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.

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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.

POLITICS: RACE BASED EVERYTHING

one malaysia

 

I draw from personal experience to discuss racial divides in Malaysian politics and the effect it could have on the nation’s future

Imagine a country with limited historical baggage, vast untapped resources and a potential model to help bridge East/West divides. Malaysia brings these ideal circumstances to actuality, currently carrying a frontier-like-potential unlike any other country in the world. If the U.S. hopes to benefit from ties with this eventual high-income economy, attention must be paid to upcoming domestic changes within the Islamic state.

As the 2013 Malaysian General Election looms, current Prime Minister Najib Razak is showing signs of concern. On March 24th, he awarded 1,000 taxi driver permits to frustrated auto owners unable to continue paying high rent on their vehicles, using this gesture as an example of his party’s fulfillment of policy promises. When first elected in 2008 he ran on an economic platform assuring increased worker rights and, with plenty of help from state-controlled media, he’s been able to tactfully project his agenda.

The Barisan Nasional‬ (a coalition of 3 major race and religion-based political parties) has maintained autonomy from the government since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. In 2008 it suffered a historic blow, losing the majority of parliamentary seats to Pakatan Rakyat (an evolving coalition of opposition parties), and recent polls suggest the upcoming elections may deliver a similar outcome.

Malaysia’s strategic importance grows as Obama shifts gears out of the Middle East, but the BN’s loss and future electoral prospects could compromise this critical U.S. ally in the region. The self-described rainbow nation has a rising GDP, wealth of natural resources and, most importantly, retains a unique bridge between Islam and modernity. If the BN loses the upcoming election, relations between the two nations will undoubtedly fluctuate, and potentially regress. It would be wise for the U.S. to pay close attention to a potential BRIC member, and position itself wisely post-election. Because Malaysian voting patterns are highly dependent on race relations at the local level (community separation, party allegiance, personal pride, etc.) dissecting Malaysia’s race-based society is essential to foreshadowing shifts in the country’s political makeup.

Inherent Race Consciousness

Malaysia’s three most populous race groups are the Malays, Chinese and Indians, the former indigenous to Malaya and the latter two brought as laborers by the British in the late 19th century. The Chinese were able to economically flourish due to their financial competency and British favoritism while the Malay’s and Indians dominated the lower class. This colonial legacy is visible today from crime rates to the classroom. Schools are racially categorized in Malaysia (reminiscent of 1960s America) as Malay, Chinese, Indian or Mix. Subjects like Math, English and Science are not taught by any certain race, but individual classes are usually racially separated. When you walk into a Malaysian classroom, the students are neatly divided up by race and gender; Malay boys on the right, then Malay girls, then Indian boys, then Indian girls, etc., hinting at what an early age race goggles are acquired. Youth are encouraged to befriend within their race and gender by their parents, schools and communities, arguably impacting decision-making as adults.

There are two central reasons for race consciousness: saving face and ethnic pride. The latter stems from cultural ties with the motherland; Malaysian’s usually don’t call themselves Malaysian, but rather Malay Chinese, Malay Indian or Malay. Following the traditions and cultural practices of the motherland helps distinguish them from other groups. Yet this typical goal for a Malaysian is culminating into a national identity crisis. Few agree on determinants of “Malaysian-ness” because race and ethnicity, for the most part, trump nationality.

Saving face is another phenomenon magnified in Malaysia due to the strong ethnic pride. Seen as polite and respectful, Malaysians are docile and reclusive. Being outspoken is interpreted as combative and aggressive due to highly sensitive individual ethnic pride. In an academic setting, it is extremely rare for a student to take a risk and answer a question in class because they do not want to be “shamed” in front of others. It is also common for students to duck their head and say “malu cikgu” (literally, “shame teacher” in Bahasa Maleyu) when asked a question. Even more rare, is the student’s ability to tell a teacher they are wrong; instead of admitting a mistake as a virtue, they see being vocal as confrontational because reputation is put on a high, teetering pedestal.

These seemingly micro issues translate into a salty national pickle. Malaysian youth are brought up segregated and unaccustomed to working with one another. As adults they find jobs where they can be surrounded by their own race, translating into racially divided professions with racially predicated wages. Votes are, therefore, made within the context of a particular group, not as a unified nation. If Malaysia has an Achilles heel, it’s segregation. To reach its goal of being a high-income economy by 2020, this crisis must be addressed.

