The Hats We Wear

Guest Article by Kayla Sweeney
Western Kentucky University

I’m convinced months have fewer days here in Malaysia, although the hours sometimes pass like a humid, slow-motion film.

There is much I cannot form into words yet. The constant but slow processing that happens as we learn from the students in front of us, the mountains stretched above us, the cultural festivals, holidays and celebrations, the ‘so much’ that is living abroad.

But people will ask: “What do you do as an ETA?” 

“Why of course, I teach English and aim to foster cultural understanding.” Right, that’s it. The end.

I’m sure something like that is on the website and both of those things are certainly true.

What we actually do as ETAs cannot be succinctly written in a bulleted job description. We wear a lot of hats—some normal and some wacky and unconventional. Some roles are concrete, but others are fluid, changing depending on the needs of our schools, the things we’re figuring out about our communities, and the messiness of life in general.

Kayla with her favorite class
But, in an attempt to give you a glimpse of what happens in the life of one particular ETA living in Malaysia, here are (in Buzzfeed style) the Top 10 Unexpected Hats I have worn since January:

1.       The Dance Teacher Hat: 

Two words no one would ever use to describe me are coordinated and graceful. But when I was asked to train students for a special performance, the dance shoes came out. After my bedroom mirror and I prepared the moves and grooves, I gathered my group of girls. We had uncountable afternoons of meeting, sweating, dancing, sweating some more, singing, and laughing. Hari Guru (Teacher’s Day) was May 16th and they worked so hard to prepare for an all-about-teachers performance. After months of tweaking our parody songs and movements, they came to school in their traditional clothing, ready for selfies and the spotlight. Hari Guru is like Teacher Appreciation Day Extreme Edition—elaborate feasts are prepared, gifts are distributed, and performances fill the day. The students love it, the teachers love it, and the SMK Simpang 2016 ETA definitely loved it.

The group of dancers before the Hari Guru celebration 
2.       The Choral Speaking Coach Hat

Go ahead, type “choral speaking” into Youtube. You will think it’s cute.  

If you don’t want to Youtube it: Basically choral speaking is a drama performance in which students stand in rows and speak chorally, using movements and specific intonation to tell a story or make a point. It is like a speech symphony with movement, with certain sections swaying and speaking at once, or the whole group moving in unison as their voices lower and crescendo. Students practice their vocabulary, intonation and pronunciation skills at great lengths in choral speaking and really learn to step out in confidence. My team is made up of Form 1 and 2 students (13 and 14 year old’s), and together they have prepared two special performances.

A common thought I have in Malaysia is, “What in the world am I doing right now?” This happens a lot in choral speaking. I had never heard of it until I applied to Fulbright. But there is a lesson to be learned in this: You learn and grow with your students, and when you don’t know what you are doing, kids really show that they are the ones who know how to steal the show.

3.       The Camp Hat: 

All the excellent Perak ETAs at their “Friend It Forward” State Camp.

ETAs sometimes work 8 days a week, but I think most of us really like it. Approximately every other Saturday I put on my black workout pants and my Fulbright shirt and get ready for camp with the other ETAs in my state. Peer Mentoring Camp, President’s Day Camp, Amazing Race Camp, Arts & Crafts Camp, Frozen Camp, Family Day Camp, and Star Wars Camp have been some of the themes ETAs in my state created this year. Roles for these Saturdays include leading various English activities, singing all the songs on Malaysia’s top hits list, getting kids to yell as loud as they can, and of course posing for 1,000 selfies at the end of the day.

It’s hard work and exhausting and one of my favorite things we do.

4.       The Homesick Hat

Homesickness hits pretty hard at a couple points each month. It shouldn’t be an unexpected hat, but it always is when it comes. As much as I love teaching and living here, there are days when I really want to hug my family, eat some cheese, and be back in the familiar community of home. We post the selfies with our kids, the ocean water we get to see occasionally, or the outings we have with other ETAs. What people don’t see is when I am sitting with my towel on my head listening to messages from home over and over again, or when a letter tears because it has been read so many times.

5.       The Elephant Caretaker Hat: 

Kayla and other ETAs get splashed at the Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang 
I only wore this hat once but it was unforgettable. During an adventurous weekend to Pahang (another state in Peninsular Malaysia), a group of girls and I went from watching elephants at an Elephant sanctuary to making the baby elephant bottles of milk, swimming with the baby elephant, making dinner for a group of elephants, etc. It was one of the best days of the year. Not all ETAs have this exact experience, but I would say we all have moments that leave us in as much awe. Climbing a mountain. Trekking through the jungle. Looking up at ancient ruins. The other side of the world was hidden to most of us for so long, and these glimpses leave you hungry to learn.

6.       The Birthday Hat: 

Kayla, Jess, and a teacher at Kayla’s surprise birthday party 
As you can see, this one was a literal hat. My birthday morning started out with me in an empty classroom, feeling sorry for myself because I was missing home. But the rest of the day was so sweet thanks to my awesome roommate, my mentor, and a group of my favorite kids who surprised me twice in one day—once at school, and later at the pasar malam (night market). My community humbles me often with the love they show me. Despite the cultural misunderstandings we have at times, there is the intimacy of having a student stick cake in your mouth, walking around to food stalls arm in arm, or blowing out candles with all your favorite co-teachers.

Jess lights the candles for Kayla’s surprise party
7.       The Scholarship Adviser Hat: 

One of the neatest experiences of the year thus far was sitting across from students who were applying to a program in America. It only increased my gratitude for my adviser who helped me prepare for Fulbright. It is a unique experience to work with students through their hesitations and build their essays and applications with them. You begin peeling away students’ exteriors – their desire to wear Eiffel Tower shirts and amazement at snow – to find that their hunger to see and grow comes from deeper places than mere curiosity. My roommate and I sat in the car after these work sessions and would talk about the amazement we had for our kids—and of course, about the possibility of seeing them in the States! Seeing even hints of that hunger made me eager for them not only to move across the world, if they received the opportunity, but also to learn what it means to take the risk and apply, to know that you didn’t waste your opportunity.

Kayla with Amutha, a scholarship applicant who stayed after school every day to prepare.
8.       The Engagement and Wedding Hat

I have attended four weddings and two traditional engagements since being here!  We can never jump to full cultural understanding in the limited time we have here, but these events are great opportunities to enter into crucial cultural events and to try to learn about the traditions and beliefs that have shaped them. This also means we get to wear traditional clothing (sarees in the picture below), dig our fingers into lots of rice, and sometimes dance (when no one is watching).

Kayla and her roommate Jess at a wedding. 
9.       The Learner Hat: 

Part of our job is building cultural understanding, and in order to do that, we must always be learners. There is no room for passive listening in this experience. Our feet are on the ground of new things we haven’t seen, heard, or spoken about before. We are asked questions by our communities that we have to find our answers to. We are considered American ambassadors in a time when we may unsure how to represent certain things about America. This hat requires humility, but it is immeasurably valuable.

10.    The Almost-There Hat: 

This hat is beyond unexpected. We are over seven months in. Orientation feels like three days ago. There is still so much to learn, so much to discover, and so many hats to wear.
This is the condensed, highlighted edition of everything. They told us in orientation and we should have believed them: every ETA experience is different. But in each one are the layers of teaching English and building cultural understanding – and growing and learning and eating a lot of rice as you do so. 

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