Working Together-gether

Guest Article by Matthew Ropp
Northern Illinois University
ETA Matthew Ropp with his ayah angkat, Pak Din
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, the sun beating down on my unprotected skin; I can already feel the uncomfortable warmth settling into my tissue letting me know that by tomorrow I will be the color of a freshly steamed shrimp. Sweat is streaming from every pore and I begin to question why I’m still outside allowing myself to suffer like this. I’ve been working with two others since about 9:00 am mowing lawns, pulling weeds and clearing gutters of what seems like foot-deep caked mud and grime. This is the third work site we’ve been to today, and it looks like we won’t get around to finishing the rest of the work until tomorrow afternoon. I take a short break in the shade at the base of a cellular tower we’ve been doing routine maintenance around and fantasize of more relaxing ways I could spend a weekend, like taking a dip at one of the beaches I can spot from my vantage point at the top of a hill.
I would be less exasperated with this use of my time if it weren’t for the irony that my actual day job is serving as an English Teaching Assistant, and a little less than six months ago I was doing not dissimilar grounds keeping work in my hometown with a local parks department as a way to pass time and earn money before my grant period started.
For the past year, I have called the small coastal district of Besut,Terengganu home. Although my community is relatively rural, with most students residing in small villages called kampung, Besut is also one of the most visited locations in Malaysia due to its proximity to the Perhentian island group. Despite the seasonal tourist traffic many students and community members have had little interaction with foreigners. Malaysians are known for being hospitable, but ETAs often receive ‘rockstar treatment’ as they are welcomed into their communities.
With everyone so excited over the novelty of a new (albeit temporary) neighbor, co worker, friend, integration into my community came easy for me.
I found myself having to turn down as many offers to play sports, visit homes, provide tutoring, attend mosque, as I could accept due to time constraints and limitations on the actual work I could engage in (outside employment not allowed under ETA grant terms).
Through this series of community invitations, I met Pak Din, an office staffer who I’d been told played the role of ayah angkat – adoptive father to the previous ETA at my school. Pak Din and his family instantly warmed to me, family dinners becoming commonplace, fishing trips on the weekends yielding no catch but fostering friendship. I harvested fruits in his garden, attended his eldest son’s wedding, and sat bedside during a particularly vicious bout of flu. After spending so much time in his company, I accepted each new invite to participate in another aspect of his home life with enthusiasm – which is why I also agreed to assist him in some landscaping work on the weekend, in the dark about exactly what kind of work it was and how much time it would require.
As sweat drips in my eyes, bringing me back to the task at hand, I reflect on why I had chosen to follow Pak Din to the top of this hill rather than excusing myself halfway through the day by fabricating an important meeting or heat sickness (though the latter would not have been entirely untrue). After all, I would not, could not be paid for these long days of labor. I had no reason except ‘saving face,’ or maintaining my communal integrity, to see the work through to completion.
It suddenly starts to sink in that the work I was doing was out of a feeling of obligation or duty. It may not have been particularly glamorous – it was certainly too strenuous to be considered enjoyable – but in a small way it was my thank you to Pak Din for accepting me as more than a guest, treating me less as novelty than family, a permanent fixture for a brief span of time. After completing my work with Pak Din, I also felt proud of myself for sacrificing minor comforts for the tangible satisfaction of a job well done.
In traditional Malay culture, a concept called gotong-royong influenced and strengthened community bonds by bringing many together to accomplish tasks that the few could not. Literally translated as mutual-aid or cooperation, the implication of gotong-royong still fortifies community in Malaysia today. Since working with Pak Din, I have tried to see events like this as my own version of gotong-royong.
I have continued to attempt to go beyond my duties as an assistant teacher at every chance I am provided. Some other notches on mygotong-royong belt include butchering a whole cow with male teachers at a BBQ for Teacher’s Day, attending choir practices and singing at a district-wide ceremony, breaking fast during the month of Ramadan at the homes of teachers and students, harvesting exotic fruits, cleaning up local beaches with students, even taking care of a neighbor’s cat and month-old kittens while he and his wife were away having a child of their own.
Although my gotong-royong may not be grand in vision or scope, it has meaning for me as I negotiate my identity in my adoptive Malaysian community. I was always taught that it’s the little things in life that count, and so these “random acts of kindness” are the things that I place importance on at home, wherever that may be.

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