Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Embassy Says Hi

So the most amazing thing happened to me yesterday.  I had about fifteen or sixteen extra sets of eyes watching me teach a class - as well as a few video cameras!

The extra eyes belonged to people from the State Government and the Education Department, people from MACEE, and two very important guests: the American Ambassador to Malaysia, Paul W. Jones, and the Malaysian Ambassador to America, Jamaluddin Jarjis.

The Ambassadors wanted to get a better idea of the ETA program and how it works in the Terengganu schools.  Apparently, the program enjoys support from some pretty high levels in the government, and its success is making it a candidate for expansion.  Two schools with current ETAs, mine and Lynn Elharake's, were chosen to give the Ambassadors an overview and demonstration of this success.

My school was in excited, semi-controlled chaos for a week.  There was cleaning, rearranging, stapling of fancy skirting on tables, and a great deal of planning.  Luckily, I happened to have a class to teach during the very time the Ambassadors were set to visit, so we didn't have to shift anything around.  We just plotted the heck out of the 25 minutes that the guests were expected to spend in the classroom with us.

By the time the police escort came wailing down the road to our school that morning, we had the entire place decked out.  The smartly uniformed prefects lined the road from the gate to the school entrance, there were fancy snacks and punch set out in the hallway near the meeting room, and the school gamelan ensemble were even ensconced in a little pavilion next to the garden!

In short, pomp and circumstance were the words of the day.

I was up near the principal and head teachers in the greeting line at the gate, and we all walked the guests down to the meeting room amid much clicking of cameras - both personal and press.    After a brief, gamelan-enhanced chat around the fancy snack table, everyone filtered into the meeting room and the presentations about the ETA program started.

I can't really go into specifics about the presentations, because I wasn't actually there at that point.  I excused myself early and ran to warm up the class for their lesson.  Class 1E6 was the lucky bunch in question; they're first-year students, only thirteen years old.  They're great kids, and really smart, but they have a tendency to freeze in terror when asked to speak English individually.  I made a point of encouraging them to just let go and have fun, and I had them brainstorm some questions for the Ambassadors.

When everyone finally came up from the meeting room, the classroom sure got a bit crowded; not only the two Ambassadors, but also the principal, my mentor, several head teachers, a large handful of government and embassy high-ups, and an uncertain number of media folks were all present for the spectacle. 

We opened with my co-teacher Tihah giving the first part of the lesson.  She introduced "Wh-" question words with a cute activity involving an invitation to Mickey Mouse's birthday party, and two students role-playing a conversation about it.  She then handed the class over to me, and I played a passing-the-ball, asking-eachother-questions game with the kids to help them practice the words.  After fifteen minutes or so, the Ambassadors came up and interacted with the class for a few minutes - they spoke about their jobs, asked the kids questions, and had the kids asking them questions. 

I was so proud of the class - they did amazingly under so much pressure!  They not only didn't freeze up during class, but they also had some great questions and answers for the Ambassadors at the end.  They even got little gifts from the embassy, and a photo-ops with the guests!

At that point, the program was pretty much over, bar the elaborate thank-you's and goodbyes.  The VIPs and entourage were then headed off to visit Lynn's school in Kuala Terengganu.  I came away from it with a very fancy embassy pen, an equally fancy embassy pin, and an awesome story to tell.  Who knows - I hear that the newspaper might have a few pictures in it tomorrow!

(Either way, when I find some good pics to add to this blog, I will.  But I was altogether too distracted to take any good ones with my camera.)

UPDATE: In fact, as of today (Feb 24):

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Highlights of First Few Weeks

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, guys!  At least it feels like a long time to me, what with how busy I've been.  I've been putting in a lot of time getting settled here at my school.  My bug bites have subsided, and I've made friends with the cool geckos that scurry around my apartment in the evenings.  I like to imagine that they're specifically targeting all the mosquitoes for me because I talk to them so nicely.

Here's another cool bug-catcher guy I found in my apartment the other day.

