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

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

Building Community, One Rumor at a Time

If I’m learning anything about Malaysia and its culture, it’s this: people talk.

When I missed a day of work after eating a very normal meal of roti canai that didn’t quite agree with my stomach, I arrived at school the next day to growing rumors of the “food poisoning” that had knocked me out for a whole day. Some swore it was caused by a drastic intake of spicy foods, while others claimed that I surely must have eaten bad vegetables and probably had a parasite.

The truth: I ate a piece of very mild flatbread dipped in an even milder curry sauce. I probably just got some bad ice. I was fine.

When I skipped lunch at the school canteen because it was Friday and we leave at noon anyway (why not just eat a peanut butter sandwich at home?), I was met with many concerned questions on the following Monday. From my students: Sir, why did you forget to eat on Friday? It was chicken rice day–you need to eat chicken rice, sir. From my fellow teachers: You must still be feeling sick, right? Or maybe you’re on a diet? You do not need to lose weight–you need to eat. Do you not like the canteen food?

The truth: I forgot to eat. I had a busy schedule of classes and meetings that day, and the teacher giving me a ride home left before I could grab a meal. It was fine.

When I was mistakenly asked to help coach one of my school’s sports houses (think Hogwarts houses meet the Olympics), my students and colleagues quickly discovered that sports and I aren’t the best of friends. I attempted to “coach” volleyball, the disastrous results of which were filmed (unbeknownst to me) and quickly shared via group text message to every teacher at the school. I’m 99% sure my students did the same thing with their friends. The next day…you get the idea. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t mean spirited by any means, but it was certainly honest: Sir, you do not like sports much, do you?

The truth: No, kids. I sure don’t.

At first, I struggled with how quickly news seems to travel here. The Malaysian rumor mill (the questionably-affectionate nickname I’ve given this phenomenon) can be overwhelming at times, and I honestly felt myself getting defensive the first few times I encountered it. I’m feeling better now–can we all please just forget I ever got sick? Yes, I get it, I stink at sports…we don’t have to talk about it anymore, okay? I found myself getting worked up by the things that people were saying and the fact that they seemed to say almost anything to anyone.

And then I remembered some of the other “rumors” that have circulated throughout my school in the three weeks I’ve been here: You don’t have any furniture in your house? Where do you sit? How do you wash your clothes? I’ve heard the front yard is full of weeds…and are the windows really bare, without any curtains? 

After about a week of these little tidbits making their way through the rumor mill, we suddenly found ourselves with a sofa and appliances, the money for which was fronted by our teacher mentors. My principal sent someone to help us clear out the flowerbeds so that we wouldn’t have a breeding ground for snakes in our front yard. A teacher at my school made an entire set of curtains for nearly every window in the house, and a crew of teachers and children came over to help hang them. Our house was essentially given a mini-makeover in the span of just a week or so–all because people talked.

So I’m reminded of what a community can be, of how its qualities manifest in different ways. Here, I’m surrounded by a group of people who know little boundaries; no question or query is off limits, no gesture of kindness too big. Back home, I think I am quite used to a “me first” world, one in which my privacy and my thoughts and my needs are all just that: mine. Possession is vital. While I don’t think this is an inherently bad way to live, I’m beginning to see some of the ways in which it might be limiting.

Here, from what I’ve experienced, the desire to share (thoughts, secrets, possessions) seems to be a major driving force, and I’ve found that it opens me up to a whole new way of interacting with those around me. Since I can’t really hide anything, why not just practice being honest and open? When my students seem to fixate on my incredible lack of athleticism, why not share what I’m actually passionate about? There’s no shame in that. When everyone seems concerned about my eating habits, why not discuss my desire to lead a mostly-vegetarian lifestyle? Honesty and connection stem from these conversations.

And in light of the recent murder of three beautiful souls in what feels like my home state of North Carolina, I have to recognize the power that simply talking can have. When the community comes before the individual, sometimes you have no choice but to be vulnerable. Let’s talk about why I eat what I do, why I prefer books over volleyball nets, why I see the world through the different lenses I wear. And when I’m done talking, let me remember to listen. To embrace others’ honesty. To inquire about their lives when I hear that they’ve been sick or that their mother recently moved in with them. To ask them about their prayers and their beliefs and their dreams, all while basking in the comfort that we share a common understanding: that our words have power, as does our ability to listen. That what you say is yours and mine, that we are connected by our voices and our ears and our hearts. That, in the words of a dear friend, we are all “humans hurting for each other”. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

I’m not entirely sure, and I can’t pretend to have the answers. But I think it’s only fair that we give it a shot.

