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.

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