I forgot to mention in my last blog post that the Sunday after I got to my school, my school had a farewell party for the vice principal.  She was being promoted to principal of another school, so my school had this huge send-off ceremony with speeches and gifts galore.  There had been a few requests that I sing her a song, so I went and sang her "Time of Your Life," by Greenday.  (I know that's not the actual title of the song, but I really hope the actual title is not relevant here.)  It was nerve-wracking, singing on short notice in front of the massed ranks of the school, but it went off great!  You can never be too cheesy here.

Anyway, most of my time so far has been spent spastically running around trying to get everything taken care of at once: class planning, actual classes, extracurriculars planning, trip planning, relating to the students, making friends with the teachers, and oh yeah keeping myself healthy.  That last one occasionally takes a hit.

Every week or few days or so, I've had a random trip to KT or the islands to hang out with the other ETAs.  First it was Chinese New Year, then we got together for a river cruise/culture exposition in KT on the next weekend, and then we had a fun trip to the beach resort town of Cherating this last weekend.  I think we visited Kapas island for a day somewhere in there.  It has all been extremely beautiful, extremely hot, and pretty darn random.

The culture expo was especially awesome!  Apparently it was specifically made for us, the ETAs: we were taken on a flat-bottomed river cruise boat up the river a ways, then stopped off at a little village place where there were people waiting to greet us with big glittery fan-things on sticks. 

We followed them up to a tent, where they showed us a table full of traditional food displays: apparently there was a contest underway for traditional Malay cooking!  We tried all sorts of treats, and even got to help hand over the prizes when they were announced. 

The next stop was a display of the Malay martial art, silat.  This band of uniformed kids with drums joined the women with glittery fans, and they all led us down to a flat place with mats on it.  There, the kids put down their drums and proceeded to astonish us with increasing amounts of badassery.  They did a few individual forms, then a few partnered forms with knives and throws, then two boys faced off in a long, very agile and impressive fight sequence.  They even used those wavy traditional knives, keris!

After the silat show, we were treated to a variety of other displays, like the traditional practices of kite-flying, competitive tops (and believe me, you would not want to mess with these tops), and putting monkeys up palm trees to get the coconuts.  The monkeys made me a little sad, personally, but I really enjoyed getting to see two of our guy ETAs attempting the top-throwing game.  You have to whip your hand back and snap the rope like a bullwhip to get the top spinning fast enough, and then it should keep going for up to two hours!

Well, trips aside, I've also been doing a lot of hanging out closer to home.  It turns out that I'm not totally alone in Setiu - there is another Fulbrighter here, just a researcher instead of an ETA.  Her name is Meg, she researches turtles, and she lives only 20 minutes or so north of me.  We've hung out several times now, and I've even gotten to visit her host family!  They're really awesome, and the little 3-year-old daughter is adorable and blazingly outgoing.

There's a ton more that I'd like to write about, but this post is long enough already, so I'll just call it a day and stop at the main highlights of the past few weeks.  A couple of things I'll mention out of context, though:

    - I really want a hermit crab as a pet.  They are freaking adorable.

    - It turns out that Malay village people don't like pasta with marinara sauce, and they think salad is really strange.

    - Wedding dresses in Malaysia come in all sorts of colors, and you can actually chose between a more traditional, beaded-tunic-y look or the more modern Western white-and-gauzy look.  (Here: a rack of men's wedding headdresses.)

    - Pirates vs. Ninjas: due to technical issues, pirates win.

    - It seems that teaching while sick is not fun.  Teaching while well is incredibly rewarding.  But I guess we'll find out for real when I start teaching actual lessons instead of just games and stuff.

    - Don't pretend to growl at a dog, even to make it go away.  You may end up getting stuck with needles a few days later.

    - I now know about 5 or 10 more knots than I did before!

Each of these things has a story attached, but like I said, I can't expand upon all of them now.  Tell me if you're curious!

Love you all, and miss you to pieces.

PS:  This guy is holding one of those mega-tops on a plate!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Photo Tour of Apartment

Hello and welcome to this stunning and comprehensive photo-tour of my living quarters here at SMK Lembah Bidong!

