A Travellerspoint blog

Feeling Old

"How old do you think we are?"

Many of you reading this blog are going to laugh at me for this post (largely because many of you reading this blog are significantly older than I am – what up family members and professors) but this past weekend I had one of my first experiences of really feeling old. It was a strange feeling, and not one that I want to repeat too soon. However, it also led to some personal reflection (probably helped by the 10+ hours spent in a car this weekend as well). Also, as I try to type this I’m realizing the thoughts in my head are having a very hard time coming together on paper, so forewarning for this entry.

This experience came about, as almost all good travel memories do, at the hostel bar. Five of my fellow Pahangsters (we all had to come up with “cool” names for our state cohorts during orientation and for some reason Pahangsters (Pahang + gangsters) seemed to stick for us) and I decided to spend the weekend in the Cameron Highlands after all helping out with Kyle’s English camp in Kuala Lipis (snaps to Kyle for already completing one of his camps, you make us all look like underachievers) which is the closest ETA placement to the Highlands.

  • Side travel note* The Cameron Highlands are a highland (duh) region of Pahang that are world famous for their tea production. The area has a cooler climate than the rest of Malaysia (it got below 70 and we all complained that we were cold) and as a result a wide variety of crops (like strawberries, yum) are grown there that would otherwise be unavailable in the more tropical climates of the rest of the peninsula. During British control of Malaysia it became a favored holiday location for wealthy families and has kept its positioned as a favored holiday destination for far longer than the British managed to keep control of the country. As a result, it is a charming area with all kinds of great tea, every possible strawberry product you can think of, a heavy influence of European architecture and amazing Indian food (sadly the result of the large Tamil populations that work on the tea plantations for abysmal wages). If you’re ever in Malaysia and get the chance to check it out, I highly recommend it.

Pretty, isn't it?

Anyways, after a day of exploring various areas of the Highlands we decide to cap off the night with a drink at the bar at Daniel’s Travelers Lodge. We weren’t actually staying there for the night (we had tried but they were completely full) and instead the 6 of us were sharing one very grimy room at their partner hotel (thank god the whole group was wonderfully adaptive travelers) However, the receptionist of our hotel recommended it as a good place to meet other foreigners. Plus, since all of us live in Muslim neighborhoods and are required to keep our houses halal (i.e. no pork or alcohol products can enter the premises) we were not going to pass up the chance to have a beer.

As we were ordering our drinks we met a group of British students who invited us to join their table. The seven of them we also in the Highlands for just the weekend. They were spending a semester studying in Kuala Lumpur and had taken advantage of the long weekend to explore more of the country. We had a great evening talking with them and it was one of those nights that remind me why I love to travel and meet new people. The hours quickly passed by as we talked about everything from how crappy Malaysian beer is to the pros and cons of universal healthcare and the differences between US and British university systems. Before knew it, it was well past midnight and both parties had morning plans that were going to come far too early for everyone’s liking.

What made me feel old about the experience is that the students we were talking with were 19 years old. 19! They were still teenagers! I thought back to where I was at when I was 19 and it seems like a lifetime ago for me and in some ways it kind of was.

At 19 I was starting my first major adventure abroad as a wide eyed teenager running around the streets of Beibei, China (props Mom and Dad, I’m beginning to realize how nerve wracking that most have been for you). I hadn’t yet discovered my passion for education issues. I had yet to teach in a Chinese classroom, climb a mountain by myself, develop an addiction to spicy food, learn how to jump our guard gate when we got back from drinks too late, or experience the sadness that comes with leaving behind friends from around the world that you know you’ll probably never see again.

I hadn’t yet spent two summers in DC realizing how much I love and hate the city at the same time, much like my feelings towards the politics that take place there. I hadn’t become a master of the DC subway system, figured out all the free food hacks that are very much needed as an unpaid intern, found my love of running, or discovered the amazing Trufam that will always have amazing memories from our time at South Hall.

I hadn’t spent summer living in Bosnia and gaining an intimate understanding of one of the most underrated capital cities in all of Europe. I hadn’t spent a summer working side by side amazing individuals dedicated to giving the young people of BiH an active role in shaping the future of their country. I hadn’t gotten to take part in the first major protest since the war. I hadn’t been lucky enough to have survivors of the war trust me with their stories of death, loss, destruction, hope, resilience, and determination to ensure the past was not repeated. I hadn’t traveled completely on my own before and learned to love the solitude it offers.

