Brotherhood, Respect, Originality: #BROcamp2015

What does it mean to be a man in today’s world? How do the sights and sounds of our everyday lives influence our perceptions of masculinity? How can we begin to look beyond stereotypes and respect each others’ authentic selves? Can we build a brotherhood of men? These are the questions that I asked my students to grapple with this weekend as I hosted my second (and final) English Camp at SMK Padang Tengku: #BROcamp2015.

I know what some of you must be thinking: Why is there a hashtag? Why is “BRO” capitalized? Has Kyle ever even said the word “bro”? He doesn’t seem like the “bro” kind of guy…plus, I’m pretty sure no one even says that anymore, so.

There is certainly a lot to talk about. While no camp experience is perfect or without a few snags, I’m exceedingly thankful for the opportunity I had to share my passion for gender & identity work with these young men, many of whom I’ve come to care for deeply. We got the chance to hang out, play a few games (that were secretly educational), and engage in meaningful conversations outside of the normal, academic context.

Oh, and we had s’mores. What a way to kick off my last month!

So, the name: #BROcamp2015. There’s a hashtag because, well, I wanted to put one there. Even though attaching a hashtag to things feels a bit overwrought in today’s fast-moving world of pop/internet culture, I still genuinely like the idea that hashtags make things easily searchable and quickly curated. I asked all of my students to use the hashtag in whatever photos they post online, and while many of them aren’t nearly as active on the social media outlets that I use more commonly, it’s still a great way to find and collect memories from the weekend. Hashtags also allow me to see their photos without being friends with them on Instagram, which is a plus 😉

“BRO” is an acronym I came up with pretty early on in the planning process. I knew that if named my camp “Mr. Kyle’s Weekend of Talking About Authentic Masculinity & Why the Media Don’t Want You To Feel Comfortable In Your Own Skin (And Also You Should Respect Women),” I’d have very few participants. I needed some sort of catchy name that would capture the theme of the camp as well as the attention of my young male students, many of whom are usually less than enthusiastic about any sort of extracurricular school event. While the word “bro” has basically fallen out of use in the States (except in either ironic or surfer dude circumstances, of course), it’s still used pretty commonly here among young men, especially in the “Manglish” (Malay-English-Chinese mix) that many young people speak. As I was thinking about the main goals of my camp, what I really wanted to accomplish, I knew that conversations about brotherhood and authenticity would play a major role, as well as discussions related to respect and the treatment of women.

I got pretty lucky. Brotherhood, Respect, & Originality: BRO.

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As far as Fulbright English Camps go, this one was not nearly as intense or full-scale as I initially envisioned. I was disappointed by this at first, as I had this vision of a large camp that lasted two full days and was attended by fifty or more students and a slew of ETAs from all across Malaysia. In reality, after a few scheduling conflicts (October means exams, and exams mean craziness) and the realization that a smaller group might be more effective for these kind of conversations, I ended up running the camp from Friday night through Saturday afternoon with a total of sixteen students and five Fulbrighters. The size ended up being perfect, honestly, and I think it contributed a great deal to the camp’s success and our ability to really engage with the students who came.

The guys arrived on Friday evening and spent a few minutes getting settled in before we started our icebreaker activities. While they all knew each other before coming to the camp, I think it’s always important to set the tone with some sort of game or activity to get things going. In this case, it was a game of balloon races that basically involved lining up in teams, holding balloons between their chests and backs (no hands!), and racing back and forth across the canteen. It was silly, and it wasn’t too challenging, but I think they got a kick out of it. Once we warmed up, I facilitated an activity from my days at Elon called The Gender Box, which I renamed The “Perfect Man” Box. Basically, I asked the students to write down adjectives or descriptions of what they thought the “perfect man” might look or act like in an attempt to help them identify stereotypes of masculinity; their responses were pinned on a board, meant to symbolize the way we put ourselves into boxes that might limit our self-expression.

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The students, though, were not nearly as stereotype-minded as I expected. While there were certainly some who wrote down things like “have a six pack” or “be athletic,” there were just as many, if not more, who wrote that the perfect man should “believe in God,” be “wise and smart,” and “be gentle.” This was encouraging to me in a way, and it led to an interesting conversation between students and ETAs about the reality of having it all, of attempting to actually be the perfect man. A few students expressed the difficulty of this endeavor, and we discussed the need for setting priorities: What do the good men in your life prioritize? Do you respect [your father/your uncle/your religion teacher] because of his mustache or because he is a wise man? This got the guys thinking right away, and I think it helped set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

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Friday night was filled with campfires, capture the flag, and s’mores, all of which were incredibly fun and well-received. While a few of the students had eaten a marshmallow before, none of them had ever been treated to the classic American s’more; the process of roasting the marshmallow (and definitely overcooking it a few times), making the sandwich, and savoring the warm, gooey goodness felt like gourmet cooking as we sat around our bamboo fire in the middle of the school’s field. Classic Malaysia.