Varying degrees of easy

I slide my card carefully into the slot at the top of the time clock, chuckling under my breath as I see my name written in careful blue ink at the top: “KLYE“. I remind myself to speak slower next time, to articulate my consonants. I forget that my name is strange here, that in a world full of “long names” and “short names” (many of which are still honestly quite long to my American ears), the name Kyle seems choppy, almost blunt. I remember that it is necessary to spell my name out when I introduce myself to others so that they don’t spend the rest of their lives thinking that they know someone named Carl.

I grab the time card from the clock and place it back in my slot, careful to make a mental note of the number so that I won’t struggle to find it tomorrow morning when I clock back in. I wave a quick goodbye to the office staff, double check my bag to make sure I haven’t left anything behind, and pull open the door, savoring the last few seconds of air conditioning before I reacquaint myself with the stifling Malaysian afternoon. My ride sees me from the end of the hallway and waves me over. He is eager to head out before the one road that carries traffic to and from the school gets congested with cars and motorbikes; I am eager to get home and take off the stupid tie that’s been choking me all day, its grip made worse by the heat.

My first day, done. It has been a day of mostly meetings and school tours, of elaborate welcoming ceremonies and endless introductions. I don’t remember where the bathrooms are, I’ve forgotten basically everybody’s names, and I’m not sure what exactly I ate for lunch. All I know is that I got through the day, feeling both alien and welcome, unsettled and satisfied. I’m re-learning how to embrace the dissonance of emotions that seems to be an inherent part of traveling; it’s a process that takes time and, from what I’ve learned, a good book or two.

I find my mind wandering as I make my way down the hallway. I think of my new home, a small house in a nice neighborhood about fifteen minutes away. It’s been an interesting place to start this next leg of my journey, as it’s never been lived in and therefore came without many of the furnishings and touches that distinguish a house from a home; with a little bit of effort, though, and a great deal of help from the Fulbright staff and my incredible mentor, it is slowly becoming a place to which I am excited to return each day.

I think of my school, nestled in a little kampung outside the city. It is a place full of color and light, and I have no doubt that I will do more learning than teaching in my time here.

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There’s so much more to say about my school, but I’ll keep it simple for now.

I think of home. I try not to do this too often, because I know the joy that comes from living (almost) fully in the present moment. This country and its people are my new present, and I am actively working to embrace them. But sometimes it hurts in the best way to remember where I’m most loved, where I’ve built a strong and lasting community. I think of my home and of my friends, of all of those whose lives have shaped mine and have led me here, thousands of miles away. The irony doesn’t escape me, and I smile to myself. Home means nothing until we leave it.

I’m forced out of my daydream by the sight of a student standing at the end of the hallway. He’s leaning up against the wall, hands in his pockets, the white shirt of his uniform coming untucked after a long day of classes and football at recess. He is watching me. As much as I’m trying to adjust to the feeling of constant observation (everything about me screams “anomaly” here), I can’t say that it doesn’t bother me just a bit to be stared down as I get closer to him, our eyes locked. I try to make a smile appear on my face. What does he see? I wonder to myself. Am I walking somewhere I shouldn’t be? Maybe he’s looking at someone behind me… I check: there is no one–I am the sole object of his scrutiny. Is my zipper down?

Finally, after what feels like miles kilometers of being watched, we meet. I stop directly in front of him, unsure of my next move (or his, for that matter). We stand in silence for a few seconds…and then he speaks, loudly and full of rehearsed confidence that shatters any of the tension I felt in the moments leading up to our encounter: “Good morning, sir!”

And I’m reminded of why I’m here. It’s easy to daydream, to think about my new house and some of its less-than-ideal features, or to get lost in memories of a home that’s waiting for me at the end of this year. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the little things, to let my mind drown in a sea of new words and sounds I’ll never remember (and some I’ll never forget). But it’s easier to be with a student as he proudly utters the only English words he really knows, regardless of the fact that it’s nearly 3:00 in the afternoon and “morning” no longer applies. It’s easier to say, “Hey, awesome job. What’s your name?” and to slowly start building your new community. I think I often get stuck thinking that anything meaningful has to be hard, that it has to come after some sort of immense and life-altering struggle.

But sometimes, it can just be really easy.

