"You're going to Bera?. . .Oh"
- *Disclaimer, this blog was written about a week ago. Finally got strong enough internet to post it today **
Selamat petang from the exciting (or current the really empty beach town – thanks monsoon season) city of Kuala Terangganu! While my last blog indicated that I probably wouldn’t get the chance to post again until I reached Bera, but we have a quick break between sessions so I figured I would try to get something off while I’m stealing WiFi from the overpriced frozen yogurt shop next door.
So for those of you that haven’t heard, I’ve finally gotten my placement for my year in Malaysia. Yay!! I will be teaching at SMK Mengarak in the district of Bera (pronounced bura, not bera. Bera means human feces so yeah, don’t want to pronounce that one wrong) in the state of Pahang. It’s a really awesome feeling to finally know where I am going to be after 9+ months of waiting. I cannot wait to get there and see what is in store.
However, I have to admit that up until about an hour and a half ago, I was pretty darn nervous for a year in Bera. It basically began with the day I found out that I will be going to Bera. Fresh with excitement about knowing where we would be placed, Amee (my roommate during the first 2 weeks of orientation) and I began to ask pretty much any Malaysian (from street food vendors to MACEE staff) we encountered about our prospective homes. Whenever Amee asked about Kedah and her city Alor Setar people would smile and nod their heads saying to would be a great place. However, when I said I was going to Bera the response was always the same. People would look at me and say, “You’re going to Bera? Oh . . . Oh” and then they would begin to laugh and shake their heads. Like legit, that was every single person’s response. Not the most comforting of feelings. At one point the other ETAs and I discussed making a movie called “Bera . . . Oh” because of how everyone responded to my statement that I was going to Bera. So I left KL and began state orientation in Terrangganu with a bit of reservation (our state orientation was combined with Terrangganu’s, not really sure why).
Two days ago the district head (JPN) of Bera joined us for orientation and I was finally able to get some answers about this mysterious place that Malaysians all laugh about and that I will be calling home for the next 10 months. Here’s a quick bullet list of what I know from her and my school mentor. Also, bear in mind that none of this I have actually confirmed by being there, so it could all turn out to be horribly incorrect upon arrival:
About my living situation:
• When telling me about my placement, the JPN began by telling me with a slight laugh “Bera, well it’s developing . . .” (great start)
• The whole district of Bera (think equivalent of US counties) has less than 7,500 people
• When we need to get gas for our car we need to go three towns over
• Until 2012, my town had no grocery store. It now has one, but I’m advised to drive the next district when I actually want to buy more than the basics
• I am also advised to drive to the next district when I need clothes for school (got to rock the baju look)
• We have one restaurant that is not fast food (possibly two, I heard mixed reports)
• We do have a McDonalds (clutch for those rare moments when I’ll be craving French fries) and a KFC (a staple in Asian fastfood)
• My house is down the street from my JPN’s office and the house is rented from her brother-in-law (this essentially means that I will always in some way be in the public eye/what I do will always be known to the district office)
• My landlord is Malay so no alcohol or pork products can enter the house or the area will no longer be halal (kind of like the Muslim variant of kosher and something that is taken very seriously here)
About my school:
• My school is a band 5 (Malaysia ranks schools on a level of 1-7 with 7 being the worst, although currently there are no schools ranked 7 in Malaysia and 6 is the worst)
• Many of the students and even staff are completely unable to communicate with me in English my mentor warned me (in their case, it’s not a speaking confidence issue, it’s simply they just do not know enough to put together a sentence)
• It has been devastated by the recent floods
• It is situated quite close to the water and when the river rose, the entire first floor of the school was submerged up to the ceilings
• All of the school’s computers and technological resources have been destroyed
• The majority of the school’s furniture (such as student’s desks) have been destroyed
• The living quarters for students (about a third of the student body (there are 900 students total) live on campus in dormitories) are severely damaged
• The school had to push back the start of the school year about 2 weeks until the water had receded enough for people to enter the school
• The school is still without electricity at the moment as they are afraid to turn the current back on in case there is still water in the system and everything will fry
I know there are a lot more things that I’ve learned about the school, but for the moment those are the things that stick out in my mind, plus I’m running low on time so I’ll leave it at those. So yeah, that probably didn’t paint the most rosy picture of the place that I’m about to live and work for the next 11 months, but I figured I’d just kind of put it all out there for people to know. Mom and Grandmas, don’t panic.
