A Farewell Speech

 

This weekend, the other Terengganu ETAs and I finally held our state camp. 150 kids, three days and two nights, full of laughter and crises. And some tears, but that’s a different story.

At the camp’s closing ceremony, I gave a speech on behalf of the ETAs. Our state English language officer didn’t specify whether this speech was meant to be formal and addressing the end of camp, or less formal, and addressing the impending end of the ETAs’ stay in Malaysia. I went with the latter. In the end, I don’t think it was the correct choice. There were far too many VVIPs in the room, and the officer seemed to tacitly indicate her disapproval by not congratulating me on my speech after the ceremony.

But it doesn’t matter that much to me. I didn’t write the speech for her or for any VIPs, no matter how important they are. I wrote it for the students, and for my fellow ETAs, and for myself.

Enjoy.


In the front yard of my house in America, my mother keeps a garden. I know this isn’t most people’s image of American houses. I’m guessing that when most of you think of an American house, you picture a square lawn, full of perfectly trimmed grass. But the truth is that grass is actually difficult to control. It grows every which way, and requires careful watering and trimming to keep neat. And at the end of the day, a lawn is only for appearances.

Instead of grass, my mother chooses to grow fruit trees. Orange trees, the flowers of which bloom delicate, pale, and sweet-smelling. Pear trees, with pears that are no bigger than a baby’s fist, but which taste better than any pear I’ve ever found at the supermarket. Cherry trees, which bear hundreds of cherries in the spring, bright red and impossibly tempting to the high school students who pass our house on the way to school.

Trees are difficult to grow. The soil in my hometown is more acidic than normal, and that makes it difficult for trees to take root. And even when they do take root, it takes years for them to grow to the point when they can bear fruit. Growing trees requires a large amount of hard work and dedication, and an even larger amount of patience.

I don’t have my mother’s talent for growing plants. But I still believe that there is something important to be learned from her garden.

Because, you see, friendships are also grown, much in the same way that you might grow a fruit tree. Friendships begin as seeds, small and fragile, but full of potential. Plant them in the soil of your heart. Nurture them with kindness. Pour love over them, and wait for the first fragile shoots to appear.

But first, your heart must be a place where healthy friendships can grow. If your heart is full of bitterness, your friendships will also be bitter. If your heart is hard as a stone, your friendships will not grow past a seed. But if your heart is an open, soft place, your friendships will flourish. They will sink roots deep into your heart, and grow tall and strong.

I came to Malaysia as an English Teaching Assistant because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to visit a new country and experience a new culture, but I also wanted to teach myself how to keep my heart open and soft in a strange environment. When you meet with opposition and hardship, it is easy to let your heart close up, to become an inhospitable desert. It is far more difficult to open up, and be vulnerable.

One of the things that always surprises me about Malaysians is how open all of your hearts are. During my two years here, I have been welcomed into near-strangers houses with open arms. I have been called “daughter” by the mother of a student, simply because I was kind to her child. I have seen how Malaysians grow their gardens, the ones in their hearts, and it is often a beautiful chaos, with so many friendships overlapping and intertwining.

And in response to so many open hearts, my heart has become more open as well. This is due, in large part, to my wonderful students.

My students are: honest, sweet, kind, talented, unique, hardworking, exciting, frustrating, weird, and sometimes, a little crazy. They continue to surprise me every day with their intelligence, their confidence, and their creativity. They perform comedy skits that bring tears of laughter to my eyes. They paint beautiful flowers that look like they’re made of fire. They sing. They dance. They burn as fearless and as bright as stars, and best of all, they’re sill so young. They still have so much life ahead of them, and so much growing to do.

It is a surprise to me that I’ve only spent two years at my school, because it feels like longer. The depth of the friendships I’ve formed, and the sweetness of the fruit that they’ve borne, suggests the work of at least twice as many years. I will be forever grateful to the students who have come to me with open hearts and open minds, unsure of who I was, but excited to know me all the same.

This is why it is so painful that I have to leave. I have experienced more love in two years than some people do in their lifetimes, and it is so, so difficult to let that go. More than that, it is difficult to imagine that my students will grow up without me there. They will carry on, growing and learning and becoming the amazing adults that I know they can be, but I will not be here to see it. Even if I return in five years, or in ten years, God willing, none of them will be the same. I will also not be the same. We won’t be teacher and student anymore; we will be leading different lives, separate lives.

But throughout all that, I hope that we can keep our friendships. Of course, it will not be easy. It will take plenty of nurturing, plenty of continued WhatsApp conversations, and maybe a few international phone calls. And yes, I will lose contact with many students. But the ones who truly know me, whose roots have anchored deep in the soft soil of my heart, will stay. And we will grow together, even though we are far apart.

Students, I hope you leave this camp with the seeds of many friendships in your pockets. I hope you grow them in your heart, and nurture them to be strong and tall and beautiful. I hope that you will challenge each other to grow, as people, and to become role models for your peers and juniors. You were brought to this camp because your ETAs believed that you could be leaders, with open hearts and open minds. Please continue to stay open, even through hardship and difficulty.

