One thing about school that was the same in America and Malaysia: first-day-of-school nerves. My mentor teacher picked me up and drove me to school, which is only 3 minutes away from my house. Immediately, the principal appeared to greet me in the parking lot, and then I was whisked off to the morning assembly and hurried onstage to face 1,000 curious students. As the principal introduced me in Malay (my mentor sat next to me and translated), I turned toward the projector screen to see that the school had created a montage especially for me: A drone video of Rhode Island with my face superimposed over scenes of beaches, the Newport mansions, Brown University’s campus, and downtown Providence. And this wasn’t even considered my official welcome ceremony. That day, there was another VIP, a government education officer who was visiting the school. I had prepared a short speech, but I hadn’t known that there would be another special guest. I conferred frantically with my mentor, trying to make sure that the speech — specifically, the order of the list of names of people I wanted to thank —wouldn’t cause any faux pas. As I whispered to her through a fixed smile, my mentor quickly scrawled down a new list of names, trying to teach me proper pronunciation in the moments before the speech. My principal continued making remarks in Malay, and then turned to me, gesturing for me to approach the podium. I stumbled over the names, told the students I was excited to be at their school and help them learn English, said thank you, and sat down. After the assembly, I had breakfast in the canteen with other teachers. For the rest of the day, I stayed in the HIP Hut, the area where I will hold most of my extracurricular English activities for the year. All day, students peered out at me from windows and upper floors, waving and shouting good mornings and hellos. The shyer students poked their heads out above the ledges and then ducked away when I waved back, screaming with laughter. The braver souls came by to say hello in person and take selfies (I am told that the allure of a selfie with the ETA never gets old), and a few Chinese students gifted me with oranges for good luck for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations.
The next day, my mentor gave a 1-hour talk to the entire school about the do’s and don’ts of interacting with the ETA. I sat next to another English teacher, who translated the main points of the talk, which included mandates like “She is not your girlfriend. She is your teacher!” but also featured lessons on how to say “You are beautiful” and “You are pretty!” If I return to the U.S. a very vain person, this is why. My response is usually to tell them that yes, you are also beautiful, and you are so beautiful inside, and yes, your heart is very beautiful too!
The first few weeks of school also brought countless questions about myself from students eager to understand the American stranger who had suddenly entered their lives. My school had an ETA last year, but there were, of course, new students in the school, and foreigners are quite rare in my small town. I don’t fit the stereotypical image of an American woman — what is known from TV and movies — so most wanted to know where I was from, asking “Miss, why your face look Chinese?” It was exhausting. But the students asked out of curiosity, and I am here to represent and to explain America, which means explaining its diversity, over and over again. “I am Chinese-American,” I tell them, which leads to more questions about whether I spoke Chinese, if I was half-Chinese or not, and questions about how I came to live in the U.S. Some students told me I looked like I was from Sabah, a Malaysian state on Borneo. My mentor later told me this meant that I was “fair-skinned” (meaning that I had lighter skin). In Malaysia, light or “fair” skin is one of the beauty ideals. It’s easy to find skin lightening products and in advertisements, and many of the models have light skin. When I tell my students that many Americans love tanning, they shake their heads and can’t believe it. The first time I explained spray tanning — “In America, sometimes some people pay other people money to spray paint their skin a different color” — I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculousness of my description. “Miss, what?” they say when I tell them that spray tanning is popular. I can’t help but agree.
