A Birthday Unlike Any Other

Guest Article Written by Tristan Olson 
Western Washington University, WA

Birthdays are special in American culture, no matter where you are, but I think being in Malaysia added something that I wasn’t expecting: I was surprised people cared. It sounds weird, because I know people care about me here, but it’s true. Being an ETA, you have so many small wonderful moments with students and teachers that you hope add up to mean something, but until this day I never really knew if they did mean anything. I have made many wonderful friendships that I am sure will continue on throughout the years in some capacity, but whether or not people really cared about me wasn’t ever on my mind. Six months had gone by and all I had really thought about was if I was doing things right. Was I offending anyone? Was I sticking out too much and not paying attention to my privilege? So when my birthday rolled around on June 29th, I knew some celebration might happen, but I wasn’t expecting or waiting for it.

I am an ETA in Sibu, Sarawak where I often practice Ultimate Frisbee with the students above!

I was sitting at my desk surrounded by small Malaysian and American flags with a fresh snack ready to eat courtesy of Mdm Su who sits behind me, when my mentor, Mdm Ting, told me that the principal wanted to see me. I had meant to request several days off for the next week and hadn’t yet talked to my principal about it, so I thought now would be a spectacular time. The meeting started out normal enough with her asking me questions about a dance camp that was coming up, but soon the conversation took a turn. She started asking about when my family would come to visit and if I was planning to take those days off too. I told her I was…because they were weekends…and I didn’t need to take them off technically to leave? She straight up told me that I should be spending more time in the community and my heart dropped. All thoughts of asking for more days off with simply a week notice began to slip from my mind and all of the money I had already spent on airline tickets filled my brain. Make no mistake, I was still going to travel, but now it was going to be messy. Everything I had worked so hard to build, all the cultural capital I had gained was going to be wasted on this. Before I could really figure out what to say she asked me about an English notice board I said I was going to create that week. It was something I hadn’t even gotten close to finishing and as we walked from the office to go look my failure I could see the shock and apologetic eyes of my fellow teachers surrounding me. Ones who had planned to help me with the board, yet were too busy themselves, watched helplessly as we trudged on to this horrible conclusion.

A typical poetry writing lesson with Form 1.
My principal flung the doors open to walk outside and where I expected to see the empty air, as empty as my half-baked English board idea, was instead a crowd full of students and teachers who all at once screamed in my face “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” Balloons were dropped, hollers of “gotcha!” rang in my ear, and one of my form 4 boys shot off a confetti cannon almost giving me a heart attack!

Me getting all choked up at the surprise party.

I caught my breath, laughed and smiled along with everyone, and felt that maybe I should say a few words given that there were about 50 people staring directly at my dumb face. So I started with a simple thank you, and as I continued on my throat started to close up and it took me a second to realize that this wasn’t some random cough, but that I was actually, without any forewarning from my brain, very emotional. I tried to get out my words and fan away forming tears while everyone laughed and aww’d around me, which was a ridiculous sight I’m sure. But it got even better when I saw that the cake they had gotten me was one done up like the Mexican flag (Mexico was the team I had told my students and teachers that me and some other ETAs were rooting for in the World Cup). As we walked to the canteen to take part in this Mexico green frosting cake, one of my students walked along with me and asked “Are you going to cry?” to which I replied that I thought I was good now. She just looked back at me unconvinced and said “I hope you cry”. It’s still one of the funniest small interactions I’ve had with my students, and one that I’m still thinking about all these weeks later. “I hope you cry”, even just meant as a joke, told me so much. What that phrase seemed to say was not simply, “You should cry”, but that “I hope we see how much you’re going to miss this place and us.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe I want there to be a meaning in this small little joke that simply isn’t there. But on the other hand, maybe I’m not. Maybe I was so caught up in whether or not I was making a difference that I didn’t stop to show these people that they were making a difference in me too. I’m never going to forget this year, I’m never going to forget these teachers, and I’m never going to forget these students. July held a lot of memorable moments for me from music festivals to mountain climbing, all the way to a trip with my students to Kuala Lumpur for the weekend on their first airplane! 

Goofing around during science day with Form 3 and Cikgu Siti.

With each memory, I felt happier, closer to the people around me, and more at home here in Malaysia. I know I’m still very much an outsider, I still have bad days, and I still fret about how I’m being perceived by those around me. However, ever since that day in June, something has changed, a metaphorical showing of cards as both parties put it all on the table. I knew that when I left Malaysia I would miss all of the memories I had made here, but now I know I’ll miss the ability to keep making new memories just as much. Change is so subtle that you don’t notice anything is different until one day you wake up in your bed at 5:45am, which you’ve done a hundred times, and as you stumble around in the dark getting ready for school you realize “I’m going to miss this.” And all of a sudden, you’re two and a half months away from the end of the best year of your life.

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