Life in the Big City

Guest Article by Karam Sethi
Connecticut College

“You’re going where?” 
“So you’re going to live in like…a hut?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Well stock up on pizza and milkshakes.  You’re definitely not going to get any there.”
Wrong, my ill-informed friends, very wrong.
I tried to temper my expectations before arriving in Kuala Lumpur, but with no Southeast Asian travel experience, I let movies like Zoolanderfill my head with images of dusty jungle roads and monkeys stealing my lunch.  A bit eccentric…I know.  I may not live in a hut, but would I have electricity?  Would I have access to some sort of vehicle?  Is there decent infrastructure outside the capital?
I did the requisite research on Malaysia:  I downloaded Bourdain’s ‘Layover’ app, purchased a Lonely Planet and bookmarked the New York Times’ Malaysia travel page; but ultimately I was led down a yellow-brick-road to nowhere.  There really isn’t much out there on Malaysia, so I started my journey relatively blind.
Eight months later, I am brought back to those half-baked expectations.  Yes, I have electricity (loads of it).  Yes, I have a vehicle (two, actually).  And yes, there is absolutely infrastructure outside the capital (albeit basic). 
Stationed in the southern-most tip of Malaysia, Johor Bahru, my experience is unlike most ETAs’.  Few have Western comforts within a 20-minute drive of their apartment; a dry cleaner, a café with real espresso, and even a PetSmart, in case I decide I like hamsters.  Few also encounter racially diverse communities in their placement.  My roommate and I are routinely shocked at Johor’s societal makeup.  There’s a Malaysian University complete with hormonal students, Australian expatriates working as tech consultants and plenty of Singaporean investors since JB is close to the city-state.  It takes just 45 minutes to get over the border.  We’ve gotten pizza at a Mario Batali restaurant, done homework at the Botanical Gardens and checked out the stupefying Art of the Brick exhibit at the Museum of Science. 
Other ETAs bond over anecdotes of their rustic, hardscrabble lives – what they wouldn’t give for a cheeseburger and some air-conditioning.  I’m unable to relate because…I pretty much have everything I need.
And my school is equally unique.
Most ETAs teach in Malay Muslim schools.  SMK Taman Sutera, however, is equal parts Chinese, Tamil and Malay.  That means my students get the rare opportunity to engage with different race groups at school.
ETA Karam Sethi with his students
It’s no secret that racial divisions exist in Malaysia, but becoming accustomed to interactions with different sects at such a vital, young age, hints at a more unified Malaysia soon to come.  The existence of so many mixed schools in Johor indicates its place at the vanguard of this transformation. 

I like to think of Johor as the California of Malaysia.  A frontier for progress.  And Malaysia is changing rapidly; more money, more people, and more industry.  Soon, American students will have more than one Ben Stiller movie to reference this ever-evolving country. 


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