I’m quickly discovering that being a teacher is no walk on the beach, especially if you are working under Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. My fellow teachers spend an absurd amount of time completing paperwork detailing all of their lesson plans, student demographic reports, project proposals, student evaluations, what they ate for lunch that day, and about 100 other things that will most likely be filed away and go unread. “It’s for the report” is the most common phrase that comes out of our mentors’ mouths. Although I don’t have as much of this silly paperwork stuff to do as some of the other teachers, I have been feeling overwhelmed with the other tasks for school that I have on my plate. Because the teachers have to dedicate so much time to malarkey that isn’t actually teaching, their lesson plans almost always come directly from the government-mandated curriculum. The curriculum and I don’t get along very well: it thinks the students should sit in their desks all period, listen to the teacher talk at them about a picture in their workbook, and then complete a tedious and unimaginative worksheet or read a passage that completely fails to engage them…
That is not how Miss Emily’s classroom works. Every night, I individually plan lessons based on the needs of the students in my classes. Considering that in one class, I might have a student who can tell me that “water is transparent, and the basis of life for all living things”, and another who cannot answer the question “How are you?”, my lesson-planning hasn’t come as easily as I had hoped it would. The stress of creating engaging and effective lessons, along with many other daily stresses I experience here that I would not if I was home, is enough to make me wonder sometimes why I signed up to move away from everyone I love, to a place where my being able to function is at the mercy of English-speaking locals, and where there is no Chipotle.
But then, something happens. Little things happen to me every single day that stop me in my tracks and completely restore my wavering faith in myself. They crash into me like a wave, and keep me floating through the periods when I feel like I’m being sucked out to sea. Here is just a taste of the positivity and happiness that has graced my life on a daily basis in Sarawak.
Chocolate and consideration: The way to a woman’s heart
I began teaching on February 2, four days after my twenty-third birthday had passed. On my first day, hoards of students surrounded me the second I stepped into any public area, bombarding me with questions about the U.S., how I find Malaysia, and if I know what K-Pop is. One of my classes asked when my birthday was, and upon hearing that it was just a few days ago, two of my students told me they would bring me a cake the next day. What I thought was merely a sweet (PUN!) but empty promise turned out to be two mini chocolate cakes sitting on my desk the next morning.
The past few weeks, I have been assisting with petanque practice after school, which is basically Malaysian bocce ball that is played on gravel instead of at the beach. The students that play petanque are from one of my older, very out-going classes on Thursday. We have a blast in class, and usually end up chatting about completely random topics. As part of a conversation that I don’t entirely remember, I remember telling this class that I love chocolate more than life, and if they bring me chocolate I would love them forever. Little did they know, I will love them forever anyways, but I had to give them a little incentive, right? Of course, I thought nothing of this comment, and was sure none of the students really did either. Wrong again. That same afternoon at petanque practice, one of my favorite students, who goes by the name of E-one, walked in my direction. E-one is one of the school photographers, and is rarely seen without his camera in hand. E-one paced his tripod directly in front of me, clearly filming me feeling slightly awkward about looking like a disgusting sweat ball on camera. Before I could tell him he’s not allowed to film me looking like I had just given birth, he pulled out a Kit Kat bar and gave it to me. His goal was to capture the mixture of surprise and delight that instantly washed over my face at that moment. The generosity of my students absolutely blows me away. I don’t think my students have any idea how uplifted and appreciative I am of them. The next week I returned the favor and brought E-one a candy bar, to which he happily asked, “Miss, is this special? Just for me?” You got it, buddy.
A beautiful friendship
Last week, I conducted a lesson on friendship for a few of my classes. Classes were held outside, where the students sat in a circle, discussed what they liked about their friends, participated in “Fast Friends” aka speed dating, and made a card or origami for a new friend they made (a surprising amount of my students are really good at origami, and most of them gave their creations to me! Thanks for the free desk decorations, kiddos). During their discussion on what they liked about their friends, I had the students pair up and talk one-on-one. Two sweet girls blew me away with what they said to each other. While holding hands and with smiles from ear to ear, their conversation went something like this: “You are my friend because you are so kind and beautiful, and you help me when I have problems. I want you to know today that I love you and that I want our friendship to continue forever.” MY HEART BLEW UP. I regret more than anything not having my camera to take a picture of these two beautiful girls, but I know I will never forget the look in their eyes when they spoke to each other. The held nothing back, and meant every single word they said to each other. The genuineness of their friendship continues to brighten my spirits.
“It’s always ourself we find in the sea”
Thanks to some new British friends here in Sarawak, my roommate Alex and I were able to hitch a ride to a party on the incredibly deserted Stoh beach. Peter said there would be several older expats in attendance, and given that the weather was looking particularly volatile, I wasn’t sure what to make of this party. But who am I to pass up an entire day of grilling on the beach and enjoying a personal bottle of cheap Chardonnay? The drive alone was completely stimulating, and enough to make me feel like I was in the Jungle Book, which I pretty much am. After a short ferry ride across a river lined with beautifully healthy mangrove trees, we rode onto the packed sand of Stoh beach. The tide was out, and the beach was completely deserted save for our misfit group of about 12 people.
Side note: A chicken and a scorpion are two animals that I never thought I would see on a beach.
Peter was right: there were several party-goers whose age was at least double mine, maybe even close to triple. I’m not even sure if everyone, besides Alex and I, knew each other. No matter though, we all had a full day of BBQ, story-swapping, wine, and playing with drones that had a bad habit of getting stuck in the surrounding trees. Our group was from all over: U.S., U.K., South Africa, Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), and of course Malaysia. Two of my favorites guests were Adhib and Adam, a couple of young Malaysian brothers.
Adhib is a non-verbal, autistic nine year old boy. After greeting everyone, I immediately made my way to the South China Sea. I hadn’t seen the water in a few weeks, which for me is far too long. The sea is therapeutic, and makes me feel completely safe and confident. It’s what I know, and where I want to be for the rest of my life. This day, I made a friend whose waves were completely vibing with mine. I turned around to see Adhib running after me, which I took as a challenge to race to the water! I let Adhib win, and watched him run right into the warm current clad in all of his clothing. Ah, to be young and carefree. I joined Adhib in the water, talking to him even though I knew he could not answer. Adhib didn’t need words to make me understand what he was thinking, I could tell the instant I looked at his smiling face: Adhib LOVED the ocean. Between intermittent BBQ skewer and cheese-stuffed sausage breaks, Adhib would grab my hand and pull me back to the water with him, if only to watch him soak up the salty water. Adhib’s elation for spending time in the ocean is a feeling I am incredibly familiar with. Despite whatever mental or cultural barriers there were between me and Adhib, all we needed was the language of the sea.
How much more lucky can I get to be here? Stress or no stress, Malaysia has proved to be a place full of simple surprises and pleasures, which I do not take for granted. Everyday is an opportunity to connect with people and to experience something that will make you reflect on how beautiful people can truly be.