We had a week off from school for Chinese New Year, and I stayed in my community to celebrate the holiday with my students. I started the week off by following my student on her motorcycle to her temple, where we watched fireworks at midnight and welcomed the new year. Traditionally, many families hold open houses to celebrate, so my roommate and I decided to try to get to know some of our neighbors. We brought along oranges to give to them for prosperity, and we soon found ourselves sitting outside with a Chinese family a few doors down from our own. “Why are you here?” they asked as they fed us food and gave us ang bao (red envelopes containing money for good luck), and we told them that we were English teachers from America, naming our respective schools. It turned out that I was sitting next to the father of one of my students. He invited us to his house, a short walk down the street, and we accepted. It was a surprise for my student, who wasn’t expecting his new American teacher to show up at his door, but he gamely waved hello and talked with me on his family’s couch. At one point, he noticed that my ears are pierced and asked why I didn’t have earrings in. “Oh, they’re at home,” I said. His brother went into another room, reappeared with a single earring and gave it to me. “Thank you!” I told them, “So pretty!” My student gestured to my ear. “Miss, now!” “It’s OK!” I said. “When I get home.” He looked at me, wide-eyed: “No, Miss, now! They will close.” I told him again that it was OK. “No, Miss, now,” he said, urging me. And as I saw how worried he looked, I caved. “OK,” I said, raising the earring to my ear. What I hadn’t realized was that my ear piercing had closed, so I sat on the couch, smiling, and pushed the earring through the closed hole in my ear, which turned bright red. “It’s in!” Beaming, my student nodded. A few moments later, he disappeared into another room and reappeared, extending his hand: Another earring.
You can guess what happened next (both of my ears are completely fine), and the rest of the afternoon was filled with more food and a lot of laughs. I tried to speak the little Mandarin I know, and he patiently taught me how to pronounce simple words in Chinese, laughing as I struggled to contort my mouth into unfamiliar shapes. The next day, we returned to his house for the reunion dinner with his family. His mom is an excellent cook, and we devoured her first dinner of rice, deep-fried pork, taro root, and fried chicken. We talked to his parents through our Google Translate apps and a lot of gesturing and laughing as we tried make sure his mom knew that we loved her food. Later, we had yee sang (prosperity toss salad, a tradition associated with Chinese populations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore), a colorful, tangy salad with honey sauce and raw fish. Everyone at the table then mixes the salad with chopsticks, raising the food as high as possible — the higher the toss, the more prosperity in the new year. After we set off some fireworks, we piled into a car with his family and headed to his aunt’s house, where we ate more food, received more ang bao, and took selfies with the kids. The next week, I visited a local Chinese primary school with some of my students, who were performing a fan dance at the Chinese New Year celebration. I watched a lion dance (I was just as excited as the primary school students), hung out with my students, and waved and greeted a lot of shy 6-year-olds in basic Mandarin.
“Next week, we have sports day,” a teacher announced to me. Great, I think, a day where I get to take a break from the classroom and head out to the field. But nothing is as it seems in Malaysia, and the next day, another teacher explained to me that sports day is a misnomer: It’s actually a couple of weeks long. All of the students in the school are placed on one of four teams: Blue, yellow, red, or green. For the first few days, all students compete in races, long jump and shot-put. A small group of students from Red Crescent (similar to the Red Cross) serve as medics on the field. Sports days are long and hot, and I had the easy job of walking around and chatting with students in English. The students, though, have to run and jump under the hot sun (often above 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Once the majority of students are eliminated, the top athletes from each team compete against each other in the same events, with the addition of the high jump, javelin, and relays, trying to score points for their team. At this level of competition, many of the students push themselves to the point of exhaustion. It’s especially common with the girls, who often collapse into the arms of waiting teachers as soon as they cross the finish line (sometimes before). A teacher told me that this is normal and because they don’t eat breakfast or drink enough water. They are carried to the Red Crescent tent, where other students fan them and throw water on them until they are revived. As I cheered for students at the finish line, one girl collapsed into my arms. It was jarring. A Red Crescent student helped me carry her into the tent, with another student explaining that “Miss, Malaysians are not very active,” and I nodded, continuing to fan her. Before long, she was awake, preparing to compete in another event.
