Ripple Effects

I’m just going to say it: there’s a lot of crap going on back home in America. And it’s difficult to be so far away from it all, to feel such a physical and mental distance from things that are normally so present in my life. When I first heard about the acts of terrorism that took place in Charleston, I found myself wanting to be back on my university campus. I felt an urge to surround myself once again with people who inspire me, with activists and leaders and friends who can articulate their thoughts on these things so much more strongly than I could ever try to.  The emotional distance I felt and still feel from them, and from the people whose lives were so directly affected by such senseless violence, is overwhelming. I felt something similar last February, when the world lost three beautiful lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; I wasn’t saddened so much by the act itself but by my own helplessness in being so far away from it. I would have given anything to be there in solidarity, to stand as part of a community trying to make sense of it all.

When news reached me of the Supreme Court’s decision to end bans on same-sex marriage, I have to admit that I didn’t really get that excited. I had been traveling for most of the day and hadn’t had much of a chance to find wifi and check in with the world; I found out about the SCOTUS decision in a flood of text messages, Facebook statuses, and emails that kept my phone lit up for several minutes once I finally connected to the internet. Something about the way it all happened–the hours of delay between the decision itself and my knowledge of it, the sudden barrage of messages and rainbow-tinted profile pictures–seemed to serve as a reminder that I wasn’t there, that I was somehow missing out on “one of the most important days in American history.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled to know that I will one day be able to legally marry the person I love (PS still taking applications and/or auditions for this role), but it just seems…well, a bit irrelevant to my life right now, especially considering that I currently live in a country where I could face jail time for the same things people are celebrating in the streets back home.

I’m not sure exactly what point I’m trying to make by saying all of this, if there’s any point at all to be had. It’s been tough–really tough, if I’m allowing myself a bit of honesty–to feel such a sense of separation from the things and the people I care about so strongly. It doesn’t feel like enough to watch clips of Jon Stewart’s monologue on racism in America; it doesn’t feel like enough to add a few lines of color to my profile picture or to speak up in a comment thread defending my right to love; it just simply doesn’t feel like enough. My rational brain knows that it’s wrong to think of everything back home as “the real world,” that the experiences I’m having each day here are just as “real” as anything else I have and will continue to do. Irrationally, though, I can’t help but create this dichotomy that insists the real world is going on without me while I’m in Malaysia occupying my time with some sort of pseudo-reality. I see friends getting married, people having children, peers being accepted to graduate schools and moving across the country…and I’m here.

This isn’t to say that I’m not proud of the work I’m doing, or that I feel it is in some way insufficient compared to the things I see happening back home. But, in a way, I feel less and less a part of that world, less integral to the comings and goings of my friends’ and family’s lives. I’m dependent on email threads back and forth, the words of which never fully capture the depth of what is truly going on; I schedule Google Hangouts that are slightly more fulfilling, but they’re dependent on whether or not I’ll have access to realiable internet. I knew that I would be signing up for this when I made the choice to move abroad, but the reality of it all is more difficult to wrap my head around when there is so much happening back home with which I want to be fully, 100% engaged.

It’s not a bad thing, what I’m grappling with. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been given this chance to live in Malaysia, to work with a program that provides me with a house, a car, and a modest stipend that covers enough expenses to include travel. I’m working at a wonderful school that, despite a bit of confusion some days as to my actual role as a teaching assistant, has welcomed me with open arms. My students bring so much joy to my life, and I’ve seen more of the world in these past six months than I could have ever dreamed would be possible. My life is not something to complain about, and I really want to make it clear that all of things I’ve just written do not discount the fact that I am, at the end of the day, happy and thankful to be here.

It’s just hard to sit back while churches are burning. It’s frustrating to be so far removed from the epicenter of what feels like a cultural earthquake in America, only to wait for the ripples to make their way across the ocean to me. I love where I am, but some days I simply miss where I could be.

