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

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

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

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.

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

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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.

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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