Monday, October 31, 2011

Last Days And Memories


Here are a few more stories to keep you all up to date!

This last weekend was a long break - we had an extra day off of school for the Indian festival of lights, Deepavali.  I took the chance to go to Kuala Lumpur for a few days and say goodbye to swing dancers and hostel owners that I'd gotten to know.  My last dance with KL Swing was fantastic, of course, and my third (or fourth?) and final stay at Sunshine Bedz was crazy fun as always.

Now I'm back at the school for one last week of packing, planning, and goodbyes.  I'm so sad to be leaving here, and yet really looking forward to seeing my home and family.  Also, I can't quite imagine what it's going to be like, back in America again…  I seem to remember some sort of "cold weather" concept that was popular there;                                     is that still a thing?

Well, in the meantime, I still have plenty of things from this year to tell you about.

Looking at my list from last post, I'd say the least interesting things to talk about are my vacations on the Perhentian and Redang islands.  I mean, that's all just beautiful beaches, hammocks hanging from palm trees, skipping rocks across the surf, swimming and snorkeling over colorful corals, watching mudfish jump around on rocks, slowly baking tan in the sun… In other words, all pretty standard and boring stuff.  You don't want to hear about that.

More exciting was when my mom came to visit, in the middle of Ramadhan.  Her flight to KL was delayed a whole day, so she only had about three days in Malaysia with me, unfortunately.  But it was really great (although really surreal) seeing her here!

She came out to Terengganu and saw my school, met all the students and teachers that I could lay hands on, and answered their many curious questions.  I showed her around the neighborhood (jungle…beach…yep, that's about it), and we later went down to Kapas Island to meet up with a few other ETAs.  We went swimming, and the water there was beautiful, this deep turquoise color in the warm sun.  Oh wait, we're getting into the boring stuff again.

Hmm, what else can I tell you about…  About a month ago, I got together with the English Language Society at my school and threw a goodbye party.  We called it the Crazy Hat Party, and we passed out little cardboard top hats with the invitations.  These were for decorating and sticking on headbands to wear during the actual party.

The party was nuts.  We pulled out all the stops - movie, music, chips, candy, chocolate fondue, noodles, a limbo contest, the chicken dance, a balloon dartboard, and an award for the best-decorated hat.  There was a big sheet and colorful markers that students could use to write goodbye messages to me.  There were two crazy-looking pinatas that me and the students spent days making.  There were even flashing holiday lights on the door.  


It was quite possibly the best party I have ever thrown.


So, I have been doing a lot of colorful, messy things recently, the latest one involving paint and a wall.  I am leaving my mark on this school, in the form of a huge, adorable, cartoony mural, mostly designed by my student helper Naja, and filled in with the aid of a passel of cute Form 1 boys.

Isn't it great?  I can't really take credit for much of it, though, outside of painting where I was told.  Okay, the "High Five for English!" bit was my idea.


Another recent thing I did was take the speech choir out for their last celebration together (for real this time).  We went to Kuala Terengganu and went bowling, then ate dinner at the mall.  On the bus back, I had a surprise for them: donuts for everybody!  

And they had a surprise for me: jewelry and a cute shirt that says "I like you" on it!  Super adorable.

So, this is my last blog post before heading home.  Not to say that it's the last one ever; in fact, I won't be done writing in here until the re-entry shock has worn off.  But this is the last time I'll write here as an active Fulbright ETA.

Right now, my apartment is full of hanging laundry and piles of things to either pack or throw out.  My schedule is full of last-minute reports, loose ends, and goodbyes.  Any minute now it's going to be Thursday and I'll be actually leaving this school for good… which is very hard to comprehend.

But within two weeks, I'll also be on the same side of the globe as most of you reading this.  I can't wait to see you guys again!

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Okay, here are some more photos for you:

This is a traditional instrument that's like a guitar with two strings.  Allen, I've been trying to get one for you, but I can't find them for sale anywhere!