I hadn’t filmed two documentaries in some of the most tragic and beautiful locations on Earth. I hadn’t wandered the slums of Kolkata, gotten lost and miraculously found myself standing in the home of the Sisters of Charity. I hadn’t held the hand of a woman who said she prayed every night to die so she could escape the hell that was living in the mental asylum. (On a much vainer note, I hadn’t celebrated my 21st birthday at a rooftop bar with the Kolkata professional soccer team.) I hadn’t ridden in the backs of trucks to the most remote places in Thailand that no tourist will ever find. I hadn’t bribed guards to sneak a film team into places that not even the BBC or CNN can access. I hadn’t taken a boat across a river, hopped on a motorcycle with a stranger, and gotten a personal tour of the Karen state. I didn’t yet know the feeling of watching a project I had poured my entire heart and soul into premiere before hundreds to both good and bad reactions.

I hadn’t yet made the decision to leave behind everything and everyone I know and move to Malaysia for a year with no idea what I was in for. I hadn’t yet learned how little a school actually needs to still succeed in educating their students, how to make due with no electricity or water, how to connect with teenagers who have almost nothing other than their determination to learn, or how to navigate the insanity that is being a white, western woman in rural Malaysia.

As I thought about all these things and a lot of other things 19 year old me had not yet experienced, I felt a mixture of feelings. I felt very old (obviously, hence the point of this blog). I also felt an extreme sense of pride at all the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of in 4 short years. I also felt a large sense of responsibility that I make sure I continually use all of the opportunities I have been given to improve not just my own life, but also the lives of those I encounter through them. The most pressing thought on my mind though was if 19 year old me had met 23 year old me at a hostel bar, what would she have thought? Even after 10+ hours in a car, I’m not sure if I’ve come up with an answer to that yet.

Posted by remullin 06:52 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Celebrity Status

"How does it feel to be a celebrity here?"

A lot of things about Malaysia have taken some getting used to. For instance, adjusting to not having hot water, eating rice and seafood for almost every meal, driving on the opposite side of the road, fighting with the ants that live inside my computer keyboard whenever I want to type, and numerous other small things that remind me I’m not in American anymore. For the most part, they just seem like facts of life now and nothing too out of the ordinary. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make though, and the one that I’m still struggling with, is the “celebrity status” that comes with being a white westerner living in small town Malaysia (I’ve also had to adjust to having the song “Celebrity Status” by Marianas Trench stuck in my head 24/7 as a result, thanks Tori).

Past travels have given me some taste of what it’s like to always have attention directed at you. For instance, in China I lost count of all the families that asked me to take pictures with their children (because who wants a family picture of the Great Wall when instead you can have a picture with the sunburned Westerner who is dripping sweat from climbing the wall for the last 2 hours?). In India, the catcalls and stares became so common that they just began to blend into the sound of traffic (although as a woman in India that is going to be your daily experience regardless of the color of your skin). And in Bosnia, while the stares and comments weren’t as common, the attention I got as an American and the conversations it evoked took some getting used to. However, in all those cases, the attention was fleeting. It was a quick moment snapping a picture or a brief conversation, but not a sustained period of being the center of attention. In that way, Malaysia has been a different experience than any previously.

I probably should have figured out that this would be the case after my first day at school. The average person doesn’t usually experience an assembly of 1,000+ people to mark their first day of work. Even at that point though, I thought the attention would be short lived. I assumed I was a novelty and that by the end of the week the students would have adjusted to my presence and I’d become just another teacher. We are now at the month mark though and it shows no sign of abating. If anything, as people have gotten to know me more, the interest in me has only increased.

Every aspect of my life is known, observed, and commented upon here. Some of the things don’t surprise me too much. What I wear to school each day is observed and commented on (so far I haven’t committed any fashion faux paus that I’ve been informed of – I feel like it’s kind of hard to do given that I wear a baju kurung to class everyday which is basically like wearing pajamas). What I eat in the kantin and how much of it or how little of it I eat. What lessons I lead and how they go. What my stipend from MACEE is and what kind of car and house I am provided with. Whether or not I want them to find me a Malaysian husband (apparently a lot of the teachers have sons around 23 and really want me to meet them – no thanks). All of these are things that I can somewhat get used to being school gossip and in all honesty expected people to comment upon.