Despite how bleak it might be looking though, I’m actually incredibly optimistic and excited to start my time in Bera and SMK Mengarak! I got to meet my mentor (each Fulbrighter is assigned a mentor teaching to basically be our guides to the school and pseudo parent during our time in Malaysia) today and she is incredible. Like seriously, I could not be luckier. Her name is Fira and she is 28 years old. She was assigned to Bera (here teaching assignments are kind of like FSO assignments, you don’t get a whole lot of say in where you end up) in 2012 and totally understands what it’s like to be an outsider trying to navigate the community. She also seems really liberal (she grew up outside of KL) and has a ton of ideas for how we can make the most of the year together. She is also incredibly welcoming and is already planning trips for me to meet her family, visits to places around Malaysia, and Malaysian foods she is going to teach me to cook. I’m so pumped. With a guide like her, I have no doubt that I have an amazing year ahead.
The current situation of the school also somewhat excites me. Not that in any way I want to make it sound like I’m glad that they were devastated, but just that it doesn’t scare me that much. I’m viewing it as an opportunity. The school is going to need so much assistance and I am lucky that I get the chance to help in whatever ways I can. I’ve already talked with my mentor and I’m going to make one of my co-curriculars focused on replanting the school gardens (Mom, I’m probs going to be in need of a lot of advice) and I’m going to work with another group of students to design new murals to paint around the school to replace those that were destroyed. I’m also talking with the MACEE staff and seeing what hoops I have to jump through to possibly lead a crowdfunding campaign for the school to try to raise funds to replace at least a few of the computers that were destroyed or talking with potential organizations that would be willing to donate some of their old computers. If anyone has any ideas on how to go about this or some ideas of people to contact, I’d love to hear them.
Together, SMK Mengarah and I have an intense year ahead. They’re rebuilding from the greatest disaster they’ve ever had and I’m beginning one of the most frightening/exciting adventures of my life. I think that it’s going to be filled with a lot of challenges and a lot of moments where I feel like I’m in over my head. But I’m incredibly excited to be at a school/community that has so much need and at such a critical time. I think the universe has some reason that I was the only ETA in Pahang placed at a school impacted by the floods and I’m excited to take on all the opportunities that come with that.
This story isn’t worth getting its own post but I thought I would share quick. Earlier this week some of you may have seen a photo I posted on Instagram of a meal I had had at a local hole in the wall restaurant. The backstory on the photo is that while hanging out at the beach our first afternoon here we had met a group of local surfers. We asked them for a recommendation on where to go for good food and they recommended their favorite place. Four of us took them up on their offer and met them for dinner and hung out for a while chatting and getting to know them. One in particular, Iddin, had very good English and we all hit it off with. He’s a documentary filmmaker so has done a lot of traveling and gave us some great tips for travel locations and contacts for people in various places.
Fast forward to today. Brendan, Trisha, and I run into Iddin while out buying gifts for our principals. We’re a bit confused because he had said at dinner that he was going to KL for the rest of the month to begin work on his next film project (a series of bio pieces on the last remaining artists of tradition Terangganu traditional arts). He said he had had to make an unplanned trip back because his great grandmother had died the night before and he was returning to town for the funeral tomorrow. Coincidentally, the Sultan of Terangganu’s mother had passed away the night before and her funeral was tomorrow as well. Almost jokingly we asked if there was some kind of connection. . . . Turns out there was. Iddin is actually the grandson of the Sultan and was back to be with the royal family during the mourning period. Crazy! I had met a random surfer on the beach and had dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant with him and his friends and he turned out to be a member of the royal family and we didn’t even know it.
He was super chill about it though (despite our baffled and stunned looks) and said he had a few free hours before the next call to prayer and offered to take Trisha, Brendan and I around to see some of his favorite places in KT. It was so cool to just walk around and hear about the history of the place and the various neighborhoods from someone so richly connected to the city. It was a great way to pass the afternoon and kind of cool to say that I got to take a private tour with the Sultan’s grandson haha. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be running into too many royals while in Bera this year.