Something Next to Normal

Real talk, y’all: I have been trying my best to write this blog post for the past four weeks. For twenty seven days now, I’ve attempted to put words on a page, to create something that reflects my life here so far in an interesting and appealing way. I sit down, either on my couch or at the wonderfully expensive restaurant just around the corner (which has free wifi and lattes), and I open my laptop. I pull up the blog, click the handy little “new post” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen, rest my fingers on the keys…and nothing happens. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll start a few sentences, maybe throw in a picture or two, and then almost immediately start doubting myself. Is this too boring? Do people really care? Okay, you’ve spiced it up a bit, but now it’s too much–who are you trying to impress? Just write! 

So I click the “Save Draft” button and close the tab. There are currently more saved drafts in storage than there are published posts.

When I step back and think about it, I realize that a lot of what I’ve been struggling with is the fact that life here in Malaysia is, despite all of my expectations, beginning to feel very…well, normal. Which I didn’t think was possible. At all. How can living thousands of miles away from home, in a country that is the opposite of my own in so many ways, possibly feel normal?

I honestly don’t know. And I’m not exactly sure when this return to normalcy began, either. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s been a gradual process. That, somewhere between wearing a bright green silk shirt to school on Thursdays and making up an on-the-spot cardio routine to Katy Perry’s “Firework” for a bunch of Malaysian teenagers, life just kind of became this normal, not-at-all-bizarre thing to me. I wake up, go to work, come home…and even though most of these every day steps are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, they have become my routine.

Which is why, I think, writing this blog post has been so difficult for me. For the past four months, I’ve approached updating this blog with a feeling of novelty, like everything I had to say was new and exciting and needed to be heard. And now, as I make my way into month five of this Fulbright journey, that sense of novelty is beginning to wear off just a little bit.

It’s not that my life is actually less exciting than it was before. I’m still figuring out how to be a minor celebrity, both at school and in town. I’m still learning to speak Bahasa Melayu (with a decent amount of success, I might add). I’m still traveling around Southeast Asia, seeing places I’ve always dreamed of seeing. My life is, in so many ways, far from normal–I guess I’m just much better at coping with it all than I was four months ago.

To be honest, if a herd of cows isn’t hanging out in the middle of the road on my way to school in the morning, it’s just not a normal day.

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to write this blog post, and that it’s not going to be the most exciting thing to ever hit the internet. We can’t all be Kim K’s rear end, am I right? (Is that reference even still a thing? I’m very much out of the loop over here, y’all.)

The point is, I’m making this post because I want to, and because my life here is still incredible in so many unpredictable ways despite the fact that it’s all becoming a bit routine to me. In the last month, I’ve taken to the streets of Thailand with only a bathing suit and a water gun to help ring in the new year. I’ve been white water rafting down a river in Ipoh (and I didn’t die). I’ve spent the day with my students exploring the Cameron Highlands and eating my weight in strawberries, all because they just wanted to have an adventure with me.

I’m still learning, still experiencing, still living this crazy, beautiful life. And I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

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Until next time,

Kyle

P.S. You get 10 bonus points if you caught that Ke$ha reference…and an additional 5 if you don’t hate me for it.

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.

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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 🙂

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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

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.

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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.