 The Sultan's Cup Endurance Race was at the horse place next to my school, just a few weeks ago.  There were a bunch of concurrent competitions for students too, such as horse jumping.  This is one of my Form 3 students; he did fantastically.

I bought a bedsheet and some markers so that students can write goodbye messages to me.  This is how it looked before it got really insane.

Even Form 1 boys want to learn cat's cradle tricks!

I love darts, and now my students do too.

My silat instructor gave me a uniform and a second-degree black belt with my name on it, as a going-away gift.  Here I am facing off with a real black belt!

This is an actual sign in an actual bathroom at my school.  I wonder if #6 is really that much of a problem here?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Collection of Illustrated Anecdotes

I have all sorts of excuses for not writing for so long, but it all boils down to that feeling that you get when you see the dirty dishes in the sink.

And you think, "Not now.  I want to eat some more ice cream now.  I'll wash the dishes when I'm done eating."  And then after that, there's just too many dishes to be bothered with until after your next meal.  And by then, the pile is even bigger, and you have more interesting or pressing things to do, and you just don't want to deal with it. 

And then you finally start doing them, and you realize again that it's not that hard or unpleasant a job, and you were an idiot for putting it off this long.

Anyway, my last few months have been crazy busy.  Things I have not written about include:

- two English camps, one an overnight camp
- silat (martial arts) and horse riding club
- the Sarawak World Music Festival
- visits to the beautiful Perhentian and Redang Islands
- the Muslim Women Fashion Show at ETA Lynn's school
- Ramadan and fasting
- my mom visiting
- a solo couchsurfing vacation to Indonesia
- Eid/Hari Raya celebrations in Indonesia and at my school
- mentoring my senior students' science fair project
- Form 5 Prom
- beach cleanup with The Body Shop
- and huge freaking spiders in my bathroom:

I'm going to work my way through this list in a totally random fashion.  But if I don't get to all the dishes today, well, I'm only human.  You'll just have to check back again in six months.
*          *          *

So, holding English camps was something I heard about ETAs doing before I even got to Malaysia.  I basically pictured a group of scout-uniformed students in the jungle, hiking through the mud and wrangling for canned beans and tent space in broken English.  I felt terribly unqualified to plan or lead such a trip.

But as it turns out, "camp" just means any special workshop targeted at a specific, large-ish group of students.  It can last a couple of hours or several days; it can be held at the school, or at a resource center, or even at a resort.  English camps with ETAs tend to be collaborations between two or three schools, but there are also school "camps" for test-taking strategies, religion, and clubs like                                                                                               marching band or taekwondo.

Way back in April, I started a penpal program with my 16-year-old students, between my school and ETA Kelley's school (the one with the champion speech choir).  We hooked almost 50 students from each school into writing letters to each other, and managed to extract and exchange these letters three whole times before July.  Malaysian students are creative - some of them made legitimate works of art:

Then, on July 4, we celebrated American Independence Day by gathering all these students together at Kelley's school and having them throw raw eggs at each other and run around screaming in circles. 

We gave these activities names, like "Three Legged Egg Race" and "Where the West Wind Blows" and "Red Light Green Light," but what it amounted to was day-long English-themed hilarity.  I think our first camp was quite a success.

In fact, Kelley and I liked doing camps together so much that we had another one in September, this time with ETA Rebecca's primary school.  We rounded up 90 students from ages 11 to 14, bussed them all out to a beach resort, and spent the weekend observing the migration patterns of young teenagers in relation to food sources and screaming.

Well, okay, it was a little more organized than that.  We actually worked our butts off planning for this camp - we put the students in mixed-age, mixed-gender groups of 10, then kept them running around playing games like "Telephone" and "Friendship Bingo" and "Puzzle Hunt."  We had them making up chants about how great their group was, designing and painting their own camp t-shirts, and putting on comedy skits. 

We even had a campfire on the beach! 

My favorite part was when, on the bus ride home, my students spontaneously started singing the camp songs we had taught them the night before.  It brought a tear to my eye.

