Category Archives: LIFE

Life: Eighth, ninth, and tenth months

Classes are going well; students are finally accustomed to my teaching methods and completely comfortable asking me questions, helping me conduct a few projects unimaginable in February.  In November I assigned a Gender Equality Debate in my highest performing form 4 class.  Divided into 3 teams the students researched and wrote concise statements and had to refute/defend positions during a public forum.  The topic and work were outstandingly new to them but they rose to the challenge.  Wes and I finished the second English camp of the year.  The overnight ‘Around the World’ camp was stressful planning, but turned out successful.  Students ‘traveled’ and learned about different countries, constructing origami in Japan, singing the Canadian national anthem and completing UK monument puzzles.  Out of class experiences at school have not been as great.  My mentor, principle and English department obtained a confidential letter I wrote to MACEE explaining my frustration with unsavory practices; teacher’s not showing up to class, show-pony interpretation of the ETA program and twisted relationship with my mentor.  At the end of the day there are simply too many internal problems (professional and otherwise) that justify them being taken out of the program entirely.  An ETA could be better utilized at a more professional school.  Their unprofessionalism was taken to a new level when the reaction to the letter was a 4-hour meeting questioning every word in my flowery two-paragraph statement.  Recording devices were used, tears were shed and I ended up in a daze of disbelief.    Instead of any sort of resolution, the rest of October was simply frosty.  It became obvious the meeting was simply an excuse for the PPD officer (my ministry contact in Johor Bahru) to express her dissatisfaction with the Americans.  It was difficult maintaining composure through all this, but focusing and advising six students on studying abroad helped distract from the Real Housewives kind of drama going on.

Traveling helped too.

  • Indonesia: Wes and I took a couples trip to Indonesia.

Wes and bird

  • Singapore:  Finally took the GREs and celebrated with a steak.

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  • KL/Penang:  Continued the post-GRE celebration with a friends Birthday in KL and a food tour of Georgetown, Penang

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Life: Life In the Big City

MATT COVER PICTURE

“You’re going where?”

“Malaysia.”

“So you’re going to live in like…a hut?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Well stock up on pizza and milkshakes.  You’re definitely not going to get any there.”

Wrong, my ill informed friends, very wrong.

I tried to temper my expectations before arriving in Kuala Lumpur, but with no Southeast Asian travel experience, I let movies like Zoolander fill my head with images of dusty jungle roads and monkeys stealing my lunch.  A bit eccentric…I know.  I may not live in a hut, but would I have electricity?  Would I have access to some sort of vehicle?  Is there decent infrastructure outside the capital?

I did the requisite research on Malaysia:  I downloaded Bourdain’s ‘Layover’ app, purchased a Lonely Planet and bookmarked the New York Times’ Malaysia travel page; but ultimately I was led down a yellow-brick-road to nowhere.  There really isn’t much out there on Malaysia, so I started my journey relatively blind.

Eight months later, I am brought back to those half-baked expectations.  Yes, I have electricity (loads of it).  Yes, I have a vehicle (two, actually).  And yes, there is absolutely infrastructure outside the capital (albeit basic).

Stationed in the southern-most tip of Malaysia, Johor Barhu, my experience is unlike most ETAs’.  Few have Western comforts within a 20-minute drive of their apartment; a dry cleaner, a café with real espresso, and even a PetSmart, in case I decide I like hamsters.  Few also encounter racially diverse communities in their placement.  My roommate and I are routinely shocked at Johor’s societal makeup.  There’s a Malaysian University complete with hormonal students, Australian expatriates working as tech consultants and plenty of Singaporean investors since JB is close to the city-state.  It takes just 45minutes to get over the border.  We’ve gotten pizza at a Mario Batali restaurant, done homework at the Botanical Gardens and checked out the stupefying Art of the Brick exhibit at the Museum of Science.

Other ETAs bond over anecdotes of their rustic, hardscrabble lives – what they wouldn’t give for a cheeseburger and some air-conditioning.  I’m unable to relate because…I pretty much have everything I need.

