“DIFFERENT skin tones, different heights, different races, but why are our hearts the same?” A plaintive soliloquy of a Malaysian student reverberates through the corridors of a school tucked away in rural Sabah.
A thought as familiar as the lingering smell of chalk, rustle of uniforms and the thumps of heavy bags bursting to the seams with dog-eared books in schools scattered across the land where students grapple with lessons as with a shared identity of a blended, fluid nation of many races, creeds and religions.
Welcome to Malaysia.
For every young American who has, under the auspices of the Fullbright Programme, served as English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in Malaysian public secondary schools, the vibrant tapestry of the quintessential Malaysian life from selamat datang (welcome) to selamat tinggal (goodbye) during their 10-month sojourn has invariably left them with indelible memories and lessons learnt.
“The true surprise is that we’re all much more alike than we’re different,” writes Jamie A. Thomas, an ETA who taught in Dungun, Terengganu back in 2007.
Her experience, along with the experiences of 22 other ETAs, have been compiled into a compendium of stories, poems, visuals and narrative shorts aptly titled Balik Kampung, a Malay colloquial loosely translated as “Returning Home” — a nostalgic phrase that denotes a sense of familial belonging.
“That’s my kampung!” declares 27-year-old James Millock with a grin, referring to Pasir Gudang, an industrial town located in Johor. He served as an ETA from 2013 to 2014 in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Masai 2.
Every year, Fullbright scholars look forward to whatever experience lies ahead of them and according to the experiences of past scholars like Millock, there’s an awful lot to experience and embrace personally and professionally. “It’s changed my life,” he says, half-wistfully.
From war to global exchange
The curious beginnings of the Fullbright Global Cultural Programme in the wake of World War II saw Senator J. William Fullbright lobbying to dispose military surplus material in exchange for a global cultural programme designed to, in his words, “...bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship”.
From war junk to educational exchange, the Fullbright Programme has since successfully fostered bilateral relationships in which citizens and governments of other countries work with the United States (US) in setting and shaping joint priorities and programmes to meet their mutual needs.
The Fullbright US Student Programme is the largest exchange programme funded by the US State Department, offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international study, advanced research, university teaching, primary and secondary school teaching worldwide.
“The Fullbright English Teaching Assistant programme in Malaysia is overseen by the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) of which I’m part of. To date, we’ve seen over 500 American ETAs since 2006 who’ve gone through the programme here in our Malaysian schools,” explains Raymond Chew, before pointing out proudly: “We run the third biggest exchange programme in the world, after Germany and South Korea.”
Bespectacled and soft-spoken, the shyly professorial MACEE programme manager reveals he was part of the editorial team who curated the Balik Kampung anthology.
“The idea of documenting the experiences of the ETAs was first pitched in 2014 by Dr. James Coffman, our executive director and we immediately began to reach out to former ETAs for contributions.Unfortunately, it hit a bureaucratic gridlock and got stalled indefinitely until I picked it up again in 2016,” recalls Chew.
The 30-year-old goes on to explain that the initial purpose of publishing this anthology was to celebrate the diverse experiences the American teaching assistants garnered and to showcase the profound connections forged between the ETAs and Malaysians who embraced and allowed them to experience vignettes of life as it’s practised here with all its humour, poignancy and utterly human complexities.
“There are so many things that I miss about my experience in Malaysia. Most of all, I miss the people,” writes Kendall Hack, an ETA who taught in Terengganu back in 2013.
Travelling halfway across the globe to assimilate themselves with a culture that’s relatively little known to most Americans can be daunting.
“My knowledge of Malaysia was very superficial,” admits Millock before adding with a laugh: “I think most ETAs would attest to this. We’re on the airplane coming here and telling ourselves over and over again: ‘I guess we’re doing this!’”
He continues soberly: “Questions like ‘Why am I going there?’ and ‘Do I even know what I’m doing’ assailed my mind. I wasn’t trained in teaching before so the responsibility of taking up a challenge like that, to teach a class of students even if it was for a short term, was daunting.”