These have been the two most challenging and yet wonderful years of my life. I owe a great deal to the two amazing, hardworking, and understanding mentors that have guided me through my days at school, and who have been as solid as deep-rooted trees through all of it. None of my projects and programs would have been possible without you.

And thank you to my students. Thank you for being my friend, for trying your best to speak to me, for being patient. I hope that our friendships can continue to flourish and bloom, so that when I return one day, we can pick up where we left off, almost as though no time has passed.

Thank you.

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My students, performing for the VVIPs at the closing ceremony. *sniff* So proud.

Sister//Outsider

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The thing that nobody really wants to admit, even within the cohort, is that being an ETA can be an intensely lonely experience. It’s a natural part of the ETA job – you cannot feel lonely if you do not feel invested, and some degree of emotional investment is definitely required in order to be an ETA. So this loneliness is the other side to the emotional rewards. It’s the shadow that lurks behind every luminescent moment. It’s the silent story behind every beautiful/funny/inspiring photo posted to Facebook. It’s the secret that you learn to keep, because you do not want to appear ungrateful, or unsuccessful, or poorly adjusted.

But the fact remains. You are an outsider.

You are an outsider when you arrive, new and clueless, in your placement.
You are an outsider, speaking too loudly and in the wrong language.
You are an outsider with strange hair/eyes/skin/height/weight.
Sometimes, you are an undercover outsider, because you look like an insider, but in your heart, you know who you really are.

Sweating profusely, you pose a question to a packed classroom, only to have the students answer with uncomprehending silence and averted gazes. In the canteen, you listen passively to the teachers’ gossip in BM, only catching every tenth or twentieth word; when you ask for elaboration, they glance at each other and giggle, then wave your question away.

There are days when assembly runs late and you sit alone in the teachers’ room, wondering where everyone is. Days when you rush to class, only to encounter an empty room; all of the students are attending a special lecture in the hall, and you’re the only one who wasn’t told. Days when all of the teachers are resplendent in their matching school batik, and you stick out like the ugly duckling because you wore your ill-fitting secondhand baju kurung as usual. Days when someone brings a batch of scarves to school and all of the teachers gather around, chattering merrily and posing as they try on their new hijab, while you sit at the other end of the room and watch them wistfully.

You’re under constant scrutiny. Every eye is always upon you, taking in what you are wearing that day, how much you are sweating, how many pimples have erupted on your forehead, how dark the shadows under your eyes are, what you eat (or don’t eat) for lunch, how much you smile (or don’t), how you shape syllables in Bahasa Melayu with your clumsy foreigner’s tongue.

Each moment is like a tiny grain of sand, chafing against your skin. Individually, they can be tolerated, even ignored. But eventually, all of those small, rough moments begin to add up, their effects compounding until you feel raw and ready to scream. It elicits too many adolescent memories of sitting alone and feeling tears prickle at the backs of your eyes because you feel ignored, inadequate, excluded.

And the worst part: these moments never really stop, not even in the second year. Maybe they happen less frequently. Maybe you develop a tougher skin, a callus over your heart to prevent it from breaking. Maybe you learn new methods of avoidance, of negotiation, of resistance.

But in the end, it still happens. And sometimes, the moments are not grains of sand that you can brush off and disregard. They are large stones, that fly out of nowhere to hit you straight in the chest, so that you find yourself sitting on the ground, winded and nauseated, wondering what the hell just happened to you. These are the moments that demand your attention with their insistent weight, reminding you that you will always be outside, always other.

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You sign on to help with the track and field team. You shove your sweaty, uncooperative body into a skin-tight sateen wedding dress and allow students to take a shot at contouring your face and shading your “Miss, so small” eyes. You spend two hours in the blazing hot afternoon parading around the open field, and help the team to win second place in the mascot competition.

On the last day of the tournament, all teachers involved with the track team show up wearing matching red polos, with the words TEAM SMKSM printed across the shoulders. You wear your normal baju kurung uniform. When your head of co-curriculum shows up, wearing the same polo as everyone else, he looks at you in surprise. “Why you not wear red T-shirt?”

“Because I didn’t get one,” you say. “Nobody told me.” The words come out sharper than you intended. The head of co-curriculum looks embarrassed; whether it’s for himself, or for you, you’re not completely sure. You turn away. You can’t bring yourself to care.

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You’re invited to attend a prefect camp with your students. You’re excited to go – it’s an overnight camp, and you’ve been promised a space in the girls’ dormitories. You’ve always wished that there was a hostel at your school, so that you could spend all day with the students you love so much. You imagine staying up late into the night with your students, trading gossip and hoarded snacks, letting them giggle and whisper scandalous stories into your ear. Two days before you’re scheduled to leave, one of the English teachers, your friend, comes to you with a tight look on her face.

“Maybe it’s best if you don’t stay overnight,” she says. Her eyes are focused somewhere around the vicinity of your eyebrows, avoiding your actual gaze. “The other teachers…they don’t think it will be good for you to stay in the dorms.”

