A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: remullin

An Open Letter to the New SMK Mengkarak ETA

"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,
Miss Rachel

Posted by remullin 18:57 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

When Can You Make a Value Judgement?

"Miss, is it the same in America?"

When do you get to make a value judgement?

This is a question that I’ve grappled with a lot during my time in Malaysia. I’ve thought about writing a blog for it on awhile but continually avoided it, thinking that with time I’d come up with some better answers or more coherent thoughts. However, it’s been over 8 months and I still haven’t and since my time in Malaysia is quickly coming to an end, I figured I should finally give it a shot (I’m also trying to get over my writers block so I can go back to writing my personal statement for grad school).

One of the main objectives of my Fulbright grant is to increase cultural understanding. In the obvious way, that means me serving as a cultural ambassador of America and helping m students, teachers, and community gain a better understanding of Americans, our country, our beliefs, values, and, most importantly to me, the wide spectrum within each of these categories. In the potentially less obvious way, this also means me serving as an ambassador of Malaysia. Whether that takes the form of Facebook and blog updates that allow my friends back home to get a better sense of everyday life in Malaysia, its beauty, its variety, and the ways that it is both similar and vastly different than the US. It also will require explaining and representing Malaysia to people back home once I return. Discussing things I learned, perspectives I was presented with by Malaysians and my understanding of how Malaysians view and talk about certain things. In order to do this, I have spent a lot of my time in Malaysia trying to listen and absorb when people open up to me about Malaysia, their ideas, ideals, values, religious beliefs etc. I’m often listening rather than interjecting my own opinions during these conversations. I have also made a concerted effort to suspend many of biases, ethnocentric ideas, and conceptions of things. While I would like to say that my open-mindedness, excellent education, prior travels, and strong desire to “see the world as others see it” as Senator Fulbright put it, has allowed me to make no value judgement based on Malaysia that would be a lie. Rather I have tried to recognize these moments when my first response is to say “this is weird” or “this seems wrong” and evaluate where these concepts are coming from and what is motivating them. Often times, as I learn more about Malaysia, my school, the socioeconomic situation, and the daily realities of people here, things that originally seemed weird or off make much more sense.

However, are there situations when I am in the right to make value judgments about things and say, I don’t care if that is how things are here, it’s wrong?” Much like discussion of if there is such a thing as universal human rights, this discussion gets murky, particularly when I’m having it all within my own head.

Recently I was having a conversation with another Fulbrighter. They were talking about how they had come to Malaysia to learn about its education system and hopefully learn things to take back with them to make them a better teacher in the US. However, they had reached the conclusion “there is nothing good about the Malaysian education system.” This Fulbrighter doesn’t hate Malaysia or their time here (and part of their response was probably due to the fact that a lot of us are going through some serious culture fatigue), but they had made a value judgement about the Malaysian education system that it offered nothing to be learned from.

This made me think. There’s no denying that the Malaysian education system has some serious strugs to work through, from lack of teachers and resources, to poorly written tests and insanely high pressures placed on students, it certainly doesn’t have everything figured out. But neither does the US system. Additionally, I think that before you judge an entire system as inept, it’s important to realize that the goals of the US and the Malaysian education system may not be the same. In the US we seem to pride ourselves on an education system that (in an ideal classroom) teaches the importance of creativity, instills in students the ability to think critically about world issues, and to be prepared for lifelong learning. The Malaysian system would also like to achieve those things, but under its current structure, what it is focused on is getting students to pass national exams, mainly PT3 (Form 3 exam) and SPM (Form 5 exam). While creativity, critical thinking, etc. are all super nice sounding, they are not necessarily an asset to students taking these exams. In order to do this, it is essential that students retain and regurgitate a ridiculous amount of information ranging from Math and English to Islamic Studies and History. If this is the goal of the system, rote memorization and regurgitation, the Malaysian system is much better at it than the US system. My students are able to memorize and apply complex formulas and literary components that my, supposedly superior US education, would never have prepared me for. What this vastly long winded tangent is meant to demonstrate is that making a statement about the worth of something in this country, and anywhere in the world, requires far more contemplation and has more factors at play than we often realize.

The other issue that complicates making value decisions on Malaysia based on my experience here is that so much of what I am experiencing, from gender relations, school environments, religious discussions, etc. are heavily impacted by the socioeconomic situations that impact my community. As one of my coordinators put it, “is what you are experiencing the result of Malaysian culture or the result of poverty?” She asked us to think about what kind of perception of America someone would gain if they came from the Middle East or Southeast Asia and was placed in an impoverished community in Appalachia. Would the residents there share the opinions of middle America, or would much of what the recent immigrant experience be strongly influenced by the poverty of the residents which leads to issues like lack of access to education, limited world views, etc. I can only imagine the image of America someone would come away from such an experience with.