I really enjoy hanging out with my students in general; they are hilarious and often amazingly talented.  Over the course of this year, I've joined in with them in lots of activities and trips, and even some co-curricular classes like silat and horse-riding.  These have been beyond valuable - where else would I get a chance at free riding and martial-arts lessons? - as well as so much fun.  Here's me practicing take-downs with one of the student silat experts:

One of the other ETAs, Lynn Elharake, has the odd experience of being a Muslim American in a conservative Muslim state.  She is also teaching at a religious all-girls' school (her blog is From Lebanon To Malaysia, if you want to know what that's like).  So, as a way to help expose her students to different forms of Islam around the world, she created the Muslim Women Fashion Club and put on a charity runway show.  I got to take ten students along to watch - and it was fabulous!  Here are some highlights:

ETAs Billy and Dakari announcing raffle winners

Models on the runway

Models posing on stage

Speaking of Islam, August was Ramadan, the month during which all Muslims fast from sunrise till sunset every single day.  This means neither food nor water for at least 14 hours, every day of the week!  Of course I had to try it.   

Here's what I learned about fasting:

1. When you fast, you want to prepare yourself pretty early in the day.  Wake up at 4:30 am, find the nearest source of heavy food (rice, chicken, veggies), and stuff yourself.  Drink tons of water and electrolytes.  Stop consuming things the minute the sun hits the horizon.

2. For the rest of the day, keep yourself busy.  You will get very, very tired and spacey, so no physical activities.  Try not to put yourself into situations where food or water is easily available to you.  The physical hunger pangs are pretty straightforward, but the mental temptation is killer.  Just remember, someone out there has it way worse than you, and fasting for one day can not actually kill you.

3. Get your food and water ready as the sun is going down.  Dates, apparently, or corn-flavored soy milk, are traditional fast-breaking items.  I personally prefer just a long, cool drink of water the second the sun disappears.  Then while you're eating, savor that wonderful flavor that hunger adds to all food.  And keep yourself well hydrated if you're going to do it again tomorrow!

Oh man, speaking of food, the most delicious thing I have ever done here is mentor a group of senior students in their science fair project!  Form 5 students all need to do a SEM project (some kind of innovation or experiment) in order to graduate, and they have to make a booth about it for the school-wide fair.  My group's regular mentor became unavailable suddenly, so I was recruited in her place.

These guys needed all the help they could get, because they had left their project rather late.  We met twice to brainstorm - they wanted to do something with chocolate, and create a "taste revolution" among their fellow students.  Ideas: could we make chocolate from scratch?  No, it turns out that you need fancy equipment for that.  What about buying chocolate and selling it to the classmates?  No, it needs to be more original than that.  Hey, what about...making fudge?

People in Malaysia don't have any experience with fudge, so we spent an educational half-hour online, exchanged a few emails with various baking friends in America (special thanks to Ellie Hanus!), and followed this with an exciting grocery trip, then a chaotic but constructive evening in the school kitchen.  The result: two delicious trays of rather gooey fudge in two mouth-watering flavors! 
A few market tests and some hasty arts-and-crafts later, and we had a solid booth for the SEM fair, including a live exhibition of fudge-making itself. 

                           Sweet success!

Whew.  Well, those are my stories for today.  Honestly, it's not the writing that's hard work, it's the combing through my pictures and trying to fit the right ones in, without making my post look like an elementary school collage.

Anyway, I have one month left here in Malaysia, so with any luck, I'll write up all the rest of my stories before I go!  Feel free to comment / email / ask questions / request specific stories.  I miss you all!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Speech Choir, Part Two

Here it is, the unexpected continuation of the story of our speech choir!

Two months after the district-level speech choir competition, the Bright Stars celebrated their accomplishment with an awesome beach barbecue.  We distributed certificates, took pictures, stuffed ourselves with good food, and enjoyed each other's company.  We even chatted about how much we missed having rehearsals, and how sad it was that this would be our last time to hang out together as a choir.