It takes a long time for you to understand what she’s saying. Her English isn’t the problem, never has been; it’s the way that she circles around the subject that confuses you. This teacher has always been straight with you. You sense that she is the bearer of some bad news, and is trying to soften the blow by delivering it in a roundabout fashion. You wish she wouldn’t do that – she means well, but this beating around the bush is just making you more nervous.

Finally, it comes out. The other female teachers do not want you to stay overnight in the dormitories, because they do not want to share a room with you. You say that you can stay with the students, but the teacher shakes her head and tells you that there’s no space. You ask – demand, really – why you can’t stay with the teachers.

The words come out haltingly. “Because…some of the teachers – the older teachers, actually – are very…traditional. They are…not comfortable with…with sharing a room…with you. They think…they think that, even though you are also a woman…” She takes a deep breath. For the first time during this uncomfortable exchange, she actually looks angry, though you sense that it’s not directed at you. “Even though you are a woman, because you are not Muslim, you are basically like a man, for them. They cannot take off their scarves in front of you.”

You have no reply. The teacher rushes to reassure you. “I tried to change their minds. I told them, she’s not going to reveal any of your secrets.” What secrets, you wonder distantly – that they have actual hair underneath their hijab? “But it’s very difficult to convince them. They are old and they do not want to change. But I don’t agree with them. If I was going, you could share a room with me.”

But the fact of the matter is, she isn’t going. The other teachers do not want you in their living space. Your head whirls with feelings of disappointment and frustration, but in the end, all you can say is, “Okay.”

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It’s common practice to cook a large batch of food and bring it to the teachers’ room for everyone to share. You love to cook, so you make plans to try your hand at cooking Malay food sometime. Nasi lemak, perhaps – they’d probably get a kick out of that. But your mentor tells you, in an indirect way, that perhaps that’s not such a good idea. “Simple things are okay,” she says. “Or things that you make with the students. But other things…you know, the teachers will ask many annoying questions about the ingredients. They will tell students not to eat it. They will keep bothering you. So maybe it’s better not to do it.”

You hear the unspoken message: they are worried that your food is not halal. Somehow, this wounds you even more deeply than the incident with the overnight camp. You live in a majority Muslim community. Your landlord is Muslim, and you have kept the house as halal as you can. You shop in the same places that all of your students and coworkers do. All of your groceries carry the “halal” stamp. All of your meat is sold by Muslim butchers. You would double-, triple-, quadruple-check that all of your ingredients were halal before beginning to cook anything.

In a community that values food, where the common greeting is “Sudah makan?” (Have you eaten?), it hurts that they do not trust you enough to accept what you make, and that they would go so far as to dissuade students, who are generally open to trying anything you offer, from eating your food. You try to argue, asking where you would even manage to get non-halal ingredients nearby, but in the end, it’s useless, because you cannot force people to eat something that they do not want to eat. In the end, you’re the one who has to step down, your heart tight as a clenched fist, and accept the inevitable.

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Someone once said to you, “In Malaysia, we are all one big family.” Malaysians call their seniors “abang” or “kakak” (older brother or sister), “mak cik” or “pak cik” (aunty or uncle). They call their juniors “adik,” the non-gendered term for younger sibling.

In your first year, you allow an entire Form 5 class to call you Kak instead of Miss. You’ve been an older sister, both blood and surrogate, for most of your life, so it comes easily to you, more easily than being a teacher does. You have a few other female students who ask, shyly, whether they can call you sis. Eager to be accepted, you say yes. Yes, yes, yes. And these relationships often turn out to be the closest and most fruitful ones in your entire experience.

But there are moments that remind you that there are parts of students’ lives that you will never know, no matter how much they call you kakak and shower love upon you.

In your first year, you hear that one Form 4 student – the head prefect, no less – has punched another prefect in the face. You see the cut and swollen cheekbone on one boy, the bandaged, bruised knuckles on the other. You hear, secondhand, about the punishment that might be meted out. The head prefect will definitely be stripped of his prefect status. He might be expelled. If he isn’t expelled, his parents will probably transfer him to another school. The boy who was punched does transfer. You talk to other students and they nod knowingly. “Well, why would we want to stay in the same school as someone who punched us?” one asks you rhetorically.

The entire thing just about shatters your heart. You had worked with these two boys closely as part of the English drama team. You thought you knew them. One demanded attention with his loud voice and flamboyant antics, but was always a stellar leader where it counted; the other was like a slightly awkward, yet very responsible little old man. They always made time to talk to you – one flirted outrageously with you, just to make you laugh, while the other wrote long paragraphs in his dialogue notebook, asking you to come meet his parents sometime. You liked them both.

Now, you don’t know what to think. Now, you’ve caught a glimpse of the ugly parts of their personalities, the parts that they tried so hard to keep hidden from you. And the fact that you didn’t catch this before, that you didn’t sense the violence and the vulgarity that lay just behind their smiling faces, makes you feel like there was always a wall there, invisible to your eyes, but solid and immutable all the same.

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This is what drags you down when you feel like you should be flying. This is how burnout begins. This is what causes you to withdraw, curling in to protect the soft, vulnerable parts of yourself. This is how you begin to miss home, longing to be in in a place where your presence is never questioned, never even remarked upon.

