Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Back to School

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A modesty sack
Dark, silk, and all-covering,
I’m burning alive!

We scrambled some eggs and stuffed them into buns for a road breakfast, the three of us packed into Shobee’s car weaving through the morning rush. She had explained to us before that she works as a manager of fellows in the Teach For Malaysia program; it’s a similar story to Teach for America (and the whole Teach For network), where recent graduates from college volunteer a couple years to try and revamp rural or challenged schools from the inside out. Shobee’s job is to make sure these fellows have everything they need and are on track to make the changes they want. This means she occasionally has to visit them.

Shobee explains to us between mouthfuls that the area of Malaysia that we’re going to is quite rural, and it lacks the liberal attitudes of Penang. Fortunately she dug out a suitably modest outfit for me before we set out, so that I can’t tempt men with my ankles or wrists during the holy month of Ramadan.

She drops us off in front of the school and rockets off to an appointment with another fellow. Cheryl, our host at the school, is busy until around lunchtime, so we have a few hours to explore town before we meet up.

The town, Bagan Serai, is clearly rural but also developed in a way that we haven’t seen in other countries’ countrysides. The centre of town is host to a KFC and a 7-11. Flags of different political parties fly high on buildings. A bubble tea place sits next to an atas hotel. (In case this explanation got skipped, Shobee explained to us that “atas” in Malay means, literally, “up”, but is used as slang for “hoity toity”.) We spend a couple hours wandering the town and strolling up and down the nearby canals, relieved that they are relatively devoid of random trash, and sit in the shade for a while to read our book as the sun’s oppresive heat begins to get to us. A black, silk, long-sleeved garment is not the optimal way to stay cool in this climate.

Cheryl rings us a couple hours before we expect it, and we eagerly agree to a tour of the school before her class starts. It’s pretty well-off for a rural school in a not-quite-developed country: they have a bank of computers, shelves of educational software, a large library, and nice teaching rooms. The school cafeteria sits, of course, empty, since 80+% of the students aren’t eating lunch due to the fast. Cheryl takes us to meet the principal and vice-principal, who greet us excitedly and tell us how excited they are to encourage wanderlust in their students. By and large, none of the students feel the need to learn English since they mostly plan to remain in town, but it is a required course on a national level so they all have to suffer through it. By inviting us to the school, everyone is hoping that we can get them excited about how useful it is to speak English.

Class begins. Boys and girls sit separately, although by choice rather than by rules. Indians and Malays sit separately, again by choice. Cheryl posts a series of signs on the whiteboard: one shows off the question words—how, who, where, when, why—as “one husband, four wives”. Two pairs of new words are being introduced for us: back packing and couch surfing. Thirty five minutes passes in a blink as we explain our trip, ask the students for suggestions of foods to try and music to listen to, and answer their questions (“which football club do you like best?” “what hobbies do you do?”). We stick around for the English “extra class”, where we help grade exercises and chat more with the students. Then, school’s out, and we bid farewell to Cheryl and the students.

We pass a few more hours waiting for Shobee; we drink bubble tea and wander through the nighttime Ramadan market. Since Muslims aren’t eating during the day, they also aren’t cooking. Ramadan markets all over the Muslim world open just before dusk and offer endess varieties of takeaway food, ranging from samosas (curry-filled Indian pastries) to murtabak (an egg pancake) to deep-fried burgers in phyllo dough (don’t even ask about this one). We grab a few things that look delicious and slink away to the riverside to eat them—it seems ill-advised to chomp on dinner in the midst of a crowd not allowed to eat for another hour.

We finish our book and hang around until Shobee comes to collect us. She grumbles about people not getting done what they’re supposed to, a problem around the world as far as I can tell, and we bounce back home in the car.