To give you some context, my apartment is located on the second floor of a small, four-storey complex in the corner of the school campus.  It is literally a ten-second walk to the girls' dormitories and cafeteria, where I usually eat dinner, and about a two minute walk to anything else on campus.

 To begin, here is my front door...

Next, if you enter the door and turn left, you see my living room area, with the balcony partially visible behind the sliding glass doors (which are unfortunately stuck closed now)...

Here is a view out those sliding glass doors, over my balcony and into the jungle beyond...

And now, if you turn right from my front door, you see the rest of my living room space and my dining space, with chairs and a table, and a TV for playing movies on...

 If you go toward that opening in the wall on the right, behind the easy chair, you will see...

And here is my storeroom, that dark doorway right next to the kitchen...

And a few shots of my beautiful kitchen, with door to the kitchen balcony...

And here's the view out my kitchen balcony, toward the girls' dorms and cafeteria...

Another view, that includes the clotheslines over the side of the balcony, for drying my stuff on...

 And heading back into the apartment, there's my bedroom door on the left...

And here are a few shots of my bedroom...

That's the attached bathroom back there, with the bath mat in front of the door...

 And here's that same bathroom, very compact but complete with toilet, sink, mirror, and hot shower...

Outside my bedroom again, and right around the corner, here's my washing machine, extra bathroom, and one extra bedroom...

And here's the other extra bedroom.

So yeah!  That's my place!  What do you guys think, good enough to come and visit? :-P

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chinese New Year

[NOTE: I split up that massive last blog post, so now it's in two consecutive posts.  This is the second one.]

We've had Tuesday through Saturday off for Chinese New Year, which is a big deal around here.  I came down to Kuala Terengganu for the break and am staying with the ETAs here in their apartments.  Several other ETAs had similar ideas, and these apartments have practically had revolving doors all break.  Some people went off to visit Malays they knew, a big group or two went to witness the celebration in Penang, a more Chinese-populated province, and about six of us decided to stay here.

Some of my fellow teachers came down to KT too, to go bowling, and they invited me along!  It was very awesome; I got to know the teachers better, and I actually hit the pins a few times.  The others were ridiculously good, and some had even brought their own balls.

During break, we mostly hung out with Megan's school and her teachers and mentor.  We got to tag along on a school trip to the beautiful Chemerong waterfalls, where we hiked halfway up a mountain with a couple dozen Malay students, then had lunch again at the bottom. 

Also, it seems that the creatures love my blood… I've got what looks like two leech bites on my ankle, and a picture of the culprit to prove it!

We've been to three separate Chinese families' open houses, and had the opportunity to sample an amazing array of rices, curries, oranges, and adorable little traditional snacks.  We are now familiar with the symbolism of fishes, oranges, eights, nines, and astrological rabbits, and we had a short lesson in Chinese calligraphy!

 We also went into Chinatown on new year's eve and got a chance to see the lion dance in the street.  There was a band of secondary school boys playing drums and cymbals, while two pantomime lions and a "lion teaser" in a mask romped around interacting with each other and the crowd.  Behind them walked a bunch of people from some hotel, and one was all dressed up like Confucious!

By the way, while watching the lions dance is cool and exciting, having one of them come straight at you is enough to make you wet your pants.

Well, in the last couple days of break, we've mostly been relaxing and digesting all the good food we've had recently.  You know your stomach has finally settled in when you start craving local foods for breakfast.  Remember that nasi lemak stuff I described in my first blog post in Malaysia?  That spicy anchovies-and-rice mixture is all I want in the morning these days - that or roti chanai, which is a type of Indian flatbread with curry sauce.

This morning, in fact, after a nice plate of roti chanai, we walked to a nearby fruit stall and learned all about the fruits they were selling.  They cut open basically about everything in the stall for us to try - asian pears, mandarin oranges, parsimmons, even a jar of honey straight from the jungles!  It was watered down and liquidy, but it tasted like sugary orange flowers.  They also warned us that eating honey with watermelon was possibly lethal, and we should wait at least four hours to eat watermelon now, unless we wanted to regurgitate our guts in the most painful manner.

I've got some doubts about this.  It may be something I have to consult Wikipedia on.