Mr. Kyle’s Q&A

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t actually expecting anyone to send me questions in response to last month’s post. I know that people are busy with, you know, life and all, and I figured most of you would read the post, think about it for a moment or two, and then move on. Which would have been absolutely fine, because I get that and probably would have done something similar myself, assuming that others would send things in and that I didn’t have to.

But, much to my surprise and excitement, some of you actually did it. And because that makes me happier than I can say (it’s nice to know you’re not just writing to a void but to actual human beings that read and want to know more), I’ve taken some time to answer a few of the questions that were sent my way. I hope they fill in some of the gaps that might have been missing from my updates up to this point. Enjoy!

Tell me more about your school: How far is it from your home? Do you follow set lesson plans? How much English do your students know? How many classes do you teach, and what age are the students?

This is my school:

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Ain’t it pretty?

This is the view that I see every day as I walk from my car to the teachers’ room to start my day. From what I’ve seen of other schools in Malaysia, SMK Padang Tengku is pretty standard. The school is divided into several blocks with walkways and staircases connecting them. The entire set up is very open, with lots of windows and doors leading directly outside–almost like a motel, if that makes sense.

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The school canteen, where students eat lunch every day. The teachers eat in a separate room that is attached to this one but a bit more enclosed and private.

The way my schedule is set up, I only see each class of students one day out of the week. While I would love to see them more frequently, doing it this way means I get to teach anywhere from eleven to thirteen classes a week, averaging about three a day. Padang Tengku is a secondary school, which is basically a combination of the American middle and high schools; because I have the chance to teach so many classes, I’m fortunate to work with students from every form (which is what we say instead of “grade” or “level”). My students range in age from Form 1 (basically 7th grade) to Form 5 (11th grade)–and they’re awesome.

Discovery: Form 4 boys will only ever take goofy selfies with me. Nothing is serious.

Discovery: Form 4 boys will only ever take goofy selfies with me. Nothing is serious.

The English that my students know ranges from “practically none” to “able to hold a conversation about something more than the weather,” which has honestly been one of the biggest challenges of teaching here. I don’t follow set lesson plans necessarily (it depends on the class, really), and when I plan my classes it is sometimes difficult to differentiate for the various levels of English proficiency in the room. That being said, I’ve found that having such a wide range can be helpful in certain situations.

The other day, for example, I was trying to explain an activity to a class of Form 3 students, and I could tell from the looks on the faces staring back at me that very few of them had any idea what was going on. One boy in the back, however, nodded knowingly after every sentence, and when I asked if they all understood my directions (“Faham, class?”), he was the only one to reply with a confident, “Yes.”

Concerned by the silence from the rest of the class, I asked my new ally to stand up and explain to his friends, in Malay, what was going on, after which I repeated my instructions in English. In this case, I was happy A) to know that someone understood me and B) that someone was willing to translate for me, a skill that can be really helpful in the language acquisition process. Plus, it meant that we were all finally on the same page with the activity, which is always a good thing when you’re trying to teach a lesson!

I’m no ESL expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to know more than anyone else going through this experience, but I’m enjoying the process of learning more about teaching. It’s mostly trial and error for me, but I find that I’m much more confident of my own abilities after a few months of stumbling my way through it all.

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Tell me more about your personal life: Do you live in an apartment? Do you have roommates? Do you eat out or cook more, and what kinds of things do you eat?

This is my house:

IMG_4428I live in the town of Kuala Lipis, which is about 3 hours north of Kuala Lumpur (and twenty minutes away from my school, to answer that one question I forgot earlier!). Lipis is a difficult place to categorize, in my opinion, as it’s not really a small town–we have a KFC, which qualifies us as kind of a big deal–but it’s certainly not a bustling suburb, either. It used to be the capital city of Pahang (my state), but things seem to have declined since the capital was moved a few decades ago. Someone here once described it as “sleepy,” and I think that adjective makes the most sense to me. There are a few places of interest to see, but the town is made up mostly of restaurants, small shops, places of worship, and a few schools.

