One Week in Malaysia: Part 1

These next couple blog posts, I’m going to give a log of one of my weeks this month. Since it was a more eventful week than usual, I’m going to split it into two blog posts. So, here’s the first part of the post: Sunday through Wednesday afternoon.

Sunday: I wake up in Ipoh, Perak, where I’ve been staying for the past two days for a social entrepreneurship camp. My teacher mentor has joined me, along with five of my students (and similar delegations from 10 other schools) to put together a business plan for a social entrepreneurship project at our school. We had chosen an anti-litter/recycling project at our school (we don’t have any recycling bins) and worked until 10 the night before to make a good pitch presentation. We had a good-but-not-great presentation that I was planning on tweaking in the time we had this morning, but upon talking with my mentor I discover that he and my students stayed up for another hour to work on their presentation—they wanted to write their speaking parts in their own words. I realize that this has been a very Malaysian, high-context way of telling me that I’ve been too overbearing over the past couple days. I’m a bit offended, and worried how I can repair this relationship with my students and especially my mentor, who I’ve grown close with, but I know bringing up the subject bluntly would be anathema. I put the episode in the back of my mind and help my students prepare their new presentation. They get freaked out and botch the delivery, but I pretend not to notice. Our school does not get one of the prizes for best project pitch. My roommate and I make the 4-hour drive back to Perlis and get back around 8. At 9, I find out from my mentor that tomorrow, school will be canceled because of heat. It’s the fifth time this year this has happened—since none of the classrooms have air conditioning, school must be canceled whenever the temperature reaches 37°C (99°F) for three straight days. The El Niño this year has wreaked havoc on this part of Malaysia. I’m a bit annoyed that I can’t teach class again, but happy to have the time off. I celebrate by going to a food stall at midnight to watch the Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester United soccer match.

2016-04-10 08.15.15
My students and I at the social entrepreneurship camp in Ipoh.

Monday: Even though school is canceled, teachers are still required to show up. I take advantage of the decent Internet at my desk for a few hours. In the afternoon, I go over to the school boarding house (we call it a hostel) with my mentor (who is also the hostel warden) to play Chess and Uno with the hostel kids. I remember to bring my caramel candies and pass them out whenever someone answers a question in English, which proves to be a very effective motivator. My mentor and I crack up when the kids tell us that the word “pawn” is spelled P-O-R-N. Later, my roommate and I go to the gym that allows 1-time guest passes for RM 15 to burn off some of the terrible food we ate at our conference. My go-to place, the squat rack, is taken up by some dude in a “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” shirt doing a series of highly ineffective forearm jerks. No one is surprised.

Tuesday: I have only four classes this day, an early double period at 7:40 and back-to-back single periods starting at 1:40. My first class is in Form 2 (roughly 7th grade), with a group of about middle-of-the-road 20 kids in section B (Malaysian schools separate their class sections based on test scores; section B is the #4 out of 6). I play a fun catchphrase-like game that I learned how to facilitate the week before, but I quickly realize that my students’ English levels are too poor to play the game. I struggle through it anyway, then talk about the hot weather. The class teacher sleeps in the back of the room. After class, I eat brunch at our school canteen, catfish and rice as usual, with a couple of the English teachers. They inform me that classes are being shortened by 5 minutes for each period, for reasons that don’t really make sense. I spend the next three hours at my desk, prepping lessons and surfing the web. Ten minutes into the second-to-last period of the day, I realize it’s already started and I’m late. I rush off to the class and realize the main teacher isn’t there, as he also forgot about the schedule change. I play hangman with the students. As I get into the room for the last period of the day, the teacher remarks that she likes my scruffy beard (I forgot to shave) and says I must’ve gotten a lot of girlfriends in Ipoh. Later in the class, a student remarks, “Sir Jonathan is international playboy.” The teacher cracks up laughing, and I take over the lesson by myself for a few minutes while she gains her composure. I stay late to take advantage of the Internet, then pick up my roommate. I have a very normal evening: working out, reading, and going to dinner with my roommate.

Wednesday: It’s a very big day: the US Ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, is visiting Perlis. He gets reassigned later this year and Perlis is the only state he hasn’t yet visited. My roommate’s school was chosen to go hiking with him in the morning, so unlike our usual routine, he drops me off at school. Around 11, as I’m about to head off to class, I get a call from the Crown Prince’s protocol officer, Mr. Hakim. His English is great, and unlike most Malaysians I’ve met, he’s one of the most effusive people I know.

“Jonathan,” he starts out, “Amazing job on the MC event for the Prince’s charity event! I knew you’d be great!”

“Thank you,” I say.

“It’s a big day!” Last week he called me to tell me about this bike event with the Ambassador and the Prince that would take place this afternoon. We wanted to see if all of us ETAs wanted to go; of course we agreed.

This time, tells me about a new event, this afternoon, before the cycling event at 5. Naturally, he wants me to emcee it. I tell him that I don’t have a car with me; he offers to pick me up and take me to lunch. I’m worried about missing class that afternoon, as well as a meeting I had planned, so I tell him I need to check with my teacher mentor and will let him know when I get out of class. I call my American coordinator, who likes to help with these competing interest situations, but I get no answer. I text my mentor about it, and I get the go ahead. I tell Mr. Hakim to pick me up at 1, and finally head off to class, 15 minutes late. The teacher isn’t there, and I have to heavily butcher my planned lesson, a cool poem-making project using newspaper articles, because my students’ English is too bad and I can’t adequately explain the instructions. One of the kids, who appears to have untreated ADHD, gets in a fight with his friend and I have to break it up.

Mr. Hakim arrives not long after I finish class, with two of his co-workers. We go to lunch at the reservoir near my school. I learn that the reservoir is human-made. We talk about American universities, since his son goes to Drake in Philadelphia. After lunch, we go back to his office. I realize that he works not for the Prince, but for the state education board. We sit in his office and type out a short script of what I’ll say when the state education board gifts a computer and printer to an Islamic school. He is astounded by my ability to type without looking at the screen. I ask when the event will be; he says 4. He goes to pray. Perusing his office, I find an interesting English language book by former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. When he comes back, he sees me reading the book and says, “Dr. Mahathir is the brains of Malaysia” and tells me to keep it. I do.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad poses for a picture after an interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad poses for a picture after an interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur October 18, 2013.

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