Many Ways to Be Human

I have now been in Malaysia for nearing 1 month and I am at a loss for words. This piece is a little late on the posting front, but I’m finally back on the grid now and will try to catch up on this adventure!

Everything has been new and different in a surprisingly comfortable way. I thrive on change and adventure, and even living out of a suite case.

View of KL from a helicopter pad just before an evening storm
View of KL from a helicopter pad just before an evening storm
The first two weeks were spent in the capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL) getting acclimated to the heat and the food, learning a little bit of the language – Bahasa Malaysia – and getting lectured at by the US State Department and the Malaysia Office of Education (MOE). Flexibility and humor has been the key to this endeavor so far, starting with the 35 hours of travel to get here: I had a 6 hour layover in the Singapore airport with many of my plane-mates, while the others we ran into got to fly straight to KL. Alas, it was worth seeing the butterfly garden in the airport.

Upon arrival it felt like the first week of college all over again: randomly assigned roommates, ask the first person that smiles at you if you can sit at their table, and never sleep. We were thrown in to conference room after conference room being told that the answers to all our questions would “depend on our placement,” which we weren’t allowed to know yet. And even once most others learned their placements, the 10 of us headed for the state of Kelantan learned that everything for us was up in the air, as our schools had been devastated by the recent flood.

Some of my fellow ETAs dressed up in our traditional Malaysian Baju on our last day in Bahasa Malaysia class
Some of my fellow ETAs dressed up in our traditional Malaysian Baju on our last day in Bahasa Malaysia class

As frustrating as the ambiguity felt at the time, we all got to bond and make friends with the 99 other ETAs. (Okay, so I didn’t become friends with all of them, but I certainly tried.) It wasn’t until we heard from the State Department that I began to understand our job a little better – recruitment for the Foreign Service.

Posing with Ambassador Yun at the evening tea he hosted to meet all the Fulbright ETAs
Posing with Ambassador Yun at the evening tea he hosted to meet all the Fulbright ETAs
That might be a bit of a stretch, but the US government does see our role as soft diplomacy. We are here as more than English teachers but as unofficial, everyday ambassadors. When Senator Fulbright started this program after WWII, he believed that creating cross-cultural understanding was the key to avoiding future wars. I believe that there are many ways to be human and to look at the world. I hope that this exchange will encourage us ETAs and all the Malaysians with whom our paths cross to consider what a few of these other ways may be.

This journey began when we were finally released from our conference room and asked to run a day long English camp at a secondary school in KL. Throw 9 overly ambitious and opinionated young woman together to plan an event for 100 children in 3 hours and what do you get? A kick-ass camp.
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We decided to theme the camp around American field day and transformed some classic camp games in to English learning. We started with lots of songs to help everyone get in to a silly mood. The students are used to being shy and quiet, so it takes a lot of looking like a fool yourself to get them to laugh and do the same. Luckily making myself look ridiculous comes naturally.

Students doing a word scramble at camp
Students doing a word scramble at camp
Over the course of the day the kids played “Dizzy Words,” and did a clothing relay race, played various versions of charades, and taught us the Malaysian version of Ninja. By 2pm they were asking us questions and using their English outside of the games. I quickly discovered that there’s a high threshold to get past the shyness, but once you’ve crossed that line the students are eager to practice.
Some of the Form 5 boys who really opened up over the course of the day!
Some of the Form 5 boys who really opened up over the course of the day!

The chance to work with high performing students in KL, before getting to our lower performing schools in rural areas, helped me contextualize what teaching will look like this year. Even just trying to learn little bits of Bahasa Malaysia myself has been a good glimpse in to what my students must feel like when I speak far too rapidly at them in English. It’s always a refreshing reminder to educate yourself before you educate others. Only then can I make whole hearted efforts to understand the communities I am becoming a part of this year.

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