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A photo of a beautifully scary-looking storm (that also gives an idea of what our neighborhood looks like)

We live in a pretty normal Malaysian neighborhood, in a small house attached to others in a long row (almost like a duplex?). There’s a playground, a field where the kiddos play football (soccer), and lots of cats wandering around. I like to go on walks sometimes as it starts to get dark, as many of the neighbors are out and about and I’ve found it’s a good way to at least say hi. We haven’t gotten particularly close to the people living around us, but the family next door does occasionally bring us yummy Indian food and water our plants when we’re on vacation, so I’d say we’ve taken some steps toward making friends.

I really like living here, as it’s a bit removed from the busy life I’d grown accustomed to–but not so far removed as to leave me feeling stranded in the middle of nowhere. I enjoy the balance, honestly, and I look forward to a few more months here.

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Bandar lama, or “old town,” Lipis. Many of these shops were built in the early 1900s during the British occupation of Malaysia.

And yes, I do have a roommate! His name is Dan (but he also answers to Mr. Daniel and/or Dan the Man), and he is awesome. He’s from Florida, with strong family ties to Nebraska, he loves coffee & country music, and…that’s probably all I’m going to say about him so he doesn’t feel weird if and when he reads this post.

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This is Dan. He’s the man.

When it comes to food here in Malaysia, I must admit that I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have the chance to try more dishes and types of cooking here than I ever do in the States; each day at the school canteen is a lesson in Malay cuisine, and I’m often encouraged to try at least a bite of most things by my teachers, who love to talk about food and are always willing to teach me about their favorite dishes. I’ve discovered that bean sprouts and pumpkin are maybe the best vegetables in existence, especially when they’re paired with rice (always rice) or mixed into a curry. There are also a few Chinese and Indian-style restaurants in town, a necessity when I feel the need to diversify my diet a bit.

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A beautiful vegetable fried rice & tofu dish found at our favorite restaurant here in town.

On the other hand, I sometimes think it can be difficult to maintain as healthy of a diet here as I would like. Those of you who know me know that I’m not some sort of health food fiend–I enjoy a good greasy slice of pizza and a batch of french fries as much as your average Kyle–but in recent years, I’ve tried to make a more concerted effort to be conscious of the foods that I eat, balancing the not-so-great with plenty of vegetables, good sources of protein, baked and steamed things as opposed to fried…and that balance can sometimes be difficult to maintain here. While most of the food here is incredibly tasty, it’s usually fried or cooked with heavy amounts of oil, and eating out can be a struggle. When I ask for “vegetable fried rice,” it usually has only a few green leaves in it and some peppers (see above photo). This isn’t inherently bad, but it has made for a change in diet that I wasn’t planning on.

Dan and I don’t cook all that often, which I think accounts for a lot of my struggles, but to be honest: I usually just don’t feel like cooking after a long day at school. Maybe these are normal #grownupproblems, but it’s definitely something I’m trying to work on. Cooking for myself seems to be the key to taking control of what I eat, and I’m looking forward to trying more of that in the months to come.

Nasi lemak, or fatty rice, a traditional Malaysian breakfast food. There's white rice, a fried egg, and sambal--a spicy chili sauce that really wakes you up!

Nasi lemak, or fatty rice, a traditional Malaysian breakfast food. There’s white rice, a fried egg, and sambal–a spicy chili sauce that really wakes you up!

I’ve loved this chance to explore my own tastes more, as I don’t really make a habit of branching out much back home. I think this year’s food journey will definitely influence the kinds of foods I look to and enjoy when I return, and I can’t wait to share some of my newfound favorites with family and friends. Get ready, mom 🙂

Okay, I think I’ve done my best to answer all of the questions I received. Some of you requested more photos, so I’ve tried to include more here, but as always, check out my social media sites if you’re looking for more frequently-posted stuff about life here in Malaysia. I’ve now reached the halfway mark of my grant period (more on that craziness at a later point), and I’m looking forward to seeing what this second half of the journey brings. As always, leave me comments (or more questions!) if you’d like…or just read and enjoy and don’t feel pressure to validate me in any way. I’m a big boy, I can handle it.

Until next time,

Kyle

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.