Sister // Outsider

Guest Article by Joanne Chern
Scripps College

Joanne “free-styling” with the drama team

The thing that nobody really wants to admit, even within the cohort, is that being an ETA can be an intensely lonely experience. It’s a natural part of the ETA job – you cannot feel lonely if you do not feel invested, and some degree of emotional investment is definitely required in order to be an ETA. So this loneliness is the other side to the emotional rewards. It’s the shadow that lurks behind every luminescent moment. It’s the silent story behind every beautiful/funny/inspiring photo posted to Facebook. It’s the secret that you learn to keep, because you do not want to appear ungrateful, or unsuccessful, or poorly adjusted.
But the fact remains. You are an outsider.
You are an outsider when you arrive, new and clueless, in your placement.
You are an outsider, speaking too loudly and in the wrong language.
You are an outsider with strange hair/eyes/skin/height/weight.
Sometimes, you are an undercover outsider, because you look like an insider, but in your heart, you know who you really are.
In the classroom, you swim in your own sweat and your students’ uncomprehending silence, unable to coax more than nervous giggles from their mouths. In the canteen, in the teachers’ room, you find yourself boxed out of conversations. You are always several steps behind, it seems. Nobody remembers to tell you when assembly runs late; when students will be absent from class; when you are expected to wear a certain item of clothing to match with the other teachers. In that way, you are invisible.
And yet you are simultaneously so very conspicuous, every eye taking in what you are wearing, how much you are sweating, how many pimples have erupted on your forehead, how dark the shadows under your eyes are, what you eat (or don’t eat) for lunch, how much you smile (or don’t), how you shape syllables in Bahasa Melayu with your clumsy foreigner’s tongue.
Each moment is like a tiny grain of sand, chafing against your skin. Individually, they can be tolerated, even ignored. But eventually, all of those small, rough moments begin to add up, their effects compounding until you feel raw and ready to scream.
Maybe you learn ways to cope with the irritation. You develop a tougher skin, a callus over your heart to prevent it from breaking. But in the end, you cannot avoid these moments completely. And some, like large stones, cannot be brushed off. They weigh on you, looming and insistent, reminding you that you will always be outside, always other.

Posing with students at camp
You’re invited to attend a prefect camp with your students. You’re excited to go – it’s an overnight camp, and you’ve been promised a space in the girls’ dormitories. You’ve always wished that there were a hostel at your school, so that you could spend all day with the students you love so much. You imagine staying up late into the night with your students, trading gossip and hoarded snacks, letting them giggle and whisper scandalous stories into your ear.
Two days before you’re scheduled to leave, one of the English teachers approaches you, her expression taut and troubled. Avoiding your gaze, she speaks with many hesitant pauses that belie her English fluency, as though she can minimize the bad news she bears: the other female teachers do not want you to stay overnight in the dormitories, because they do not want to share a room with you.
“Some of the teachers – the older teachers, actually – are very…traditional. They think…they think that, even though you are also a woman…because you are not Muslim, you are basically like a man, for them. They cannot take off their scarves in front of you.”
She tries to reassure you, telling you that she does not agree with them, that if she were attending the camp, you could share a room with her instead. But the fact of the matter is, she isn’t going. You struggle not to show how suddenly embarrassed you are, as though the other teachers’ refusal is due to your personal shortcomings, some internal flaw that they find unacceptable. You’re angry at how small this makes you feel, at how much you blame yourself on reflex, but you cannot articulate this. In the end, pushing back will get you nowhere, and all you can say is, “Okay.”

Making tacos with Form 4
It’s common practice to cook a large batch of food and bring it to the teachers’ room for everyone to share. You love to cook, so you ask the other teachers to give you recipes for common Malay dishes, thinking that you will practice at home, then bring the results to share with the teachers.
But your mentor tells you, in an indirect way, that perhaps that’s not such a good idea. She rambles about how the teachers will ask annoying, detailed questions about the ingredients you use, that they will tell students not to eat it. She portrays them as being a nuisance to you, but you hear the unspoken message: they are worried your food is not halal.
You live in a Muslim-majority community. Your landlord is Muslim, and you have kept the house as halal as you can. You shop in the same places that all of your students and coworkers do. All of your groceries carry the “halal” stamp. All of your meat is sold by Muslim butchers. You would double-, triple-, quadruple-check that all of your ingredients were halal before beginning to cook anything.
In a community that values food, where the common greeting is “Sudah makan? (Have you eaten?)”, it hurts that they do not trust you enough to accept what you make, and that they would go so far as to dissuade students, who are generally open to trying anything you offer, from eating your food. You try to argue, asking where you would even manage to get non-halal ingredients nearby, but in the end, it’s useless, because you cannot force people to eat something that they do not want to eat. Again, you’re the one who has to step down, your heart tight as a clenched fist, and accept the inevitable.

