Hi all. I want to give a quick check-in before I get to the actual blog post. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me, and for that I apologize. Since I last wrote, my writing has been hampered by the long process of getting settled in my placement, a week-long trip to Bangkok, a bad case of food poisoning contracted on said trip, shoddy Internet connectivity, and the general lethargy that comes with starting a new job in a different country. But not to fear! I’ll be coming out with a few blog posts over the course of the next few weeks, including a two-part blog series on some of my first observations about my new home in rural Malaysia, the first part of which is below. This blog series is a bit more externally-focused, as it deals mostly with my observations of my community, but I’m hoping with the few posts after to talk a bit more about what this experience has meant for my own thoughts, feelings, and goals. As usual, I’m going to try to throw in some politically-themed blogs that may or may not have to do with my experience here, since, well, I’m still following the elections from over here and some people tend to be interested in my thoughts on that whole snafu, as well. So feel free to skip that if you think I’m full of crap. As always, feel free to send me an email or Facebook message if you’re curious about anything in particular, or you want to tell me about what’s going on in your life. I’m always happy to read and respond! Anyway, here’s my actual blog post:
Before I left for Malaysia, one of the most common things I’d hear is some form of the question, “OMG why Malaysia???” Usually it was just conversation fodder, the type that merited a dry list of 4-5 reasons why I decided to go, nicely tossed in with some general facts about Malaysia for context. Occasionally it was asked as a critique of my Zionist bona fides: how could a true Lover of Israel step foot in any country that is anti-Zionist? My response to that was a really long eye roll. Every once in a while, though, someone would ask with genuine interest, and I’d talk about how Malaysia is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the world—the majority Malays comprise just over 50% of the Malaysian population, and Islam, the official state religion, is adhered to by just 60% of the country. I’d say how, after spending most of my life in the South and realizing how strangely and fitfully my own communities made sense of racial diversity (I’ll make a plug for my favorite podcast on this topic), I was really interested in seeing how another country navigates its own ethnic diversity. The sense of wanting to learn more about diverse communities permeated throughout my Fulbright application, and once I got in, I made a point of requesting a placement that wasn’t just all Malay. (Interestingly, the schools in which ETAs work are decidedly more Malay-heavy than the country as a whole, mostly due to the fact that most of the country’s Chinese and Indian population lives in larger cities, where we don’t work.) Happily, the Malaysian Fulbirght staff honored my request, and put me at a school in the tiny, northwest state of Perlis that’s mostly Malay, but with a sizeable Chinese minority and a handful of Indian students.
When I found out about my school placement, I was really excited, and I started having visions of me getting to bond with the Chinese community and see how the gears of state-sponsored discrimination and oppression grind down on minority populations in an up-close and personal way. (The perennial issue in Malaysian politics is the New Economic Policy, which essentially gives affirmative action to Malays and indigenous people—basically, everyone who isn’t Chinese, Indian, or Filipino.) Yet a month after getting to Perlis, I haven’t really had any experiences like that. For one, I’ve learned that oppression here is a bit more cross-cutting than back home—Chinese Malaysians, for instance, tend to be wealthier than Malays, a phenomenon with roots in Malaysia’s colonial history. And these differences and discriminations aren’t talked about all that often. Malaysians are much more likely to talk to me about Donald Trump than they are about their own prime minister or any Malaysian policies. And that’s fine. I’m a teacher, and not a community organizer or an investigative reporter tasked with “uncovering Malaysia’s checkered past.” I observe, I try to listen when people tell me things, I pose for selfies, and I play English games with kids. Rinse and repeat. Four weeks in, my idealistic vision now seems like a manifestation of the ever-lurking white guilt, trying to atone for the fact that I’ll probably always be a distant outsider among black and brown communities in the U.S. But why I’m here in Malaysia trying to deconstruct that should be the topic of another blog post (or three).
If anything, I’ve been struck by how similar the conversation on race seems to back home. Malaysians love diversity, or at least love to look like they love diversity, and you can see it from the top officers at the Malaysian Ministry of Education, who boasted in a presentation to us that they had Malay, Chinese, and Indian bosses, down to one of the murals at my school, which shows a group of five students in a very carefully-placed mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian attire, celebrating Malaysian independence. A couple weeks ago, I saw my first Malaysian movie, Ola Bola, which traced the Malaysian men’s soccer team’s path to qualifying for the 1980 Olympics. Think a Malaysian version of Miracle, but instead of decent dialogue and classic scenes like “Who do you play for?”, you get weird Malaysian zeitgeist and way-too-much slow motion. And central to that zeitgeist was the sense that Malaysia benefits when all its ethnicities work together, or as a character in the movie so unsubtly put it, “Even though our skin are different colors, we are still brothers.” This line of thinking feels exactly at home in white America, inventors of the “One of my best friends is black” counterargument to racism and the “diversity is important because we don’t want to talk about institutional racism” basis for Affirmative Action.
We know, of course, that in the U.S., these diversity arguments fall flat because their premise is wrong: diversity is an illusion. Cities are still largely segregated, transracial relationships are relatively rare, and even in schools with high levels of diversity, students tend to stick to peers of the same race. And from what I’ve seen in rural Malaysia, things don’t look much different. Classrooms, in addition to having a de facto boys and girls section, usually also have a cluster of desks in the back where the Chinese kids sit together. The after-school clubs are hardly integrated. Every once in a while, you’ll see a Malay kid hanging out with a Chinese kid, but you know that they’ll go back to their all-Malay or all-Chinese village after school and hang out with friends of the same race. Coexistence is relatively easy; real diversity is considerably more difficult. At least we know the U.S. isn’t the only country with these problems.