Then there are the weirder things. Like the other teachers knowing what time I go to bed because they watch to see when I turn my bedroom lights off at night. Or the photo album the school has created on WhatsApp of photos of me taken around the community or surrounding towns when I’m at dinner with Erin. Or knowing exactly what time I go running, how far I run, and how long it takes me. Or knowing exactly what groceries I bought at the store, down to what type of bread and how many apples. These are all things that catch me off guard when people bring them up to me and comment on them. Um, how do you know I went running from 6:00 to 6:45, I was wearing a yellow shirt and black pants (and yes, I know yellow is not my color), and then had tomyum soup for dinner at a restaurant two towns over, and went to bed at 11:15? That’s not normal information to know about a person!

The effect of all the attention is that I pretty much feel like I’m living in a fishbowl. Everything I do someone notices and as a result, the whole school/town knows about within moments. While it was something I expected and something I tried to mentally prepare for, it can still be unnerving at times. I remind myself that it is done out of an honest sense of curiosity and also as the community’s way of looking out for my safety. If everyone is always keeping an eye on me, it makes it less likely that something bad can happen to me. However, it still creeps me out a bit and at times can be very frustrating. Something as simple as going out for a beer could create a community scandal so it requires me to feel as if I’m almost always putting on a performance. I’m never able to fully relax out of fear that I will cause some huge scandal such as accidentally taking the trash out in a shirt that doesn't cover my elbows (no joke).

My hope is that as the year goes on, the attention will slowly dwindle. I’m sure it will never fade entirely, but maybe if I’m boring enough, people will stop caring. I really hope so. Until that time, I’ll continue on in my little world of fame in Bera, Malaysia and try to remember all the “little people” who helped me get here.

Posted by remullin 20:49 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Sundays at the Hostel

"Miss, do you like to run?"

I think I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about the hostel at my school. In case I haven’t, allow me to give some quick background. SMK Mengkarak has about 920 students in Forms 1-6 (equivalent of 7th-12th grade). Of those 900, about a third live on school grounds at the hostel. The students that live at the hostel usually come from villages that are a long distance away and their families are unable to afford transportation to and from school for them. So to solve the problem, they just live at school and their families are charged a nominal fee of RM30 a month (about $10) to cover the cost of their housing and all their meals. For the significant number of the families who aren’t able to cover this cost, the government sponsors their hostel fees. The housing accommodations are pretty basic (usually 8 students to a room about the size of a typical college dorm and communal bathrooms) and the entire hostel was severely affected by the flood, nevertheless, a lot of the students seem to love living there.

The hostel kids seem to have a unique bond with each other. The 8 that live in each room can come from any form and the wardens try to mix it up so that the students who live together don’t also have classes together. As a result, the students all know each other well and look out for each other. The Form 4 & 5 students seem to get a sense of pride out of watching out for the 1 & 2s and there is a confidence in the hostel students that many of the other students seem to not have. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it has been fun to watch and work with.

When I first heard about hostel schools, I was a little hesitant. On our Fulbright preference questionnaires, I actually ranked not living at a hostel school as one of my biggest preferences. In my head, it would have just been too much. There never would have been an escape or a chance to feel like you didn’t have to “be on” as Fulbrighters have taken to calling it. You would always be around your work, you would have no privacy, and your chances of creating some kind of scandal seemed to increase monumentally. After almost a month in Bera and living the teacher life, I’m still really glad that I don’t live in the hostel. But I do love that I get all the benefits of teaching at a hostel school without the negatives that come with living at one.

One of the biggest advantages of having a hostel at my school is that I always have access to students. As ETAs we’re required to have 25 “contact” hours a week with students. Some of this comes from contact time when we are teaching, but a lot of it is supposed to come from outside of class time. It can be things like running extra speaking workshops, helping with teams and clubs, and just lots of informal meetings. For instance, three days I week I try to have “coffee hour” where I just sit in one of the open air seating areas at school and students come hang out with me during their breaks. It started out as a lot of singing along to whatever songs are on my iTunes library that they know. Over the weeks though, I can see the students getting braver and now there’s beginning to be conversations as well. Basically our contact hours can be anything, they just have to be time we spend with students.

