The Good, The Bad, & The Soon-to-Be: What Reflection is Teaching Me

I’ve been taking time every night as I get ready for bed to jot down a quick list of three things that happened throughout the day. I call one of them the “rose,” the moment that I am most thankful for and that made the day better, even if only slightly. The second is the “thorn,” or the thing that was, well, less than awesome that day (note: I sometimes have a hard time narrowing this one down). Lastly, I make note of a “bud,” something I am looking forward to or expecting to be great in the next couple of days. The whole process usually takes about five minutes, and then it’s done. No elaborate explanations, no cliched journal entries about my deepest and most philosophical thoughts–just a rose, a thorn, and a bud.

It’s an old exercise that I’ve stolen from my days working as an Orientation Leader in college (and probably from any of the other leadership/service/people-related activities I’ve participated in at any point in my life). The whole idea is that, in an effort to help process potentially overwhelming experiences like moving to college or, say, living in a Southeast Asian country, it can be helpful to identify singular moments, both positive and negative, and to reflect on them. Among my more optimistic friends and co-facilitators, the “bud” is seen as a way to shift focus from processing the day’s events to instead envisioning something that has the potential to go really well in the future. Devoting time to these three items should, in theory, lessen the burden of grappling with a whole day’s worth of stuff, good or bad, helping to mitigate feelings of stress or anxiety.

I’ve been doing this little reflection every night for the past few weeks as I’ve found myself struggling with the day to day stresses of living and teaching in Malaysia (e.g., language barriers, planning events, the occasional typhoid week). I won’t pretend that it’s completely changed my life, or that my days are now dramatically better because I’ve chosen to thoughtfully reflect on them. Every day, I have something to write down for each category; every day, there is good and bad. Some days, I even have moments that seem to defy this cut and dry categorization, and I’m forced to gloss over them in favor of others that more easily fit into my three boxes.

I’d like to think it’s doing something, though, this daily reflection of mine. I haven’t been transformed by “the power of positive thinking” or any other sort of romantic notion; in fact, part of the reason I value rose, bud, and thorn is that it acknowledges and embraces the whole spectrum of things we experience on a daily basis. I do think I’m beginning to notice a change, though. Subtle, uncertain, fleeting–but present occasionally, and worth celebrating. It could be that I’m sleeping more, or that I’ve recently tripled my water intake (no joke, y’all), all of which are bound to make for a better and happier me. But I’d like to think that this slight uptick in good vibes, this feeling of contentment that seems to last longer and longer each day, might also be due in part to spending my last waking moments in focused and intentional reflection.

Don’t get me wrong: life here isn’t horrible, and it’s not like I’m in need of some major transformation to get me through all of these awful things that are happening. In general, I’m happy, I’m doing good work, and I’m living a life that I am infinitely grateful for and that I can’t wait to experience more of. Cultural adjustment is hard, though, and there are definitely days that seem to have a much higher ratio of thorns to roses. I think the most important thing I’m learning is that it’s okay to acknowledge these days, to admit that sometimes I leave my school and wonder if that movie night I’m planning will ever actually happen, or if my Form 3 students will ever actually understand Around the World in 80 Days. It’s okay to have sucky days.

But each day has its rose, its one redeeming moment, no matter how brief. Maybe it’s that one interaction with a student between classes that leaves me laughing for the next five minutes, or the fact that the wifi at our favorite curry house is finally working again. Today’s rose is definitely the fact that I’ve had so much free time to sit in the air conditioning and work on this blog post, something I’ve been wanting to do for the past couple of days. Whatever it is, each day has some reason to be celebrated. And I know it sounds cheesy and [more than] a bit cliche, but these are the things that get me through. It’s nothing profound, but it’s working for me.

Stay tuned for more life updates in the next post–I’m going to Thailand next weekend (!!), so I’m sure there will be plenty to write about.

Until next time,

Kyle

Where did March go? It’s a serious question I have.