So then, what’s the point?

At the water break meeting, the ETAs talk a lot about discomfort, about not fitting in, about moments when the puzzle pieces don’t line up. The mood is a little bit bleak. The director of MACEE, who has seen cohort after cohort of ETAs come and go, reminds everyone that discomfort is an underrated feeling, and it’s in those moments of prolonged discomfort that true growth can happen. Nothing really happens when everything is comfortable and perfect. Discomfort is a catalyst, a galvanizer.

Loneliness can be terrible, and in the worst cases, it can be crushing. It lives in the mind, so it is difficult to hide from, and impossible to kill. So to defeat it, you must make peace with it. When it does arise, let it wash over you. Recognize that loneliness is like a tide – at some point, it must recede. It may not recede quickly, and it will never recede completely, but it must recede all the same.

And being an outsider, an other, is not the end of the world. Being an outsider in this new environment should remind you that, back at home, there are also outsiders. Sometimes they are invisible, and sometimes they are persecuted. At times, you may have been one of them. So at the end of the day, you learn sympathy for those who must always exist somewhere outside. You learn how to reach across the boundaries, to grasp for connections when other people have given up, because you know how it feels to be left out. You learn how to listen to the story beyond the surface. You learn the value of every small gesture that strives towards inclusivity. You learn how to become more kind, more empathetic, and more complete.

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Recently, I’ve been worried about one of my students, a Form 4 boy that I work closely with as part of my social entrepreneurship team. I found out that, as the lead in the BM drama production, he’s been practicing with the team from 8 pm to 10 pm almost every night, and even longer on weekends. This is on top of his regular prefect duties – which may be more than other prefects’, since he’s been tapped to become head prefect – and his academic responsibilities as one of the top students in Form 4, not to mention his role as team leader in our social entrepreneurship project. And now that all of the students are in exams, those long, late-night practices seem even more absurd. I’ve often wondered why he doesn’t ask to be excused from drama, at least for one or two days out of the week. Even with the drama competition looming, the students’ first priority should be their academics.

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An interaction on the group chat a few weeks ago. And it hasn’t gotten better since then.

I complained to a fellow SETA that this boy was just really bad at saying no. She made a comment about students reflecting their ETAs. My instinct was to deny it – this kid was much too nice and cooperative of a person to be anything like me.

But then I thought back. Once, I stood out in the blazing sun for two hours in a wedding dress, just because some teachers had asked me to participate in a mascot parade. Once, I edited 21 Form 5 students’ exchange program personal statements for a month, then skipped classes for three hours in the last week so that I could scan all of their applications. Once, I spent one and a half weeks preparing with the debate team, making them snacks and staying at school for over ten hours each day.

When “once” happens so many times, it ceases to become a one-time occurrence, and becomes a pattern.

My student and I are both bad at saying no. Even when we know it’s not a good idea, like when he’s asked to skip extra class, during exams, in favor of drama practice, or when I’m asked to write a two-page poem the same weekend that I’m hosting an English camp, we still say yes. And then we pay the price.

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#same

I wonder why this student chooses to do so much, when being slightly less busy would not make anyone think less of him. I think he just wants to be included, to be needed. Maybe he craves the feeling of being an indispensable part of a whole. Maybe he’s worried about what kind of thoughts might enter his head, should he have too much time to sit and think by himself. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed staying busy. When I pack every day to the bursting point, I return home feeling exhausted but happy, satisfied with how much progress I am making with my students. But I also worry about myself. I worry about how I can’t seem to return to a normal sleep schedule, despite how tired I am all the time. I worry about how I eat greasy, fried takeout instead of expending the effort to make a healthy meal at home. I worry about all the emails from my mother. “How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, please call me.” “Your grandma has been asking about you. Can you call her when you have time?” “Have you called your grandma yet?”

I worry about the resentment that always seems so close to the surface these days. I used to be made up of gentle, forgiving curves, but now I feel jagged and brittle. Everything bothers me.

The way that students assume that I have unlimited free time to spend with them, and then grow angry when I tell them that I have too much work. As though I am a playmate, or perhaps a plaything, rather than an adult with responsibilities.

The way that, even in my second year, people still ask me the same questions.
Looking down at my plate: “Oh! You take rice??”
Watching me spoon sambal onto my vegetables: “You like spicy?”
Peering at my face: “Why you look Chinese?” Always, always, always this question.

The way my work is not taken seriously, because I am not a “serious teacher.” I am the “fun” teacher, the one who brings her guitar to class, who plays games that involve a lot of screaming and laughter. So students don’t listen when I ask them to sit down and try writing a poem for once. They complain, “Teacher, so hard,” with their pencils lying untouched on their desks. They moan and loll their heads sideways and clamor for a song. And when I pack up their quarter-finished poems and prepare to leave, they ask hopefully, “Next week, singing?”