Where a lot of ETAs are encountering problems at their schools is that as soon as classes are over students have to rush to catch the bus or a ride home and don’t have time to hang out with their ETAs doing things like workshops, clubs, or sports. This causes a number of issues. It makes the ETAs unable to fulfill our contracts with MACEE and the MOE and in general it is also discouraging to the ETAs I’ve talked with who want to making a much bigger impact at their schools, but are struggling to find avenues to do so. By having 300+ students at the hostel, I always have sports practices going on, students available to my workshops (once I start them, probably after Chinese New Year), and just to hang out. So I get the best of both worlds. I always have students to hang out with, but I also get to put some space (although very little given that about 15 of my neighbors are other teachers at my school) between me and my teaching life when I go home at night. It pretty much is ideal.

This morning was one of those days when I decided to take advantage of the hostel. Erin left yesterday for her Chinese New Year holiday (she’s meeting up with friends in Langkawi) and it’s just me for the weekend. While Friday night 12 of the 15 ETAs in Pahang in met up for dinner in Mentakab and I spent the majority of yesterday taking everything out of my room, cleaning it thoroughly (including 3 rounds of mopping to try to get all the dead bugs off the floor), and finally unpacking and organizing my stuff (Mom, I put up the stars you sent me), I was still going pretty stir-crazy. There’s only so much time you can spend in a house with no Air-Conditioning (called Air-Con in Malaysia), no internet, and a quickly dwindling supply of movies and books I haven’t already read. Luckily for me, the hostel students had been asking me for weeks to come to the hostel some Sunday morning to go jogging. I had wanted to last weekend, but it was one of the weekends where they get to return home to see their families so it hadn’t worked out. Despite my momentary thoughts of bailing when my alarm went off at 7:20 AM, I was excited to see what the day would hold.

A little groggy and munching on the apple that was serving as my breakfast for the day (the students and staff were really concerned that I didn’t want to have any rice before running – gag me) I showed up at 8:00 to the hostel in my running attire (Malaysia appropriate of course, so long pants and an oversized t-shirt that goes past my elbows - which was only slightly sweltering in 80 degree heat). The students had told me that every Sunday morning they go for a jog. Not going to lie, I was pretty convinced these kids were going to kick my ass in a run. I’ve been trying to run since we’ve moved here but ran (no pun intended) into some issues with the neighborhood religious council (fun fact, that’s actually a thing here, who knew?). Thankfully, the council and I reached an agreement last week on where and when I could run, but one week to try to get into running shape is pretty much impossible. The most I’ve done thus far is 5K so I was expecting some major struggles. Nevertheless, I was excited to get to run and not get looks of shock.

In typical Malaysia fashion though, I should have known there was no way it would be just a run. We started off with choreographer aerobics (think slowed down Zumba) with all 300 students. One of them thought it would be fun to put me on a stage and have me help lead the dances, so I’m sure that entertained everyone for a bit. After 30 minutes of that, it was finally time for jogging. What I hadn’t known earlier was that going on the run was mandatory for all the hostel students. As a result, it was a far more laidback affair than I was expecting. I had been expecting the equivalent of a varsity cross-country team practice and what I got was attune to mandatory gym class running.

As a result, it was a super fun run rather than being super intenses. I gained the approval of my Form 4 boys by successfully beating all but 2 of them in 100 meter sprints (on a normal day they probably would have trounced me, but they just seemed to be in shock that a girl was willing to race them, let alone could keep up). I awed my Form 5 boys by beating them in a 4K and overall just shocked the girls by showing them that you could run the whole route rather than intermittently running and walking.

In addition to loving just being able to run and joke around with students, the route of the run was awesome. We ran through the jungle and palm oil plantations that surround the school and followed the river. It was a pretty short route, about 4K there and then the same way back. But it was cool to run through the back areas and get a better sense of the homes and small villages along the river. It is definitely going to become my new favorite Sunday morning activity.