How has another month flown by already? As I sat down to start this blog post, I realized that almost a full month has passed since my last update, which is, quite frankly, unfathomable to me. Not that I’m apologizing or anything; things have been really busy over here in Malaysia land and, in all honesty, I knew that the whole “two posts a month” thing was maybe not the most sustainable precedent for me to set. All in all, though, what really matters is that I’m back with more updates, photos, and a few random thoughts that I’d like to share.

Let’s start with a few school-related tidbits, shall we?

I had my first English camp!! In case this hasn’t been explained somewhere in this blog of mine, one of my “jobs” as an ETA is to plan and facilitate English language programming in the form of fun, interactive activities that usually take place outside of regular school hours. These programs, known more affectionately as “camps,” can take a variety of forms and are a way for ETAs to bring their own passions and strengths to the teaching of English in non-traditional (and hopefully really fun) ways.

English Camps are also an excellent occasion for further development of one's selfie skills.

English Camps are also an excellent occasion for further development of one’s selfie skills.

My first camp took place at the end of February, and it was a blast. The theme was, like many things here in Malaysia, a bit vague, but the goal was to help train a group of about 40 students in a variety of communications-based skills: conducting interviews, using effective team-building strategies, researching current events (aka media literacy), and taking awesome photos. The idea originated as a way to encourage participation in a new English-based communications program at my school–which is basically a fancy way of saying that we built a mini news studio and bought an expensive camera and now the students need to know how to use it all without breaking anything, all while looking semi-professional. I am forever grateful to my fellow Pahang ETAs, so many of whom showed up with their biggest smiles on to help run the camp for the few hours that it lasted. My students still ask me about “my teacher friends” and when they’re coming back–which is obviously just an excuse to plan another awesome camp, right? Right.

11048272_10152557553326116_3517827735478741595_n

Miss Catherine helps a group of students untangle the mysteries of the “human knot” challenge.

11078257_10152557583991116_619311056412687658_o

One of my favorite pictures from camp.

I’ve also been tasked with teaching literature to students in my Form 3 and Form 4 classes, an undertaking that, while daunting at times, has proven to be one of the more rewarding aspects of my teaching life here. As soon as my fellow English teachers discovered that I studied literature as a university student, they pounced; the textbooks are new this year, leaving many of them feeling unprepared and unsure of how to proceed, and I am therefore the perfect candidate to take over this part of the curriculum–right? I think so, at least for now. Most of my teaching so far has been playing catch-up so that the students can get back on track with the national curriculum’s schedule, a goal which seems pretty unattainable at this point but nevertheless something to work toward.

Having a clearly-defined goal and a taste of autonomy in the classroom has been refreshing, as I spent most of February observing quietly in the back of many classrooms, as unsure of how to step in as my co-teachers were of how to best make use of me in their class. Now that we have some clear goals and a sense of direction, I’m sensing a definite shift in my role at school, and I’m eager to see how it develops in the coming months.

Some Form 4 students of mine working diligently on a poetry assignment. Also note the girl hiding behind her book, a common Malay way to say, "Please sir, no photo!"

Some Form 4 students of mine working diligently on a poetry assignment. Also note the girl hiding behind her book, a common Malay way to say, “Please sir, no photo!”

In other news: I went to Cambodia. I had the chance to travel with three other ETAs during a week-long holiday earlier this month, and I have to say: for my first time exploring South East Asia (outside of good ol’ Malaysia, obviously), this trip was a doozy.

It started off well enough: We flew into Phnom Penh for the first leg of our journey and checked into our hostel early that evening. My friend Greg managed to book an awesome place for us (check out Eighty8’s website, which doesn’t even begin to do the place justice), and we settled in for a few days in the capital city. I could ramble on for a few hours about how different Cambodia felt instantly upon arrival, how the people, the culture, and even the heat seemed radically unlike what I’ve experienced so far in Malaysia…but that’s not the fun part of the story, so we’ll leave it at this: Cambodia is really different from Malaysia. I sound super smart, don’t I?