So these are all the things that are constantly in the back of my mind when I want to make a generalized judgement about Malaysia. I try to remind myself of them, to seek more answers, and ask myself is this poverty and lack of exposure speaking or Malaysia talking? Nevertheless, days like today I have a hard time not making judgments.

Today while sitting in the kantin I overheard (in my very limited understanding of Bahasa Melayu (BM) – P.S. I had my first full conversation in BM with a stranger this week and it felt like quite the accomplishment) a conversation about one of my favorite form 2 students (8th grade), Zelda. Since I was only catching a couple of words about her, I asked two of the teachers who speak English what they were talking about. Apparently the reason Zelda has not been at school for the week is that they think she was married off. I was aghast. A 14 year old hasn’t been at school for a week because she has been married? When my teachers saw my face they asked what was wrong and I said I was a little shocked, they laughed and said that is wasn’t that uncommon. The counselor said she would do an investigation into it and let me know what she found out. With that the conversation ended and it moved on to school gossip about the new English teachers and if they were cute or not.

In my mind, this is when I get to make a judgement about something. 14 year olds should not be married. They should be in school, goofing off with friends, having crushes, and navigating the insanity that is high school. I know that these things happen, I know it is more common in economically depressed areas, I know that in Malaysia people often marry younger than we do in the US, I know that since Zelda is Orang Asli many of my community members do not particularly care what happened, I know all these things, yet I’m still making a judgement call. And I think that’s okay.

I’ve striven to spend my time in Malaysia learning as much as possible. To be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new ways of doing things - even if they don’t immediately make sense to me. It’s enabled me to gain so much more than if I came into this experience looking to constantly judge, compare or seek to find the “right way of doing something.” This experience has also taught me though that at times it is okay to make value judgements. Coming into a new culture does not mean that we have to embrace and love every aspect of it. We need to be respectful and open to learning, but that we also need to engage in dialogue. I have been privileged with an incredible education, access to information that many could never receive, and experiences around the world that most people will never get. This does not mean that I am the authority on topics or that I have a right to say that the way a culture does something is incorrect. But I believe it does give me a responsibility to share these insights and ideas in an effort to expand the perspectives of others and remind that that while my culture does not contain a monopoly on the correct way of doing things, theirs does not either.

Posted by remullin 05:54 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

We Made a Movie!!! (about three months ago . . .)

"Miss, this is a mess."

Hey Everyone!

In case you were wondering, I'm still alive and doing well in Bera. Sorry about the blog failure. I've been preoccupied with personal statements, cover letters, and resume writing trying to figure out what my next step after this crazy adventure will be. Nevertheless, I finally have some halfway decent internet and wanted to share with you the video my state (Pahang) made for our mid-year meetings with all the Fulbrighters. It gives you a quick look into life throughout my state and the quirks of each town. They're also filled with countless inside jokes and Malaysia references that probably won't make sense to others. Our part starts around the 3:00 minute mark. Watch when you're in need of a good laugh :)


For Bera, Erin and I made a parody of the song "Tonight, Tonight" called "Bera, Bera." As one of my students kindly put it, "Miss, this is a mess." And she's pretty much right. It's certainly not going to gain me a career in film production. Nonetheless, our video gives you a bit of a sense of our house, part of our school's, and the towns and trees that surround us. The audio is a bit of a struggle, but what can you expect when you're trying to record a song on a tablet in your living room. Below are the lyrics to our song in case you can't hear it while watching.

We’ve got a really really messed up house
Seven days no water, never getting internet
And then there was that issue with the roof
Plus don’t even get us started on the cockroaches and lizards

La, la, la whatever, la la la it doesn’t matter, la la la, oh well, la la la

We’re at home in Bera, Bera
Maybe its the middle of nowhere but,
This grant, this grant, we are dancing on the edge of the Bera sign
We don’t need two roads, shopping mall, or bus stop
It’s all great, all great in Bera, Bera

I’m at SMK Mengkarak
I’ve got the best kids ever, teachers who’ll do anything
And a fish club without any fish
But on the field, nobody can stop us

La, la, la love it, la la la wouldn’t change it, la la la, best ever la, la la

We’re at home in Bera, Bera
Maybe its the middle of nowhere but,
This grant, this grant, we are dancing on the edge of the Bera sign
We don’t need two roads, shopping mall, or bus stop
It’s all great, all great in Bera, Bera

Woah, Bera, ohh, come visit, woah, everybody now, ohh

I’m at SMK Bandar Keryong
English camp at Kuala Gandah
AFS workshops at Mick D’s
If you come here hope you know Chinese

Please just stop flooding keep it all dry
Anymore rain and we might disappear
It’s our placement, we wouldn’t change it
We can’t get crazy, keep it halal
It’s Erin and Rach and we’re runnin this town
And its freakin the neighbors how much we all run
But ain’t nobody gonna tell us to stop, well maybe they are . . .