Anyway, I've been hearing a lot about this Snowpocalypse all across North America; how are people holding up?  Is Rochester now finally eaten up by the tundra?  I heard people had to abandon their cars in Chicago; how bad is it in Milwaukee?

I miss you all!  Pretend I'm hugging you right now.

Here are some more cool pictures:

Me and the guy dressed up like Confucius in KT Chinatown.

Walking across a rope bridge during the waterfall hike!

Holding a millipede on the waterfall hike.

Learning Chinese calligraphy at one of the open houses for New Years.

The adorable hedgehog pet of one of the Chinese families we visited.

I bought a drink at the school canteen... and they gave it to me in a plastic bag!  With a straw!

Friday, February 4, 2011

My School


So, I finally moved to my school last Thursday (the 27th).We left right after the Handing-Over Ceremony, where the Head of the Department of State for the state of Terengganu personally presented each of us to officials from our schools.  On our way, we stopped by a minimart, then drove 45 minutes out from the city, passing more and more jungle-y underbrush and houses on stilts along the way.  We finally made it to the school, SMK Lembah Bidong, where I'll be living on the second floor of a small apartment complex for teachers in the corner of the campus.

The apartment I'm in is gorgeous; it has a living room space, with a table and chairs for dining, a small but stocked kitchen, three bedrooms, and two bathrooms.  It also has two small balconies!  There's a washing machine and clotheslines for drying, and I can go eat at the dorm dining halls right nearby whenever I want.  There's free wifi on the school campus (which is beautiful - all light pink concrete and cement, and red tiled roofs), and I just got Broadband that I can use in my apartment.  I'll be posting a photo tour soon!

My first few days on campus were the weekend (which is Friday and Saturday here, not Saturday and Sunday!), so I spent most of that time cleaning and getting familiar with the place.  I scrubbed the walls, floors, and surfaces of the bathrooms and the kitchen, cleaned all the dishes, swept and wiped down my bedroom, and aired out the whole place.  Any bugs that might have been getting comfortable in their two months of privacy are now pretty certain that the apocalypse has come. (Here in the photo is my glistening clean kitchen!)

I actually found one really cool little guy in my bedroom curtains - a giant grasshopper!  He was literally about 2.5 inches long and at least an inch wide, with antennae longer than my bangs!  I caught him with a big tupperware and let him loose outside.

I ate my first few lunches and dinners at the girls' hostel (cafeteria), where they mostly serve rice, cooked vegetables, and some sort of meat or fish, all of which you eat with your hands.  When I walked in the room, the excitement level rose palpably.  All these girls in their white or black headscarves kept looking up, giggling, whispering behind their hands, and waving shyly at me. 

The girls who had escorted me from the apartment stood in line with me, and then sat with me while I ate.  At least a dozen more gathered around to talk with me while I was eating; I felt like an exotic celebrity!  Also, apparently a sense of teacher-student hierarchy is pretty ingrained; the lunch ladies give me a plate and glass instead of a tray to eat off of, and students will actually ask to be excused from the table if they're eating with me.

(Here in the photo, I'm eating with some girls at the Canteen, which is more informal; you can get snacks and food anytime throughout the day.)

My first school day was on Sunday (see the "different weekends" note above).  The whole school gathers in the "hall" for assembly at 7:15 in the morning, and since this was my first day, I was present to be introduced.  Not only this, but I actually gave a short hello speech to the entire student body - all six hundred of them in rows and uniforms in front of me!

So far, I've taught two classes - one Form 1 and one Form 2.  Form 1 kids are 13 years old and are in their first year at secondary school; my class was incredibly shy and almost completely silent.  For a first day activity, I had them introducing each other to me, and I almost literally had to stand right in front of them to hear what they said. 

Form 2 kids are 14 years old and are pretty used to secondary school at this point.  My Form 2 class was loud and enthusiastic on the whole, except for when I wanted just one of them to speak, at which point that person would look like a deer in headlights while the rest of the class shouted at them.  However, the class went off pretty well overall; we ended up dancing the hokey pokey together!

[read my next blog post for Chinese New Year...]