The fun part, you ask? I managed to get typhoid at some point in my travels and spent the last few days in Cambodia pretty sick and having a not-so-great time. Thankfully, I have awesome friends who were there with me and basically took care of me, helping me struggle my way through some of the beautiful temples in Siem Reap before strongly encouraging me to go get a blood test at a local clinic; the results came back positive for typhoid, at which point I went on some pretty heavy antibiotics and bed rest. Thankfully, I got to the doctor early and was able to start treatment before any of the more serious effects of the disease even had a chance to think about setting in. While the whole experience was a bit unpleasant and definitely on the list of things I’d rather not repeat given the chance, I can certainly look back on my week in Cambodia as one that was full of adventure and a variety of new experiences, both good and bad.

[Stay tuned for a post in which I delve more deeply into this idea of “new experiences” and why I’m so addicted to them…it’s in the works, y’all.]

A super old temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I don't know anything about it, I just know that it's really old, y'all.

A super old temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I don’t know anything about it, I just know that it’s really old.

Alright, I’m not going to keep rambling. To risk sounding more cliche than even I find acceptable, there is so much more to say: about Malaysia, about teaching, about my trip to Cambodia…heck, I could probably write a novella about the hazelnut latte I’m currently drinking and just how deliciously expensive it is, that’s how wordy and expressive I’m feeling at the moment.

[Stay tuned for a post about said latte. Am I kidding? We’ll see…]

I am continually amazed and honored at the small yet genuinely enthusiastic reception that these posts get, both from people I know and a few others who happen to just stumble their way here. To both parties: thank you for your continued support and encouragement. It’s much easier (and way more fun) to keep a blog updated when you know that people actually read the thing. Terima kasih, y’all!

Until next time,

Kyle

P.S. “Terima kasih” means “thank you” in Bahasa Melayu, so now you know something and are basically fluent. Come see me in Malaysia and use those new language skills? Cool.

11000315_10152557643741116_3873707630243797742_o

What am I doing here? Reflections on my first month as an ETA

Looking back through this month’s blog posts, I realized three things:

  1. I’m really proud of myself for keeping up with this blog so far. I don’t have the best track record with journaling of any kind, personal or public, so I’m actually pretty happy with the fact that I have somehow managed to put words on a (digital) page at least a few times each month since I arrived here. I’m really hoping that this continues–hold me to it, y’all!
  2. The last two posts I’ve written have been more on the narrative and conceptual side of things. I love that I feel comfortable using this space to practice writing in a variety of forms, from short little vignettes about my school life to broader pieces about my cultural experiences here. I hope to do more of this kind of writing in the future.
  3. In my attempt to branch out and try different styles of writing, I have neglected what many of you probably signed up for when you gave your email or clicked that “follow” button: actual life updates. Lots of things have been happening since I arrived here in Lipis, but I haven’t really talked too much about them.

In light of this last fact, I think it’s high time for a quick and dirty (but probably not so quick and definitely not dirty) update on my life. In Malaysia. Doing the Fulbright thing. If that’s what you came here for, look no further!

Here we go:

As I write this blog, I am at the end of a glorious (and I mean GLORIOUS) six day school holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s the Year of the Goat, y’all, and that means I got to spend almost a full week away from school visiting friends and generally having an awesome and much-needed period of replenishment and relaxation. As much as I am loving my job here (more on that later), it was definitely time for a short break.

Dan (my roommate–have we talked about him yet? He’s great. Hi Dan!) and I drove up to Kuala Besut to see our friends Ethan and Greg, ETAs living the beach life in Terengganu (If this place sounds familiar, it should: that’s where I had my second round of orientation. Good memory!). We spent our first day chilling at the beach, going for a quick hike that led to some incredible views of the ocean and the nearby Perhentian Islands. It feels weird to say that I was lounging on a beach in the middle of February; it sounds even weirder to say that I might have gotten a small sunburn from doing so.

image1

After our beach day, the boys and I spent most of our time sleeping in, reading (I read all of Life of Pi in about two and half days, if that gives you any indication of how luxurious this break was), and generally just catching up. It was nice to talk to other ETAs, to swap teaching stories and to exchange ideas both for the classroom and for our personal lives. And, if all of this weren’t enough, Dan and I got to go bowling, something I never thought I would be able to do in Malaysia of all places. It was a fantastic break, and it has left me feeling grateful and refreshed as I prepare for this upcoming week back in the classroom.

