Nama Saya Cikgu: Call Me Teacher

As I boarded my first of three flights to Malaysia last January, my brain was buzzing with ideas about what my job as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant would entail. In hindsight, I could never have anticipated what was in store. From cleaning lizard poop off my bedroom walls to driving through monsoon rains to learning how to use a “squatty potty”, I was regularly pushed out of my comfort zone. Learning how to adapt also taught me a lot about myself.

Teaching English as a Second Language in Malaysia presents many unique challenges. The use of English throughout Malaysian schools has grown increasingly prominent in recent decades. With it, younger generations now have increased access to Western music, television, movies and books, all of which subtly challenge their own cultural heritage. Realizing this, many of the nation’s elders have begun cracking down on liberal ideals and pushing for more rigorous conservative standards throughout the country. The presence of ETAs in rural communities can thus be somewhat controversial. While I personally never felt unsafe, I was constantly aware that my every move was being watched and judged by the people around me.

Blending in would never have been an option anyway: many of the locals I encountered had never met a white person before. I was invited to take thousands of selfies with everyone from barbers to gas station attendants to movie theater ushers. I felt particularly guilty at a local wedding where I seemed to draw more attention than the bride and groom. Still, many ETAs of color faced even greater challenges when their identities were questioned by locals who held preconceptions equating the American nationality with whiteness. Fortunately, the large and diverse Malaysia ETA cohort provided a highly supportive network to rely on during trying moments such as these.

Recognizing my responsibilities as a cultural ambassador – a critical aspect of the Fulbright program – I made active efforts to show my interest in Malaysian customs. I bought a Baju Melayu, a traditional colorful Malay outfit worn with a special samping skirt and songkok hat. I exchanged vocabulary with my students in an attempt to reciprocate their language learning, and now saya boleh cakap sikit-sikit Bahasa Melayu! I tried any food put in front of me, no matter how spicy or downright disgusting it seemed, from jellyfish to silkworms to crickets to fish brains. (On a related note, I encourage you to try durian at some point in your life. It is an indescribable, yet hauntingly unforgettable flavor. At the very least, Google it!)

These small signs of respect went a long way in helping me build relations in my community. Mr. Abdullah began buying me different kuih pastries to try for breakfast each morning. My landlord’s son Muiz taught me how to crack open coconuts with a machete. Cikgu Abu taught me how to fish with my hands. My wonderful mentor Ros brought me to her parents’ house to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the Islamic New Year) with her family, and my roommate’s mentor Poobalan invited us to celebrate the Hindu festival of Deepavali with his. Perhaps most touchingly, I was invited to join my school’s male teachers during their Friday prayers, a moment I will never forget. In this era of political turmoil and hateful rhetoric, I – a Christian American – sat among a group of Muslim Malays and we peacefully, mutually practiced our faiths with nothing but respect for one another.

With the cultural capital I built in these exchanges, I was able to implement programs and opportunities for my students to engage with English language. I won a special grant through the U.S. Embassy to lead 75 of my students on a field trip to the capital of Kuala Lumpur to see an English drama performance. None of them had been to a professional theater show before, and many had not even visited the city, despite living just a few short hours away. Building from that experience, I designed and implemented a drama-focused curriculum for my classes through which the students planned, wrote and rehearsed their own English short plays.

This culminated in a school-wide showcase performance last October--easily the most touching moment of my year. Ten months before, some of my students had been too scared to even raise their hand in class. Now I was watching them on stage in front of all their peers and teachers, expressing emotions, projecting their voices, and having fun – all while using English. The honor of receiving a Fulbright grant pales in comparison to my pride in seeing my students conquer their fears, build their confidence and exercise true creative thought. In spite of the lizard poop and spicy food and weird toilets, I felt grateful every day to be a part of their community.

Through my year as a Fulbright ETA, my leadership skills and passion for education blossomed. I have since committed to pursuing my Ed.M. in Education Policy and Management at Harvard this fall. My brain is still buzzing with ideas about the future, but now I know to only expect that the best experiences will likely be the most surprising. I can only hope they will involve as much joy as my year in Malaysia… if, perhaps, less durian.

Nate Stauffer served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMK Sungai Ranggam in Malaysia in 2017. He graduated from Penn in May 2016 with a B.A. in Psychology. In August 2018, he will begin pursuing his Masters of Education Policy and Management at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The views expressed in contributed blog posts belong solely to the indicated author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships or those of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.