I don’t think we’re in KL anymore…

Greetings from Kuala Terengganu, the capital city of the state of Terengganu on the eastern coast of Malaysia and my home for the next few days. I’m here with the ETAs from my state (which is Pahang, in case you’ve forgotten) and those placed in Terengganu for a state-level orientation led by the Malaysian Ministry of Education. While I’ve loved spending these last two weeks in KL getting acquainted with my cohort and my new country, I have to admit that I’m happy to be away from the chaotic and often overwhelming city of Kuala Lumpur. Our new hotel is a stone’s throw away from the ocean in a much smaller city (its population is 31,000 in comparison to KL’s 1.6 million) and our cohort has shrunk to a much more manageable size of about 30. Needless to say, this week has been dramatically different from what I’ve experienced thus far.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s do a quick rundown of my last few days in KL, shall we?

First, and perhaps most excitingly: I finally got the chance to work with students at a school, and it was incredible. As part of our training, we were asked to put together a Saturday “English Camp” with a small group of ETAs and about 100 students at a school in Kuala Lumpur. English camps are a large part of what we will be doing as teaching assistants in our placements; we are required to coordinate at least two camps at our own school, and we’re encouraged to travel to other schools to help out with camps that need more ETA assistance. The goal of camps is to make learning and speaking English fun outside of the classroom, using games and activities and themes that will make the students forget that they’re actually practicing valuable English skills. Thus, the opportunity to actually plan, prepare for, and execute a camp while still above the safety net of orientation was a great way to gain some valuable experience and have a whole lot of fun with some awesome Malaysian students.

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Cikgu Jonah leads his team in a cheer & dance between stations at St. Mary’s English Camp.

My group put together an “All-American Field Day Camp,” complete with outdoor team builders (thank you, Orientation), charades competitions, and paper airplane contests (led by yours truly). The students at St. Mary’s, the all-girls school we were working with, were incredibly welcoming and very proficient in English; they made team chants and banners, both of which they displayed proudly throughout the day as they made their way from station to station. I had a blast running this camp, and while I think it was probably easier than any of the future camps I’ll end up planning at my school, it has me really excited to plan my own and get started at my placement.

When we weren’t busy planning for our camp, my cohort and I spent our last week in KL working on lesson planning, teaching strategies, and Bahasa Malaysia survival skills. Bahasa Malaysia is the name of the language spoken here, and while it’s vastly different from any other languages I’ve studied, I have to admit that I am loving the chance to learn what I can. We are encouraged not to use Bahasa with our students in school, but I definitely want to pick up bits and pieces as I go, probably with the help of my students and fellow teachers. Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, especially in a new country; I’ll keep you all posted on how it’s going as I struggle through it over the next few months 🙂

Oh, and I also met a monkey at the Batu Caves. He was basically the greatest.

He's perfect. I love him.

Look at him. He’s perfect. I love him.

That brings me to Kuala Terengganu, the next stop on my journey. I’ve been in KT for three days now, learning more about my state, my placement, and the experiences I can expect as an ETA. On our first full day, we traveled to a local school here to visit with the principal and to meet some more Malaysian students.

I have never been more warmly welcomed to a place in my entire life. We got off the bus to a chorus of “Good morning”s and “Hello”s from a group of awaiting students and teachers; as we walked into the courtyard, we were greeted with gamelan music, a type of traditional music (initially developed in Indonesia, I believe) played by a small percussion ensemble. Teachers and students crowded around us to say hello, offering small gifts and warm smiles, and we were ushered in to begin a day of presentations, tours, and meet-and-greets with students. Again, this school is considered higher-performing and is therefore not a perfect representation of what I can expect at my school, which will be more rural and in greater need of help, but I think it was a wonderful welcome to Terengganu and an excellent example of Malaysian hospitality, which has far exceeded my expectations.

Me cheesin' it up in China Town, Kuala Terengganu.

Me cheesin’ it up in China Town, Kuala Terengganu.

And now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop near downtown KT. I’m surrounded by a few of the close friends I’ve met in my short time here, all of us taking advantage of public wifi that actually works and coffee drinks that are more sugar and cream than anything else. We have only two more days here before we meet our mentor teachers and begin the journey out to our placements, and I can’t help but feeling a little nostalgic already. I have loved having time with others in my cohort, getting to know them as educators, world-travelers, and just all around good people. It will be an interesting experience to finally move out into Kuala Lipis and to get started at SMK Padang Tengku, away from many of these incredible souls and all of the knowledge and passion they’ve already shared with me. I only hope I can take all of these little lessons and bring them with me, using them in the classroom and at home as I learn to adjust to this new life that is unfolding (slowly and yet terrifyingly fast) before me. There is so much more to say, but I’ll end this post here, in this quiet moment before everything changes.

Week 1: Orientation, or A Lesson in Overcoming Jetlag

Hello, friends!