After getting back from our run we had some free time (the group I ran back with returned a solid 30 minutes before most of the students who had decided to walk given how hot it was getting). My Form 4 girls and boys decided that they were going to try to teach me some basic field hockey skills. They gave me a stick and spent a while going over basic ball movement skills. I struggle with the wrist movement needed for some of the moves, but overall it seemed doable. We then worked on passing for a bit and then I asked them to just show off their skills and they had fun demonstrating some of their best moves. Our boys’ team is very good and usually is one of the best teams in the nation. Our girls are also quite good, usually making the national tournament as well, but not placing as high as the boys. While I don’t foresee myself becoming a field hockey star, I’m excited to play with them throughout the year and hopefully become somewhat competent in it.

By then everyone was back and the girls had to go have a scrimmage hockey match. I had planned on watching, but then one of the boys remembered that I had told the class I really like to play soccer (football here). He organized a group of the boys to play with me while they waited for their hockey scrimmage after the girls. Once again, they were rather shocked that a girl would play. In Malaysia no girls play soccer. One ETA last year had tried to get a team started, but her school administration and freaked out that it was inappropriate and quickly killed it. So the fact that I not only wanted to play, but could also hold my own against most of them came across as quite a shock. At first they were a little timid but after I scored our team’s first goal about 1 minute into the game their nervousness was replaced with competitiveness and the game was a blast. It felt so nice to play again and we attracted quite the crowd as the game continued. The only downside is that the soccer balls the school has look like they’ve been through hell and back and barely hold air anymore. I’m going to see if I can find some at a local sports store next time I see one.

By this point the temperature had reached upwards of 90 degrees. So after 30ish minutes we were all struggling and dripping copious amounts of sweat. We decided to call it (my team won :) ). But the boys said they enjoyed it and made me promise that we would play the next time I came to the hostel. I told them that I would love to. I then watched the last bit of the girls hockey game. After that I joined the teachers and watched the boys’ hockey team play. They really are good. It was fun to watch and I was quite impressed. I chatted with some of the teachers during the game and the girl students gossiped with me about what players they had crushes on and which boys already had girlfriends. Teenagers are the same anywhere in the world haha. After the game, the Malay students needed to go to prayer and I was in serious need of a shower so I headed home after promising them all that I would be visiting much more often.

Overall, it was probably one of the best days I’ve had in Malaysia. I loved getting to engage with the students in new ways and getting to be active without being worried about who it would offend was a godsend. It was also a good way to challenge a number of the gender norms Malaysia holds without doing it in a confrontational or disparaging way. I’m hoping with time the boys see that girls can be athletic and the girls see that it’s okay to challenge the boys. Regardless, I think I’ve found my new Sunday activity.

Posted by remullin 02:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A Hierarchy of Needs

"What are we supposed to do with a computer?"

Greetings everyone! This blog post comes to you courtesy of the brand new Google Chromebook that I have received. Due to a last minute donation from Google and YTL (the largest technology company in Malaysia, who has a very charming CEO who loves Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches and actually knows where Sioux Falls is (I stood in line with him at the Ambassador’s house and chatted for half an hour without having any idea who he was)) each Fulbright in this year’s cohort received a new laptop. Yay!

The purpose behind the laptops is to continue the efforts of Frog Asia, a company that has partnered with the Malaysian government to bring 4G internet to every classroom in Malaysia and put all resources online for students to be able to access from anywhere. In theory, it sounds like a great idea. Give every student access to the internet, vastly expand upon the teaching resources available by having lesson plans from teachers around the country available to everyone, and prepare the next generation of Malaysians to be well versed in the ever changing technology that will be central to 21st century development. And for the schools in places like KL or the urban areas of Kuantan or Jahor, I’m sure it’s doing wonderfully. But for the majority of the ETAs I’ve talked with so far, all we now have is an expensive new piece of plastic that is of little to no use to our schools.