The way that people marvel at the way my roommate speaks BM, but assume that, despite having lived here for over a year, I don’t understand when they gossip about me behind my back, or sometimes right in front of my face. The male teachers mutter, “Dia malu, juga tak paham Bahasa Melayu” as I pass by, and it’s only in my head that I say, “Ya, saya malu, tapi saya paham Bahasa Melayu, kerana saya tak bodoh.” Optional add-on: “You assholes.”

When I first began writing this post, I thought these feelings were signs of burnout. But now I realize it was a misdiagnosis. Burnout would leave me feeling apathetic and unable to see the point in attending school. I don’t feel that way. I’m still excited to see the majority of my students, and planning for future events is still satisfying work. But I’ve found that I’ve taken on too heavy a workload at school, and as a result, the other parts of my life suffer.

Just over a week ago, my room was an absolute mess. There were dirty clothes and rumpled sheets overflowing the laundry basket, countless empty plastic bottles around my desk, a too-full trash can next to my bed. Swirled into the bathroom drain was a hairball roughly the size of my fist. Loose papers, limned with dust, fluttered weakly on the floor whenever I turned on the fan. It was a good enough reflection for the state of my mind: I’d been too busy that week, too busy for the past month, to sit down and clean up all the clutter.

My life has been full of clutter. There’s my room, and then there’s the kitchen sink, stacked with dishes that I avoid looking at because I’m just too tired to take care of them. There’s the kitchen trashcan, packed to bursting with take-out containers to replace the meals I’ve grown too busy to cook. There’s my purse, where I keep finding old receipts, empty candy wrappers, and hoarded napkins from weeks ago. There’s my body, feeling heavy and lopsided with stress, lumpy and distorted in the mirror. There’s my mind, flooded with worries that chase each other in circles, keeping me up late into the night.

It’s nothing unfamiliar, but it’s still hard to look at all of this disorder. It’s hard to admit that I have not made time for myself amidst everything else that is going on, when I know that a lack of self-care causes me to internalize stress and become ill. It’s one of the reasons that I haven’t been able to complete a new blog post until now. I have hundreds of tales about my students and the quirky things they do, but the truth is that I also spend a lot of time lying in my bed with the lights off, trying to summon up the willpower to leave my room.

Right now, there are eighteen drafts in my unpublished posts. Eighteen drafts, far more than eighteen times that I tried to write something and could not finish. Countless times I tried to tie all of my stories, bursting at the seams with complicated feelings and hidden meanings, into a neat little package to send off into the world. But it’s like trying to close an overstuffed suitcase. I keep pulling things out, arranging them this way and that, discarding unnecessary parts and pinching others smaller to fit into tight corners. But I keep discovering new things when I do that. Everything builds on top of everything else, expanding out of control, and I’m left bewildered in its wake.

I am writing this mostly for myself, as a way to clean up my thoughts, even as I work on cleaning up my room. I am trying to get back to some kind of balance. I am trying to focus on the small, bright moments of each day, rather than the stressful thoughts that stomp insistently around my head.

I measure out laundry detergent and think about my mentor, writing a cute note of encouragement to me when she noticed my frustration one day. “What is the word,” she asked me, as I sat fuming at my desk, “for the sound that bears make?”

“Um,” I said. “Roaring, I guess?”

“Oh, okay.” Moments later, she dropped a note on my desk with a “Ta-dah!” sound.

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I especially enjoy the fact that she wrote desserts, plural. All the desserts, please.

I pile dripping dishes on the dish rack and remember one of my boys telling me a pickup line. “Teacher,” he said, bobbing slightly on the spot. “Do you have a ladder? Because I want to climb up into your heart.”

I squinted at him. “Where did you learn that?” I demanded. “From your new friend Adib?”

He blinked large, slightly protuberant eyes at me. “I learned it from Mr. Zach,” he said, naming another ETA.

“Don’t learn too much from him,” I warned him sternly. I was still laughing. “He is a bad, bad man.”

I sweep dust and hair from the floor and recall a conversation I had with one of my favorite students. I confessed that it bothers me when my own students ask to hang out with me, and then constantly demand to see my roommate. It makes me feel as though they’re just using me as a springboard to meet the white, “real American” ETA. My student had this to say:

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I can’t say that I’m completely restored to perfect and shiny newness – there’s no way for that to happen, barring a complete memory wipe of the past year and a half. I still get stressed out. I can still experience all extremes of the emotional spectrum in one day. I still have bad moments, bad days, and sometimes I will have bad weeks. But I am learning to cope with the downswings. I am learning to clean up my messes, both physical and emotional. And eventually, I hope I will learn how to say no when it really counts, and learn not to feel guilty for taking time to myself.

In the meantime, enjoy a few snapshots of what I’ve been up to for the past month.

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And don’t think I’ve forgotten about that very busy student. I just learned (literally about an hour ago) that the BM drama team SWEPT the district competition. First place overall, best actor, and best director. All that hard work paid off! And now I hope he can settle down to his exams and take care of himself as well.

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And then he’s all humble about it. Of all the nerve.

A Moment Away

(Students’ names have been changed.)

On Saturday, I wake up at 7 am and drive forty-five minutes to Kuala Berang with my mentor, Ain. She makes early morning conversation, telling me about ghosts, about how they tend to attack those most susceptible to fear and sadness. “So, you have to be careful. You can’t be too afraid or too sad.”

