When folks from home asked me how Malaysia was going, I always started with a single answer: “filled with gratitude, sunshine, learning and joy.” These words were true the moment I embarked on my journey as an English Teaching Assistant during these past few months.
I remember the first-day jitters I felt before my first day of school. Tossing and turning in a new room, in a new town, headed to a new school. I had met my mentor teacher just a little over a week before, but only simple pleasantries were exchanged. What would they think of me – an Asian American entering their community? I certainly looked like my neighbors, but we had very different stories. I knew my experience would be different than the previous two Fulbrighters – both were white, and both were women. I remember walking through my town and not receiving a single odd look. It was Chinese New Year – it was conceivable that I was a relative visiting town or passing through during my New Year travels.
On my first day of school my mentor, Iylia, introduced me to her first class of the day and then promptly handed the room over to me. The first period of teaching brought a wave of relief over my body. I had taught before, but was worried the experiences wouldn’t transfer. It was remarkably soothing to know that loud + enthusiastic call and responses as well as stickers as incentives translated well across cultures. In my first lesson I introduced the concepts of “afford” and “can’t afford” which devolved into a wonderful whiteboard slapping game involving flyswatters. With a sweat laced face, I remember approaching Iylia at the end of the first period and was met with a heartfelt affirmation. “This will be a good year,” she shared confidently. “They’ll warm up even more in no time.” The first week hadn’t even passed us when she turned to me and said, “I think I’ll try that thing you’ve been doing in class,” graciously integrating new pedagogical strategies and reminding me what it meant to be both a teacher and a learner in the classroom.
Iylia quickly became a friend, one that will survive any distance and any pandemic that stands in our way. She held a mastery over the educational context in our town with an intent focus on the ability of educators to make a difference. Hours were spent exploring the cultural differences between our homes. Hours again were spent unpacking the power of language, the power of communication and the dignity that came with being able to advocate and pursue one’s dreams. Those conversations and the lessons I co-taught alongside her will be carried with me for years and years to come.
To be expected were the questions about how I looked; as it was described to me, I looked “very Asian.” Yes – this was true. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, it certainly threw my students and community for a loop when I explained that I was American. In some cases, it was deemed too complicated to explore and I was simply “teacher from Taiwan.” While my fluency in Mandarin was advantageous to exploring my predominately Chinese Malay community, it certainly did not help my case in proving I was American. But in other cases, it led to powerful conversations about identity, some with my youngest students. In one case, I explained carefully my family’s journey to America – the reasons for immigration, the search for opportunity and my life growing up in the States. I’ll never forget the focused, lips pursed look on Zakhwan’s face, a 12-year old Form 1 student in my class as I shared my story. After I finished, his face turned into a thoughtful pout as I waited patiently for a response, not knowing what to expect. He then seemed to come to a resolution, nod, looked up at me and said, “I get it, like how there are different types of Malaysians, you are American. That’s cool, countries so similar!” He quickly bounded away before I had a chance to thank him for using such simple words to humanize how I felt about my identity.
My roommate, Tom, and I were embraced by our community. We were met by an outpouring of acceptance, curiosity and love. On the first day we moved in, our neighbors across the street dropped off noodles not wanting us to go hungry without access to restaurants due to the New Year celebrations. In the second week, we joined a line dance club (which we originally had thought was a LION dance club) where we were the only men and the youngest members by nearly 35 years. Our main contact was Poon, a longtime resident of Kemayan and fellow teacher at my school. The first few classes weren’t easy – frankly quite embarrassing, but every Tuesday and Thursday we went, diligently lined in rows and cha-chaing our way next to aunties and grandmas. Line dancing with Poon turned into weekend hiking, weekend hiking turned into Monday and Wednesday aerobics practice. Aerobics practice turned into dinners and late-night chats with our neighbors.
We found our shopping place of choice – EconSave, a glorious supermarket that felt as though Target had smashed together with a DollarTree. We discovered our favorite roti canai place, knew how to order Milo with ice and all our favorite dishes, found out how to pay our bills and even where to go bowling. We found our favorite restaurant – a vegetarian nook named InVege. We became friends with the waiter, Khai. Khai would introduce us to the neighboring town of Triang through food tours, birthday parties and volleyball competitions. It was rare for us to go anywhere without recognizing a friendly face or meeting someone’s third-cousin, great-uncle or distant relative. In just a few weeks, we had made our home in the humble village of Kemayan. It was this very reason that saying goodbye was so very difficult.
The circumstances surrounding the news of our departure were nearly storybook. Our state cohort had gathered for a sleepover and breakfast the first day of break. Breakfast was a feast of Malaysian eats from roti canai to a delicious plate of nasi goreng. We were splitting up the bill when a text came in to inform us that flights were starting to get cancelled out of Malaysia and that we were strongly urged to head back to the States. Silence fell over the group and as we looked around and tears started to emerge in my fellow Fulbrighter’s eyes, it was clear that we all understood the writing on the wall and would prepare for our return home.
The next 3 days were filled with many “last” moments. Many last moments had already passed without us recognizing they were so special. Our last line dancing rehearsal was the Thursday before, the last time I entered a class was the Friday before break. The most tear-filled moments were the ones where we knew they were the last. Our last satay meal with Iylia, our last noodle dish with Poon. Dropping off Poon and turning around to say goodbye as her eyes welled up with tears. Sitting with Iylia at our classroom table, sobbing into our hands as our plans for the year had been cut short. A surprise breakfast from Khai, a goodbye wave to our neighbors as we pulled away – our lives packed neatly in 4 checked bags and 2 carry-ons. In a matter of 63 hours, we pulled away from our life in Kemayan and started our trip back home.
Even after a few days back in the states, I wake up thinking I am in my square-shaped room on Seroja Jaya road in Kemayan. I feel startled when I see a framed photo of our family, realizing I am in quarantine in the basement of my childhood home. I wake up and text my community in Kemayan, checking in to see how the situation has developed in Malaysia. I wake up with an achy heart, to think about the programs and memories I would have had made this week if I were still in Kemayan. But these feelings are underscored by memories of gratitude, sunshine, learning and joy. From my short time living with a community halfway around the world, I feel to the highest extent a connection to the notion that we are more alike across difference than we will ever fully know. In this very moment, I feel an incredible connection to humanity as we navigate this global challenge together. My Fulbright experience was a strong reminder of how our action and inaction affect us all in the global community and more applicably how far an open attitude and a friendly smile can go.
I feel comfort in knowing that I am not the only one feeling the whiplash of an experience that came to an end too soon. In my cohort alone, 100 wide-eyed passionate global citizens have returned earlier than they had expected, unsure what to do now that our plans have understandably been shifted. I write this not only to share my appreciation to the Fulbright Commission and my community of Kemayan, but to also call upon Fulbright alumni to reach out to these recently returned Fulbrighters. Our time has been cut short, and for many we are frantically hoping to establish a sense of direction for our professional careers. I humbly ask the Fulbright community to consider engaging with this group – whether on a video call, through an email, a supportive message or a virtual happy hour. In a time when the world is facing so many challenges, the power of community certainly surfaces hope.
And to my community in Kemayan, as corny as this is: may this serve not as a goodbye, but simply a jumpa lagi.
Fulbright ETA Malaysia 2020