When describing this new development to my friend Adam, who is also spending a year volunteering in the developing world, he brought up how out of place many of these things seem in regards to the hierarchy of needs. He mentioned the struggles in Tanzania involving mosquito nets. Countless non-profits and NGOs were donating nets to the communities, but rather than being used to prevent malaria, the nets were being used to catch fish to ensure that families didn’t starve. Just one example of a great aid idea in theory, but one that fails to look at all the challenges facing a community. Since then, it has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Hence, you all get to read a likely jumbled mess of thoughts. Also, we’re still on house arrest because our car doesn’t come until Wednesday (2 weeks late) and the neighborhood religious group is not so pumped about me going through runs in the neighborhood anymore, so I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands currently.

Right now, the last thing my school really needs is a bright eyed Westerner coming in with a new Chromebook thinking that I can show they a way to dramatically revolutionize how they use technology in the classroom. I’m pretty sure if I even tried suggesting that we use technology in the classroom my teachers would laugh at me. And with good reason.

Here’s a few of the things that my school would probably say are higher on the priority list than a new Chromebook:
• Electricity – since the floods (about 7 weeks ago) my school has had almost no electricity. A few areas, such as the printing department and the kantin have (largely due to generators), but many classroom buildings are still without. What good does a computer do when you can’t turn the lights on so students can see the chalkboard during morning classes?

• Running Water – my first week at school, we had this. However, beginning on Monday of last week, the government had to do repairs on the major pipe that provides water for most of the area. As a result, Erin and I were without running water for about 2 days. The hostel at my school though, was without running water for over 5 days. Luckily this weekend was one of the weekends the hostel students are allowed to return home to see their families or I don’t know what they would have done with a week of no water. Why should kids be interested in using computers in classes when they don’t have access to water for basic sanitation and cleanliness?

• An adequate number of teachers – while my schedule for the year is a little crazy, it’s nothing compared to what the actual English teachers have to do. A staff of four is responsible for over 900 students. Each teacher is teaching an average of 8-10 courses a day. Who has time to try to incorporate new teaching styles when you can barely keep your head above water as it is?

• Internet Access – even if my school was excited about the capability of me bringing a Chromebook into the classroom, there’s not a ton I can do with it without internet access. Even just basic things like Powerpoint wouldn’t make a lot of sense to use since my school has no capabilities to project them onto a white screen or anything. All 40 students in the class would have to crowd around the little 12 inch screen and that sounds pretty miserable for all involved.

So long story short, what I’m trying to say with that list is that these laptops don’t seem like the best use of resources or a very viable way to help improve the Malaysian school system. Yes, we all looked cheerful and happy in all the press photos receiving our computers and the newspaper stories and news coverage of the “ceremony” was great press for Google, YTL, Fulbright, and the MOE, but what good will these laptops actually do? As someone who wants to pursue a career in international development, I feel like I’m on the receiving side of one of those aid projects that sounds so wonderful in theory, but no one ever took the time to check if it would work in reality.

Thinking about this hierarchy of needs has also led me to do some reflecting on myself and my time here. The last thing I want to end up being is some kind of failed development project that sounds great on paper, but fails to do anything actually beneficial. But as the laptops showed all of us, it doesn’t work to come in with some preconceived idea of how to better the school. If you try, you end up being a useless piece of expensive plastic that no one wants to responsibility of taking care of for the year.

Right now, before I can really begin to figure out the best way to serve SMK Mengarak for the year, I feel like I need to improve my understanding of it. I need to ask questions, to observe, to see what the school needs and what sounds great but wouldn’t be useful or helpful. I have a lot of ideas of what I would like to do or what past ETAs have done at their schools, but until I know that they are something the school actually wants or something the students would benefit from, I don’t think I could begin implementing them in good conscious.

I also need to take some time to decipher the hierarchy of needs amongst my students. I wish that I could make it a realistic goal that at the end of my year at Mengarak every student would be proficient enough in English to pass their exams, that they would be comfortable having a conversation in English, and that they would know that they can do more and deserve the opportunity to do more than work in the feldas after graduation. However, even with 5 years here I don’t think that would be a reasonable end of year goal. So for now, I have to figure out what my students need from me the most. Do they need someone to help teach them grammar and the difference between the subject and a predicate (tried teaching that on Friday to form 1, it was rough)? Or do they ned someone to become more of a friend than a teacher? Someone who wants to learn from and about them just as much as they want to learn from me; someone who wants to increase their confidence level and help them believe that all those ambitions they told me about the first day are not just dreams, but something that is actually achievable. For now, I’m still figuring it out. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the grammar part, or at least I’m really hoping it’s not because if so, we’re all in for a very long year.

