"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.