Speaking of: I’ve been teaching for the past month. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

As much as I came into this experience knowing that I could not fully prepare myself for it, I think I underestimated just how scared I would be the first time I got in front of a classroom full of Malaysian students. Most everyone at my school treats me like a celebrity–I can’t walk anywhere without being greeted by a chorus of “Mr. Kyle!” and “Hello, sir!” or, my personal favorite, “AHHHHHH” followed by giggles and an inevitable hurried retreat to the nearest hiding place–but this does not, in any way, prevent my stomach from flipping a million times a second as I stand in front of a classroom.

The English proficiency of many of my students is an interesting thing to assess. On the surface, many of the timid faces I see when I ask a question in class and look around for answers would seem to indicate that most of the students simply don’t know much English. However, I’ve discovered that many of my students actually do understand what’s going on; they might not be aware of every word I say or sense the nuances with which I emphasize certain syllables or tones, but many have a general idea of what I’m asking for or teaching about–especially if my words are accompanied by wild hand gestures and the occasional dance or two.

A typical classroom at SMK Padang Tengku.

A typical classroom at SMK Padang Tengku.

The biggest stumbling block I’ve encountered thus far in the classroom, regardless of skill level or willingness to learn, is simple: many of my students are afraid to speak English, and many are even more terrified to talk with someone like me, a native speaker. So, despite the fact that some of them have the basic skills and vocabulary with which to have a conversation, I’ve found that many are too shy or fearful to engage with me beyond a simple, “Hello, sir!”

And that’s okay, for now. I remember my early days of learning Italian (in Italy, of all places), shaking with fear every time I walked into a shop or approached the check-out line at the grocery store. It’s a paralyzing feeling, one that traps you between two less-than-ideal alternatives: either look like an idiot who doesn’t know how to speak, or look like an idiot who can’t speak correctly. Neither one does much to boost your confidence.

I understand this fear more than many of my students realize. One of my goals for this year is to help them tackle this lack of confidence, to help them realize that they can only learn by making mistakes–that it is impossible to get anywhere without messing up along the way. This is why I try to speak some Bahasa Melayu with them when I can. I clumsily ask them where the bathroom is, or how to get to the canteen, or where their mother is from, all in horribly mangled syllables that (I hope) vaguely resemble their native tongue. I mess up. I skip syllables, omit words, use the wrong adjective. We all laugh together, they correct my sentences, and I write things down if I have my notebook on hand. We learn together, mistakes and all.

I’m also learning quickly that any lesson involving music, dancing, or some sort of mini-roast of Mr. Kyle is almost sure to be a hit. I’ve had success playing American songs in class and having my students fill in the lyrics (which is a lesson for both of us, actually, as I’m realizing I don’t listen to pop lyrics nearly as closely as I should) as well as with Mad Libs stories that open with, “One day, __________ & Mr. Kyle went to ___________”. The giggles that ensue from my trips to “KFC” or “the toilet” with various students and celebrities are enough to reassure me that sometimes things can go well in the classroom. This whole teaching thing is still new to me, but I’ve found that my students are often the best teachers.

I continue the perfect the art of the selfie, which is basically a challenge to see how many students I can squeeze into one tiny photo.

I continue the perfect the art of the selfie, which is basically a challenge to see how many students I can squeeze into one tiny photo.

