Say Yes to Everything

Guest Article by Samuel Schleipman
Bates College
The moment of arrival is one you never forget, because there are few moments when your future crystallizes as sharply as the first time you step into your new home. For months I had been wondering about the town I would be living in, the comfort of my house, and the state of my school. Those nebulous question were answered in an instant as I drove through the heavy rain into Kuala Berang for the first time. I had to call this place home for the next nine months. After hauling my bags into the house, I said goodbye to my mentor, and he drove off. I was left with my housemate, the sound of the rain on the metal roof, and a knot in my chest. “Damn, well, here I am.”

Sam at an event with his students
I cannot deny the first few days and weeks were hard, and it was easy to believe I had bitten off more than I could chew. In that early phase, I knew only the tip of the iceberg about the culture and language of Malaysia, the offerings of Kuala Berang and Terengganu, and what my job as a teacher would entail. But I could tell the size of the iceberg, and its daunting magnitude meant I had a tremendous amount to learn. Naturally I wanted to immediately feel that I had my bearings, was moderately integrated, and that my time was going to be productive. I knew from my previous travels, however, that there was only one way these goals could be achieved; by getting out of the house, saying yes to everything, and putting energy out into my new community.
Initially I was underwhelmed by my house and Kuala Berang. I’m a Boston city-boy at heart. But after living in the house for several days, unpacking and decorating, frying up some eggs each morning and walking around in my boxers with my morning coffee while playing Mozart on my speakers, it began to feel much more like a home. It’s the little things that make a world of difference. A safe and comfortable space to rest at the end of each day is invaluable. To learn about the town of Kuala Berang, I spent many days after school walking with the intent of exploring every nook and cranny of it. I went into every store and shop, making mental notes of their wares, introducing myself to shopkeepers, and greeting people as I walked through. Each night Zach Laux, my tremendous roommate, and I would go to a different restaurant to learn each place’s specialty and the intricacies of Malay cuisine. A happy milestone was reached when the proprietor greeted us by name and asked if we wanted our usual order. My favorite venue, though, is the biweekly night market. Swirling smells and sights, all completely new and different, each time remind me of why I chose to spend a year overseas away from home. As my knowledge of Kuala Berang has grown, my new surroundings have gained depth and texture, and, most reassuringly, have started to feel like home. 
Making connections at school
Making friends and integrating culturally has been a slow and gradual process. The language barrier poses a tough challenge, but the more Malay I learn, and poorly but enthusiastically speak to my neighbors and colleague teachers, the more they open up. Thus far my best local friend is an official in the district education department. He invited us to play badminton with him and a group of officials at their regular Tuesday night gathering. Say yes to everything. I have never been so thoroughly thrashed in a sport as I was at badminton by these gentlemen twice my age. Yet a tremendous time was had by all, and now late-night Tuesday badminton is a fixture on my schedule. It is so enjoyable – not so much for the sport, but for the feeling that I am integrating and making local friends while engaging in one of their favorite pastimes.
Classic school selfies
Becoming comfortable at school has been an evolving process, but after an initial slow start I feel I am gaining traction and building up steam. At first I was vexed because for the first two weeks I was able to do only a handful of introductory lessons and I felt I was just spinning my wheels. The students were curious but very shy around me, despite my attempts to coax them from their shell. Though I addressed the school’s morning assembly on my first day, my real presentation to the school and students occurred the following week. It was Zumba day, and for the first two periods, three local Zumba instructors were going to lead the entire school in a workout session. My colleague teachers humorously encouraged me to go onto the stage with the instructors. Say yes to everything. As I walked up in front of 360 students, many began to laugh and cheer, “Mr Sam!” The music began to pump. Never having done Zumba in my life, I knew it was show time. The key to theatre is not holding back, and I knew this was a golden opportunity to introduce myself to the school. For an hour, grinning from ear to ear, I performed the Zumba routine in front of the entire student body. Energy and enthusiasm were far more important than technical form. By the end of the workout I was drenched in sweat, but the cheers of the students told me the effort was amply worth it. It was very gratifying to be able to so visibly demonstrate my enthusiasm for my new job, and many of my colleague teachers lauded me for encouraging the students.        
In the subsequent weeks I have been able to more fully step into my position as an ETA. After finally receiving a schedule, I have been able to start teaching regular classes and am quickly becoming a part of the SMK Bukit Diman community. Because shyness has been the greatest stumbling block in getting the kids to speak and engage with the material in class, for my speaking workshop I decided to focus on music. I selected “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan, an invigorating pop song with positive clean lyrics (which was surprisingly hard to find), printed out the lyrics, and distributed them to the students. Then, using my portable speakers and iPod, we sang along to the song and discussed the lyrics, their meaning and message, and potentially difficult vocabulary. Each time we sang together the students grew in confidence: more joined in, and their energy increased. They asked to sing along to the music several more times than I had planned, and their enthusiasm was palpable.
No caption necessary
The longer I live in Kuala Berang, and the more my housemate Zach and I have explored the nearby environs, compelling features continue to present themselves. Upon first inspection, the town was sleepy and offered little in the way nearby points of interest. But attributes that could only be discovered after investing time and energy in our new home have greatly changed my first assessment. Asking my neighbors for hidden gems of Kuala Berang, they replied, “Sekayu waterfall of course.” Always trust local knowledge. Zach and I sought out the waterfall in a nearby state park. We trekked along a river shaded by dense jungle past ongoing cataracts and pools of deep blue water. Upon finding an isolated pool, I took a moment to to savor the novelty and serenity of where I was on the planet before plunging into the refreshing water. Cliche but true. It is very encouraging to think of what discoveries throughout Terengganu and Malaysia lay ahead, and how my position as a teacher will evolve in the months to come as I continue to delve into the Fulbright experience.     

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