Whirlwind. That single word is how I can best describe my life these past 3 weeks. So many fascinating, delicious, and even anxiety-producing events have occurred since I was able to last post, I’m not sure where to start. Not only that, I’m actually having difficulty recalling all that I’ve seen and participated in as an ETA in training. Sitting here in my temporary hotel bedroom, I realize that this moment is one of the first where I have had time to reflect on the craziness of my time in Malaysia thus far. So, with my journal spread out in front of me, pictures of Tucker, my family, and sentimental notes sprawling out from the cover, I’m going to do my best to paint a picture of what Malaysia has had in store for me so far.
The majority of my time has been spent in the Royale Chulan hotel for orientation presentations, activities, and planning events. A multitude of speakers from the U.S. Embassy, Malaysian government, former Peace Corps volunteers, Teach for Malaysia members, and a local celebrity have taken time to give us their insight on every aspect of Malaysia imaginable. I have absorbed information about Malaysia’s religious diversity, road safety, education policies, environmental and health issues, the Fulbright program’s history in the country, government policies, and even how many of its residents are using Facebook and Twitter (which is a shocking 50%). Although all of the information was useful and relevant, I found a few things to be notable:
- The ETA program in Malaysia is the 4th largest in the world.
- Malaysia is primarily comprised of ethnically Malay, Indian, and Chinese residents. However, the definition (by law) of a Malay is a person who speaks Bahasa Malaysia, is muslim, and practices the Malaysian culture. Many tensions have risen between Malaysian residents because religion is so politicized.
- All Malaysian schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. The MOE strictly enforces curriculum based teaching, and therefore standardized testing, to literally determine the future of Malaysian youths by placing them in specific subject tracks based on their grades.
- Before the major exams are taken (during grades 9 and 11), students will pass onto the next grade even if they do not understand the material and have technically failed that grade.
I had not known much of this before coming to Malaysia to start my grant. I definitely do not agree with many aspects of the Malaysian school system thus far. However, I understand now how beneficial the Fulbright program could be for these students. I have such a unique opportunity to help my students improve their english by stepping away from the curriculum, and focus on helping them learn in ways that they know how. I’m not even talking about lesson plans here. I will be leading clubs, sports teams, and whatever else it takes to just get my students talking in english. By interacting with them outside of the classroom, I believe my students will see that english isn’t scary, and not something that needs to be absorbed solely within the confines of their desk and classroom walls. I am SO looking forward to meeting my students and getting to work.
Thankfully I have been able to do so much more outside of sitting in the freezing (yes, freezing) Penthouse of my previous hotel. I was able to visit the National Mosque, explore Little India, be sprayed by the Kuala Lumpur City Center fountain lights show, and trek through the jungle to the Gombak Jungle Lodge. The National Mosque (Masjid Negara) was built in 1965. The tour guide informed me that every Friday, the mosque overflows with around 3,000 Muslim worshipers. We were able to explore the prayer room upstairs, which is where women are allowed to pray if they choose.
Little India, a.k.a. Brickfields, is a vibrant and bustling section of KL. It’s my favorite place to go for chapati wraps and teh tarik, or pulled tea. Watching them pull the tea is so entertaining! It’s amazing that not a single drop of the sweet beverage is spilled. We came across a Hindu shrine in the middle of a back alley that was covered in offerings of limes and oranges.
The KLCC fountain lights show was spectacular! Onlookers lined all around the shallow fountain, mystified by the flashing lights and spraying water. I was particularly intrigued by one little boy who was having his own little party during the show. As I was watching the boy, I was apparently also being watched. A European tourist tapped me on the shoulder to show me a picture he had taken of my silhouette against the bright lights.
The Gombak Jungle Lodge trip was absolutely my favorite day of orientation. I arose bright and early to travel far from the bustle of KL into the beginning of the rainforest. We trekked from the lodge to an incredible double waterfall, where I was able to climb to the top with a few other brave ETA’s. Some of my peers were nervous about the various species of leeches that could burrow into your stomach and eventually eat away your brain. How does one keep the leeches from eating you alive? Salt and fire: two items that have now been added to my hiking bag.
The final thing I’ll tell you all about was my experience at Thaipusam. Thaipusam is in annual pilgrimage of Hindu devotees starting from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown to the Batu Caves just outside of KL. The celebration revolves around Lord Murugan. Those who observe Thaipusam repent for their sins and demonstrate their devotion by carrying jugs of milk in Kavadi and pouring them on a statue of Murugan in the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple inside the caves. Others participate in self-mutilation by piercing or hooking their faces and backs, thereby allowing items to be hung from their bodies. Others carry enormous mobile shrines to the temple, with several friends following close behind to provide a stool and support when the shrines because too burdensome. Did I mention that all of these rituals occur while walking up 272 narrow, concrete steps into the caves? The celebration I went to is the largest gathering of Thaipusam devotees in the world. Last year, over 2 millions Hindus and observers came together for this festival. After my own experience, I definitely believe that many people had passed through the temple caves as I had. The experience was bizarre and foreign to say the least, and I feel incredibly lucky I was here in time to experience it.