ms, i miss u,
wish u a happy life
me too, i will study hard
i will try my best
hope to see u again in future
love, nur saraya najwa
From Obama’s Speech at Notre Dame:
“Years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away — because life is not that simple. It never has been.
But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen.”
I’ll be handing in my internet modem on Monday, so the time has come to wrap up this blog. I will be flying out of Kuala Terengganu after school on Thursday and then begin the journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to Japan and finally to Minneapolis and northern Minnesota, where I will be spending some time with my family for a week. If all goes according to plan, I will be back in New England August 10th, and am looking forward to connecting with everyone again. Beginning August 1st, I will resume using my American cell phone…so I’m excited to actually receive phone calls, instead of always being the one to make them!
Thank you for your comments, and your emails and your readership over these past seven months. I feel lucky to have had the technology to share glimpses of my experience. In an effort to preserve the privacy of the kids, I will be making the blog private very soon after my return.
I am eager to see friends and family again, to run in clean and cool places, to eat vegetables, to be in sync with the American time zone, and to stop being stared at. I will miss the night market and the mangoes and the kids. I still find it hard to make any large or sweeping conclusions about my experience in Malaysia or about life in a Muslim country. There are people who are compassionate and generous here, and there are people who are narrow-minded and obnoxious. I am so grateful to all of the Malaysians who have treated me with warmth and humanity during my stay in Terengganu and have allowed me to work alongside them, teach their children, visit their homes, and run on their roads. There is the Arabic teacher who speaks almost no English, but somehow always comes over to my desk and tries to include me in conversations, who gives me tea, and admires the art projects. There is the Bahasa Melayu teacher who brings me to the school canteen and who took me to her house to meet her daughters and bought me a shirt at the market. There are the neighbors in our shopping complex who bring us chocolate bars, and the woman that sells watermelons who knows us by name. There are the friendly people I run by at the stadium who ask me to teach them how to rollerblade and always wave when I pass by. These people remind me of the people who I love at home, and that is the strongest sense of “cross-cultural understanding” that I have experienced. Finally, there are the kids…who have clamored for my attention, become so invested in my art projects, practiced choral speaking, shriek when I run by, cheer when I walk into their classrooms, and try so hard to speak with me in a language that they only half understand. They have made every day here feel meaningful, and I know that I will think about them for a long time to come.
Islam will never be my own worldview, but I’m glad that I have had the opportunity to personally meet so many Muslim friends during a time when there is such a great need to heal rifts and repair misunderstandings. I’m grateful to be overseas in a capacity that emphasizes learning instead of combat. As challenging as some moments of this experience have been, it pales in comparison to the sacrifices performed and the struggles faced by those deployed overseas in other Muslim countries to protect American interests. My uncle has just been cleared to leave Afghanistan, and people like him deserve our gratitude and thoughts, even if we remain conflicted about our motives for entering war in the first place.
I think the coming days will bring more stories, but you will just have to wait to hear those in person. So, until we meet again, I wish you “Salam wa aleikum,” as they always say over here. Peace be upon you.
My computer appears to be having some issues with overheating (I feel its pain), so I am going to give it a break for the next few days. Luckily, I am off on a short trip to Indonesia with Clare, Caroline and Liz starting Thursday night. It will be our last long weekend together before we head back for the final 8 days of classes.
At school, this is the week of paper plate art projects. Picture me “cycling” to school while trying not to get my long silk skirt caught in the wheels and holding a stack of 100 styrofoam plates, in addition to all of my usual school gear. Now picture that it is 100 degrees and random motorcycles and chickens and monitor lizards are randomly careening in your path. You get the picture.
My favourite text message of the week: “Do you know hw 2 make a coat made of cow skin soft?” This was sent in all seriousness by one of my fellow English teachers. It is still a mystery to me why she has a leather coat.
Basically, life continues to be about as absurd as possible. Camping trips with poisonous centipedes…teaching swimming lessons to sixty year olds…screaming about flower stems to herds of small children. But this will all be over soon, I guess.