I am thrilled to be writing this post, the first of many from MALAYSIA (it still feels incredibly strange to be writing, saying, or even thinking this)! Before I get into some of the fun details of my first week, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on my past experience abroad, one that influenced my decision to apply for this program and which has stuck with me for nearly two years now.

One of the things I loved the most about studying abroad in Italy during the spring of my junior year was the fact that I hardly ever understood anything that was going on around me. Sure, I was studying Italian and could pick up on a few words here and there, but I generally spent most of my time in public surrounded by a whole lot of incomprehensible noise. I found a surprising amount of freedom in this muffled chaos, realizing that I could devote more of my energy to observing with other senses–the sight of a little girl clumsily climbing the basilica steps, the smell of leather and smoke from the street markets–instead of constantly filtering through a jumbled mess of words that I couldn’t help but hear and understand. One of my favorite pastimes during those early spring months was to pack a bag and head to a busy part of the city, usually a piazza or a park nearby, where I would buy a little coffee and read a book, happily oblivious to so much of the comings and goings around me. I let my mind rest. I practiced simply being where I sat, book in hand, unable and unwilling to focus too much on all of the craziness outside of my self.

I don’t think I realized how much I missed that aspect of living abroad until this past week, my first full week living and (almost) functioning in Malaysia. I haven’t had too much time to wander alone–yet–but I have definitely had to readjust to the feeling of almost constantly being surrounded by sights, smells, and sounds that I can’t fully understand. It can be frustrating at times, but I’m already reminded of how much growth can come from being forced to let go of my own need for control.

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Alright, now that I’ve spent a sufficient amount of time waxing poetic, let’s get down to the fun stuff 🙂

I’ve spent most of this first week in full-on orientation mode: ice breakers, information sessions, guest speakers…you get the picture. While the days are long and can be a bit (read: very) overwhelming, I’ve loved the chance to meet the other Fulbrighters in my cohort and to get to know more about what these coming months will bring.

Which leads me to one of the most exciting parts of my week: getting information about my school placement! I found out on Thursday that I will be teaching at SMK Padang Tengku, a public secondary school (that’s what the “SMK” means) in the city of Kuala Lipis. Kuala Lipis is a city of about 20,000 people located in Pahang, one of the 13 Malaysian states, and it’s supposed to be one of the more scenic and natural places on the peninsula.

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That little red circle is where I’ll be living!

From what I can gather (thank goodness for Google, y’all), I’ll be relatively close to several nature preserves, a beautiful highlands area, and the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. Casual, right? Needless to say, I am chomping at the bit to move out there and get started. I’ll spend another week here in KL finishing up orientation before heading out for a week of in-state orientation–and then I’ll be at my school, doing my best to teach English and get settled in my community. I can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m still adjusting to life here in KL, and in Malaysia in general. This city is absolutely incredible. It can be overwhelming at times, but I’m thankful to have spent a few of my weekend days getting on trains with new friends and traveling to sights a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of Bukit Bintang, the tourist-y/mall district where I am currently living. This past weekend, for example, I took a taxi out to the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque, both of which were as enlightening as they were beautiful. The museum was full of art and artifacts from a variety of Muslim cultures, including a stunning exhibit on Islamic architecture throughout the world. It makes me want to travel more…but I won’t get ahead of myself too much 😉

This beautiful dome adorns the roof of the Islamic Arts Museum. Casual.

This beautiful dome adorns the roof of the Islamic Arts Museum. Casual.

A stunning example of art on the pages of the Quram.

A stunning example of art on the pages of the Quram.

Even the roof was incredible, y'all.

Even the roof was incredible, y’all.

At the National Mosque, we were lucky enough to be invited on a (free!) private tour with a volunteer. The two hours we spent with him have been perhaps the most challenging and culturally significant moments of my time here so far. Our guide was enthusiastic and open to conversation, and he encouraged us to ask him about any and everything related to Islam that we wanted to know–so we did. While it was sometimes difficult as an outsider to fully understand where he was coming from, I appreciated his honesty and his willingness to tackle controversial topics head-on. I definitely left the conversation feeling uncomfortable in a good way, having engaged in a discussion that, to me, was a step in the right direction toward intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

Oh, and the mosque was georgous, too.

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IMG_8370Alright, folks. That’s all I’ve got for now–thanks for sticking with me so far. Like I said, I’ll spend the rest of this week here in KL, and then it’s off to a new location to learn a bit more before I get started. If you want to keep up with more of my everyday doings, feel free to check me out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, as I tend to keep those outlets a bit more updated (but also sign up to follow the blog with WordPress or email if you want, too!). As soon as anything new or exciting happens, I’ll be back with another post.

Until next time,

Kyle