By Erin D’Amelio
America. I’ve been back for a little over two weeks. I’ve unpacked, put away my clothes, reunited with family and friends. There has been little time to think about Malaysia, and I believe I created that intentionally. All that remains on my bed right now is the pile of mementos that I have accumulated from Malaysia. They have all the memories of my grant attached to them: a ticket to a festival where I discovered an interest in Ukrainian rock, a heartfelt note from a student pouring out her melancholy at my departure, and a slightly askew photo of my roommate and I during a Chinese New Year’s dinner, to name a few. I’ve been delaying the moment I begin rummaging through that pile, for I know that to do so will unleash a flood of emotions and recollections of this past year, a year that has surprised me, challenged me, educated me, and will always be a part of me. It won’t be an easy task; I’m expecting an overwhelming emotional conflict that will throw me off for at least a few days. I’ve got a tissue box at the ready.
That sort of impact just goes to show you the influence of a program like this. There are so many ways that I could count the opportunities and lessons this Fulbright ETA experience has given me, and I would talk your ear off if I could, but I’ll spare you the show. What I will tell you is that I consider myself an incredibly lucky and grateful person to have been able to experience this year in Malaysia for all that I have been able to do and learn. And that’s being reductive.
In one of my earliest articles, I had written a list of expectations for this year. They were basic, as the novelty of Malaysia prevented me from conjuring up anything, but they were expectations nonetheless. They were: 1) I will be challenged in every sense of the word, 2) I will learn about myself, 3) I will learn how cultures interact. I thought I’d go through each and explain just how realized those expectations were.
I was, in fact, challenged in every sense of the word. Whenever you enter a new situation, you encounter various trials and tasks that ask you to rethink your normal approach to situations. I couldn’t have chosen a more different place to alter my way of thinking than Malaysia. Not only is it halfway across the world, but it also happens to have a non-Christian religious dominance, diversity (but limited compared to America), and different ways of thinking, eating, dressing, society, and culture. Not to mention everything operated in an entirely new different language, and while I was able to conduct most of my business in English, I still had to and wanted to acquire basic Malay skills to get around my community. Essentially, I had to accept the fact that I would be uncomfortable, not in the sense that this new way of life was displeasing to me or that I didn’t want to deal with it, but simply the novelty of it all forced me to look at my then-current method of living and reconcile it with this new life I had to live.
As a result, I learned so much about myself and what my limitations were. Would I be able to stomach the fact that ants would become just as much my roommates in my house as my actual roommate? (The answer is, begrudgingly, yes.) How would I label myself to my students and community members: as an American only? What was my definition of American, and of who I am? These were all questions that I had to tackle throughout my grant, and all the while I was solidifying my beliefs about myself and my country. And, more often than not, I found myself willingly adapting and developing these initial limits of mine so that they grow larger and more accommodating. What sort of benefit would I get otherwise? Had I refused a student’s invitation to break fast with her family out of shyness, therefore excluding me from both making more genuine connections with them and learning more about Ramadan? Had I not made the effort to talk to people, anyone, and ask questions about themselves and their way of life? All of these moments that I experienced were educational ones, and I believe my own worldview has altered significantly, and for the better.
I will learn how cultures interact. Malaysia boasts three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, and Indian Malaysians, and diverse religious practices, though the dominating one was Islam. I was placed in an all-Malay school, which meant my students were all Muslim. My town, however, had substantial Chinese and Indian populations, and my roommate taught at a school with all three groups. What I witnessed and learned in class varied from her daily life at school, but despite having a more homogenous population, I still felt as though I was able to learn about Malaysia’s racial diversity. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, as Malaysia is not immune to embroiled conflicts between races, especially when religion is involved. It was hard at times to see little interaction between the Chinese students and the Malay students during an English camp, or to hear my students laugh at the dark color of my new brother-in-law’s skin. I tried to facilitate conversations about these opinions, but the students almost always retreated to the excuse of not knowing what to say in English to avoid a serious dialogue. But while there were negative aspects to the interaction of cultures, I also, happily, witnessed harmony between them. Never were there outright physical conflicts in my area. With a little effort, students overcame their hesitancy and worked together with students of different races. And the atmosphere of Malaysia is generally tolerant, as many Buddhist or Hindi festivals flourished often and without hindrance. We are never without conflict, as we are realizing more now than ever, but it seemed to me that Malaysia is on its way to reconciling its diversity and the issues that accompany their integration into one peaceful country.
Part of me realizes that my initial expectations were in fact kind of broad and lame. Apologies on that front. I suppose it was better not to have specific expectations because of how different this year was going to be. But another, bigger part of me didn’t want to write this article, for it acknowledges that my time in Malaysia is officially over. The school year has ended, a new set of ETAs will replace my cohort, and I will move on to other things. The saddest part of it all is not being with my students anymore. Their eagerness, their perspectives, and their warmth towards me buoyed me well beyond my expectations. I was always so curious to learn from them, to hear their stories, to understand their lives. A year can only give you so much, but I believe I managed to comprehend at least a little bit of what living in Malaysia and being a Malaysian means to my students. Thank goodness we have the technology to stay in touch; I never want to stop learning from them. (And who knows, maybe I’ll visit Malaysia again.)
I will never let these experiences leave me. It has been too rich of a year, too influential to fully forget. Malaysia always surprised me, in forms as diverse as a curious compliment from a student to meeting Pahang’s royal family at a motocross competition. While saying goodbye never offers any grand solace, I can still carry with me those sweet memories back home and for the rest of my life. I just need to get them off my bed first.
My name is Erin D’Amelio and I’m going to Malaysia for ten months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Over the next 10 months I will be submitting regular journal entries of this incredible adventure, documenting my thoughts and experiences. The views and beliefs I will present in these articles are my own; they do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. Below are the articles, in order of publication. Just click on any link and continue the journey with me.
An Unforgettable Journey
How Does One Get a Fulbright, Exactly?
And Then We Wait
(Almost) Hitting the Ground Running
Language and Tennis
Land of the Wholehearted People
A Mighty and Powerful Mango Tree
The Beauty in Spontaneity
The Eternal Battle: Communication Versus Grammar
My Family is Awesome, But Destructive
The Beauty of English
A Series of Lasts
1 in 10,000