Okay, I won’t ramble on for much longer, I promise. Things in Lipis are going well so far. My last post alluded to a few minor issues we faced in our first days here (a less-than-furnished home, a few rounds of stomach bugs, etc.), but in all I would say that I’m settling in quite well here. I certainly have my moments of nostalgia, a term I’ve chosen to use instead of “homesickness” because I simply don’t think I’m “sick” when I miss home; I also sense that many of my emotional ups and downs could be part of the still-continuing process of adjusting to post-grad life, which lends itself to more of a nostalgia than an actual sadness.

I’m in the process of making a few friends here, both at school and in my community, and I’m encouraged by the way I have been able to overcome some of my own confidence issues in reaching out to new people. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading lately, something that I am finding helps me feel anchored and at peace. Since arriving in Malaysia, I’ve made my way through four books, and I’m currently working on number five (The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Even in a foreign country, sitting in my bed with a good book and cup of tea makes everything else fade away for a while.

Oh, and I’ve started learning to play the guitar 🙂

guitar

That’s all for now, folks. I’m sure there will be many more adventures to report on in the future (I’m going to Cambodia in March and Thailand in April, so I’m definitely expecting some stories). For now, thanks for keeping up with me so far and for not rolling your eyes too much when you saw how long this post was. I’ll try to do a better job of putting up consistent updates to prevent one extremely long, rambling post about my comings and goings. Don’t forget to follow this sucker (or to sign up for email updates, whatever. You do you.) and to keep up with happenings on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram. If it sound like I’m trying too hard to promote my social media image…I am. The whole “Mr. Kyle is a celebrity” thing might be getting to my head a little bit 😉

Sending you all lots of love and (really warm) hugs from Malaysia, as always.

Kyle

Building Community, One Rumor at a Time

If I’m learning anything about Malaysia and its culture, it’s this: people talk.

When I missed a day of work after eating a very normal meal of roti canai that didn’t quite agree with my stomach, I arrived at school the next day to growing rumors of the “food poisoning” that had knocked me out for a whole day. Some swore it was caused by a drastic intake of spicy foods, while others claimed that I surely must have eaten bad vegetables and probably had a parasite.

The truth: I ate a piece of very mild flatbread dipped in an even milder curry sauce. I probably just got some bad ice. I was fine.

When I skipped lunch at the school canteen because it was Friday and we leave at noon anyway (why not just eat a peanut butter sandwich at home?), I was met with many concerned questions on the following Monday. From my students: Sir, why did you forget to eat on Friday? It was chicken rice day–you need to eat chicken rice, sir. From my fellow teachers: You must still be feeling sick, right? Or maybe you’re on a diet? You do not need to lose weight–you need to eat. Do you not like the canteen food?

The truth: I forgot to eat. I had a busy schedule of classes and meetings that day, and the teacher giving me a ride home left before I could grab a meal. It was fine.

When I was mistakenly asked to help coach one of my school’s sports houses (think Hogwarts houses meet the Olympics), my students and colleagues quickly discovered that sports and I aren’t the best of friends. I attempted to “coach” volleyball, the disastrous results of which were filmed (unbeknownst to me) and quickly shared via group text message to every teacher at the school. I’m 99% sure my students did the same thing with their friends. The next day…you get the idea. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t mean spirited by any means, but it was certainly honest: Sir, you do not like sports much, do you?

The truth: No, kids. I sure don’t.

At first, I struggled with how quickly news seems to travel here. The Malaysian rumor mill (the questionably-affectionate nickname I’ve given this phenomenon) can be overwhelming at times, and I honestly felt myself getting defensive the first few times I encountered it. I’m feeling better now–can we all please just forget I ever got sick? Yes, I get it, I stink at sports…we don’t have to talk about it anymore, okay? I found myself getting worked up by the things that people were saying and the fact that they seemed to say almost anything to anyone.

And then I remembered some of the other “rumors” that have circulated throughout my school in the three weeks I’ve been here: You don’t have any furniture in your house? Where do you sit? How do you wash your clothes? I’ve heard the front yard is full of weeds…and are the windows really bare, without any curtains? 

