January 30, 2011

first post: orientation and more...

Hello friends and family!

So after much hemming and hawing, internal conflict, and debate about whether or not I would succumb to pressure to join the the (mostly annoying) "check me out, I live abroad" blogosphere of post-grads fleeing US economic woes, I am hereby declaring that I'm nowhere near cool enough to declare myself too cool for a blog, and I'm way too lazy to figure out how (and to whom) to send mass emails. I have officially joined the I-Teach-English-In-Southeast-Asia-And-Blog-About-It universe, if for no other reason than so many people expect me to have some form of publicly-accessible electronic outlet to express how very different life is over here, and that so far I happen to have quite a bit of free time due to the RIDICULOUSLY immense portion of the day spent praying Malaysia, which I am kind of not allowed to participate in, or even watch. So why not write about my thoughts and experiences, and maybe someone will take a look!? So here goes nothing!

So even though I’ve been in Malaysia for nearly a month (well, more like 3 weeks…), I haven’t started teaching yet. I am part of a group of 17 Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) and for the first three weeks of January, we have been part of an orientation program, first conducted by the US Government, and then by the Malaysian Government. My first week here was spent in Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia) and the two weeks after that were spent in Kuala Terengganu (the capital of the Malaysian state of Terengganu). Now, as of a few days ago, I am living at my school in Kuala Berang, which is a very small town in the region of Hulu Terengganu, in the state of Terengganu. Confusing, I know, but the bottom line is that I basically live in the jungle now!

Orientation had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was highly entertaining. The “downs” just involved too much sitting in freezing cold conference rooms listening to repetitive information about the Malaysian education system, and the “ups” included some pretty fun field trips. Some highlights included visiting the state library of Terengganu in KT (I’m now an official member!), going to the Terengganu state museum (which was huge, and pretty cool… though they did have an exhibit on indigenous animals of Terengganu that involved very poorly executed taxidermy that might have been the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen). The museum had a traditional fabric section, art section, as well as an entire exhibition building basically worshipping petroleum, Petronas, and the oil industry (which I can’t really complain about considering the oil industry here is likely singlehandedly paying my salary and living expenses).

We visited the Islamic civilization park, the hilarity of which I can’t do justice… it is essentially an intentionally religion-based and unintentionally kitschy theme park which has replicas of every important mosque or Islamic building in the world (including the Taj Majal and Mecca). The replicas are reduced in scale from the originals to a perfectly awkward degree – doors just too small to go through and roofs just too tall that you can’t see the tops of the buildings. We watched videos about each structure in their “theatrettes” which had horrible English translations, and were taken around the park in a small children’s train like we were in Disney World. We also visited the Crystal Mosque, which is a newer mosque right on the water that has a really cool glass roof, and changes color at night (Malaysians LOVE when things change color, and they LOVE anything rainbow… all the streetlights are rainbow, mosques have tacky rainbow lights, all the weird jelly desserts are rainbow, and the dresses and headscarves for women are a compilation of psychedelically neon shades of pink, green, yellow, blue and orange). You should see the shirt I bought at the market the other day… I am a walking box of pastel crayons.

Orientation also included a game of night Futsol (similar to soccer, but played on a smaller field), bowling, and a visit to the KT Science Center. They opened up the Science Center in the evening especially for the ETAs, they served us a buffet dinner (after being given a buffet dinner at the hotel earlier that evening... just one example of the lack of communication between people in Malaysia… and perhaps an excellent example of their need to eat meals approximately every 15 minutes), we went to a planetarium show (my first ever!!), and then they showed us "science." This consisted of them blowing up balloons, rubbing them on their clothes, and showing how they pick up little particles of paper afterwards... static electricity! Then they made a “tornado” by putting dish soap and glitter in a plastic water bottle and swirling it around. Then we were presented with commemorative science center water bottles and left.

One morning we went out to visit actual schools in Terengganu to get a taste of what Malaysian schools look like (though they weren’t the actual schools we'd be teaching in). It was a ridiculous morning for several reasons:

1. The Terengganu education department decided to bus us to the school, except that it was literally TWO BUILDINGS down from our hotel. Like literally 150 feet away. Again, I’m not sure whether they do this just to be nice, or because they assume that Americans require or expect private automotive transportation to every location… regardless, it was absurd being on a bus for approximately 3 seconds.

2. That day, we were served a buffet breakfast at the hotel, a midmorning snack at our briefing at around 9:15am, brunch at the secondary school we visited at around 10:45am, an "early lunch" at the primary school we visited at 11:30am, and then a full sit-down lunch at the hotel at 12:30pm. By the time our fifth meal of the day had commenced, most of us couldn’t control our urges to vomit and/or laugh uncontrollably. Malaysia knocks the pants off college as the WORLD destination for UNLIMITED free food.

3. The secondary school we visited didn’t actually have classes for us to observe. It was an assembly day so there were no teachers anywhere and all the students were in a meeting hall all morning… which is fine, except that the whole point of us going there was to observe classes and talk to teachers. What makes it even funnier is that we were supposed to "debrief" all afternoon about what we learned from observing classes and talking to teachers... oh wait, except that the observing didn't actually happen...

One of my favorite nights in Kuala Terengganu involved building a bonfire on the beach. We were joined by some Malaysian friends, mostly surfers who we ran into every afternoon by the beach. One of them is sponsored by Billabong and is Malaysia's #1 surfer! Anyways, they helped us build a fire (Malaysian firewood = broken boat pieces and palm fronds), and then the 25 or so of us all hung out just talking and listening to music all night by the beach. To celebrate the full moon, we did this traditional full moon ceremony activity where you write down on a piece of paper all the bad things you want to rid yourself of for the year - all the negative things in your life weighing you down - and then roll the piece of paper up into a funnel, light the funnel on fire, and run to the ocean while it burns and throw it in the ocean. It was actually a really amazing, therapeutic experience, and it was cool because we all did it together.

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