Every time I sit down to write about my experiences in Malaysia I hit a road block. Just when I begin to feel like I’ve got a grasp on this country – I think I understand why something happens, a conversation seems to be going well, I can articulate my thoughts about it – everything gets flipped on its head. Only after the successes and relaxation of the past few days do I feel confident in saying that these nuances are precisely what define my first month in the state of Kelantan.
In preparing to come to Kelantan during orientation we were told three things: the population is 99% Malay Muslim, the state government is run by the opposition party, and several districts were experiencing the worst flooding since the 1960s. We initially heard this as 1) say goodbye to knowing what your body looks like because it will be covered 99% of the time, 2) keep your mouth shut, and 3) keep hoping that ‘displaced schools’ doesn’t mean we’re going to get shipped home. Talking with Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur, whether the cooks at my favorite hawker stalls or fellow hotel guests, perpetuated stereotypes and qualms that we were developing. The second I told them that I was moving to Kelantan, their eyes would get a little wider, their voice a little softer, and would proceed to tell me about the poverty, the remoteness, and the recent flood. I was told it was the least developed and most rural state, in need of the most aid and getting none of it.
After the initial shock factor I started to see just how unique an experience this year would become. The traditional, conservative aspects of Kelantan would let me to get to know the cultural heart of Malaysia. But, just as I was starting to wrap my head around lacking national government aid and the banning of cinemas by religious state leaders, I met some of the religious leaders themselves. The 10 ETAs teaching in Kelantan were requested to skip the last week of our orientation to be shuttled around the state as political PR pawns for MAIK (the organization run by the Sultan and Crowned Prince – who are also the religious leaders – of Kelantan). Over the course of the week I discovered that all the assumptions I had absorbed in KL were rooted in a lack of knowledge.
Every person that I have met from Kelantan is in love with their state and could imagine living nowhere else. Very few people leave Kelantan, but also very few people come to visit (foreigners and locals alike.) Kelantan is the only state run by the opposition party – the cause of low national government funds, especially for infrastructure, which therefore results in more remote areas. As religious as it is, Kelantan also has one of the highest divorce (and therefore single mother) rates. Everything was beginning to sound like an oxymoron.
The more time I spend trying to get to know Kelantan, the more I realize that these nuances are exactly what make it so special. Very few teachers at my school can speak to me in English and after being here a month most of my students still giggle and run away when I ask them a question they don’t understand. Despite our inability to communicate, effort and kindness are always present. The teacher whose desk is next to mind is so excited to be practicing her “broken English” every day and invited me to a wedding the first weekend I was here. No one understood what I was doing there, but they were gracious and welcoming. When I ask my students anything more detailed then “how are you” and they can’t give the rote response of “I am fine,” instead they tell me “I don’t understand.” But, they are willing to listen as I rephrase, or watch me mime, in order to try to understand. They fear I will not understand them.
And sometimes, that fear comes true. The language barrier is certainly the most challenging component of the job. So far, I leave most classes feeling unsatisfied. Maybe I was not successful conveying what I meant to say, or I was unable to craft a lesson to meet my students on their level. It is hard to know how to reach them because I only see each class once a week. Assessing their low English proficiency is one thing, but adapting lessons to be engaging at that level is another. More often than not, the Malaysian teacher has to repeat what I say – sometimes in the native language, and sometimes again in English just with a Malaysian accent – for the students to comprehend. It took many weeks to not feel like a failure when this happened, but then I began having successful lessons. It takes a lot more repetition and modeling of activities than I expected, but with proper patience the students do grasp instructions on their own. Just like getting to know Kelantan, there is no rhyme or reason for what clicks in class.
But then again, they’re kids, it doesn’t need to make sense as long as I can run with it. That’s all I can do. Each day presents its own new challenges – surprise schedule change, unwelcomed flat tire, way too much rice for breakfast – but it also presents opportunity. I am still trying to find my place in this community, school, and state, but my curiosity keeps me enjoying the process.