Woah, come visit, ohh all you other states
Woah let me hear you now, ohh

Bera, Bera, maybe it’s the middle of nowhere but
this grant, this grant, we’ll be dancing on the edge of the Bera sign
We don’t need two roads, shopping mall or bus stop,
It’s all great, all great in Bera, Bera
It’s all great, all great in Bera, Bera
Yeah, it’s all great, all great, in Bera, Bera

Posted by remullin 23:26 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

English Camp

"Miss, the turtles would die."

I should preface this post with fully admitting that it's a cop out post. I haven't had time to write anything and in all honesty with graduate school fellowship applications on my mind and agenda right now, I probs won't be posting very often in the months to come. However, my goal is at least one post a month.

Anyways, the reason this post is a cop out is because I'm literally just copying and pasting in a report that I was required to turn into MACEE (our bosses in Malaysia). Each month we are required to submit a one page write up about some activity throughout the month that was impactful on us or on students (ideally both). This month I wrote about my English camp and since I had talked so much about the camp in previous blog posts, figured I could post it here as well:

May was a pretty awesome month at SMK Mengkarak and it was rather difficulty to pick one activity to write about. From painting murals for the English room to the student planned welcome festival for my parents to helping out with the booths for Koperasi Day, it was a month where I was reminded just how amazingly lucky I am to be the ETA at this incredible place. However, I think my proudest moment was my English camp the weekend of May 9 and 10th.

The focus of the camp was the importance of protecting our oceans. The camp was held at Cherating Beach and was a two day affair with the 40 Form 5 students with the top English scores in the school (they came from the top three classes). For the camp the students completed a variety of different activities fitting the theme. We did a fashion show out of recycled plastic bags as a way to demonstrate the importance of upcycling, we did a beach cleanup, the students completed various lessons on ocean geography, and we watched the Lorax as a fun way to get across an environmentally conscious ideal. We also had a lot of fun with a photo challenge, sandcastle building competition, a water fight and at least a thousand selfies. While I was blown away by the students enthusiasm, their ability to grapple with challenging concepts, and their flexibility when we had a few #malaysiboleh moments, those probably weren’t the reasons my camp was my favorite part of the month.

What stood out to me at the end of the camp, is that it became an illustration of how far these students had come in their English abilities, but also how far our relationships with one another had come. These were the students that were so painfully shy that just getting them to do introductions the first day led to panic and who would (or could) barely give more than one word answers to questions. These were the students that seemed hesitant to allow me in and understandably questionable about what my role in their classes would be. Observing the camp, you never would have guessed they were the same kids.

These are the students that went from giving two word answers to spending an entire weekend speaking English with me. And not just simple English, often times complex vocabulary and ideas about ocean currents, aquatic life, recycling processes etc. These are the students that were terrified when I would sit down at their table during recess who were now inviting me into their rooms, removing their tudungs (headscarves) in my presence and cheering on the Elephant Army soccer team as they beat Kelantan with me. They went from the students who were too shy to even smile in the early classes who were now giving me a hard time and laughing like we had been friends for year.

I could not have been prouder of them or felt more fortunate for the trust they have placed in me.

Here are a few pictures from the camp as well:

Posted by remullin 05:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Broken Down Barriers and Broken Hearts

"Miss, why do you look sad?"

Apologies for how long it has been since my last blog post. I made an agreement with myself that I would try to do one blog post a week. However, since it’s been nearly a month since my last post we can all see how well that’s going for me. It’s not that I don’t have enough to write about, my document list of topics seems to grow just about every day. The hard part is finding the time. Between the 27 periods a week of classes, four nights a week (or that’s the goal) of sports, the start of my speaking workshops, English camps, and the various trips around Malaysia and abroad thrown in there, I’m kind of tired to be honest. We’ve past the four month mark and I think some of the daily wear and tear of life here is beginning to catch up with us. Personally, my health hasn’t been A+ lately (currently struggling through a double ear infection that makes my hearing about as good as a 90 year old) and I’m feeling a little worn down. This isn’t meant to sound like I’m down on Malaysia. I’m definitely still loving my time here, but it is meant to convey that at the end of the day when I finally get some downtime, curling up in bed and reading the most recent Atlantic articles or making my way through Anna Karenina is a bit more appealing than tackling a blog post. However, I will try to do better.