After about a week of these little tidbits making their way through the rumor mill, we suddenly found ourselves with a sofa and appliances, the money for which was fronted by our teacher mentors. My principal sent someone to help us clear out the flowerbeds so that we wouldn’t have a breeding ground for snakes in our front yard. A teacher at my school made an entire set of curtains for nearly every window in the house, and a crew of teachers and children came over to help hang them. Our house was essentially given a mini-makeover in the span of just a week or so–all because people talked.

So I’m reminded of what a community can be, of how its qualities manifest in different ways. Here, I’m surrounded by a group of people who know little boundaries; no question or query is off limits, no gesture of kindness too big. Back home, I think I am quite used to a “me first” world, one in which my privacy and my thoughts and my needs are all just that: mine. Possession is vital. While I don’t think this is an inherently bad way to live, I’m beginning to see some of the ways in which it might be limiting.

Here, from what I’ve experienced, the desire to share (thoughts, secrets, possessions) seems to be a major driving force, and I’ve found that it opens me up to a whole new way of interacting with those around me. Since I can’t really hide anything, why not just practice being honest and open? When my students seem to fixate on my incredible lack of athleticism, why not share what I’m actually passionate about? There’s no shame in that. When everyone seems concerned about my eating habits, why not discuss my desire to lead a mostly-vegetarian lifestyle? Honesty and connection stem from these conversations.

And in light of the recent murder of three beautiful souls in what feels like my home state of North Carolina, I have to recognize the power that simply talking can have. When the community comes before the individual, sometimes you have no choice but to be vulnerable. Let’s talk about why I eat what I do, why I prefer books over volleyball nets, why I see the world through the different lenses I wear. And when I’m done talking, let me remember to listen. To embrace others’ honesty. To inquire about their lives when I hear that they’ve been sick or that their mother recently moved in with them. To ask them about their prayers and their beliefs and their dreams, all while basking in the comfort that we share a common understanding: that our words have power, as does our ability to listen. That what you say is yours and mine, that we are connected by our voices and our ears and our hearts. That, in the words of a dear friend, we are all “humans hurting for each other”. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

I’m not entirely sure, and I can’t pretend to have the answers. But I think it’s only fair that we give it a shot.

Varying degrees of easy

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: “KLYE“. 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.

1555535_10152460387566116_6533077416055441362_n

There’s so much more to say about my school, but I’ll keep it simple for now.

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.

I don’t think we’re in KL anymore…

Greetings from Kuala Terengganu, the capital city of the state of Terengganu on the eastern coast of Malaysia and my home for the next few days. I’m here with the ETAs from my state (which is Pahang, in case you’ve forgotten) and those placed in Terengganu for a state-level orientation led by the Malaysian Ministry of Education. While I’ve loved spending these last two weeks in KL getting acquainted with my cohort and my new country, I have to admit that I’m happy to be away from the chaotic and often overwhelming city of Kuala Lumpur. Our new hotel is a stone’s throw away from the ocean in a much smaller city (its population is 31,000 in comparison to KL’s 1.6 million) and our cohort has shrunk to a much more manageable size of about 30. Needless to say, this week has been dramatically different from what I’ve experienced thus far.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s do a quick rundown of my last few days in KL, shall we?

First, and perhaps most excitingly: I finally got the chance to work with students at a school, and it was incredible. As part of our training, we were asked to put together a Saturday “English Camp” with a small group of ETAs and about 100 students at a school in Kuala Lumpur. English camps are a large part of what we will be doing as teaching assistants in our placements; we are required to coordinate at least two camps at our own school, and we’re encouraged to travel to other schools to help out with camps that need more ETA assistance. The goal of camps is to make learning and speaking English fun outside of the classroom, using games and activities and themes that will make the students forget that they’re actually practicing valuable English skills. Thus, the opportunity to actually plan, prepare for, and execute a camp while still above the safety net of orientation was a great way to gain some valuable experience and have a whole lot of fun with some awesome Malaysian students.

IMG_8493

Cikgu Jonah leads his team in a cheer & dance between stations at St. Mary’s English Camp.

