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