Reflections on Differences and Cross-Cultural Exchange

Guest article from Rose Tran
University of Central Florida
Based on her farewell speech given at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in KL, 30/10/2015
Rose painting a mural with her students
This year, there were 100 ETAs who came from the United States to Malaysia. As a group, we represent nearly the entirety of the U.S. We are from different states—the east, the west, the north, the south, and in between all of that. We have different cultural, ethnic, religious, and educational backgrounds. Our identities, personalities, and ambitions are all unique as well.
We came to Malaysia with many different goals in mind—maybe to teach, to learn about Islam, to immerse in diverse cultures, to organize projects and camps with our schools, to try out all of the food, to explore the nature and national parks and islands. Ultimately, we came here because we wanted to learn and to experience something new.
ETAs at start of year orientation
Then we were placed into different areas of Malaysia—in rural jungles, in kampungs (villages), in small towns. Our schools were all different—large and small, new and old—and the student population differed as well.
When you think about all the ways in which we are different from each other and all the ways our placements were different, you realize that we all experienced Malaysia very differently, in our own way.
But we still laugh at the same jokes. We all learned how to wear baju correctly. We all know when to say “lah.” We all answer questions with “can.” We know how to take good selfies. We’ve picked up on a lot of the same intricacies despite our different placements and experiences.
ETA taking a selfie with her students at the end of the year
Being in Malaysia has challenged each of us to step outside of our comfort zones, to interact with people who are different from us, to communicate in new ways, to examine who we are, and to analyze our values.
And that’s what cross-cultural exchange is all about: interacting with people who are different from you and coming to an understanding that your differences exist and are important, and that your relationship thrives on the simple fact that you are different.
It’s not an easy process. It’s actually very hard. But what a worthwhile and rewarding experience it is. I know that, compared to who we were at the beginning of the year, each of us is now much more knowledgeable not only about Malaysia but about this region of the world. We understand the geography and history and culture much better. We care about the events that occur and the issues that need to be addressed. We feel a greater connection to the people and community. We have all become more informed citizens.
We understand what it means to be one person trying to make an impact. We understand what it means to be one group trying to make an impact. We are all united in our goal to make a positive difference, and our efforts have led to incredible accomplishments.
ETA posing with her students during an English project
Collectively, we have interacted with hundreds and thousands of Malaysians who might not have ever met an American before, who might not have had the confidence to speak a foreign language to a foreigner. But through our individual and group efforts, I know that our schools and communities have changed in amazing ways and that we have created a solid platform for future ETAs.
We have all grown tremendously this year, and I’m really proud to have been a part of this growth. Moving forward, I hope that all of us ETAs continue to interact with people who are different from us and that we continue to challenge ourselves by embarking on new experiences.
ETAs and students at an English camp
Finally, I would like to thank the US Embassy, the Fulbright Program, MACEE, and the Ministry of Education for this opportunity to live and work abroad with so many incredible people and for all of the support along the way. It’s been a great year!

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