My group put together an “All-American Field Day Camp,” complete with outdoor team builders (thank you, Orientation), charades competitions, and paper airplane contests (led by yours truly). The students at St. Mary’s, the all-girls school we were working with, were incredibly welcoming and very proficient in English; they made team chants and banners, both of which they displayed proudly throughout the day as they made their way from station to station. I had a blast running this camp, and while I think it was probably easier than any of the future camps I’ll end up planning at my school, it has me really excited to plan my own and get started at my placement.

When we weren’t busy planning for our camp, my cohort and I spent our last week in KL working on lesson planning, teaching strategies, and Bahasa Malaysia survival skills. Bahasa Malaysia is the name of the language spoken here, and while it’s vastly different from any other languages I’ve studied, I have to admit that I am loving the chance to learn what I can. We are encouraged not to use Bahasa with our students in school, but I definitely want to pick up bits and pieces as I go, probably with the help of my students and fellow teachers. Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, especially in a new country; I’ll keep you all posted on how it’s going as I struggle through it over the next few months 🙂

Oh, and I also met a monkey at the Batu Caves. He was basically the greatest.

He's perfect. I love him.

Look at him. He’s perfect. I love him.

That brings me to Kuala Terengganu, the next stop on my journey. I’ve been in KT for three days now, learning more about my state, my placement, and the experiences I can expect as an ETA. On our first full day, we traveled to a local school here to visit with the principal and to meet some more Malaysian students.

I have never been more warmly welcomed to a place in my entire life. We got off the bus to a chorus of “Good morning”s and “Hello”s from a group of awaiting students and teachers; as we walked into the courtyard, we were greeted with gamelan music, a type of traditional music (initially developed in Indonesia, I believe) played by a small percussion ensemble. Teachers and students crowded around us to say hello, offering small gifts and warm smiles, and we were ushered in to begin a day of presentations, tours, and meet-and-greets with students. Again, this school is considered higher-performing and is therefore not a perfect representation of what I can expect at my school, which will be more rural and in greater need of help, but I think it was a wonderful welcome to Terengganu and an excellent example of Malaysian hospitality, which has far exceeded my expectations.

Me cheesin' it up in China Town, Kuala Terengganu.

Me cheesin’ it up in China Town, Kuala Terengganu.

And now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop near downtown KT. I’m surrounded by a few of the close friends I’ve met in my short time here, all of us taking advantage of public wifi that actually works and coffee drinks that are more sugar and cream than anything else. We have only two more days here before we meet our mentor teachers and begin the journey out to our placements, and I can’t help but feeling a little nostalgic already. I have loved having time with others in my cohort, getting to know them as educators, world-travelers, and just all around good people. It will be an interesting experience to finally move out into Kuala Lipis and to get started at SMK Padang Tengku, away from many of these incredible souls and all of the knowledge and passion they’ve already shared with me. I only hope I can take all of these little lessons and bring them with me, using them in the classroom and at home as I learn to adjust to this new life that is unfolding (slowly and yet terrifyingly fast) before me. There is so much more to say, but I’ll end this post here, in this quiet moment before everything changes.

Week 1: Orientation, or A Lesson in Overcoming Jetlag

Hello, friends!

I am thrilled to be writing this post, the first of many from MALAYSIA (it still feels incredibly strange to be writing, saying, or even thinking this)! Before I get into some of the fun details of my first week, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on my past experience abroad, one that influenced my decision to apply for this program and which has stuck with me for nearly two years now.

One of the things I loved the most about studying abroad in Italy during the spring of my junior year was the fact that I hardly ever understood anything that was going on around me. Sure, I was studying Italian and could pick up on a few words here and there, but I generally spent most of my time in public surrounded by a whole lot of incomprehensible noise. I found a surprising amount of freedom in this muffled chaos, realizing that I could devote more of my energy to observing with other senses–the sight of a little girl clumsily climbing the basilica steps, the smell of leather and smoke from the street markets–instead of constantly filtering through a jumbled mess of words that I couldn’t help but hear and understand. One of my favorite pastimes during those early spring months was to pack a bag and head to a busy part of the city, usually a piazza or a park nearby, where I would buy a little coffee and read a book, happily oblivious to so much of the comings and goings around me. I let my mind rest. I practiced simply being where I sat, book in hand, unable and unwilling to focus too much on all of the craziness outside of my self.

