The Highs and Lows

Guest article by Dominique Martinez

St. Edward’s University

I applied for an ETA grant in hopes of further self-discovery and intensive immersion in a completely foreign culture. Now how great does that sound? Sign me up right? Six months into the grant, I’m coming to learn that, like living anywhere, time in Malaysia is a combination of highs and lows. This is an important distinction because I think so often this experience can feel so singularly one or the other. It’s easy to blanket an experience like this with fun selfies, beautiful travel photos, and that one really successful lesson that your students both understood and loved. It can also be easy to fall into the pit of negativity when both your patience and flexibility are constantly stretched from encountering the new hurdles that cultural immersion can throw at you.

There is an underlying pressure to make blogs and other public spheres a place where only the highs are celebrated, either to reassure friends and family back home that everything is fine and dandy, or to convince ourselves. At the start of January, I made a promise to myself that the things I shared publicly would not tell a misleading story of my life here in Malaysia but would share the highs and lows together.  My hope here is to somehow relay to you, the reader, my truest experience while living abroad. As a result, I also hope you too can learn along with me. Like any authentic story, there are ups and downs; both positives and negatives. This is the good, and the bad.

Kelantan is starting to feel like home. Routine is forming, and the pace of school is picking up. The Kelantan Kids are such a solid group of ETAs who make me laugh at all times. The 10 of us agree that one of the best things about being an ETA in Kelantan is our proximity, which allows us to schedule weekly dinners and engage in each others’ communities. Together we’ve been to weddings, BBQ dinners, zumba classes, and community aerobics, found the best burgers, hiked waterfalls, become #1 Red Warrior futbol team fans, and even travelled both outside of the state and country together. That being said, I have skipped a couple of outings with the group just for the sake of staying home. I always feel bad, but I also am steadily trying to get in with my community here because the more I stick around, the more this place feels like home. And the more this place feels like home, the happier and less exhausted I feel.

Kelantan family dinner at a  sedap (delicious) burger stand! 

While things are starting to feel more familiar and “home-like”, I struggled a bit this month with the inconsistency of the school’s schedule. Like when the school had a disciplinary week and I didn’t know that all morning classes were cancelled so that students could sit and listen to police speeches, motivational talks, and anti-drug videos. Or when afternoon classes were cancelled because the school had a surprise fire drill that lasted all afternoon. Or the spontaneous guru-guru (teacher and staff) meetings in the middle of the day which meant teacher-less classes and students hunting me down to ask if I could be a substitute teacher. My mentor, Effah, told me that the random assemblies and class cancellations stop in March, but if I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that schedules in Malaysia are fluid, with less commitment attached. During examination week, a fellow English panel teacher, Kak Dah (Kak is a term for sister, which all the teachers want me to call them) expressed her frustration with how poorly some students did in her class. My mind immediately went back to the the instances of interruption described above. I try to check myself as often as a can. Expressing my vexations with other ETAs help me remember that they stem from a place of comparison to the U.S. education system, when in reality… what do I actually know about the nuances of the education system?

The Bomba (fire department) visits SMK Selising for its first fire drill! No class, just putting out fires for us! 

