I slide my card carefully into the slot at the top of the time clock, chuckling under my breath as I see my name written in careful blue ink at the top: “K–L–Y–E“. I remind myself to speak slower next time, to articulate my consonants. I forget that my name is strange here, that in a world full of “long names” and “short names” (many of which are still honestly quite long to my American ears), the name Kyle seems choppy, almost blunt. I remember that it is necessary to spell my name out when I introduce myself to others so that they don’t spend the rest of their lives thinking that they know someone named Carl.
I grab the time card from the clock and place it back in my slot, careful to make a mental note of the number so that I won’t struggle to find it tomorrow morning when I clock back in. I wave a quick goodbye to the office staff, double check my bag to make sure I haven’t left anything behind, and pull open the door, savoring the last few seconds of air conditioning before I reacquaint myself with the stifling Malaysian afternoon. My ride sees me from the end of the hallway and waves me over. He is eager to head out before the one road that carries traffic to and from the school gets congested with cars and motorbikes; I am eager to get home and take off the stupid tie that’s been choking me all day, its grip made worse by the heat.
My first day, done. It has been a day of mostly meetings and school tours, of elaborate welcoming ceremonies and endless introductions. I don’t remember where the bathrooms are, I’ve forgotten basically everybody’s names, and I’m not sure what exactly I ate for lunch. All I know is that I got through the day, feeling both alien and welcome, unsettled and satisfied. I’m re-learning how to embrace the dissonance of emotions that seems to be an inherent part of traveling; it’s a process that takes time and, from what I’ve learned, a good book or two.
I find my mind wandering as I make my way down the hallway. I think of my new home, a small house in a nice neighborhood about fifteen minutes away. It’s been an interesting place to start this next leg of my journey, as it’s never been lived in and therefore came without many of the furnishings and touches that distinguish a house from a home; with a little bit of effort, though, and a great deal of help from the Fulbright staff and my incredible mentor, it is slowly becoming a place to which I am excited to return each day.
I think of my school, nestled in a little kampung outside the city. It is a place full of color and light, and I have no doubt that I will do more learning than teaching in my time here.
I think of home. I try not to do this too often, because I know the joy that comes from living (almost) fully in the present moment. This country and its people are my new present, and I am actively working to embrace them. But sometimes it hurts in the best way to remember where I’m most loved, where I’ve built a strong and lasting community. I think of my home and of my friends, of all of those whose lives have shaped mine and have led me here, thousands of miles away. The irony doesn’t escape me, and I smile to myself. Home means nothing until we leave it.
I’m forced out of my daydream by the sight of a student standing at the end of the hallway. He’s leaning up against the wall, hands in his pockets, the white shirt of his uniform coming untucked after a long day of classes and football at recess. He is watching me. As much as I’m trying to adjust to the feeling of constant observation (everything about me screams “anomaly” here), I can’t say that it doesn’t bother me just a bit to be stared down as I get closer to him, our eyes locked. I try to make a smile appear on my face. What does he see? I wonder to myself. Am I walking somewhere I shouldn’t be? Maybe he’s looking at someone behind me… I check: there is no one–I am the sole object of his scrutiny. Is my zipper down?
Finally, after what feels like
miles kilometers of being watched, we meet. I stop directly in front of him, unsure of my next move (or his, for that matter). We stand in silence for a few seconds…and then he speaks, loudly and full of rehearsed confidence that shatters any of the tension I felt in the moments leading up to our encounter: “Good morning, sir!”
And I’m reminded of why I’m here. It’s easy to daydream, to think about my new house and some of its less-than-ideal features, or to get lost in memories of a home that’s waiting for me at the end of this year. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the little things, to let my mind drown in a sea of new words and sounds I’ll never remember (and some I’ll never forget). But it’s easier to be with a student as he proudly utters the only English words he really knows, regardless of the fact that it’s nearly 3:00 in the afternoon and “morning” no longer applies. It’s easier to say, “Hey, awesome job. What’s your name?” and to slowly start building your new community. I think I often get stuck thinking that anything meaningful has to be hard, that it has to come after some sort of immense and life-altering struggle.
But sometimes, it can just be really easy.