It Depends on Your Placement

Guest article by Nathan Stauffer
University of Pennsylvania 

It depends on your placement.

If you are fortunate enough to be selected as a Fulbright ETA in Malaysia, that phrase will plague your thoughts from the day you receive your grant letter until the second week of in-country orientation. At first, it may excite you because of the exhilarating uncertainty and breadth of opportunities it represents. However, as time ticks on and anxieties rear their unwelcome heads, those five fickle, generic, redundant words will seem to taunt you, forcing you to question whether you are truly prepared for what your new home has in store.

Once settled into your new community, you will understand why this was the rote answer given by the good folks at MACEE to the many questions asked by the nervous members of your cohort. After all, Malaysia is an extraordinarily diverse country in every sense of the word: ethnically, racially, religiously, geographically, biologically. Heck, even the drink menu at the mamak stalls is diverse. Thus, with a hundred ETAs placed in a hundred different schools around the nation, it is inevitable that we will come away with a hundred different perspectives on this unique and brilliant place.
Nate shows his students where he is from using a map of the Untied States 

This diversity is the most commonly cited reason among my cohort for wanting to come to Malaysia. As another ETA, Naja Pulliam-Collins, masterfully wrote: “If the United States is a melting pot—all its cultures blending, bleeding, and fusing into one; then Malaysia is a massive feast—every culture’s complex flavors boasting their own greatness, sliding right up to one another, yet all existing on the same table in an intricate and delicate balance.” This makes living here a consistent joy and a constant adventure, as you never know just what you will find when you turn the next corner. At the same time, it is frequently overwhelming and somewhat discouraging to realize that, no matter what, you will never get to experience it all. Even the Malaysians in our communities will probably never be able to explore all their country has to offer. Personally, I also happen to be placed in a 100% Muslim Malay community and, as such, have very limited access to the country’s large populations of Chinese, Indian, and indigenous peoples.

Disheartening as that can sometimes be, I also truly feel lucky to be working here at this particular moment in time. Politics aside, one can easily assert that tensions often run high when Islam is discussed in the U.S. today. Most Americans would probably not even recognize Malaysia as a majority-Muslim country, but most Muslim Malays I have met here certainly recognize the Islamophobic rhetoric being broadcast by many U.S outlets. Having the opportunity to represent the United States and combat these perceptions is a privilege inherently wrapped in privilege.

Watch out, Ellen! Nate’s Selfies might break the internet

The ETA cohort covers a large swath of America’s identities, but we are each an individual case study within our own communities. This can sometimes lead to a feeling of immense pressure as, given our foreign status, we must be constantly cognizant of how we are presenting ourselves. However, it also affords us an invaluable chance to share our own unique identities as one small part of the incredible diversity of the United States. In the process, we are led to personally reflect on how we fit within the complex framework of the American national identity. In return, each person we interact with here broadens our understanding of the equally astonishing diversity of Malaysia. This opportunity for exchange – representing one piece of the multifaceted American whole while synthesizing our own unified understanding of the diverse country in which we currently reside – is, for many of us the greatest gift we will receive in our young lives.

As a wise pak cik once said, with great power comes great responsibility. In our case, “great” may be interpreted to mean that our job does not end when our grant year is over. On one level, this entails sharing our stories and photos from our year abroad with our loved ones when we are back stateside. However, on a broader scale, it is a lifelong obligation. We’re young and, while we have varying degrees of confidence regarding our future career paths, we all have a long way still to go. Wherever our lives may take us from here forth, we can use these relationships and experiences to inform our passions and our treatment of others. We can spread messages of open-mindedness and pass on the hospitality that has been shown to us here. Make no mistake: a Fulbright grant is not a gap year. It is a foundational one.

Form 1 boys, tired of listening to Nate speaking English

But for now, and for the next seven months, we must continue to take it one day, one uncomfortable cultural gaffe, one conversation, one new name learned at a time. We work to shape the way we want to be remembered here while we still can.

To end on a related note, an anecdote: when I first told my students I come from Philadelphia, they gave me puzzled stares. “Is that near Hollywood, Sir?” they asked innocently. I knew I needed to find a simple way to introduce it to them.

In my mind, I played through all the things typically associated with the Philly identity: cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, Wawa, the Liberty Bell, Rocky Balboa. Believe me, I love all that stuff – what I would give for a Pat’s “whiz-wit” right now – but I am likely the only Philadelphian these kids will ever meet, and this was my chance to introduce my city to them.

“Well, in America, we call Philly the ‘City of Brotherly Love’. I come from a place where we believe all people should show kindness and respect to one another.”

The students’ faces lit up upon hearing this. Yet, while I am delighted this got through to them, internally I am saddened to know otherwise – to realize that I come from a country where “brotherly love” is often preached much more than it is practiced, where we would rather be seen as “great” in our own eyes than in the eyes of others, where for many equality always seems just out of reach. I long for a day when my country will treat others the way my Malaysian hosts have treated me – with the utmost respect and kindness all humans deserve.

Some things should never depend on your placement. 

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