Malaysian time sometimes means nap time

Besides China (maybe Germany) America has the most time-conscious people in the world.  We eat lunch at our desk, we work from home and vacation days are more rare than Friendster users.  On the cooler side of the pillow is the rest of the world, most of which enjoy longer meals, stress free work environments and an emphasized notion of ‘happiness’.  The dichotomy forces an identity crisis in many young Americans working abroad.  As an American, recent college-graduate, teaching English in Malaysia for one year, I’m exposed to this dilemma on a daily basis.  Should I bridle all expectations and cultural norms or pack my ethics and beliefs to share with the host country?  To what extent should expatriates be expected to immerse?

The World Does Not Run on American Time 

Working in Malaysia is, simply put, fascinating.  Everything from renting a car and paying a utilities bill to finding a real cup of coffee or new pair of shoes is different. For example, before finding real caffeine one must filter through four or five Nescafe serving stalls.  Sometimes, walking outside can be exhausting (due to the unyielding dry heat).  And to compound the scorching weather, the new environment comes with new societal values.

In Malaysia, time is not put on a pedestal.  Instead, respect and politeness are prized, crossing major race groups.  The heavily politicized education system, of which I am smack in the middle, is a perfect case study to analyze how this plays out in daily life.  When given a project to complete a detailed report on major projects conducted in the classroom for publicity brochures, deadlines are irrelevant.  The supervisor, whom assigned the project, will rarely check or even request the completed report.  This means the report will go unfinished or, if it is especially important, finished at the last minute, conveniently leading to less than perfect brochures or even the brochures being forgotten about entirely.  Consider this a paraphrased, yet chronic scenario.

Why is the scenario so prevalent?  Professional interaction is viewed as needless stress, generally impolite and respectively informal.  The supervisor, in fear of losing workplace ‘face’ (respect), does not wish to be seen as rude, disrespectful, or purveyor of stress.  The employee, aware of this Achilles heel, consciously dodges the assignment.  No accountability, no motivation.  It is a hard scenario to fathom for most Americans.  If the same events were to play-out in an American school, voices might be raised, punishments may be doled out and feelings would generally be disregarded.

But let’s remove the Western lens.  Instead of focusing on the unfinished product, a Malaysian would likely focus on the general happiness maintained in the workplace.  If a report is handed in late, it is still received with a smile.  This assures no stress and no tarnished pride.  If anyone raises their voice, hurt feelings would linger for months, being more detrimental to work than not finishing one assignment.

In what virtues should value be placed: work, time and efficiency or respect and pride?  The two are not mutually exclusive, but difficult to amalgamate.  If an American working in a Malaysian school were given the assignment, they may meticulously finish the report but in a bullish manner (i.e. asking for exact deadlines, criteria, etc.).  The Malaysian supervisor, fixated on politeness and respect, would care little about the meticulously finished product, if the correct respectful interactions were not conducted.

Mutually Beneficial Growth 

I have not learnt how to be patient with inefficiency; I have not grown accustom to a non-work focused society; and I do not plan on becoming more acute to other’s feelings in the work place; and no, overall my personal and work related values have not changed.  I have, however, grown an ability to find worth in seemingly erroneous behavior.  Simultaneously, those I work around have grown an ability to find worth in stress and directness.  Discovering value in a different system (weather that system be with new friends, in a different neighborhood, or even in a new cuisine) has the potential to strengthen your own, on a personal level this is the most significant aspect of cultural sharing.  Retaining personal identity while thriving from exchange.

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