Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This month, Zoë Gioja, 2014-15 ETA in South Korea and Fulbridge’s Founder, talked with Adam Henderson, ETA in Malaysia.
1. Why did you choose Malaysia?
I chose Malaysia for the diversity of cultures that are present in the culture, and also the large effect of religion in the daily life of its residence and in the politics. This is a topic I am very passionate about and studied extensively in University.
2. Where are you located and what school/university do you teach at?
I am located in the small town of Bachok in the state of Kelantan which is in the Northeastern part of the country, near the Thai border. I teach at SMK Sri Nipah which teaches students the equivalent ages of 8th-12th Grade.
3. Since every country ETA program has different requirements, what all does your grant entail?
I am responsible for teaching English in my school, and also completing two English Camps for my students which are full day opportunities for the students to speak in English and learn from other Fulbrights. In addition I have to conduct speaking workshops which have the students speak in English in a relaxed setting.
4. What does a normal weekday look like for you?
I start my day by dropping of my housemate at his school which is about 10 minutes from mine. I then teach 3-4 classes throughout the day and have speaking workshops or English Language Society after school which is basically me playing games with students. After that, I usually have some other type of extracurricular that I help out with. These have included Track and Field, Cross Country, Diki Barat (a traditional song and dance that is done in my state), or Drama. At night, we often spend time sitting with people in our Kampung (village) or finding some food stalls.
5. If you have, how have you gotten more involved with the university outside of the classroom? How have you gotten involved with the community?
Probably the best way I have gotten involved in my community is through my neighbors in our Kampung. I sometimes just go out and walk, and may get called over to chat with some community members. In addition, I have a mentor who is very active in taking me to different shops, restaurants, or meeting other people. Also, my roommate’s mentor hosts aerobics every Friday which is not only fun, but has allowed me to get to know the Chinese community in our area.
6. What has your experience been like using or learning the language in the host country? Any challenges? Funny moments?
I came to Malaysia knowing no Bahasa Malaysia. One of my biggest challenges in learning the language is that my state uses a very distinct dialect (Kelate) that is basically its own language. So I have basically have to learn two languages because some of my students know no Kelate and some of them know no Bahasa Malaysia. There are only scarce resources for BM online and virtually nothing for Kelate. So there are struggles every single day but generally people have been very patient while I learn.
7. What have been some challenges?
One of the biggest challenges has been my race. I am part Native American, part white, and part African-American, leading to a very racially ambiguous look. While I have dealt with questions all my life and don’t mind them, I often get asked things like “Are you actually American?” or “When are the real Americans getting here?” The hardest part is that I cannot easily explain that my background personifies the American experience as Malaysians simple understanding of America is tall and white, and the absence of a shared language makes discussion particularly difficult.
8. What have been some highlights?
The highlight has definitely, without a doubt, 100% been my students. I am in a very poor, conservative area that is dominated by Islam. The students are constantly told that they are stupid and wont amount to anything unless they memorize and entire essay. I really enjoy being able to be the antithesis of this type of teaching and bringing fun into their life. The students just light up when I am around, and I can’t help but smile. I have developed some incredibly meaningful relationships with these kids and I will desperately miss them when I leave.
9. What was your best lesson plan?
Probably my best lesson plan has been playing English songs for the students and handing out lyric sheets with some of the words removed. We then listen to the song and the students fill in the blank spaces (coincidentally, Taylor Swift’s Blank Space is a great song for this). I will then have the students do different activities with the words such as word searches, crossword puzzles, or forming sentences. While we don’t have speakers or electronics at the school, I have a tiny Bluetooth speaker I brought from home that we huddle around to hear the songs. This is a simple lesson but the kids love it and perk up when they see the speaker.
10. What will you miss the most?
By far, the students (see above). Most importantly, I will miss knowing that I am making a difference in their lives in a meaningful way. Having them learn English is their way out of Bachok and I am really encouraged to see some of the students succeed at University. I also know that I provide an outlet for fun that they don’t get otherwise. I will miss knowing that I am providing value to people who I am with, by simply sitting there.
11. Why should prospective grantees apply to your host country?
The Malaysia program is incredibly well run. We have an amazing commission headed by one of the coolest men you will ever meet. They help you every step of the way and I have always felt supported. In addition, the Malaysian government loves the ETAs and we are actively checked on by the Malaysian Government to make sure we are doing well. The Embassy says the ETAs are the best form of diplomacy that the US has in Malaysia and I completely believe it.
On top of that institutional support, Malaysia is an amazingly diverse country. Although I live in an area that is 99% Malay Muslim, you will find large portions of Chinese, Indians, Malay, Original Malaysians, Buddists, Christians, Hindus, and of course Muslims. It is a remarkable opportunity to see mixes of races and religions in a way that is completely different from that mix in the United States.
11. Anything else you’d like to share about your experience as an ETA – such as funny stories from the classroom or elsewhere, or other favorite moments?
A: A couple of my favorite stories revolve around a couple of nicknames I have gotten here in Malaysia. I look pretty young, and in my Kampung (village) I am known as babyface. I will walk down the road and people who know no other English will just scream “BABY FACE!” It’s pretty hilarious.
In addition, I have become known as “Koala” by a group of students at my school. We have a drama team and while putting on makeup, one of the girls had black circles around her eyes and white powder covering the rest of her face. I joke with her that she looked like a panda. Not wanting to be outdone, she stuttered “yeah well you look like… you look like… you look like… a KOALA!!” And the nicknames for both of us have stuck.
For favorite places visited, a definite highlight was Gunong Stong, which is a mountain in Kelantan. We hiked up it and stayed the night at the top with an incredible guide named ManTiger who we found after serendipitously running into some people from my school. The sunrise from the top of the mountain was the most amazing things I have ever seen and completely worth the 5am alarm.
Adam Henderson is from Westerville, Ohio and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 with a degree in political science. While in college he interned at the White House and the Department of Education, and participated in the Notre Dame marching band and student government. Adam worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and is currently working for State Senator Nate Boulton’s campaign for governor of Iowa.