Wait wait, I’m still here!

Hello. I haven’t forgotten about you, I promise.

The past two months have been strangely busy over here in Kuala Lipis. I’ve been traveling to English camps almost every weekend, hosting after school workshops, and spending a lot of time trying to prepare for what my life might look like after this grant comes to an end a little less than two months from now.

I know that using phrases like “time flies” or “in the blink of an eye” is pretty cliche and might garner some eye rolls from the creative writing types in the audience…but time is flying, eight months have come and gone in the blink of an eye, and I am so overwhelmed (and confused) by this reality that I can’t really think of anything other than cliches to express how I’m feeling. We’re here, it’s happening, and I’ll be flying back to America on November 12th. I expect hugs, tears, and cakes from all of you.

I’ve been working on a post that’s a bit broader in nature, one that attempts to capture how I’ve been processing the past few months here. Things have been on a definite upswing, and I have found myself spending much more time with my students, engaging with them and really feeling like I’m making genuine connections both in and out of the classroom. It’s been a wonderful feeling and most certainly an improvement from how I felt toward the middle of the year in the weeks following the June break and Ramadan period. After such a long time of what I perceived as lethargy and hesitancy (mostly on my part), it’s been incredible to feel a resurgence of all the great things that had me so excited to be here in my first few months.

Like I said, I’ve been trying to craft a post to explain this more fully, but it’s been slow going and, with all of the busy-ness that has taken over my life lately, it requires a bit more mental stamina than I’m able to give it right now. For now, we’ll stick with a basic recap of a few major things that have happened over here in Malaysia (with photos, of course).

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First thing’s first: English camp season is back. For those of you who don’t know (or don’t remember because I’m pretty sure I’ve told you all about this before), one of the requirements of my grant period is to organize and facilitate two extracurricular English camps with my students. These come in many forms and can last as long as several days, but the point is simply to give students a chance to engage with English language learning in fun and exciting ways. Most camps have some sort of unifying theme, and while each ETA hosts and plans the camps, many of us travel to help others with the actual running of the show. Which means that I’ve spent a lot of time going to new schools, meeting new students, and having one heck of a good time.

So far, I’ve had the privilege of helping out at an American Football camp (hosted by my roommate Dan), an environmentally-themed camp at Taman Negara, the world’s oldest rainforest, and a Harry Potter camp that changed my life. Each of these was such a unique experience, and each touched on different themes, but the end goal was all the same: teach English, have fun, and make memories. I think that the camps might be one of my favorite aspects of this grant period, mostly because I get a chance to hang out with new students and experience new things together, which always makes for a good time. Check out some of these photos that I’ve managed to snag at camps over the past few weeks:

A selfie with some of my Form 5 girls at a Young Women's Leadership camp

A selfie with some of my Form 5 girls at a Young Women’s Leadership camp

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I’m still amazed by how quickly these boys picked up on American football. They now know more than I do, so.

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This is my “I’m on a canopy walk super high above the ground and I don’t like it too much but there’s always time for a selfie” face. Classic me.

Secondly: I took a trip with my mentor and one of my closest teacher friends to Penang! One of Malaysia’s thirteen states, Penang is made up of two regions: one on the mainland, and one on an island just off the coast. I’ve been hearing incredible things about the island and have been wanting to go for a long time, but it’s a bit of a drive from where I live, and I’ve honestly been too busy for most of my weekends to make it out there. But, both my mentor and one of my teachers are from that area, and they offered to take me and show me around a few weeks ago…and it was incredible.

Penang Island is known for its food, its history, and its street art, all of which I got to enjoy fully in the company of people who knew their way around what might normally have been an intimidatingly large and touristy city. We explored state parks, took in some incredible scenic views of the city from the top of Bukit Bendera, and rode bikes around the historic center of Georgetown to check out the street art. While it all happened pretty quickly (we did all of this in one day), I was thankful for the chance to experience all of these things with my teachers, especially those with whom I feel a growing friendship and connection. While the time we spend together at school is nice, there’s something different about racing bikes down a narrow city street or sharing a cup of coffee in the middle of the jungle. These are the moments that I will cling to long after my time here is finished.

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This view from the top of Bukit Bendera captures the moment perfectly

I <3 Street Art

I ❤ Street Art

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One of my favorite things about big cities is big, beautiful mosques.

Okay, so I feel like this post has gotten a bit long; while there are a million more things I could devote space to updating you on (like presenting my thesis at an international conference or celebrating the end of Ramadan), I’ll stop the rambling here. If I keep a few things under wraps, that just gives us all more to talk about when I get back, right? Right. That’s how I’m justifying it.

What do the next two months hold? English camps will of course continue to happen, including what is sure to be an incredible Frozen-themed camp this coming weekend, as well as my own camp at the beginning of October, which will focus primarily on young men’s leadership and identity development. That’s a project that I’m really excited about bringing to fruition, and you’ll definitely get more updates once it’s underway. I’ll also be traveling to another island with some of my school’s prefect students (think Harry Potter prefects, magic and all) in a few weeks and am planning to have an end of the year event with both my school and Dan’s school, which should be awesome. I think staying busy for the next seven weeks will be key to keeping my emotions (a bit) under control, but one can never be too sure when it comes to Mr. Kyle and his tears, so. We’ll see how it all goes.

Here are some more photos (aka selfies), because you can never have too many. Also my hand is cramping from all this typing, so. A huge thank you to those of you who read this blog and who continue to support me from near and far–this journey wouldn’t be the same without you.

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IMG_7398Until next time,

Mr. Kyle

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.