I think about one of my students, who told me that her sister-in-law has days when she just lies in bed and cries for hours on end, because the ghosts affect her so badly. Privately, I wonder if ghosts are how my community explains mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression, Western names given to what my dad might call “American diseases.”

My sleep-fogged brain moves slowly; before I can ride this train of thought any further, Ain interrupts, glancing sidelong at me. “Do people in America believe in ghosts?” she asks.

“It depends who you talk to,” I say, which is the simplest answer. I don’t tell her that I think America, with its rich history of violence, probably has more than a few spirits hanging around.

We arrive at the campsite, and the solemn mood cast by our ghost-talk evaporates in the blinding sunlight. We go hiking (“jungle trekking,” as the Malaysians call it) alongside the students, scrabbling for footholds in the soft, leaf-strewn earth. I grasp onto the trunks of slender saplings whenever I can, not trusting my own balance; my students are careful to warn me when a tree has thorns, but I end up pricking myself a few times anyway. My breath soon comes short. Na—-, the form 3 girl walking ahead of me, helps me up steep inclines and across large gaps. “Okay?” she asks, whenever she hears me slip – which is embarrassingly often.

N—, who is in form 2 and recently transferred from Selangor, follows behind me and keeps up a steady stream of conversation. We both envy Na—-, who seems to find the hike easy. “She’s an athlete,” N— points out resignedly. To distract ourselves from the pain of the trek, we talk about food. N— tells me she loves macaroni and cheese, and reacts with horror when I wrinkle my nose at her. “You don’t like cheese??” I shake my head, laughing, and tell her that she can take my share of cheese anytime she wants.

The older boys crash headlong past us, paying little heed to the trail we’re following. “Shortcut!” one of them shouts at me, narrowly avoiding slamming into a tree. I stare down the sharp downhill slope.

“This is where I die,” I announce, mostly to myself.

“You won’t die here,” N— says behind me. One of her small hands presses gently between my shoulder blades. “Just go slowly.”

In the afternoon, after everyone has eaten and showered and prayed, the students go on a treasure hunt. Ain and I leave the other teachers in the shade and wander through the campgrounds. The sun beats down on us. I wipe sweat from my upper lip and watch a group of students run by; I wonder, certainly not for the first time, where they manage to get all their energy.

As we wander along, eating ears of boiled corn another teacher had given to us (random, I know), Ain points out the various fruits that grow around the campsite. Students hail us as we pass a playground, and we pause for a few minutes to sit on the swings, which creak alarmingly under our weight. Ain seems to enjoy the sight of a small artificial lake, its waters placid in the still afternoon air, though all my cynical mind can think of is how this must be a massive breeding ground for mosquitos.

We pass by the ostrich pen. The birds take no real notice of us, preferring instead to search for bugs in the grass. Ain stares, fascinated, at an ostrich that keeps pecking at the gate. “What is it doing?” she asks.

“There’s probably lots of bugs on the other side,” I guess, slightly disconcerted by the bird’s eyes. They are large and limpid, fringed with lashes so thick and dark they look mascaraed.

We head back to camp with some of the students, who look sweaty and disgruntled at having been out in the heat so long.

“So tired,” one of them complains.

“I hate this,” another tells me frankly. But they all liven up when I point the camera at them.

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As the sun begins to set, the students start cooking dinner, and preparing for group performances later that night. Ain leaves to check on some of her students; not wanting to trail behind her like a lost puppy, I wander around the campsite. A student, tending a wok full of hissing oil, offers me a golden piece of fried dough. “Jemput,” she says, when I ask what it is called. It is sweet and warm, and leaves grease in the corners of my lips.

One boy, a grin splitting his face, approaches me with a large piece of watermelon. Though I know the answer already, I ask him what it is called in BM. “Tembikai,” he says. “But in Terengganu, timun cina.” He takes a bite and bobs his head up and down. “Sweet, so sweet.”

“Yes, manis leting,” I agree, displaying the tiny bit of ‘Ganu slang I do know, and he just about falls over from surprise. When I leave him, he’s cackling and shouting “Manis leting!” to his friends.

The girl scouts ask me to help them with their performance, and I find myself sitting in the middle of their campsite, cross-legged on a prayer mat, holding a borrowed guitar and trying to figure out the chords to “Love Yourself.” N— sings in a clear, even alto, demonstrating a hitherto unexpected level of musicianship. I listen to her with one ear and to the guitar with other, adjusting my rhythms to fit the pattern of her breath. Even when the other girls begin clapping, their tempo out of sync with ours, we aren’t pulled down by their inconsistent beat. We stay on course, reading and responding to one another. It feels easy and familiar. It feels right…at least until the high E-string pops.

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Night falls. I grill chicken with the teachers and listen to my students praying in the open hall nearby. The sound of their voices, humming in devoted unison, is deep and resonant as music. The smoky, chicken-scented air around me ripples with it. I close my eyes. Amin.