I’ve started playing on a teacher’s soccer league for Pasir Puteh, my district. From youth to university play, the sport is an integral part of who I am. While the competitiveness in me has burnt out, I still find joy in it and believe that soccer provides a special outlet for cross-cultural communication. I was anxious when I moved to Kelantan because it was unclear if this would be an outlet I could find as a female ETA. When I was invited to play with an all male teacher’s league for my school’s district, I was thrilled – but also nervous about how the aesthetics would play out in my community. Would the women at school approve? Soccer is a contact sport and cross-gender touching (*skin on skin) is heavily discouraged. Would I die of heat exhaustion in my modest track pants and long sleeve shirt layered beneath my jersey? The men frolicked in shorts and took off their t-shirts to change. Would there be concern for how I might do the same? Despite these concerns, the first game turned out to be a major highlight of my time here so far, and was more legitimate than the pickup game I expected: sporting referees, lines, sponsored jerseys and all. Being the only girl brought unwanted attention, but it was still a lot of fun and I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight different ways that women can also represent athleticism and skill. When she saw a photo of me playing with the principal, my school’s previous ETA reached out to encourage me to continue playing if it is something I enjoy, because she saw it as both important and awesome for men and boys in the community to see a woman being competitive in a sport. In the end, I was happy. The men didn’t shy away from competing with me, and the teachers from my school were excited to talk to me about it. “You play futbol? Oooo. The sun! So hot! So brave!” Pictures went through the Guru Guru whatsapp before I could get in the car to go home. After the game, all the men shook hands, and I stayed back – conflicted about wanting to respect rules regarding skin to skin contact, while also wanting to feel a part of the group. A photo shoot with the female ETA who plays futbol followed the game of course, but I don’t think those are ever going to stop. Despite the attire and interactions after the game being uncomfortable, I am motivated to continue to play with the men in my community. At school the following week, all the Form 1 girls followed me to go play futbol during morning P.E. This month is sports carnival, and I convinced the Co-Curricular Vice Principals to let me coach/ref a girls-only futsal tournament (a smaller inside court version of full field futbol).

Three Kelantan ETAs join in a local teacher’s futbol league

When my roommate told me that we were half-way done with our grant, I felt uneasy. How much have I actually accomplished? Am I making the time and money spent on my presence here worth it? As the final ETA at my school, how do I make sure programming set up in the last 3 years is sustainable without the presence of an ETA? It’s easy to judge yourself here as an ETA. Teachers and students pin previous ETA’s personalities, accomplishments, and failures on you, both intentionally and unintentionally. We can become even harder on ourselves when we can see all the incredible things other ETAs are doing via social media. So and so has already had two english camps? These students are hiking A MOUNTAIN? A previous ETA took their kids to another COUNTRY? Why does So & So look like a model in every photo while I’m drenched in my own sweat in my too tight baju kurung? Some of my friends within the cohort excitedly share their unique ideas and successes with me. While I’m incredibly happy for their triumphs, sometimes I can’t help but compare my lack of creativity to their incredible originality. I know I am not alone in these insecurities and concerns, and while comparing myself to the rest of the cohort can be frustrating at times, I am grateful to have this community of fellow ETAs that acts as a sounding board and can relate to the experiences I am having.

Mandatory post-speaking workshop selfie

There are constant battles with the English language as an ETA. On a daily basis someone is apologizing to me for their “broken” or “bad” English. They are often so ashamed about it that they think it is easier to just not speak to me. Some teachers joke that they try to avoid their ETA so that they don’t have to speak English. Whenever a local uses it with me, it is usually followed with an eruption of laughter by other people listening in. I quickly try to affirm the person, “No no, I understand you! I do! You’re speaking great English!” This is incredibly frustrating because after being laughed at, that student or individual is less likely to try again.

This is exhausting. Yet I stay motivated by those breakthrough moments. It’s when a student gets an imported tootsie roll for using the English world of the week/ Or hearing Syakir and Fazly coming in a dead sprint to my office screaming “Miss Dominique!” down the hall, just to say “Hi.”  Or when a random student peaks into my office 3 different times during lunch, eventually scrounging up the courage to come in and say “Good morning, teacher!” “Oh! Is it morning time?” -giggles ensue- “Good afternoon Teacher!” Or when Class 1A continues to amaze me by agreeing to do a English Day skit in front of the entire school. Or when I give an “English Speaking award” at camp to a student who needs an extra confidence boost and notice that they start to greet me more. These moments make the exhaustion worth it.

Four form one students finally stop running away when I spot them peeking through the office door

For me, the highs are rich and plentiful if I choose to see them. Even the best things can be tinged with a little bit of negative, and those better things always make the lowest of the lows worth it. Every day is not one or the other, but together, you get the Fulbright ETA experience.

Selamat Hari Raya from Pasir Puteh! 

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