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.