When you look at these pictures, I hope you just see kids. They might be poorer and more Muslim than the kids you’re used to encountering (they have the rotting teeth and headscarves to prove it), but ultimately they have the same quirky personalities and needs as the kids you babysit, teach, or come face to face with in the park at home.
There are myths about how kids from poor countries are so grateful for education that they will scratch letters outside in the dirt if they have to, just to learn the alphabet. They will scrape together all their money to buy a school uniform and a sharpened pencil, and treasure these rudiments of education. These myths allege that kids from Zambia, India, Cambodia are largely obedient and want to learn. While their classroom might be makeshift, they know how to stand in straight lines and salute their teacher. There are few problems with classroom discipline because they know that the alternative is child labor out in the heat and the dirt. These ideas vaguely undergird our perceptions of education in impoverished regions of the world. Maybe without even realizing it, we think that kids in these other places have a perpetual sense of gratitude and motivation.
These past few months have helped to disabuse me of some of these vague ideas, as I’ve come face to face with kids who are by turns raucous, sweet, lazy, impertinent, appreciative, receptive, and unmotivated. In short, they are like kids everywhere. The kids in the pictures all want attention. They are all exhausting. They ask for too much. They usually don’t listen. They sometimes make me understand why corporal punishment is allowed in Malaysian schools. But–like kids anywhere–just when you think you can’t take them anymore, they suddenly become disarmingly sweet. They get proud of writing the word “papaya” on the chalkboard. They go quiet and wide-eyed when you ask them why–15 minutes into an activity–they still haven’t written any sentences. They hand you a card that says “I love you miss emi” over and over again. They start crying when they don’t get the piece of pink paper. They ask you: “In America, there is whales?” They wave and shriek with excitement when they see me out on the street.
The nimble, jumping quality of their minds…their ability to become deeply invested in the smallest and strangest details…their resiliency…these are the things that are universally appealing about kids. Teaching, I’m discovering, is a strange alloy of exhaustion and earnest intentions, humility and small gains. These things make it a difficult career both to continue and to walk away from. The kids, the needs, the sense of validation, the setbacks are never in short supply, whether you’re in Malaysia, Massachusetts, Ghana, or Philadelphia. No matter where you are, kids still need adults to help clarify why they should want to learn…to create academic situations that are engaging while also helping them understand that education is not entertainment.
“I might struggle briefly with an attempt at anthropological relativism, but I soon give in and admit that the drastic limits imposed on women in public—I was just in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the limits are almost total—seem like a confession of some cultural failure, perhaps even the failure, the heart of the reason that war and oppression and intolerance are daily afflictions and, therefore, that I and other journalists keep visiting.
I’ve never gotten used to this fact of daily life; though I keep my thoughts mainly to myself, I think about it constantly. And though I don’t agree with the French and Turkish policies of forbidding the hijab in certain areas like schools or government jobs, I can’t help seeing it as an instrument of oppression, rightly or wrongly—even when it’s the voluntary and self-imposed kind. Watching a woman at the airport in Jakarta trying to drink coffee under the veil of her niqab, an act that required all of her focus and dexterity and was almost impossible to do without spilling, reminded me of the images I saw as a child of Chinese women with tiny, bound feet.
This separation inevitably affects my work. “
-George Packer, The New Yorker
I’ve tried, really tried, to be culturally sensitive during my time here. I never go out of the house without wearing a skirt that goes down to my ankles. I wear their traditional baju kurung outfit to school everyday. I don’t show them photographs of my family and friends wearing tank tops or shorts or track uniforms. I never mention that I have a dog. I’m careful to remove all pictures of pigs from the games, worksheets, or books I show the kids. Whenever my students come to my house, I make sure that the only food I offer them is halal. People tell me almost daily that I would look “more beautiful” if I wore a headscarf, but I refuse in what I hope is a gracious manner. I stand quietly and try to act respectful during all their prayer times at school. I thought that living in the shadow of these mosques, having the rhythm of my days dictated by the call to prayer would offer some sort of deeper understanding of this way of life. Maybe it has. But it has also just led to frustration, exasperation, and the entrenchment of new biases that I think will be hard to shake. I think the hard truth is that there are certain things that we will just never, ever be able to understand about each other.
