The past two weeks have been the busiest of my life. My days are packed with speakers, workshops, meetings, dinners, walking, eating, dancing, and socializing. I keep channeling David Byrne and asking myself, “How did I get here?!”
While orientation follows a schedule, each day is full of surprises (often in the form of surprise fish). I’ll write about a few of those today.
Friday. Picture this: a tropical rain forest in the mountains. Drizzling rain. Mud, everywhere. Water buffalo and macaques on the side of the road. Cats, everywhere. Leeches. 100 Americans slathered with bug spray and sunscreen
trekking slipping along in a single file line to find a waterfall. Sounds like an episode of what should be a reality show called “Fulbright Malaysia: Fresh off the plane.” I enjoyed every second of it. Humor and flexibility are key to survival (or at least peace) here.
Saturday. Our first English camps! We finally got to do what we’re here for–spend time with Malaysian students. The 100 ETAs were split into groups of ten and each sent to different schools in the Kuala Lumpur area for a single day English camp. I was nervous on the way to SMK Sungai Kertas, but I was surprised and moved by how enthusiastic, smart, giggly, and respectful the kids were. We bonded over hangman, Simon Says, making snowflakes, and relay races during our four hours together. Not only was I surprised by the kids, but also by myself. One of my insecurities about this year in Malaysia is my introverted nature. I worry about not being peppy or exciting enough to fill the role of an ETA sometimes. But somehow, the kids brought out my goofy, exuberant side. I felt completely at ease with dancing and shouting and chatting with everyone. The day restored my confidence.
An interesting bit of Malaysian culture is their love for SELFIES and photo opps. I was asked to take at least 50 pics that day with various kids and administrators, always one smiling followed by “Freestyle!” which just means throwing up peace signs and “tiny love.” Teacher-student relationships also have different standards in Malaysia. Here, it isn’t considered strange to exchange phone numbers with students and meet up outside of school. We made a WhatsApp group so students can practice their English with me over text, even though I probably won’t see any of these kids again.
One last thought before I go, and a preview of what I might write about in the future. During orientation last week, we had lots of discussions about identity (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and how our own identities could inform our experiences in Malaysia. To many Malaysians, particularly those living in more rural areas, to be American means to be white, blond, rich, and beautiful, which is unsurprising due to media representation. This was demonstrated in the closing ceremony of our English camp. As the principal thanked us profusely, she added, “We are so grateful for these beautiful, blue-eyed people.” Of course, not all of us had blue eyes. It will be interesting and challenging to navigate these sorts of perceptions, although my experience will be much more smooth than the many ETAs of color who do not fit this constructed viewpoint of “American.”
P.S. I’ll be living in the city of Sungai Petani with my new roommate Veronica and teaching in the town of Merbok, about 30 minutes away. I can’t wait to start this next part of my adventure in a couple of weeks!