All the (ETA) World’s a Stage

Erin Shaw
University of North Carolina at Asheville

The end of the grant is starting to creep up over the horizon. In one more month, bags will be packed, the trusty Nissan Almera with a deceptively wide turning radius will be returned to the rental agency, and pre-loved baju kurungs will be boxed up for the next year’s ETAs. I’ll say good-bye to my cozy little lizard-ridden home in Mentakab and wave a final farewell to this beautiful community that has shown me unanticipated amounts of kindness and generosity. I’ll return home to my parents’ own cozy little home in rural North Carolina, a place with much fewer lizards but significantly more grandaddy longlegs.
An Almera and art supplies: essential tools for any ETA

More things I will say good-bye to: my extraordinary mentor, who has endless patience and an equally endless supply of snacks; a school whose soundtrack is a constant hum of sudah makan?; neighborhood children turned self-appointed parking attendants who escort me to my own driveway.

More things I will return to: sleeveless tops; driving on the right side of the road; a depressing scarcity of tea breaks and curry puffs.

Most importantly, I will return to my family and friends. I’ve missed them a lot, and there’s a lot to catch up on. Sure, we have talked throughout the year, but there is something about face to face interaction that is more cathartic than video chats. I have so much to convey about my experiences here, but… I just don’t know where to start. How do I summarize my experience into palatable morsels when I’m not even sure what my experience means to me?
My beautiful school community on Teacher’s Day
In terms of my ETA role, I feel content with my year, and I hope my school does too. I didn’t do anything for the ETA history books, but I played a lot of games, laughed with a lot of kids, ate a lot of food, and enjoyed the simple human interactions that make life warm and worthwhile. I was able to teach about my interests, like outer space and bold women. I was also able to learn a few things from my community, such as how to cook tom yam soup, and the gentler, more roundabout ways of expressing “I disagree.” I was given a tiny window of insight into the complexities of race and hierarchy in Malaysia. I learned a little more about my own privilege, and that because of my race, my “American-ness” goes unquestioned, an admission that is not always granted equally to all ETAs. I learned more about Islam and how it is practiced in Malaysia. I’m thankful for these opportunities to learn and unlearn. In terms of my relationship with the external world surrounding me, I feel that this year has been fulfilling.

However, as an individual, and in relation to my own internal world, I’m not sure what this year means for me.

The problem is that at various points in the year, the month, the week, the day, and the hour, I feel like I am acting. I don’t always feel like myself. I don’t know if I am truly growing, or just acting a part that I will discard after the grant is finished.

Some examples: Honestly, sometimes my baju kurung makes me feel like I’m wearing a costume. I try to be pleasant when a well-meaning teacher shoves rice and fish towards me, but actually all I wanted was chicken and sambal and I feel frustrated by even the smallest props being out of my control. I put on a happy face when I am dragged to the front of the Zumba class, even though I’m actually mortified, and just want to dance badly in peace. When asked about my religion, I give an evasive and scripted answer about being brought up as a Methodist. When a Malaysian person says something that sounds offensive to my American ears, I lose the script and don’t know if it is a time to listen and contemplate, or communicate and engage.

I feel pressure to be pleasant all of the time, to be agreeable, to the point where I am not a fully dynamic person, but instead a character made only of optimism, joy, and an infinite number of English word games.

Halloween Camp! 

On the other hand, maybe these past several months have given me an opportunity to nourish a new set of skills. It is true that my work wardrobe is dominated by ill-fitting baju kurung, but to be fair, that is true for a lot of lady ETAs (sorry y’all, you look great today). And anyway, maybe my unflattering wardrobe has helped me project my confidence through body language rather than clothing choice. As for the fish, well, community is built through food, one unsolicited fish at a time. Being forced to the front of the Zumba class was uncomfortable for me, but it was a step forward in overcoming my perpetual “malu malu kucing” status. Religion and politics always have to be navigated carefully, and maybe traversing these subjects across cultural differences will make it easier to engage with people at home about these same topics.

But, this question of authentically representing myself goes deeper than day to day inconveniences. There are times when I question the entire social life that I’ve built for myself here. Sometimes I feel like I give my community my LinkedIn self, not my truer, more authentic, midnight Google searches self, and as a result of that, the relationships I’ve cultivated here are destined to be superficial (cue existential crisis).

But that doesn’t invalidate the joys we have experienced together. Maybe we don’t have to know everything about each other in order to forge a relationship. When I reflect on all of the conversations, big and small, that fill up my daily life, I realize that I have experienced a cherished handful of moments of sincere human connection, perhaps about miscommunications with a family member, or uncertainty about the future, or what it feels like to fall in love. Sometimes, I’ve been really lucky, and little pieces of raw confession manage to vault over the language barriers and dodge cultural differences, allowing for mutual exchanges of truth. Maybe it is worth it, to endure a lifetime’s worth of inquiries about how I find the weather here and if the food is too spicy for me, for those few moments of honesty.
Do my kids love glitter as much as I do?? 
I don’t want to paint Malaysia simply as a backdrop to self-discovery. To do so would be to reduce Malaysia to a tool for my own betterment, a prop as two-dimensional as my own acting ability. On bad days, when lessons fail and communication breaks down, I feel like I forgot my lines and I’m frozen in the spotlight, unsure if I should be Erin the ETA or Erin the human being. But on great days, of which there have been quite a few, I reflect on this inner turmoil I have, and I think to myself, jeez, I’m having a crisis about feeling the need to be pleasant. Get a grip.

My time here has filled my heart, but it is not like in the movies; I have not experienced any ground-breaking insights about myself, especially not at the behest of any mystical cabbies or sage grandmas, and Morgan Freeman didn’t enter my life even once (unfortunately).

A quick selfie before their big dance performance! 
So, am I growing, or acting? Becoming a fuller person, or just compartmentalizing myself? Is this a new and improved Erin, more adept at finding her way around the myriad of odd or unfamiliar situations that life can conjure up? Or am I just wearing a mask that I will rip off quicker than I can undo the modesty button on my baju?

I think I will only know the answer after some time has passed, and I can see my time in Malaysia as a single and continuous experience. But that’s okay. It was never Malaysia’s job to feed my spirit or make me a more whole person.  It was my job to come here and try to be engaged with my school and my community, and I’m still doing that as best as I can with what little time we have left together.

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