On the last day of sports events, my mentor teacher asked me to run for her in the teacher relay. This is fine, I thought. It’s only 50 meters and I know I can at least beat the group of teachers who are significantly older than me. I joined my team (the red, or merah, team), and we did some over exaggerated stretching, mostly to garner laughs from the students. Moments before the race, I felt a stinging sensation under my arm. A bee. Or a wasp. Some Malaysian insect. Then it bit me again, this time on my lower back. The English teachers were nowhere in sight. I started to panic, realizing that it’s very possible that I could have an allergic reaction to a unidentified Malaysian bug and be unable to communicate what’s happening to the people who are on the field. And I can’t raise my shirt to simply show people the bite, because I can’t show that part of my skin in public. A couple female teachers on my relay team wandered over, and I told them, “I think I got bit by a bee.” “Sorry,” one said, “I don’t understand?” “A bug?” I tried. “A bite?” I mimed it out to them, but my Malay was too broken and my miming wasn’t helping. At this point, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to have a major reaction, so I ran, my left side going a little numb as I finished the 50 meters. My team came in first place, and then I finally spotted an English teacher. Relief. She flagged down several female teachers, who crowded around me in a tight circle to prevent any male students from seeing my skin and look at the bite, which was growing red and swollen. They gave me lemon oil to rub on the bite and then my mentor returned to the field. “Bee sting,” I told her, and she rushed me to the local clinic, clucking at me for running and not immediately going to the doctor. At the clinic, a doctor inspected the bites, gave me a shot of antihistamines, and instructed me to keep the bites clean and to apply medicine until the swelling disappears. She also gave me an MC to excuse me from school for the rest of the day. My mentor took me back to school to gather my things, but I realized that the students are getting their medals, so I returned to the field anyway — luckily, in time to also get a medal for my team’s first-place relay finish. Some of the male teachers have taken to teasing me by saying that I’m Peter Parker. “Very fast!” They call out in the bilik guru, or staff room. “Yes,” I reply, laughing and waving. Olympics, here I come.
A couple weekends ago, I visited Terengganu, a state north of Pahang. We had the opportunity to meet one of the co-founders of the Fulbright Malaysia program and visit Warison Sari, the only traditional Joget Gamelan (a traditional dance) performance space in Malaysia. My roommate and I drove up to Terengganu a night early to stay with two of our ETA friends. We visited their night market, and I was shocked by everyone staring at us. For some other ETAs, the staring is part of everyday life. But this doesn’t happen in my town, where it’s more diverse and I, as a Chinese woman, am not an extraordinary sight. Plus, it’s small enough that most people know who I am. But in the places we went in Terengganu, the population is mostly Malay, meaning that even I stuck out. We went to a football match, and as soon as we entered the stadium, people started staring and calling to us, asking for photos. It was a small taste of the discomfort of being an easy-to-spot celebrity in a public space, and a reminder of what other ETAs must face on a daily basis. But once we settled down to watch the game, everyone was too focused on the match to continue paying much attention to us. The next day, we drove back to the city for the reception. We watched a group of young girls perform Joget Gamelan, then our hosts dressed us up in the traditional clothing and we tried our best to play a few songs and dance — we had to earn our lunch, our hosts told us. By no means did we master the dance or the music, but it was a special experience.
The next weekend, I traveled to Pekan, a coastal part of Pahang, to meet up with other ETAs and to run a 5K. About 30 minutes into the drive, I realized that I had forgotten my running sneakers in the other car. A sign that I wasn’t meant to run the race for which I completed exactly zero minutes of training. (Earlier in the week, my mentor asked me about the last time I had run that far. Three months ago.) We met up with other ETAs and then headed to the night market, where I happily roamed the food stalls, grabbing pisang goreng (fried bananas) and a chicken shawarma wrap, and half-heartedly searched for a cheap pair of sneakers. Nothing. Only hundreds of flip flops, sandals, and knock-off crocs. Toward the end of our night market browsing, I returned to the crocs, which had already been purchased by another ETA. They presented the chance for a lot of firsts: My first 5K. My first 5K in Malaysia. My first 5K in crocs. I caved, and bought them, telling myself that I could wear them with socks and survive. The night before the 5K, I struggled to fall asleep in the heat, wandering the house until 2 a.m. Two hours later, I woke up, grabbed the crocs and passed out in the back seat of another ETA’s car, grateful that I didn’t have to drive to the race course. After getting lost a few times, and we found the starting line, registered, and stretched to pop music blasting in the early morning with the other runners. The final few kilometers were rough at best, but I managed to escape without blisters. Clearly, crocs are not running shoes. But I finished, and the next day, came down with a bad cold that sent me home early and back to the clinic, where the doctor gave me a medical clearance note to miss the next two days of school. I stayed in bed and forced down some bitter cough syrup. In the U.S., I would’ve taken Dayquil and suffered through work, but I would not have recovered as quickly here, given the heat and the need to maintain high energy levels at school.