Today at school, Clare was invited to dinner by one of the male teachers at her school. Even though this man is married and has a family, it has still been drilled into us–again and again–that we are not supposed to be in the presence of men alone. So, we usually try to avoid awkwardness by going to situations like this together; Clare, accordingly, accepted the invitation, but also asked if I could come along. She said his face got very strange and, after hemming and hawing, he awkwardly said that he guessed it was ok if “Miss Amy” also came. Usually people are more than happy to have both of us come, so Clare thought this was strange. Later, she mentioned it to her mentor teacher, Ena. “Oh yes,” Ena replied, “People have been talking about Amy because she was seen out walking around the roads with a strange man.” “That was her brother! You knew that he was coming to visit!” Clare retorted. “Oh yes,” Ena said, “I know.” But ofcourse she hadn’t said anything to clarify. So, now I know that countless people here have been talking about me behind my back and jumping to conclusions about my sexual promiscuity. If you think that’s an exaggeration, trust me, it’s not.
I know that I shouldn’t blow something as small as this out of proportion. All of the teachers at my school appeared to be comfortable with Ben visiting and I continue to have good relations with my coworkers and the kids. But maybe I should have exercised better discretion in having Ben visit here at all. We walked to the boat dock and people saw him going in and out of my house. They’re not used to seeing young men and women alone together. I should have known this. But a part of me can’t help being very hurt and frustrated. It is disturbing to realize, yet again, what a subject of scrutiny I am in this community and to realize how people talk so much behind our backs and make hasty generalizations about Americans. It transcends the level of talk, too: teachers at Clare’s school are no longer comfortable inviting me to meet their families or visit their homes. After all I’ve tried to put up with here and do for these kids, I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt. I would like to think that having a member of my own family come and visit would not have to irrevocably damage the perception of me and my work here. If anything, this episode reminds me that I need to keep resisting the impulse to hastily judge Islam or Malaysia or Terengganu without knowing the full story. I can be equally guilty of condemning things that I don’t really know about. We all can. But in this situation I am the one with an education that has taught me to think carefully and critically, to find ways to empathize across divides, to exercise skepticism, and to try to keep seeing the larger story or hidden subtext.
In the mean time, this 4th of July, please think about all the different valences that the word “independence” holds. There are so many women in the world who will never get to have a male friend, drive a car, exercise, open a bank account, choose a career. “Freedom” can be a vague concept, tarnished by its association with coercive American policies or unthinking patriotism, but it can also mean very real things. Savor those things.
I knew that my cross cultural immersion wouldn’t really be complete until I had run a race in a foreign country. For a while, I had fantasized that this race would be a marathon. For an even longer period, I had imagined it would be a half marathon. But through the twists and turns of Malaysian fate, it ended up being a 10k. Maybe this gradual scaling down in distance is symbolic of how my ambitions have shrunk quite dramatically during my time here. Things that once seemed so small and conquerable in the United States sometimes seem close to impossible here.
Clare and I began training for a half marathon in Kuala Lumpur months and months ago. We gradually ventured out beyond the small orb of our parking circle. We ran next to the lagoon filled with monitor lizards. We ran through the fishing huts that stink of drying fish and human waste and garbage. We slogged through the 100 degree evening heat in long pants and long sleeves. The men on motorcylces hooted at us. Sometimes they creepily followed along trying to snap pictures of us on their cell phones until we yelled at them. Around March or April, we discovered that the huge stadium complex about 2 miles away had a brick-paved path looping around a man-made lake. It felt like a sanctuary. For the first time, we saw male and female Malays out jogging and walking in small numbers around this path. The air felt cleaner, the atmosphere generally nicer, and, sometimes, we could almost imagine the faint trace of a breeze coming off the lake. We registered online for the Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur half marathon on June 28th. Despite the heat and the long pants, running was remaining a consistent element in my life–something that granted sanity and the semblance of normalcy to days that regularly felt indescribably strange.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. During my travels with Ben, I get an email saying that, because of my faulty internet connection, my online payment for the half marathon did not go through. The race has filled and there are no more spots left. Despite sending a consistent stream of pleading, desperate emails to the race organizers, they won’t budge. Then, when I get back to Terengganu and go for my usual run to the stadium, I find that it has suddenly and mysteriously collapsed. The wreckage looks like the scene of a natural disaster. This massive, modern complex that was just built a year ago has completely crumbled. The running gods seem to have turned against me.
