Guest article by Matt Fernandes
A couple months ago, I spent a lot of time reading about giraffes. Giraffes in captivity sleep about four hours a day. Wild adult giraffes apparently can sleep in short, restless bursts, only about 5 minutes at a time to lower vulnerability to predators. Many giraffes even stand up when they sleep.
In terms of sleeping patterns, I had something in common with zoo giraffes for a while. At first I attributed the insomnia to the persistent heat, or late nights planning lessons. But these explanations merely floated on the surface. Looking for its true source took me back to a fishing trip.
Back in February, my roommate and I went fishing with another teacher from school, to whom I’ll refer as Z. Z met us early and bought us a warm breakfast of nasi lemak at a food stall off the main road. We then shoved off for a pond near a village called Kampung Bharu. The earthy pond extended across a small enclosure sheltered from the main road by rows of vibrant palm oil trees. A gregarious older man managed the pond, collecting a few ringgit as we entered. We set up shop at a cement bench a few yards away from the water’s edge. Z gathered our fishing materials and set up the bait, which he rolled into oily clumps about the fish hooks. I pulled out my Canon to start taking pictures and videos.
|Matt coaches students for a short film competition.|
My Canon T5i has been a major figure in the story of my Fulbright. Before I arrived in Malaysia I decided to record a little bit of each experience, so that by the end of the year I would have a comprehensive visual diary of the grant. I fished it out of its bag at the pond, asking if it was okay to take pictures. Z said yes, so I took a couple shots of him working the bait in his hands. Once the hooks were properly baited, Z showed us how to cast. We threw out our lines and we proceeded to play the waiting game. After an hour we had reeled in a couple catfish.
Z began preparing more bait and I pulled out my camera again. Got another shot of him rolling the bait onto the hooks. That’s when I caught it: a pause and a quick flick of his eyes to my camera’s iris. So brief that I only noticed it while sorting through footage later that day. The gesture was clear, however; he was keenly aware of being watched.
I noticed the same response to my Canon at a district soccer tournament. My students hailed me with an excited, “Mr. Matt!” as I walked up the bleachers. “You take our photo today?” My students love pictures, especially selfies. I snapped a few team photos. While reviewing them later on, I noticed that the soccer coach, leaning against a fence, saw I was filming him, stiffened, and glanced back into my mechanical gaze. Almost as if he didn’t want me to see that he knew he was being filmed.
At that moment I realized I had overlooked something that should have been blatant: I would be filming real people. From Malaysia. My story would have to borrow from the lives and experiences of the people in my new community. And when I pulled out my camera, even if I received approval, some people in the community would become uncomfortable. For many nights I lay awake, fitful and sweaty, thinking about this. I wondered if it had to do with the fact that I was pointing a camera at people in a country where pointing is generally seen as aggressive. I wondered if I was taking this all too seriously – if some people just don’t like being filmed. But it’s not like I’m filming a family wedding back in the US. Teaching English in Malaysia as a white American man has much deeper, more tangled roots.
A few weeks after the fishing trip I was chatting about family origins with a friend from my school. He wanted to know where my family was from, so I told him that my father’s family came to the US from Spain and Portugal, while my mother’s came from Italy and England. He then jeered, “Oh, Mr. Matt is our emperor!” with a full, hearty laugh. I had listed from my own ancestry Portugal and England. Two of Malaysia’s former colonizers.
I thought about this exchange every day afterward. I still do. Because the truth is that I am wrapped in a narrative of domineering contact bred in my blood and bones. The camera I brought to tell my story, the very practice of telling that story, engages with those notions of colonialism and power. Every picture, even playful videos of students practicing participles, becomes an artifact within an ignominious legacy of usurpation.
This all brings to bear troubling questions: Is there a way to do my job responsibly, carefully, thoughtfully? Is my role here inextricably sutured to colonialism?
I am confident at this point that you’re wondering how we got here from fun facts about giraffes. And if I have answers for these questions. Unfortunately, I don’t. I still have a lot to learn. But that’s the point: I am supposed to be learning. Living and teaching in Malaysia has forced me to confront my history, a violent heritage filled with stories of ownership, domination, cruelty, assumed superiority, and later denial. And this last term seems to be the simplest crime I could commit as an English teacher abroad. To say, “that’s not me,” or, “well not all of us are like that.” To reject the existence of antagonism rather than confronting it and thereby accepting some role in it. It would be simple for me to tuck myself away like a giraffe winding its neck behind itself in intermittent sleep, lowering the chance of social vulnerability.
If I have learned anything from my time as a Fulbrighter, it’s that I cannot be like a giraffe. It’s far too easy to be unconscious of my history and its continued relevance to both my teaching responsibilities and my efforts to record my experiences visually. I cannotbe like a giraffe.
I cannot sleep standing up.