I wanted to start off by sharing something that my roommate Gabrielle said to me when we first met. We were talking about being far away from loved ones and how we feel we are running away from certain things in the U.S. She said “I can’t help but believe that we are running towards something as well, something bigger and more profound than we could have ever imagined.”
Letting a new life happen to me has not been easy, but the challenge has been rewarding in ways I could not have imagined. I have had to advocate for myself, make hard decisions, become a role model, a leader, a public figure, and become comfortable public speaking and embarrassing myself in front of hundreds of people each week. Most of my friends are either 12-13 years old, or 30+ years old. I eat with my right hand, pee in squatty potties, drive on the left side of the road, cover my shoulders and ankles almost always, wear croc flats 24-7, and could not be more grateful.
Yesterday, I created a Jeopardy game for my classes with sections on Spelling, Grammar, Vocabulary, Geography, and Miss Clare Trivia. During Miss Clare Trivia, I asked the students how old I was…students shouted out “18!!!” Then, “no, no…Miss is… 29!!!” Overall, the students were very engaged so I was pleased. After class, I had a speaking workshop and only two students showed up, but our small group size allowed all three of us to be vulnerable with each other. They walked in, sat down, and said: “Miss Clare, we heartbroken.” I opened up the candy and food I brought and we talked for a while about life and love. Then, we watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and they asked me if they could play with my hair, so they took turns braiding it over and over again. It was so special. After school, ten ETAs came to Bera and spent the night and we lit incense and candles and all hung out in my room and laughed and laughed until we fell asleep. Today, we drove to Melaka for Water Break (a regional Fulbright conference/meeting) and are staying at a fancy hotel with an infinity pool…I have already been three times!
I have become so much more comfortable at school. Being Miss Clare has become second nature, as has teaching classes. My inner diva has come out. When students talk, or start getting physical, I shout “OY”, and they all actually stop what they are doing and listen to me! A few weekends ago I went on a shopping trip with the teachers to Kuala Lumpur. The trip was a major turning point for my relationships with the teachers at my school. We talked about islamophobia, wearing the tudong/hijab, polygamy, and prayer. We discussed the recent news about Brunei and the terrorist attacks in Christ Church. I listened while they opened up to me and I tried to absorb everything I could. At the end of the trip, the teachers asked me to buy fabric with them so we could have matching handmade baju kurungs for Hari Raya.
I now have inside jokes with teachers and feel more comfortable talking and being honest about my struggles. Some of my favorite times with them involve sitting together in the canteen and listening while they all speak BM. Their voices swing up and down with the beautiful intonations of Bahasa Melayu, and just when I think they are getting upset with each other, they all burst into laughter. I try to pick out words that I know, but…tak faham dan tak boleh bercakap.
School is in no way easy. Physical fighting, crying, bullying, and caning are all frequent occurrences most weeks. After I got back from Taiwan (wow this post is late), the students had two weeks of exams. I proctored exams each day and caught students cheating multiple times. Two of the students I caught cheating were using notes that I handed into the teacher (after serious debate), and apparently they were caned as a result. Ugh I have such a difficult time with the caning but there is nothing I can do. Caning is such a normalized thing here. The principal debated repeating every exam due to the amount of cheating. Many students failed their exams…those who failed were chosen from a hat to be caned in front of the whole school during assembly. Meanwhile, students who got one or more A’s were presented with customized sashes to wear for the day. One of my classes had an exam average of 22%. I had one student come up to me, beaming with pride after receiving her graded exam, exclaiming: “Miss, I got a G!!!!” (the highest grade in the class! Yes, G’s and E’s exist here!) Forming close bonds with the students has been so rewarding. As mentioned, I have talked to students about heartbreak, but also about their crushes, insecurities, weight, self-harm, bullying, money, family life, and stress. I have written poetry with students, and spent hours at McDonalds and in the Bilik Guru (teachers lounge) working individually with Form 5 students on personal essays. Gabrielle and I went to a wedding at one of my students’ homes and dyed our fingers and toes with Inai (Malaysian henna). Last week, we took 80 kids to the elephant sanctuary for an English camp. A few days later I went to Raub for another English camp and taught students how to make snowflakes (the camp was snow themed). We have been busy!
I think about my race and privilege everyday, all day. Many of my female students use whitening products on their skin. Everyday they tell me I am beautiful, and they love my skin. They put their hands up to mine and say, “Wauu Miss, so beautiful, so white.” I tell them how beautiful their skin is to me, but I know that my response feels empty to them. The students are so thoughtful to me, but sometimes our relationships feel hollow and shallow. They say “Miss Miss…selfie!” or “Miss Miss, boomerang, post to IG, you tag me.” We often spend upwards of a half hour taking selfie after selfie as more people hop in and as the students find something wrong with the pictures/videos. Then, when they are satisfied they quickly disperse and I am left confused and alone with hundreds of new photos on my phone wondering how much my presence is adding…or taking away from the students.
I always feel on display, or spied on. People see me and follow me with their car, or drive up next to me. Men I have never met before buy me food when I go out to eat. People film me and my friends while we eat at restaurants. I walk around my neighborhood and people stop and watch me. People tell me I look like “Arabian,” like “Little House on the Prairie,” and like Nicole Kidman. During a lesson on heredity, Gabrielle’s students asked her if I was albino. The attention comes with added criticism. People have no restraint picking my appearance apart. “White head there, pimple up there, you should put on makeup,” “you need new shoes, I take you to buy in KL,” “you braid your hair, why you no wear tudong (hijab)? People want you to wear hijab, we gave you them to wear,” “your name tag is crooked,” “why you so sad, smile more,” “bags under eyes, sleep more tonight,” “iron your clothes,” “that man single, good job, you should marry,” and “eat more, but not that much! Wow Clare that is so much food be careful you will gain weight.”
Another highlight of this journey has been creating a new family with the other ETAs here. Similar to the friends I made abroad (cough Chloe Ocain, my ride or die), the friends I am making here have seen it all…the tears, the food poisoning, the homesickness, the tears of joy and the laughing on the floor until our stomachs hurt. I have found a community of people I have been looking for for my whole life. We meet up as often as possible. Every week I drive for hours alone/with Gabrielle through the Palm forest driving to meet up with people, and often end up meeting up with herds of cows, goats, and monkeys on the roads along the way.
I will be traveling quite a bit the next few weeks. I realize I did not discuss my trip to Thailand…that will be for another post! I wanted to conclude with a poem that I wrote with two of my students for a competition that did not end up happening.
Sending love, light, and a big hug. I appreciate you!
ClareAbouts is not an official U.S. Department of State publication, and the views and information presented in this blog are entirely my own, and do not represent the Fulbright U.S. Student Program or the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Commission or Malaysia.