Strength and Weakness

I’m sitting on a table as the sun sets in the middle of a campground in the eastern reaches of the state next to mine, Kedah. The post-rain mosquitos, the ones with the white stripes on their legs that give you dengue fever, are out in full force, but luckily my lemon eucalyptus buy spray is putting in a valiant effort to keep them away from my skin. Music by the Stanley Brothers and other assorted bluegrass acts is blaring from my phone, the remnants of my attempt to set the mood as we tended the fire that cooked our hot dogs, onions, and potatoes for dinner. In the immediate sense, I’m at that table because it rained earlier and we had to move from the campfires to the covered grill, and I’m talking to a few high school students after we’ve finished eating.

In a more general sense, I’m there for my friend’s English speaking camp, which is basically a fun event that we, as Fulbright ETAs,[1] put on for our students. It’s conducted in English, so the hope is that our students will hone their English skills while having fun through these camps. I’ve done a superhero-themed camp, for example, and in a couple weeks my state will be doing an environmentalism camp. This camp is survival-themed, which is neither here nor there. More importantly, a lot of my friends are going, and I don’t have anything else going on this weekend, so I figured I might as well go. I was super-sleep deprived this entire week, so I passed out in the passenger seat for much of the ride. When I woke up, I was greeted by the towering slope of Gunung Jerai, the tallest mountain in Kedah, and a seemingly-endless stream of green-and-white flags for PAS, the Islamist political party that used to control the Kedah legislature. I was still pretty exhausted when I got to the camp, so the rain provided an excellent excuse for me to get away from leading camp activities and do less mentally taxing work like moving firewood under a roof and starting a fire.

For a while, it was unclear what our plan was for cooking the hot dogs, onions and potatoes: did we need a big, open fire for grilling or smoldering coals for foil cooking? We made the fire small at first, then big, then when half of the grill collapsed from the weight of the firewood, small again. For my part, after I got the fires going, I mainly tended to making sure the high school students didn’t get hold of the axe.[2] I grabbed some dinner—a hot dog and more white potatoes than one could ever want—and tried to adopt my best Malaysian attitude: nonchalant, content, willing to help, but not willing to go out of my way to do so. My nonchalance leads me to my current position, sitting on the table and watching the sun set.

And then, as it often happens, my moment of zen is interrupted by a couple students at the camp, a couple older boys who appear to have better English than just about anyone at my school. They want to tell me that I look like Pedro, the Spanish soccer star who plays for Chelsea FC. As a long-time Chelsea hater, this comparison doesn’t sit super well with me, but, again using my best Malaysian attitude, I roll with it and answer their barrage of questions with a smile. What school do you teach at? Where in America are you from? What do you think of Malaysia? What’s your favorite food? Do you like spicy food? Where is your family from? Are you sure they came from Europe? What do you do in America?

2016-07-15 19.37.55
The campsite at sunset.

The last question, I hope, will give me a welcome reprieve from this all-too-familiar question barrage. It’s a question I dreaded when I lived in the States, because when I would answer that I worked in DC I’d either get some condescending line about how “we really need some change up there” or else I’d end up having to defend my organization’s Israel-Palestine policy as if I were fielding a call during office hours. We talk about politics too much in the States, and I’m only being halfway ironic when I say that. But in Malaysia, they don’t talk about politics enough, especially students, the dominant view being that you should graduate high school before you have political opinions.[3] Here, when I tell people I work in politics, it’s as if I extend a line that says “It’s OK for you to express your opinions to me. I won’t treat you like a misguided mind-poisoner.”

The students I’m sitting with take the bait. Discussion Malaysian politics is still, of course, out of the question, but they want to know what I think about Trump. I give my general Trump spiel, which is something to the effect of “He’s terrible, I hate him, and most of America hates him. But a lot of America really likes him, because Americans are stupid and a lot of people have never met Muslims. He probably won’t become President, but he might, and that makes me very scared.” They’re really intrigued, and they ask me who I support. I tell them about President Obama and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And now the conversation is really whirring. We’re talking about health insurance and Islamophobia and the difference between American and Malaysian school systems. They ask what it costs to go to college in America, and I dutifully explain the difference between community colleges, public universities, and private schools. I just read up on the Clinton campaign’s new, Sanders-inspired free tuition proposal, so I’m planning to weave that proposal into our discussion about student loans, when I realize that I have a bit of a discursive problem. Specifically, I realize that I’m not really going to be able to explain American income distributions and how they relate to families’ ability to pay for college. In short, it’s really hard to explain to a Malaysian kid how a family that makes $100,000 a year, the equivalent of about 320,000 ringgit, would need help paying for school. So I cheat, and I say that Clinton’s plan is to create free tuition for America’s poor people.

I’m quickly interrupted by my friend Bridget, another ETA who’s an actual teacher back in the States. “Well,” she deservedly inserts, talking mainly to me, “$100,000 a year is hardly poor.” It’s at this point that I realize I’m surrounded by half of the 10 ETAs at the camp, all of whom have been listening to this conversation for the past twenty minutes. I try to back up and give them some space to talk, but they make it clear that I’m pretty much on my own. We carry on talking about college for another five or ten minutes; eventually, the students go off to clean up from dinner, or something. I debrief from the conversation with the ETAs and apologize to Bridget for my ham-handedness. Talking it over, I realize that this candor is pretty rare amongst the conversations that we get to have as ETAs, and people are amazing that I was able to navigate the conversation at all. For the first time in a while, I’m feeling good about myself.

Later that night, I find myself sitting alone in the woods and thinking about that conversation. I remember that my decision to come to Malaysia was very much a decision to see how well I could cope with being bad at stuff. I left my home in Washington, where I did work I had training in, to come here, where I do a bunch of stuff I have no training in. I may or may not be an effective teacher; I’m certainly not an effective ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I’ve discovered that I’m not great at cutting through Malaysian bureaucracy. I’ve gotten better at traveling, but I’ve had to learn the hard way a few times. I’m not even particularly suited to live in a rural town. But I am good at talking politics, and I’m good at navigating weird cultural conversations. Every once in a while, those skills come in handy over here. And that’s not nothing.

2016-07-15 11.27.52-1
Unrelated, but I wanted to share a couple photos from our Hari Raya celebration.
2016-07-15 11.38.13
Me and one of my favorite students at our Hari Raya celebration.

[1] English Teaching Assistants

[2] This became a very real concern when we came across a couple students in the midst of splitting a large log. Their method consisted of jamming the axe into the center of the log so that it got stuck, then lifting up the log by the axe and slamming it back to the ground. The method appeared to be very effective, but to our Western eyes, also seemed highly dangerous, so we had to take the axe away.

[3] To be fair, if you saw the sexist arguments I’d have with my high school classmates over abortion access circa ’08, you too might think it best for students not to get into politics.


2 thoughts on “Strength and Weakness

  1. This year as a Fullbright Scholar has been an amazing learning experience for you. It will make you a better person when you put that experience to work back in the US


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