And my school is equally unique.

Most ETAs teach in Malay Muslim schools.  SMK Taman Sutera, however, is equal parts Chinese, Tamil and Malay.  That means my students get the rare opportunity to engage with different race groups at school.

It’s no secret that racial divisions exist in Malaysia, but becoming accustomed to interactions with different sects at such a vital, young age, hints at a more unified Malaysia soon to come.  The existence of so many mixed schools in Johor indicates its place at the vanguard of this transformation.

I like to think of Johor as the California of Malaysia.  A frontier for progress.  And Malaysia is changing rapidly; more money, more people, and more industry.  Soon, American students will have more than one Ben Stiller movie to reference this ever-evolving country.

 

This post was featured in Fulbright Malaysia’s Official Blog

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Politics: AMERICAN TIME VS MALAYSIAN TIME

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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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LIFE: FIFTH, SIXTH and SEVENTH MONTHS

(Video) My kids and I singing Michael Buble’s “Everything”

I’ve been moving a lot…

  • Myanmar & Philippines, May 24 – June 9
  • Kuala Lumpur, June 19 – 23
  • Borneo Rainforest World Music Festival, June 27 – 30
  • India, July 11 – 15

Most highlights came from Myanmar.  Besides the usual tourist traps, that turned out to be less banal than expected, the people were happy and curious.  They were vocal about their newfound patriotism and excited to show off what they had to offer.

Work at school has been promising.  I’ve taken on longer projects and competitions in my higher-level classes (public speaking competitions, in-class essays and debates), the prize usually being an off-campus lunch.  The lower level classes have not been able to successfully finish a competition, but they seem to be getting bored with simple activities, indicating an interest in something more challenging.

The ball is rolling on two out-of-class projects.  The first is a total overhaul of the English books in the school library.  I am working with The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program to receive new and used dictionaries, fiction and nonfiction books by late August.  The second is advising a uniquely ambitious senior (form 5) student on studying in the U.S.  I have not seen enthusiasm like his from any other student.  We meet once a week to edit his essays and research scholarships.  He is aware of the personal challenges posed by studying abroad, but radiates confidence.  Working with him is a highlight.

More than half way done with the grant, however, I’m finding difficulty adapting to Malaysian society.  The smallest nuisance (road rage, rampant blackouts, continuous communication problems at work) has become cripplingly vexing.  One would think after 6 or 7 months I would be highly acclimated.  But, from my experience, that’s a damaging assumption.  Patience is starting to slip and the excuse, “it’s just the system here” is becoming less acceptable.

Of course there are a number of contributing factors, most obvious being obstacles from when I first arrived, persisting.  The bureaucratic lag has not disappeared.  Getting reimbursed for a school expense still takes up to 7 weeks.  Organizing an English camp still involves unenthused co-workers.  Finding handymen to help with apartment matters still involves going through four different people.

In retrospect these issues will seem superficial, but at the moment, they are all consuming.

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LIFE: FOURTH MONTH

Choral Speaking practice, April 18th

Infamous for being a tough month, I came into April with low expectation.  But the chaos from March settled down and for lack of a better phrase, I’m starting to feel apart of the community.  Within a half-mile radius Wes and I have a chicken wing guy, a karaoke lady and even a few lethargic, yet endearing police buddies.  In a place where knowing ‘the system’ is the only way of getting something accomplished, having a sizeable network helps.  But of course, there were hiccups.

One broad obstacle is the astounding inefficiency.  Whether I’m driving to the grocery store or trying to get expense reimbursements from my school, nothing happens quickly or correctly.  Inefficiency is everywhere.  Our car fiasco could not embody this better.  Like a failed a Viagra experiment, the 1992 Malaysian make broke down at least once a week and always within a few miles of our home.  Even after services and repairs the once virile, Kembara continued breaking down.  Our renter, the soft-souled gentle man that he is, was in disbelief.  “No, no, no.  You step on the acceleration TOO hard” he exclaimed as he held back tears when we brought up the issue.  Taking constructive criticism, let alone admitting a mistake, is not a Malaysian specialty.  So, we traded the car for our security deposit and bid farewell to the mirage of a stable transport.  Now, we are car-less.