I’ve already visited Kuala Gandah, the elephant sanctuary, twice. It’s only a 45-minute drive from my house, and there, I learned about the elephants, fed them sugar cane and peanuts, and took lots of photos with the help of our friendly guides. There is nothing like an elephant reaching out with the tip of its trunk to grab whatever piece of fruit you’re holding, leaving behind a lot of slimy elephant boogers on your hand. We also bathed the baby elephants, wading into the river where our mischievous guides kept calling out “Crocodile!” just to see us jump. The process is basically exfoliation: You splash the elephants with water (and get soaked), pick up sand from the river, rub it on the elephants to loosen the dead skin, and then splash the elephants again to wash the dirt off. Soon, I’ll hold an English Camp (a day of doing activities with students in English) there with students from my school and my roommate’s school. Feeding the elephants is a joy. I’m always in a good mood after getting to play with them, even when it’s only for a few minutes. On our most recent trip, we overheard English speakers and befriended an American man taking a break from his business trip and a Canadian woman traveling throughout the region. Sometimes my life here feels so very far from America, but this was one of those serendipitous moments when home felt a little bit closer.
Music has always played an important role in my life. While my students have taught me plenty about pop culture and tried to teach me as many songs as possible, my mentor brought me to watch the BTS concert movie on my second day in my small kampung (village). We drove to the neighboring town’s movie theatre and I watched two hours of K-pop by a band I only recognized by name. That was a month ago, and now I find myself humming along to a few catchy BTS songs in the car. My students also love Ed Sheeran songs and can sing the chorus to “Perfect.” It’s fun to incorporate songs into lessons — I challenged my school’s English Language Society to listen and fill in the blanks to printed “Hamilton” lyrics and while they jammed out to the songs, one boy shouted “So fast, Miss!” once it started playing.
I have finally started to feel settled at school. The students know me, or at least recognize me, and I can call a few by name. The teachers tell me that the students are better behaved when I’m around, but school still comes with its challenges. I become a constant extrovert at school, trying to get the shyer students to talk to me and being ridiculous enough that the braver students continue to be amused by me and talk to me. It’s like being on Broadway constantly, and afterwards, I usually nap before dinner. It’s also full of unexpected twists and turns, and some days are worse than others. One Monday morning: We have to run a 1.5-hour program for 400 students and it will begin in one hour. Go. In the rest of this blog post, I will explain how I died a slow— just kidding. But that’s how I felt for a split second before my training kicked in and I started trying to piece together a short program for the hundreds of students who would soon be waiting in the assembly hall. What do you do with 400 students? Have them play “Gorilla, Man, Gun,” a variation on Rock, Paper, Scissors, and then have them learn and dance the Cha Cha Slide for an hour. Sometimes, the students love my activities, and other times, they stare blankly at me or refuse to participate. But that Monday morning, a little over half of the students tried the Cha Cha Slide: A success. And the English teachers loved the Cha Cha Slide so much that they played it again after the students left, and we jumped around in the empty assembly hall for a few minutes before heading off to class. Like that, school is also filled with many sweet moments: From students slipping me bites of their snacks at recess to teachers leaving bags of baju kerungs or kebayas (the traditional dresses that I wear at school) on my desk or slipping me food between classes, Malaysian hospitality embodies generosity. I feel the most welcome that I think I could feel in country across the world from my home.
There are so many other special moments and stories that I couldn’t fit into this blog post. Malaysia is doing its best to keep me busy, and I am taking every moment I can get. I am grateful that everyone is so willing to share their traditions with me and teach me about this beautiful country. My goal is not, and will never be, to change people, or to tell them that the American way is better just because it is American. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Malaysia and its race relations, Malaysia and its relationship with America and America’s attitudes toward Islam, and what it means to teach English abroad in the context of colonialism and the legacy of William J. Fulbright (I’m happy to discuss any of these privately, but I still have a lot of processing to do). If you made it this far, please stay in touch via email or WhatsApp message (I’ll message you my Malaysian number)!
Additions to my playlist: “Magic Shop” by BTS, “SOLO” by Jennie, “Bidadari” by Ismail Izzani
Favorite foods: Nasi kerabu, dragonfruit, mangosteen