Posted by remullin 06:11 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Miss Rachel

"Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!"

As I write this, I have just wrapped up my second week at SMK Mengarak (the k is silent in pronunciation) and figured it was probably time to update the world on a bit of what has been happening since my last post in Terangganu. Since my last post, I have moved into my home for the next 10 months in Bandar Bera and begun to try to get settled.

Our house (shared with my new roommate Erin) is an adventure in and of itself. As such, a blog post, or more likely a video tour, of it will be coming when/if I ever get good enough internet access to post it. The most recent house update is that Erin and I are waging war against the countless cockroaches that also call this place home. They have recently allied themselves with an impressive array of large spiders that are excellent at night time attacks (I woke up today with 4 new bites), some really creepy worms that crawl out of the shower drains (a lovely site when waking up to take a cold shower at 6:00 am before school), and uncountable swarms of ants. So far our only counter-offense has been a lot of screaming, a few tears when they run across our feet in the dark, and a very large bottle of anti-roach spray that we are quickly depleting. While the bugs are very much winning the battle currently, Erin and I feel that with time and more supplies (we really need ant traps and carpet bombs or something) we shall win the war. I’ll let keep you posted on the outcome.

The biggest update in my life is that I’ve finally started at my school. And it is AWESOME!!!! Despite that many of the warnings in my last post did turn out to be true (no electricity, extreme lack of resources, severe flood damage (we’re still scraping the mud off the ceilings to give you a sense of high much water there was), lack of technology, a very rural setting, etc.), I could not feel more blessed to be at the school. The entire school has been so incredibly welcoming to me that in a way it has felt more like a homecoming than an introduction. Few of the teachers have the English language skills to really talk with me, but they all still go out of their way to make me feel welcomed. They’re constantly inviting me to join them for meals, gifting me new baju kurung (traditional Malaysian dress that is worn by teachers), bringing in traditional foods for me to try, and chatting with me in what little English they do know. It kind of feels like having about 35 mothers looking out for me.

To give you a sense of the welcoming environment I am in, I’ll use my first day as an example. I had been told that the school had planned something small to mark the occasion. I should have known by this point in my stay that “small” is Malaysian high cultural context for a big fricking deal. Upon walking up to the school I was met by the entire administrative staff in their best batik bajus and processional music playning. The ceremony began with a procession as the principal and various senior officials walked across the school grounds as students threw flowers and a traditional leaf that is thrown before bridal party processions at weddings as I walked. We were flanked by four students carrying banners and steamers. If that wasn’t enough, I felt about 2000 eyes all glued on me as I was led up to a podium and presented to the 900+ students that attend the school who were all standing at attention in the school courtyard. The takro (traditional Malaysian martial arts whose name I just butchered trying to spell) team then performed a routine for me and students sang the school song. This was followed by an elaborate and kind speech by the principal about how excited the school was for my year ahead. Then it was my turn to try to attempt some kind of coherent speech in front of one of the largest crowds in my life. I honestly have no idea what I really said, other than some things about being really excited, how much I liked Malaysia, how my home in SD was kind of like Frozen because of all the snow, and then I threw in a reciting of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and an cheesy plug about how that is the poem that I live my life by and how I hope all the students will take the road less traveled with me over the course of the year. I have no doubt that I spoke far too fast, but even if I hadn’t I doubt anyone but a handful of staff would have understood enough English to keep up with me anyways. The principal then presented me with a lovely bouquet of flowers on behalf of the school and I was officially their ETA. They then carted me off to an elaborate breakfast prepared by the school kantin ladies (my goal of the year is to become their best friend – we are off to a good start, I practice my BM with them every day and they heard that I was missing veggies, so on Monday prepared a little mini salad for me to have with my brunch (I eat at weird times here)). It was a wonderful way to start my time at the school.

Since then, things have been a whirlwind. My first week was spent meeting people and getting acquainted with the school. The school is a large 8 building open air complex so it took a while for me to figure out my way around and I occasionally still have to ask students where certain classes are. Cultural side note, in Malaysian high schools, the students do not change rooms like we do in the US. Students stay in the same room all day and it is the teacher and comes and goes for each subject.