Choral speaking is officially over.  The team was initially unorganized and uninspired to say the least, but after a few pep talks from the administration the team pulled together 7am – 4pm practices for 7 days straight before the competition.   We did not place, but the heartbreak of losing, after actually trying, suggests better work ethic next year.

My classes have been shockingly smooth.  My mid, to higher-level classes are, knock on wood, finally engaged in almost every lesson I conduct.  I had three of my classes write socially conscious letters to the government on how to improve Malaysia.  They were awe-struck at the idea of writing something the PM might read.  My lower-level classes remain defiant.  In Malaysia classes are graded; my form 1s (freshmen) range from A – D.  These are the classes with students who work the hawker stalls on the weekends or whose parents are working in Singapore till 2 am.  For them, school is not work time it’s playtime.  Having a break-through with my 1D or 4D would be a tremendous ego boost.

Like I said before, Wes and I are slowly breaking into ‘the system’ here.  The dobis (laundry-mats), teashops, mechanics and karaoke spots are beginning to recognize us by name.  We stood out like unapproachable sore thumbs before, but the more people see our faces the more we’re invited to Chinese family dinners and Punjabi festivals.

Traveling less frequently in April made me realize how important it is to be a physical presence around town.  My sense of ‘productivity’ is being warped; productivity is not how much you can get accomplished within a fixed period of time.  Productivity is sitting at a stall and talking to my noodle soup guy about the upcoming election or seeing a student at a bike shop and getting him to help me change my motorbike tires.  Maybe, while living abroad, that is the most important kind of productivity.

LIFE: THIRD MONTH

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Results of an all day soccer tournament in a monsoon

I’m finally settling in after two month in Johor.  The months have been filled with a lot of ups and downs.  There were some miscommunication problems with fellow teachers at my school in February, which resulted in a really rough month for me.  I underappreciated the culture divide and rode into school on my over-enthusiastic horse, when I should have taken a step back to fully understand my environment.  Thankfully, everything was resolved and are generally moving foreword.

My weeks are pretty packed; I am teaching 19 periods a week, coaching the football team twice a week, assistant directing choral speaking twice a week, meeting with the English Language Society once a week, and starting an English language blog for the society.  On top of this, I am trying to set up a weekly schedule for my ETA corner to make myself available during lunch.  I do not think I’m able to accomplish anything at 100% because I’m being spread so thin, thus I am in discussion with my department head to try and figure out a more manageable schedule.

On a positive note, my classes are going well.  My students are more receptive and engaging me in class.  The longer I get used to their skill levels the more successful my activities are.  I think I pushed my lower level classes a little too far in the beginning of February, shutting them off.  I geared down some activities resulting in more participation.  A challenge, however, remains to be risk-taking abilities; very few students are willing to try, unless they are 100% sure they know what they are doing.

We finally have a car and motorbike, allowing Wes and I to do some exploring.  We’ve been making some jaunts downtown and even into Singapore some weekends.  Getting across the border is a bit of a nuisance but door-downtown Singapore is only an hour and fifteen minutes.  The apartment is holding up, all right.  Periodic blackouts were rough in February, but we’re pretty immune at this point.  The weather is hitting peak highs at around 98 F and extremely humid, but thankfully I just installed an air-conditioning unit in my room, which will undoubtedly save my life.  The kitchen has been great.  My diet consisted pretty heavily of carbohydrates (every meal in Malaysia is primarily rice or noodles, with a two leaves of vegetables and four slices of meat), but since we set up our kitchen I’ve been cooking a lot.

I’m excited for the coming months; I’m planning on carrying out a few in-depth lessons (a family tree and environmental robot project) for a few of my stronger classes, a nice change of pace from arbitrary English games.  I’m planning out an English camp in May revolving around how the students can better their country; painting mountable tiles, skits about community service, and more.  The rest of April is looking quite busy.