One of the first things I remember from my English Teaching Assistantship in Malaysia was jotting down a phrase in my phone: We’re all living the same experiences, just different realities. Someone said it to me in passing, but I knew I had to remember it because I thought it so pointedly reflected what cross-cultural exchange was all about.
I felt the weight of that comment when I stepped into my community. I felt transported back to high school at the semi-rural school I taught at in the state of Kelantan. A group of girls welcomed me into their circle. We hung out after school and listened to music, spent weekend afternoons drinking teh tarik and evenings slurping tom yum in front of the TV. The discussions of boys, music, pop culture and
beauty felt oddly familiar.
“Who’s a better rapper, Cardi B or Nicki Minaj?”
“Is Jason Momoa your favorite actor?”
“What face cleanser are you using?”
“You must have a favorite BTS member!”
My mother, a high school teacher back in the United States, would text me and ask how I was fairing, how school was. I told her that my days mirrored hers, just 12 hours ahead. School began at 7:30 a.m. Ended at 2 p.m. Lunch for upperclassmen happened after lunch for lowerclassmen. The library served as a place for students to hang out. After school held opportunity for sports or other extracurriculars.
The relevance of the phrase was re-emphasized when a student who I connected with over American rock music WhatsApp messaged me to wish me a Happy Easter. Four weeks had passed since I left Malaysia at the urging of the State Department. I asked him how he was, what he was up to. He said he was just at home doing homework, but having a hard time focusing, given the global pandemic.
“I’m a bit frustrated, bcoz it’s too much.”
I found a moment of clarity after reading his message. My family in the United States and my family in Kelantan were experiencing a collective pain over the COVID-19 pandemic. Culture, values and private lives, of course, change the way we experience the world. But at the root of it, while my former student and I are on opposite sides of the world, we are feeling vastly similar emotions, just in different contexts.
Back in my childhood home, I’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on my time in Malaysia and mapping my next steps. While I am unsure what the future holds for me, I will continue to pursue creative and personally fulfilling opportunities. And though my alumni status came earlier than I had hoped, I’m thankful for the short time I had to build these bridges of greater understanding. And I believe those bridges will continue to build, even amidst COVID-19, though it may look a bit different than what I initially expected. I messaged him back.
At the end of the day, we’re all just living the same experiences, just different realities.
Fulbright ETA Malaysia 2020