Cooking selfies with Form 2
Someone once said to you, “In Malaysia, we are all one big family.” Your students and teachers call their seniors abang or kakak (older brother or sister), mak cik or pak cik (aunty or uncle). They call their juniors adik, the non-gendered term for younger sibling.
In your first year, you allow an entire Form 5 class to call you Kak instead of Miss. You’ve been an older sister, both blood and surrogate, for most of your life, so it comes easily to you, more easily than being a teacher does. You have a few other female students who ask, shyly, whether they can call you sis. Eager to be accepted, you say yes. Yes, yes, yes. And these relationships often turn out to be the closest and most fruitful ones in your entire experience.
But there are moments that remind you that there are parts of students’ lives that you will never know, no matter how much they call you kakak and shower love upon you.
In your first year, you hear that one Form 4 student – the head prefect, no less – has punched another prefect in the face. You see the cut and swollen cheekbone on one boy, the bandaged, bruised knuckles on the other. You hear, secondhand, about the punishment that might be meted out. The head prefect will definitely be stripped of his prefect status. He might be expelled. If he isn’t expelled, his parents will probably transfer him to another school. The boy who was punched does transfer. You talk to other students and they nod knowingly. “Well, why would we want to stay in the same school as someone who punched us?” one asks you rhetorically.
The entire thing just about shatters your heart. You had worked with these two boys closely as part of the English drama team. You thought you knew them. One demanded attention with his loud voice and flamboyant antics, but was always a stellar leader where it counted; the other was like a slightly awkward, yet very responsible little old man. They always made time to talk to you – one flirted outrageously with you, just to make you laugh, while the other wrote long paragraphs in his dialogue notebook, asking you to come meet his parents sometime. You liked them both.
Now, you don’t know what to think. Now, you’ve caught a glimpse of the ugly parts of their personalities, the parts that they tried so hard to keep hidden from you. And the fact that you didn’t catch this before, that you didn’t sense the violence and the vulgarity that lay just behind their smiling faces, makes you feel like there was always a wall between you, invisible to your eyes, but solid and immutable all the same.

Drama team cast photo
This is what drags you down when you feel like you should be flying. This is how burnout begins. This is what causes you to withdraw, curling inwards to protect the soft, vulnerable parts of yourself. This is how you begin to miss home, longing to be in a place where your presence is never questioned, never even remarked upon.
So then, what’s the point?
The ETAs talk a lot, sometimes very bleakly, about discomfort, about not fitting in, about moments when the puzzle pieces don’t line up. The director of MACEE, who has seen cohort after cohort of ETAs come and go, reminds everyone that discomfort is an underrated feeling, and it’s in those moments of prolonged discomfort that true growth can happen. Nothing really changes when everything is comfortable and perfect. Discomfort is a catalyst, a galvanizer.
Loneliness can be terrible, and in the worst cases, it can be crushing. It lives in the mind, so it is difficult to hide from and impossible to kill. So to defeat it, you must make peace with it. When it does arise, let it wash over you. Recognize that loneliness is like a tide – at some point, it must recede. It may not recede quickly, and it will never recede completely, but it must recede all the same.

“You learn how to reach across the boundaries, to grasp for connections where other people have given up”
And being an outsider, an “other,” is not the end of the world. Being an outsider in this new environment should remind you that, back at home, there are also outsiders. Sometimes they are invisible, and sometimes they are persecuted. At times, you may have been one of them. So at the end of the day, you learn sympathy for those who must always exist somewhere outside. You learn how to reach across the boundaries, to grasp for connections where other people have given up, because you know how it feels to be left out. You learn how to listen to the story beyond the surface. You learn the value of every small gesture that strives towards inclusivity. You learn how to become more kind, more empathetic, and more complete.

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