Fifty-four weeks ago today, I read the word “Congratulations,” upon opening my email; my first thought was, “wait…what?!” Upon receiving my Fulbright grant, I was astonished and euphoric, my excitement vibrating in the background of every conversation I had with colleagues, friends and family for months to come. How much has changed in these fifty-four weeks.
For my grant, I taught at SMK (national secondary school) Hosba, in Changlun, Kedah, Malaysia, nestled just thirty minutes from the southwestern border of Thailand. Driving to school the first morning, through rolling blue hills shrouded by mist and set against the backdrop of a coral sunrise, my nerves quaked, but were soon remedied. I felt instantly welcomed into the SMK Hosba community by my new colleagues; my teacher mentor, Madam Noorita; our principal, Mr. Mazlin; and the unflaggingly friendly students. Not a single day passed that I was not offered breakfast, lunch, a snac k, a treat, another snack, a dessert, or a “teh tarik” – Malaysian milk tea. Never before had I realized the impact of a simple offer of nasi lemak could have on making me feel more invited and less “other,” in a place where I was very much so. I was amazed, challenged, and occasionally caught speechless by my students’ questions during discussions in class:
“Miss Cady, what was World War I?”
“Miss Cady, do you like Justin Bieber?”
“Miss Cady, do you like Malaysian food? What’s your favorite food in America?”
“Miss Cady, have you been to New York City?”
“Miss Cady, why do you want to be a doctor?”
Following up on these questions and seeing where those discussions led were some of my favorite moments at school. Among my students were aspiring doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers; fashion designers, photographers, artists and detectives.
Swiftly, smoothly, weeks flowed into the next as challenges slowly seemed less daunting and relationships became stronger. After several months of planning, budgeting, working with local community members and colleagues, I led a weekend English program for twenty outstanding students about sustainability, global supply chains and environmental stewardship, including a local hike and a beach clean-up. I coached the choral speaking team (kind of like spoken word poetry in English, as a group), and at our regional competition, the team took second place. I joined Zumba classes with my students, and assisted my school’s chapter of the Red Crescent Society. In early March, my school was given the prompt for the annual English drama competition – multilateralism and global partnership.
“Miss Cady, what is ‘multilateralism’?” Fatin, one of the members of the choral speaking team asked me, looking confused. “I’ve never known this word.”
Multilateralism, I explained to Fatin, Aiesya, Syaza, Ayu and the rest of the students, is when multiple groups work together to solve a problem. “It’s like seeing something from many sides,” I added. “Usually, it’s used to describe when many different governments or organizations are working on something together – like the United Nations.” The students nodded. I prompted the students for a topic.
“Coronavirus, Miss Cady?” Fatin offered. We nodded in unison. The virus, like a hum, had quietly played in the background nearly my entire time in Malaysia – it could not be ignored.
So went the week leading up to our March break. We stayed after school; picked characters; detailed our plot line. Twenty-four students jumped on the opportunity to become involved.
“Can I be the Prime Minister of Turkey?” Sarah asked. “How many COVID cases does Turkey have?”
“I’ll be a doctor from the United Nations,” Nurin declared, “but I think let’s have many doctors, right? From the different countries? So they work together? Maybe all the doctors work together, so they find the cure, then tell the countries, maybe?” Ideas flew around the room, in English and Bahasa Melayu, as 24 high school students in rural Malaysia furiously worked to put together the best English drama in SMK Hosba history.
“Miss Cady,” Fatin asked. “This makes me so nervous. I hope that COVID does not come here.”
“Me too, Fatin.” We shared a distant gaze out the window of the classroom, into the jungles of rural Kedah, into the future, and what was to come.
Five days after my conversation with Fatin, I landed home in the United States, evacuated due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation. While seemingly everything has changed since we planned the coronavirus play – in my own life and across the world, and in ways we will be working tirelessly for decades to fully understand – some things have not. My students still frequently reach out to me on WhatsApp, and through my teacher Instagram (@cikgu_cady); they are still fantastically respectful, and curious about life in America. Teachers and friends I made in my community reach out as well, all wanting to make sure me and my family are well in the midst of such unprecedented times.
We are now navigating a new ambiguity, a new unknown as a global community. As an EMT, I am preparing to join the front lines fight against coronavirus, and trying to figure out how to do so as safely as possible, without exposing my family, friends or partner. My students, upon hearing my plans, have been incredibly uplifting and supportive, from their own shelter-in-place and quarantine orders on the other side of the world.
I am so honored to have had the chance to continue to build connections and community across the globe as a Fulbright grantee – to be welcomed with open arms, and warmly supported during my transition home from the other side of the world, in a time of great unknowns and change. To the next passionate, accomplished and driven applicants who have an exciting email to open in their future – congratulations. I wish you the best of all the unpredictable and wildly wonderful moments that lay in your midst. And if you were looking to refresh your memory of the meaning of multilateralism – I know twenty-four proud and accomplished scholars that would be more than happy to help.
Fulbright Malaysia ETA 2020