The student performances make the hall ring with laughter, and I’m struck anew by how creative my students can be, when they’re not shackled by an unfamiliar language. Afterwards, I sit with A—-, one of my form 4 boys, who holds a borrowed ukulele. He fingerpicks a few sequences with fluent ease. I glance sidelong at him; I’ve known since last year that A—- could play ukulele, but I didn’t know that he was this good. “Where did you learn how to play?”

“My brother,” he says shyly. “But…he’s a ukulele genius. I’m just okay.”

I scowl a little at him. “You’re much better than ‘just okay,'” I tell him. He looks both embarrassed and pleased.

It is easy to feel comfortable with quiet and unassuming A—-, who curls around the ukulele, brow furrowed in deep concentration and fingers searching for the right chords. Maybe it’s the way that he, like N—, does not need me to lead him. He plays, and I sing. It reminds me of long afternoons in high school, spent rehearsing in my friend’s living room, plonking away at an old upright piano and eating mandu when we got hungry. A—- offers me a small smile. I try not to betray how excited I am to have found not one, but two musicians in one night.

“Wow,” says Ain, appearing with a plate full of chicken. She offers me some. “Eat.” Having not eaten dinner, I immediately accept. “You too, A—-,” Ain orders, but A—- shakes his head. He continues to pluck away at the ukulele, singing quietly under his breath. When the ukulele goes out of tune, I tune it one-handed for him. My other hand is covered in spicy sauce.

Later, after I’ve rinsed my hands, I get to hold a baby rabbit. He sits very still in my hands, nibbling gently at my palms, maybe tasting the remnants of chicken sauce (there was no soap by the sinks). I stroke his fur, which feels like loose cotton stuffing. “I miss my dog,” I moan to the students sitting next to me. As if understanding this, the bunny hops out of my grip. The students squeal and we run to catch him.

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My days here are full and bright in a way that’s hard to contain in writing. I have poured out thousands and thousands of words; they are all honest and all true, but none of them feel quite complete. Even this feels incomplete, because it’s only one chapter in a still-ongoing story. The relationships that I cultivated during this camp – with Ain, with N—, with A—-, with the countless other unnamed students whose stories do not quite fit into this post’s narrative, but who are no less important – are still unfolding. I find something new in them every day, and I try to capture those small, shining moments.

When my life is slightly more quiet and I am not rattling excitedly from one thing to the next, I sit down and string those moments together, searching for the story that links them all. It’s as much for my benefit as it is for anyone else’s, because it reminds me that as bogged down as I become by small daily frustrations and indignities, there is still so much to be grateful for. No day is ever exactly the same. I am never left without some kind of story to tell, and for me, that’s the most satisfying part about being here.

On “Broken English”

I walked into 2D today to find only a handful of female students present. The empty classroom didn’t come as a huge shock – my school hosted the district track and field tournament this week, and our entire track team, as well as a decent number of form 2 boys who were helping out with setup and maintenance, had been out of class for four full days. With the boys absent, I threw out my original lesson plan and rotated through a few games with the girls. They got bored with those pretty quickly. “Teacher, singing,” they begged.

So I gave in, on the condition that they teach me a new Malaysian song, and help translate the lyrics into English. We went word by word, ultimately producing an English version, in the dubious style of Google Translate.

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“If true love is blind, blind my eyes.” Malaysian love songs are hardcore.

These kinds of exercises always serve to give me further insight into my students’ struggles with the English language, and how their mistakes make sense. For example, students frequently forget the “to be” verb, resulting in sentences like “I tired,” or “she smart.” This leads back to Bahasa Melayu – the sentence “I am hungry,” translated to BM, would be “Saya lapar” (or “Ambe lapo,” if you’re speaking the Terengganu dialect). Translated directly back to English, it becomes “I hungry,” the “am” disappearing in the process. The pronoun “dia” means he, him, she, and her, causing students to mix the four up frequently. BM also doesn’t conjugate verbs; simple present and past tense is difficult enough for some of my students to grasp, while more complicated verb tenses, like the present progressive, simply fly over their heads. Many students say sentences like “I like to singing,” because it’s difficult for them to grasp the differences between infinitives and gerunds, which just don’t exist in BM. Articles are similarly scarce, so that my students are often confused over when they should use “a,” and when they should use “the.”

My students know that they frequently make mistakes, and worse than that, they are afraid to make them. On some level, I think I understand why.

Malaysian students’ lives revolve around exams. They take the UPSR at the end of primary school, which determines which secondary schools they can attend. At 15, they take the PT3; at my school, this determines whether they will be in the higher stream science and accounting classes (the “better” classes), or the lower stream visual arts classes (the “problem” classes). At 17, the entire form 5 takes the SPM. The big test. It’s hard for me, as an American, to fathom the impact that this test can have on my students’ futures. Scoring a “B” rather than an “A” in an SPM subject could be the difference between getting a scholarship and going to university, and having to remain at home and work in the family business. For many of my students, who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, this can literally be a make-or-break experience.

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Some of my recently graduated form 5 students, who received their SPM results on March 3rd. The girl in red, Anis, told me that her results were so bad that she’d have to get married soon. I like to think she was joking.