But I am too fed up to give up. So I keep running and find out that a friend has a race number for the 10K that she will not be using. I fly to Kuala Lumpur, armed with a copy of her passport and registration papers. At 4:30AM this morning, I find myself in the middle of a pitch-black foreign city engulfed in a sea of Asian runners as the call to prayer starts to whine from the loudspeakers. There are 13,000 runners competing in marathon, half marathon, 10k and 5k categories. The majority are Chinese Malaysian citizens, and it is refreshing to suddenly find myself amongst people wearing shorts and tank tops, although I am pleased to see the occasional headscarved woman amidst the crowd. There are also lots of competitors from Singapore and Thailand, and because of the $20,000 cash prize for the marathon winner, there is also a significant number of long, lanky Kenyans. Scattered amongst the masses of people are a few white faces like mine.
The race itself is pretty sub-standard. The runners are given a single lane of the highways, so we plod along breathing in the exhaust fumes of passing cars and trucks in the semi-darkness. I now have a better understanding of why the Olympic marathoners put up such a fuss about having to run through the smog of Beijing. The air quality in Kuala Lumpur is similarly dismal. There are no spectators along the course and none of the race volunteers cheer. They stand in their headscarves sometimes awkwardly extending cups of water. At one point, the race merges into a traffic circle where they have failed to stop traffic. The kilometers are only marked out for the marathon, not for any of the other distances, and they are quite obviously in the incorrect locations. Gender bias is apparent too: the porter potties are gender segregated and there are only 3 for all the women. Needless to say, this leads to very long lines. At the end of the race, they have an elaborate prize giving ceremony for the male marathoners. They forget about giving out the women’s prizes altogether.
Nevertheless, I had a really wonderful time. I discovered how abysmally out of shape I am and remembered how painful racing can be, but I felt like myself again, and that is one of the best feelings in the world. In my Brooks shoes, shorts, a tank top and a race number, I could forget for a little bit all the weeks of wearing a baju kuran. Although my time was terrible, I was running towards the front of the 5,000 10k runners. This just happened to put me in a place where I intersected with the elite male marathon runners finishing their final 5k. I kept running back and forth with a group of Kenyans who were hitting the wall hardcore as the Kuala Lumpur humidity got to them. Every time I passed or was passed by one of these laboring marathoners, I said a quick “good job.” Although the Asians along the course didn’t seem to be that excited about giving mid-race encouragement, I couldn’t resist injecting some American-style racing camraderie. One of the Kenyans seemed to particularly appreciate this and, before I knew it, for the last 2 kilometers, he was gesturing that I should come and run with him. “Oh great,” I thought, “Is this really happening right now?” I was hurting pretty badly, and not exactly at a time in my life where I felt like being pushed by a marathoning Kenyan. Although he was obviously struggling with cramped calves, he was still flying along at what felt like a very decent clip. One of his coaches jogged alongside him for a minute and handed him a bottle of some sort of foamy orange drink, which he offered me. I declined, but enjoyed this end-of-race distraction.
After the race, I kept my race number on as I rode the subway back to my hotel. Other racers smiled and asked how I had done. Men speaking in Chinese would suddenly flip into English and ask me what event I had competed in. It was kind of amazing to find this sense of running community existent even in Malaysia. Obviously, these past few months have been an exercise in seeing a place that once seemed so exotic, impenetrable, and strange become more familiar, mundane, and even home-like. But this race is what finally transformed Kuala Lumpur into just another landscape that I can run across, something I can know and conquer. At this point, I really do think it is possible to descend upon almost any place in the world and find a way to make it feel more familiar.
Sentimental musings aside, my painfully slow 10k time made me realize that if I want to run a marathon again this fall, I will have my work cut out for me. These past six months may have given me a broader worldview and other intangible rewards, but they have certainly not been good for my fitness level.