It is beginning to hit me that two months left in Malaysia is just not a lot of time. Every day races by a little quicker and I barely notice how one week turns into the next. As I have begun explaining to my students why I am leaving, I have become more appreciative of the genial acts of hospitality – great and small – that make it harder and harder for me to leave.
A few weeks ago, some fellow ETAs and I were whisked off to Chiang Mai, Thailand by the senior advisor to the Crowned Prince of Kelantan. To some this seemed political, excessive, or awkward. To me, it was the largest gesture of gratitude I have ever received. I tried my best to accept it in kind. Recognizing that Kelantan is not an easy place to live, Dato (Malaysia’s equivalent to being knighted) simply wanted to thank us for the work we’ve done in his home state this year.
His Thai family welcomed us in to his home, making us feel part of the family. Playing cards all night with his nieces truly felt like I was on just another family trip. We ate more food than my stomach was prepared for (I didn’t regret it for an instant), hiked to see the rice paddy fields, bought way too many souvenirs at the night market, and simply enjoyed getting to know each other.
It amazed me that someone would go so out of his way – and his family along with it – just to say thank you for something that doesn’t directly affect him! The Kelantan organization that Dato is a part of certainly has impacted my year and helped me feel adjusted while still able to converse and take action in familiar ways. It still seems ridiculous to me that I was taken to Thailand for a weekend as a thank you, but I’m also humbled by the way Dato views our purpose here.
As meaningful as that experience was, it in no way outshines the acts of kindness and hospitality I experience on a day-to-day basis.
The most remarkable new connection has been with an individual student, Izati, who welcomed me in to her family for a few meals, took me to meet her new born nephews, and asked if she could call me sis. This is a young woman who made efforts to talk to me and overcome her shyness far earlier than any of her classmates. She began seeking me out more often and shared bullying troubles she faced because of all the time she spent talking to me. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that my presence really could create social troubles. But those troubles are not felt when we’re together, and I am amazed by the strength of Izati to ignore teenage drama for the sake of our relationship. Instead, we chat about what feels meaningful and let ourselves learn from each other.
I get an inexplicable sense of comfort by learning from each other. Even when we are discovering differences that will never be overcome – usually the expectations that Islam places on individuals, especially women – I feel incredibly overjoyed by the conversation. It cannot be rationalized, but still never fails to make me feel welcomed. And that, at its essence, is human connection.
This kind of human connection extends to break through moments at school. Every day new students talk to me who I’ve never seen before! Not only the students in my classes who are shy, but students who I have never taught. A group of form 2 girls were bored without a teacher in their class and came to just chat with me for an hour. A form 5 boy sat down at my desk for just 5 minutes to ask a few questions. These small interactions make me hopeful that just as I have started to feel more comfortable and capable here, my students too are feeling that way around me.
Similarly, I’ve been able to make more meaningful conversation with my teachers.The first year teacher, Siti, and I have begun having more honest conversations about the challenges of teaching in this environment. The cycle of uninterested students and unmotivated teachers traps many of our co-workers, and every disappointing class makes us fear the same end for ourselves. We try to be a constructive and positive force for each other, even on days when the only English my students will utter is to ask my to speak in Malay. And even more unheard of, last week I entered the canteen while a few female (non-English) teachers were chattering away about their marriage troubles. After catching me up to speed in English I was able to offer my condolences and we were able to all laugh together about men.
It’s these moments, more than anything else, which make me disappointed in my short time left. Why are these kinds of connections happening so late in the game? It’s great that we’re all mutually feeling more comfortable with each other, but why only now?! I wish I had more time with the people I’m becoming friends with now, but ultimately I wouldn’t change an ounce of my experience this year. I am grateful for the relationships I’m cultivating now. These are the people and the lessons who will continue to shape the way I think and act even after I return home.