I also spent time sitting in on English classes so I could get a better sense of the English levels of the various forms (Malaysian high schools do not have grades like we do, they have forms. In high school there are forms 1-5 or are equivalent of 7th-11th grade). The observations were helpful, but the students were so distracted by my presence that I feel like I saw very little of what an actual class is like. Nevertheless, it was a good first week and by this Monday I was ready to actually get to begin doing things.

It would be too hard to really go into detail of what I’ve been doing or how classes are going without making this blog post even longer than it already is. But the general overview is that I teach between 28-32 periods a week (one period is a 40 minute class, but most of what I am teaching is a double period so I have them for 90 minutes). I work with forms 1, 2, and 4 primarily. But I also have at least 6 periods a week with form 3 and 5 students. The reason I do not have more with form 3 and 5 is because the students are prepping for their national exams which basically require a lot of memorization so it is essential that they get through a lot of textbook information that I wouldn’t be able to do a great job presenting. Each class has between 20-40 students. Essentially my job with the classes is to supplement what the main teachers are teaching with fun games, outside the box activities, and just engage with students in a nontraditional way that gets them speaking with and accustomed to listening to a native speaker.

In addition to working with my assigned classes, I run an activity every Friday morning for the 120+ non-Muslim students [the majority of them are Orang Asli (indigenous people) and a handful of Indian students). I also have “coffee hour” twice a week where students can come and get help on their English homework or just chat over a cup of coffee or the tahrik (a traditional Malaysian tea with so much sugar you can feel your teeth rotting out, but I am also kind of in love with.

Outside of assigned school hours, I am also a leader of the Police Cadets, I am running the English Club, I am starting and overseeing a community garden initiative with the Form 6 students (required for students planning to go to university but a separate thing from high school – it would be like if the US had a year of schooling you took between high school graduation and freshmen year of college), helping coach the boys football (soccer) team (girls don’t play in Malaysia so there’s no girls team I can help with), I’ve also been assigned to the field hockey team, and may possibly be on the netball team as well, I’m not really sure. Once the flood damage is at a somewhat manageable level I will also be leading a cleanup/school beautification club to redo all the school murals that have been destroyed. I also think I got assigned to the camping club today to help them prep for the district wide survival challenge. That should be hilarious having me try to give them survival tips. But hey, Saya boleh!

I will also be leading activity nights at the school hostel (about 300 students live on campus because their villages are too far away from the school or their families are unable to afford to keep them at home) once a week and running once weekly speaking workshops with a select group of students the school picks out for me to work with. On top of all that I will be leading my two English camps as well as spending most weekends helping other ETAs around Pahang and Eastern Malaysia with their camps.

Needless to say, I think it’s going to be a pretty crazy and exhausting year. But I could not be more excited about it and that is pretty much all due to the students I get to work with. They are amazing and I cannot get over how incredible they are. They have almost no resources at their disposal, but you would never know it. They work extremely hard and have embraced every challenge I have thrown at them. They have also been so welcoming to me that I cannot get over it. Everywhere I walk I am constantly hearing a chorus of “Good morning”, “hello teacher”, “How are you teacher?”, “When are you coming to my class teacher?” etc. It’s an incredible feeling to feel so much love from so many people who barely know me. They will be the reason that I love this year and why I’ll have the energy to do the millions of things on my list.

So there you have it. A very jumbled account of my first 2 weeks at school. I can’t wait to see what adventures are in store at SMK Mengarak for me this year. To see what projects become success stories and what ones turn into epic disasters. I have no doubt that I have a year full of learning ahead and that I am in just the right place to learn some life-changing lessons on perspectives, hard work, and what success really means. I’ll be sure to try to keep you up to date along the way.

Until then, check out some various photos of my school and some of my amazing students to get a better sense of the place!

First day of school!

Giving my speech

Presentation of gifts

Cute sign for my desk


I love the kantin ladies!

View of school compound from 3rd floor

Some students from my favorite class (4INO) displaying their acrostic poems

Posted by remullin 06:08 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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