can and every wish for success in the year ahead. She is hoping you have an incredible year filled with many challenges, numerous learning moments, countless laughs, millions of freestyle photos, a literal ton of Tom Yam (Pak Su is by far the best in Pahang – don’t let other ETAs dissuade you) and air kelapa, and the greatest experience of your life. You deserve it.
With love from the ETA who came before you,