After what I’m sure was a late night of ghost stories and general teenage avoidance of sleep, we got right back to the good stuff Saturday morning. In small groups, I asked the students to define “brotherhood,” a term that some had heard before but couldn’t quite articulate at first. With the help of an ETA, the guys came up with the definition that felt most true and realistic to them. After sharing these with the rest of the students, we put our heads together to create one united definition, based on aspects of brotherhood that had been highlighted in the smaller groups. After a bit of wordplay and maneuvering, here’s what we came up with:

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“Brotherhood is…a relationship between men who support each other when they have a problem. Brothers share their ideas and feelings with each other and respect other men in their lives, no matter what. We can share our passions and love each other to make a big family of brothers.”

I had the feels, to be sure.

Next came a team builder (also taken from my Elon days) meant to help foster communication, creative thinking, and group problem solving. Specifics aside, the point of the activity was for the guys to figure out a way to transport “nuclear bombs” (aka squishy balls I picked up at the 2 Ringgit store) from one end of a futsal court (the size of a tennis court) to the other without using their hands, arms, or mouths. There was a sizable section of the court that was “no man’s land,” meaning no one was allowed to cross it; one student was responsible for getting the bombs from his side of the court and over no man’s land, while the rest of them had to find (very) creative ways to catch and carry the bombs to the other end.

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The set up…

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…and the solution.

Shifting gears, I had the guys return to their small groups and create a list of the people in their lives that they respect. Then, I asked each ETA to help them think of ways that they show respect for those people, being as specific as possible. We had a brief conversation about the different kinds of respect we can have for others, ranging from the way we listen to and revere our elders to how we can respect our friends, family, and all the people we meet in our lives. To get them thinking a bit more creatively (and moving more, because sitting still in the heat is no fun), each group then had to develop a short skit about respect that illustrated a specific scenario they might encounter in their lives. While many of the guys were quite shy to get up on stage and perform their very relaxed, not-at-all-intense skits, I was proud to see them try, and even prouder to see how maturely they tackled the topic.

The most challenging session of the camp came right before lunch. I brought the students to the library and showed them a few minutes of the following video clip:

It’s taken from a documentary called The Mask You Live In, and it helps identify a few basic male archetypes that we see almost constantly portrayed in movies, television shows, and video games. After watching the video twice, I asked a few questions to make sure the guys understood the gist of it: What were the four types of men shown in this video? What are their characteristics? How are they realistic or unrealistic? This concept is a difficult one for even native speakers to discuss, so I understood the initial silence that greeted me after hitting pause. What was a bit more tricky to navigate was the subsequent discussion, in which the ETAs and I attempted to facilitate conversations about archetypes, the influence of the media on our lives, and other gender/stereotypes/representation issues. I have to give major props to Dan, Ethan, Greg, and Ben for doing their best here. I knew going into it that this session might be more of a challenge, and my expectations were definitely met–but everyone, to their credit, was trying. I saw dictionaries and Google translate apps out as students (and teachers) attempted to translate what was being said, and some groups even wrote their thoughts down in whatever language they could make sense of in an effort to help clarify their thoughts. At the end of the day, I know this part of the camp was probably the most confusing (my post-camp survey results corroborate this gut feeling), but I’d like to think that a few seeds were planted, that some of these ideas of authenticity and originality in the face of media pressure stuck with the guys in some way. I guess only time will tell, and I know now that all I can do is keep providing them with opportunities to grapple with this and other difficult topics.

The last two activities were designed to lighten things up after the media session, and I think they definitely worked. First, I gave each group of guys English language magazines and had them flip through and cut out any images of men or masculinity that they saw, positive or negative. I wanted to help them continue identifying stereotypes and to see just how prevalent some of these images are, especially in visual media. Then, they designed their own magazine covers by repurposing the images they had cut out to convey a message or a lesson they had learned from the camp–what did they want to tell other men about being a real man? Some of my students are extremely (and intimidatingly) talented when it comes to art and design, and I was blown away by the covers they created!

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It was nice to see that, while some of the concepts and more abstract ideas of the camp might have been a lot to handle, many of the other things we had talked about still made sense!

The last thing we did before packing up and heading home was a lyric fill-in activity with the song “Brother” by Needtobreathe, one my favorite bands of all time. Here’s the song, in case you’re not familiar:

It’s a great song, and I think it hits on a lot of the themes that we focused on during the camp, brotherhood especially. It was also a bit of an unexpected challenge, as the lead singer’s accent and pronunciation are much more difficult to make sense of than I realized. I’ve been listening to them for so long that I guess it just comes naturally to me–whoops! Either way, the guys loved this song, and I made sure to include it on the CD I gave each of them as a prize for attending the camp. Other songs included classics like Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” the Disney hit “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” and the still popular “See You Again” from Fast & Furious 7. It’s an eclectic mix, but I love any chance I get to share music with my students, and I know they appreciate the opportunity to learn new English songs and artists.

Okay, so this was a long post–thanks for sticking with me and reading about the camp! I really am happy with the way it turned out, despite any last-minute setbacks, and I would love the chance to continue these conversations, both here and when I return home (in one month and three days).

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Me & the Bros

So, what do you think? As you were reading, was there anything that surprised you or that you maybe would have done differently? How can I continue to engage with my students about stereotypes, media pressure, and authenticity? Any hints, tips, or suggestions are always appreciated! Let me know in the comments 🙂

Until next time,

Mr. Kyle

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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