Anyways, on to the actual blog post . . . .

As I wrote about a few blog posts ago, I really feel like I’m beginning to belong with at my school and forming some worthwhile relationships with my kids. Students have begun to get bolder and let their curiosity outweigh their shyness. They’re asking me questions about myself (beyond things like what’s your favorite color, what is your ambition, and why so tall) and my life back in America. It’s been cool to see these questions lead to some really insightful conversations. For instance, during a lesson comparing US and Malaysian high schools, my 5 Science students asked a question about why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr Day (this question was proceeded by the question who even is Martin Luther King). When I was explaining Martin Luther King to them, they were fascinated by the fact that the US had slavery at one point in its history, the idea of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in general. As a result, the focus of my classes with them has turned to the various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement and it has become a cool way to teach things like writing, speaking, listening etc. while also teaching more impactful things that they can take with them for life. Some of my Orang Asli (indigenous people of Malaysia) have also asked me some very pointed questions about how the US treats its indigenous populations and how their treatment has changed throughout the centuries. I’ve loved getting to share deeper aspects of American culture (even if they’re far from the happiest of ones) with my students and get to tailor discussions to what actually interests them instead of asking for the 100th time, “how was your weekend?” or “what did you learn in class today?”

In addition to my students learning much more about me, my background, and the US in general, I’m also getting to learn more and more about them. Some of it is pretty much universal high school stuff. Things like who is dating who (my Form 4 girls enjoy giving me a weekly quiz to make sure I still remember – which has actually been really helpful in improving my memory of all their names), who did the best on the most recent exam, which boy scored the most goals in the last hockey match or what new movie they’re all raving about (Fast and Furious 7 got rave reviews). These things make me laugh and smile and remind me that teenagers, what stresses them out and what they think is so crucial to their lives is pretty much the same whether you’re attending a private catholic school in South Dakota or a conservative public school in the middle of Malaysia. Overall, it’s just been fun beginning to see students as not students but friends.

But with these deeper relationships and understandings have also come some much less fun insights into the lives of my kids.

For instance, learning that one of my students lost both of his parents. He spent a while living with his uncle, but his aunt has decided that they don’t want him anymore and kicked him out, leaving a 17 year old with no place to live, no family to turn to, and no way of supporting himself.
Or that another one of my students has to spend school holidays at the hostel rather than returning home because his parents are divorced and if he goes home with his mom, his father will harangue him and if he goes home with his father, his mother will refuse to acknowledge him. What 16 year is capable of dealing with a family dynamic like that?

Or that yet another student comes from such an underprivileged background that when they get to go home from the hostel they’re returning to a house, but to a tent/shack that the entire family shares. Before she goes outside each morning she has to check if there are tigers drinking at the river or if it’s safe to leave. Can you imagine having to check for tigers and every morning being terrified of if you’ll get attacked going to get buckets of water for your family?

I could go on and on with stories of my kids (and don't get even get me started on the ones that are in and out of trouble with the police) and the difficulties many of them face, but I think you get the point.

I could not feel more humbled that my students trust me enough to share stories like these with someone who just four months ago was a total stranger. And I realize that the challenges of poverty, broken homes, and challenging family dynamics is not unique to my students nor to Malaysia. I’m sure if I was teaching in the equivalent of an underperforming school in America or really any school for that matter, I would have students facing similar hardships. Nevertheless, acknowledging that these struggles are universal gets me no closer to forming responses to these stories when my students share them and I feel my heart breaking for them.

All I want to do is give them a hug and tell them everything is going to work out. But I can’t. Culturally, I can’t offer my male students any kind of physical support (even though part of me feels that a hug would mean the world to them) and I most certainly can’t promise them that everything is going to be alright and will get better.

So right now I’m stuck and I’m struggling with that. Every time I hear a new story of the challenges my students face my heart breaks more and more for them. What can I offer these students who are going through far harder things than I have experienced in my life? For now, all I can do is continue to be there for them, to listen, to show that someone cares, and to give them an outlet. But, I’m not going to lie, that doesn’t feel like nearly enough right now.

Posted by remullin 04:30 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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