By Erin D’Amelio

I brought my computer with me to the hostel students’ study hall one night with plans to show them what I had so far of the video my Form 5 classes have been working on for the past two weeks. It had been a while since I saw the boys, since last week I was out of town and an injury kept me out of commission earlier in the week. So as I strolled towards the classroom where the boys sat, they beckoned me right away with “Come, miss, sit!” It turns out they were as eager to see me as I them.

I set my computer down, and immediately all of their eyes turn to it. With a smile I flick it open and click on the video. Now all of their heads are turned and try to move closer to the screen. Trying to get my students to pose for pictures or act for a video is akin to pulling teeth: you ask and ask and ask, they refuse, refuse, refuse, but suddenly you make a move with the camera and they throw up a peace sign. After the moment is recorded, they immediately want to see the picture; my students are absolutely entranced when they see themselves in a picture or a video (and it’s been one of my strategies to winning them over). You would think that with all of their fascination with images, they would pose more willingly whenever I have my camera out? But I digress.

As we watch the video, I noticed some of the students are just intrigued with my computer itself (Apple products aren’t very common in kampung Malaysia). One student in particular puts his finger where the laptop’s built-in camera is, and as a result, the screen darkens slightly.  “It’s light-sensitive,” I explain to him, “and that’s where my camera is.” I move the cursor to my Photo Booth app and open it. Up pops the 2D version of the red-curtained picture-taking box.  And then the magic happens.

It comes in the form of straight-from-the-gut laughter, as the boys contort and stretch their faces using the app’s special effects. Picture after picture, our eyes become giant pools, our teeth become as big as plates, and the shapes of our heads defy physics entirely. We look like aliens, monkeys, and distorted monsters, and of course we had to take dozens of photos, each subsequent one incurring more laughter than the previous. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard these students laugh more than they did that night.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect about the whole thing, though, was its spontaneity. Did I intend to take silly pictures with my Form 5 boys that night? No, I just wanted to show them those videos. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for these types of moments to happen. In fact, I love it when they do.

Another example of spontaneity: My roommate and I had returned from an English camp on a Sunday evening around five about a month ago, just as the sun began its journey to the other side of the world. We were unpacking some groceries that we had bought on the way home when Zahin, one of my Form 5 students, pops his head in our back window.  “Teacher, would you like some fruit?” he asks.  “Of course!” I reply, eager to see my students again and continue exploring the food of Malaysia. I make my way behind my house and see two other students with Zahin peeling a small, hard, light green fruit. It was a mango apple, according to my students, and they hand a slice over to me. I chew on it and suddenly become overwhelmed by its bitterness. They chuckle, and bring out some soy sauce and sugar and mix the two together. They then dip another slice in the mixture and hand it to me. This time around, it tastes much better, with the sweet/salty combination cutting through the tartness of the mango apple. I happily gobble up a few more slices. Zahin climbs up the tree to knock down a few more mango apples while I watch Farouq and Nizam peel the current stock of fruit. The sun cast a golden glow over us all, even turning the fire ants that marchedaround us translucent, and we all chat about our favorite movies and what ones we want to see. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a popular one.)

I couldn’t help but think to myself, both then and now, how opportune it was that I returned home at that time, and that Zahin invited me to eat mango apples, and how random things like this event can happen in Malaysia. I loved every minute of it, not only because of those reasons, but also because it was just so casual. It was like I was just hanging out with a couple of friends. Gone were the formal structures of the classroom and study hall; just unregulated, everyday moments remained.

There’s a delightful beauty to these types of organic processes, and they create moments that to me seem more productive than what I do in the classroom. Sure, I can tell my students the difference between the infinitive and the gerund until I am blue in the face, but it won’t make much of a difference if they never practice the language outside of school. So it is in these moments that we all benefit. And when I think of Malaysia long after I’ve left the country, it won’t be my classroom activities that I will cherish, it will be the time Farouq and I bonded over our hatred for scary movies, or the peeling laughter of Ijat as his face was stretched five times as wide on Photo Booth for a picture. Those moments are far more valuable to me.

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
Sensory Overload
(Almost) Hitting the Ground Running
Mercurial Days
Language and Tennis
Land of the Wholehearted People
A Mighty and Powerful Mango Tree
The Beauty in Spontaneity