Najib’s One Malaysia Campaign

Najib has taken on this colonial legacy with his hallmark One Malaysia initiative; a political strategy to unify Malaysia’s racially divided populace. The initiative has a few distinct interpretations, the first being an umbrella term for Najib’s cross-racial campaigns. He’s implemented a nation wide student discount program, increased construction of affordable housing projects and subsidized medical clinics, all branded with the One Malaysia logo to assure an echo of national unity. The second, bleaker, interpretation is that the movement is a scheme to assure the 57-year-old coalition’s success in the upcoming race. The opposition criticizes one specific campaign (“The Back To School Fund” that gives families of students attending public school 100 ringgit (33.3 USD) cash, annually), saying the BN is literally buying votes. There are obvious pitfalls and holes in some initiatives, but there is no arguing Najib has taken on a lofty challenge. National unity is the first step to growing economically, politically and socially, and the PM is proving his cleverness by killing a plethora of birds with the metaphorical stone that is, One Malaysia.

But like any other leader, Najib isn’t perfect. From opaque elections to control of the media, the administration has been criticized for numerous suspicious practices. Most recently Najib’s party has been criticized for attacking a strong critic of the administration, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Not only has her house has been the site of many protests, but she has also received numerous death threats, even in Parliament. Najib must further unite his own party and provide safe avenues of dissent so Ambiga, and other critics, feel like there are sufficient avenues for free speech.

Segregation in Malaysia will not disappear overnight or, perhaps ever. But Malaysian politics must evolve. It has a rare opportunity to exemplify political evolution within a decade (something America needed 200 years to accomplish). Though the SEA tiger’s economy is thriving and its diplomatic tendrils spreading, it is in peril of falling into a dark abyss. It will take a savvy leader to ensure that prosperity is spread throughout all its groups and that this opportunity to unify the country is swiftly acted upon.

 

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LIFE: SECOND MONTH

A flyer I designed for an upcoming school camp

flyer I designed for an upcoming school camp

A flowery take on my second month…

 

Orientation was a bit of a fairytale, but my time at my placement in Johor has been no less positive.  I am currently a teacher’s assistant at SMK Taman Sutera, a primarily Chinese secondary school in a suburb of the state capital, Johor Barhu.  Ball parking, we have 60% Chinese students, 20% Malay and 20% Indian as opposed to most of the other ETAs in my program who are placed in primarily Malay schools.  Racial mix up of schools, towns, professions, etc. are always a hot topic since the government created an affirmative action – esq program to raise the economic status of Malays.

Malaysia is infamous for bashful youth, so being put in the vulnerable position of speaking English to a native English speaker is a lofty challenge for students.  My primary role as a teacher’s assistant is to help students become more confident taking on various risks, focusing on English speaking.  In the classroom that transpires into public dialogues, writing exercises and vocabulary building, but a more critical goal is building confidence outside the classroom.  I am involved in choral speaking (YouTube it), English Language Society, English camps, the football team and arts club.  A personal goal is to get the students thinking creatively and providing an outlet for self-expression.  SMK Taman Sutera has limited creative resources so I’ve taken on the challenge of creating an English Language Blog where students will learn computer literacy, be able to publish their artwork (photography, drawings, etc.), and practice their English writing skills through thematic articles.

Now that the traveler’s honeymoon has ended, many are helping me settle in as a community member; fellow English teachers invite me to their houses for tea, neighbors offer mechanic skills for my rickety motorbike, and hitchhiking has introduced me to many outside my school.  I’m still adjusting to the climate (tropical downpours every few hours), food (heavy ambiguous curries, fried rice and stinky durian flavored everything) and constant changing of plans (moving at an ad-hoc Malaysian pace, gearing away from the time-sensitive American mentality), but for the most part every person here has made my comfort paramount, easing the transition.

(Video) Malaysia: My Life as a Teacher

Malaysia: My Life as a Teacher

Dear World,

This is the first of a few installments on my time as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia. This particular video provides a glimpse into my life as a secondary school teacher; future videos will have different themes.

Love,

Karam

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