In this kind of pressure cooker environment, it’s no wonder that my students think that their English is broken. Their teachers are constantly correcting them, because the difference between “is” and “was” in an essay could be difference between a pass and a fail on the English SPM. They are told, point blank, who is “weak” and who is “good” in English. The most fluent students are trained to participate in various English competitions – debate, drama, and public speaking, just to name a few. There, they compete against students from elite schools, whose near-fluency and confidence usually land them in first place, while my students rarely place at all. And, perhaps worst of all, when students are brave enough to approach me, nobody else seems willing to leave them alone. Their peers will badger them, laughing at any mistakes, no matter how minor. Teachers will yell, “Speaking, speaking!” from across the staffroom, and ridicule the students if they (understandably, in my opinion) develop stage fright and become too shy to speak. These are the same teachers, by the way, who giggle and turn away from me because they are too self-conscious about their own English.

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Azlan, one of our form 5 sprinters, who does a hilarious shimmying cha-cha (as I found out when I taught his class the Cha-Cha Slide last year). In this photo, he’s suddenly too shy to even make eye contact.

When they realize that they’ve made a mistake, students often giggle nervously and apologize to me. “Sorry, my English so broken,” is something that I hear from both children and adults. What they mean is: I’m sorry that my English is not grammatically perfect. Sorry that my tongue trips over the unfamiliar consonants. Sorry that my accent is neither British nor American. Sorry that I don’t sound like you. It took me a while to realize that this is a refrain that I’ve heard before.

My parents are immigrants. They are highly privileged – both hold PhDs and work at American universities – but that, somehow, does not diminish their immigrant status, their immigrant English. Even after almost three decades of living in America, my parents’ accents still float around the edges of their words, indelible as ink.

As a child, I would hand my essays to my dad for correcting; he’d always tell me that I had too many run-on sentences, though he was never able to explain exactly what a run-on sentence was. After just a few years, however, I was the one correcting my parents’ emails, combing through their messages for any mistakes that might expose them as non-native English speakers. In the years after that, I would correct my mom whenever she dropped an article, or used a word incorrectly.

Instead of getting angry, she would just shrug and say, “Mommy no English.”

Sorry that I make mistakes. Sorry that my accent does not allow me to pass as a born American. Sorry that my immigrant status is somehow an obstacle for you to overcome. Sorry that I embarrass you.

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It’s hard to believe that, between the two of us, she could ever be the embarrassing one.

In twenty-three years, I have already met too many people who, apropos of nothing, complimented me on my “really good English.” What they mean is that I speak with an American accent, that my vocabulary is large and versatile, that my grasp of English grammar is precise. The more insidious implication is that I’ve earned their approval, and that by speaking correct English, I have proven myself to be somehow better than other human beings with faces like mine. It is a broken system that judges the quality of a person and the worth of their words on something as arbitrary as accent, or as pedantic as grammar, and if I buy into that system, then I am just as corrupt.

When my students tell me that their English is broken, I refuse to accept it. “If I can understand you, then your English is not broken,” I tell them. If they do not know the words, I ask them to explain themselves in another way. With facial expressions, with bursts of Bahasa Melayu, with sounds and gestures. I try my best to meet them halfway. “Oh,” I say. “Saya faham.” I understand. They bob their heads in agreement. “Ah, ah, faham, faham,” they repeat, with grins of mingled pride and relief. Then, I teach them a new word.

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The track meet has provided me with so many opportunities to bond with students, especially those who are usually too shy to speak to me. Sarah (left) rarely ever speaks to me in class, but she’s super boisterous when she’s in her element. Fakhriah (right) has been borrowing my glasses all week so that she can take selfies.

Back in 2014, before I accepted my Fulbright grant, I thought long and hard about whether I really wanted to go. I was worried that accepting the grant would mean becoming complicit in a neocolonial English education system, and that I might end up doing more harm than good. In the end, one of my friends pointed out a very simple fact. “If you’re not doing it, someone else is gonna do it, and you don’t know their history or teaching style.”

Even in my second year, I am still not fully comfortable with my position here, and with being part of an ultimately problematic system. I don’t think that I’ll ever be fully comfortable with it, and honestly, I don’t think I should. Comfort means acceptance, and is not always conducive to reflection and growth. So I’ve learned to accept my own uneasiness, because it means that I try to be self-reflexive and conscious about the consequences of my own actions. It does help, though, to know that I can use my own history to understand my students better. It feels like I’m taking the lessons my parents taught me, whether consciously or unconsciously, and paying it forward.

On a more personal level, I am trying to make things right. I am trying to make up for years of arrogance, of interrupting my mother to correct her, even when I understood exactly what she was trying to say. Every time I manage to guide a struggling student through a conversation. Every time they smile at their own successes, before running away. Every time that they come back, again and again, for more.

It feels a little like atonement.

I am still searching for the right words to say to my mother. I still can’t find them. But until I do, I’ll keep trying to tell her, without words, that I’m sorry, and that I’m beginning to understand.

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My fabulous, fearless music teachers. No class is every truly complete without selfies.