While on my connection flight to Hong Kong, I had a conversation with a fellow ETA Taha about the roles we play and how we define ourselves. Besides being an abnormally philosophical discussion for an airplane, it had me question how I actually define myself. Do I move in broad terms like daughter, sister, friend? Or do I become more specific to the present day and call myself an ETA in Malaysia (when last year it was a senior at Lafayette College and ten years from now I will be something completely different)?
During my starry-eyed enthusiasm (“I’m going to Malaysia!”) on the plane, I didn’t put much more thought into Taha’s queries once our conversation ended. But now I have to, because the days of walking out of my house and disappearing into a crowd are over. I have officially moved out of the heterogeneous city of KL and into my tiny kampung (village) of Budu, right in the heart of Malaysia and tomorrow I begin at my school, SMK Panglima Garang Abdul Samad. Even though I will be the third ETA this school has had, I still will be the only white person in the area, other than my roommate, who’s going to be in another school entirely. Other than my roommate, I am the only other American as well, and the only native English speaker. The singularity of our position has wiped away any chance of anonymity, because all eyes are on us, whether that’s in the classroom or at the weekend market. And people will be asking us to define ourselves every day. The surveillance and interrogation force us to play several roles here during our time in Malaysia, whether we like it or not.
There’s the role of English language authority: English is my mother tongue, therefore I understand its complexities. My word is rule, which can help me in the classroom while I explain lessons, but the negative caveat here is that my authority may (and probably will) scare my students into thinking that I will harshly criticize any error of theirs. Then there’s the role of the American: I am from America, therefore I represent the nation and all of its stereotypes, good and bad. There’s also the perniciously hushed role of the white person, with centuries of colonialism hiding behind me. Alongside them still are more general roles like female and teacher.
I don’t really like these roles. I get put into boxes because of them, and those boxes aren’t always indicative of who I really am. One of my greatest worries is that the way I conduct myself will be taken for the absolute truth, when I know for sure that I only represent >1% of each of those roles. Perhaps there are steps built by the previous ETAs to help me prove the latter is true, but I can’t guarantee anything. There’s so much more to my job of teaching English here than I originally anticipated. I will be asked about America, my culture, and topics bigger than myself. My words and actions observed by all, and talked about when I am not around (Malaysians are group-based culture, meaning everyone knows everything about each other). Those boxes have pretty high walls to climb over. Not that I want to avoid the work that comes with mounting those walls… it’s just that my work needs time, and nine months can only give me so much to accomplish that.
I still hesitate when deciding what my first sentence will be after someone asks, “Who are you?” I think part of the reason why I’m here is to learn more about myself. What roles do I play, and which ones do I really participate in? For that matter, what roles do I want to play? Hopefully I will be able to answer some of these questions by the time I return to the American crowd and become unknown again.
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