I don’t think I realized how much I missed that aspect of living abroad until this past week, my first full week living and (almost) functioning in Malaysia. I haven’t had too much time to wander alone–yet–but I have definitely had to readjust to the feeling of almost constantly being surrounded by sights, smells, and sounds that I can’t fully understand. It can be frustrating at times, but I’m already reminded of how much growth can come from being forced to let go of my own need for control.

IMG_8378

Alright, now that I’ve spent a sufficient amount of time waxing poetic, let’s get down to the fun stuff 🙂

I’ve spent most of this first week in full-on orientation mode: ice breakers, information sessions, guest speakers…you get the picture. While the days are long and can be a bit (read: very) overwhelming, I’ve loved the chance to meet the other Fulbrighters in my cohort and to get to know more about what these coming months will bring.

Which leads me to one of the most exciting parts of my week: getting information about my school placement! I found out on Thursday that I will be teaching at SMK Padang Tengku, a public secondary school (that’s what the “SMK” means) in the city of Kuala Lipis. Kuala Lipis is a city of about 20,000 people located in Pahang, one of the 13 Malaysian states, and it’s supposed to be one of the more scenic and natural places on the peninsula.

pahang_map

That little red circle is where I’ll be living!

From what I can gather (thank goodness for Google, y’all), I’ll be relatively close to several nature preserves, a beautiful highlands area, and the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. Casual, right? Needless to say, I am chomping at the bit to move out there and get started. I’ll spend another week here in KL finishing up orientation before heading out for a week of in-state orientation–and then I’ll be at my school, doing my best to teach English and get settled in my community. I can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m still adjusting to life here in KL, and in Malaysia in general. This city is absolutely incredible. It can be overwhelming at times, but I’m thankful to have spent a few of my weekend days getting on trains with new friends and traveling to sights a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of Bukit Bintang, the tourist-y/mall district where I am currently living. This past weekend, for example, I took a taxi out to the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque, both of which were as enlightening as they were beautiful. The museum was full of art and artifacts from a variety of Muslim cultures, including a stunning exhibit on Islamic architecture throughout the world. It makes me want to travel more…but I won’t get ahead of myself too much 😉

This beautiful dome adorns the roof of the Islamic Arts Museum. Casual.

This beautiful dome adorns the roof of the Islamic Arts Museum. Casual.

A stunning example of art on the pages of the Quram.

A stunning example of art on the pages of the Quram.

Even the roof was incredible, y'all.

Even the roof was incredible, y’all.

At the National Mosque, we were lucky enough to be invited on a (free!) private tour with a volunteer. The two hours we spent with him have been perhaps the most challenging and culturally significant moments of my time here so far. Our guide was enthusiastic and open to conversation, and he encouraged us to ask him about any and everything related to Islam that we wanted to know–so we did. While it was sometimes difficult as an outsider to fully understand where he was coming from, I appreciated his honesty and his willingness to tackle controversial topics head-on. I definitely left the conversation feeling uncomfortable in a good way, having engaged in a discussion that, to me, was a step in the right direction toward intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

Oh, and the mosque was georgous, too.

IMG_8367

IMG_8373

IMG_8370Alright, folks. That’s all I’ve got for now–thanks for sticking with me so far. Like I said, I’ll spend the rest of this week here in KL, and then it’s off to a new location to learn a bit more before I get started. If you want to keep up with more of my everyday doings, feel free to check me out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, as I tend to keep those outlets a bit more updated (but also sign up to follow the blog with WordPress or email if you want, too!). As soon as anything new or exciting happens, I’ll be back with another post.

Until next time,

Kyle