With the climate, food and conditions of life in Malaysia being a far cry from what these foreign-born ETAs were used to back home, the motley group of Americans soon discovered that while they were on a mission to teach, they ended up, more often than not, being the ones who were taught new life lessons.
American-born Indian Poonam Daryani knows this to be true, saying: “Malaysia taught me how to radically re-imagine my communities, how to detach my self-worth from those communities that perpetuate the subjugation of myself and others, and how to build communities that thrive not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences.”
ETAs learn more than just coping with the erratic Malaysian weather that shifts from searing heat to heavy torrential downpours in just a matter of moments, observes Hack. They work through language barriers, understand Malaysia’s fascinating politics, and engage with students and other people who wouldn’t otherwise be in contact with a Mat Salleh under normal circumstances.
“I’ve learnt how I want to treat people in all contexts,” writes Hack relating that in a small fishing town called Cukai, ‘rush hour’ constitutes getting stuck behind a man pulling a cart of coconuts.
Still, she’s managed to unearth the joys of residing in a remote town, noting: “I’ve learnt that my favourite quality in people here is the “forthright friend” trait. No gimmicks, no games, no hassle: I’m your friend, please be mine.”
Experience of a lifetime
Friendships forged in this multicultural land are not easily forgotten. Waving his phone at me, Millock tells me gleefully that he’s still in contact with some of his students from his ETA experience three years ago.
He’s back in Malaysia again to reconnect with friends, one of whom is Nur Amelina Mohamad, his fellow teacher from SKM Kota Masai 2. She’s long since moved on from Pasir Gudang, but her friendship with Millock has withstood the test of time and kilometres.
Their affectionate camaraderie is apparent, with banter alternating between them interspersed with laughter and joint recollections of a time long past comprising classes, students and extra-curricular activities.
“They threw a Halloween-themed farewell party for me, much to the consternation of some locals,” Millock tells me while Amelina laughs, her eyes dancing with mischief.
“We really learnt to appreciate the ETAs doing things that we can’t do, given our backgrounds and heavy workloads. We felt that having an ETA was such a blessing for the children. Of course, being an orang putih (white man) helped, because John managed to go against the grain and get things done for the children. Some teachers might’ve been wary because John looks, speaks and acts differently. But in the end, it worked to his advantage because he got away with a lot of things!” recalls Amelina, chuckling.
From rambutan picking, observing Ramadan, trying out new cuisines to going on a hunting and fishing trip with the Temiar tribe, an indigenous people-group living in the remote forested landscape outside Gerik, Perak, the ETAs have willingly sampled an enriching slice of Malaysian culture and lifestyle described in Balik Kampung.
“We’re advised to ‘embrace the absurdity’,” says Millock with a smile, before adding: “We’re told to question what we see, and not to pass judgements easily.”
He says: “I live now in Iraq, working with refugees and displaced people groups. The only reason I’m able to survive in these places is because of the skills I’ve learnt here, like the ability to immerse yourself in a culture and not be afraid of differences.”
The affable former ETA is currently attached to the International Medical Corp, a global humanitarian non-profit organisation.
“As a Malaysian, it has given me a perspective of Malaysia I’ve never seen before,” shares Chew. “I really appreciate the efforts and sacrifices the ETAs put into teaching. But for me, it also highlights the challenges faced by this country.”
As most ETAs have pointed out in their observations during their stay here, although multiracialism is usually thought to usher in colour-blindness, equality and harmony, Malaysia is still on a journey in trying to find that perfect balance while managing perceptions, fears and racial complexities.
It’s hoped that books like these will spark conversations and debates which will push us towards a greater understanding of the vibrant, multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural society that Malaysia is lauded globally for.
“Sir, when you leave for America, never forget us,” a student pleaded to James Greisler on his last day in school. How could he? As with all other ETAs who traversed thousands of kilometres to this diverse nation of contraries, he’s come away with new lessons and perspectives that will transform his life forever.
Terima kasih, Malaysia. Thanks for the memories.