Were we ever wrong.

Just a few days later, Madam Azimah grabbed me in the hall at school and shared some extremely exciting news - after months of silence from the organizers, she had just been informed that we were unexpectedly progressing to the state level!  And what's more, the competition was on July 17 - in only three weeks!

The sense of panic and urgency that rippled through our members was by this time almost nostalgic.  After two months of not practicing, we now had only three weeks to pull ourselves back together and improve our script into the bargain.  Like the troopers they are, the Bright Stars stepped up to the plate.

Practices this time around were nowhere near as free and easy as last time.  The students were coping with tons of pressure already, and several favorite parts of the script had to be cut out or revised.  We worked frantically in the short time that we had.

All too quickly, the state-level competition was upon us.  We would be competing with five other elite schools in the "Inspiration Group," while eight other schools in Terengganu would compete in the "Aspiration Group."  The competition site was only half an hour away, but when we got there, we found that we still had hours to wait, as the "Aspiration Group" was going first.

While wandering around, I was happy to meet up with three other ETAs there with their schools: Kelley Whitson, Elizabeth Williams, and Andrea Williamson!

Finally, after an eternity of stewing and last-minute practicing, "Inspiration Group" was up.  Out of the six competing schools, the Bright Stars were set to go first.  The judges, officials, and all six choirs settled down in the auditorium, and then the Bright Stars were on!  The only thing that kept me sitting still in my seat was my solemn promise to film the whole thing.

If I thought I was proud of these students the last time they competed, I had no idea what I was in for this time.  The Bright Stars carried the performance like rock stars - they brought the new script alive so smoothly that you would never have known how little time they'd had to prepare it.  They seemed to mean every word that they said, and their movements were controlled and confident.  I was amazed at how much they had improved in just ten practices!

By the time they finished, the audience had burst into spontaneous applause several times, and I could barely contain myself long enough to press "stop recording" on my camera.  They quickly streamed off the stage and back to their seats, where we whispered excitedly before settling down with relief to watch the next five schools.

The other schools were very, very impressive; I could see why each of them had been chosen among the top in its district.  Their movements were often complicated and creative, requiring a great deal of precision.  Some of the scripts actually rhymed, and seemed to flow more sensibly than ours, and Kelley's choir even produced enviable harmonizations in their songs.

The more I thought about it, though, the less worried I was - after all, we had never even expected to get this far, and yet we had put on a great show that actually did rival these expert choirs.  After seeing all of the performances, I even gave us a fighting chance for third place.

When the time finally came to hear the winners announced, the auditorium was jam-packed.  The announcer took a special delight in drawing out the pause before a school's name, so that when the suspense finally broke, it was on a tide of exultation.  I can't really hope to match his effect in print, so I'll just say it right now: SMK Lembah Bidong won the prize for the "Inspiration Group"'s best script!

While we did not otherwise place in the competition this round, I am happy to report that Kelley's school, SMK Tengku Mahmud 1, did place first, and Elizabeth's school, Imtiaz Dungun, placed second!  Congratulations to these very excellent choirs!

The prize-giving ceremony was held the next day, July 18, in a bigger and grander auditorium at the same college.  It was held with much excited pomp and circumstance, and the yellow (not red) carpet was literally rolled out for a very special guest - the Sultan of Terengganu himself, who also happens this year to be King of Malaysia.

We heard the customary long speeches by officials and judges, saw the winning performance repeated, and then applauded as each prize was handed to a representative member of the choir by the King's own hands.  Our own choir was represented by one of the students who had originally helped to write the script five months ago.  Seeing her walk across the stage to meet the King was a fantastic and supremely proud moment - and I would have a picture just as fantastic, if my camera hadn't died at the exact second that she took the certificate!

Looking back, all I can say is, I am incredibly happy to have been part of something so fun and successful at my school.  And even more than the certificates, I will always treasure the friendships that grew with my amazing students in this choir.

Here's the video that I took at the competition, of the Bright Stars performing the revised script "Globalization":