Just call me Cikgu the American Guru

Hello, again, Word Press world! I am back from my minor disappearance. Since you have last heard from me, I rose in my ranks from African country- hopper to Cikgu (teacher), Miss MacKenzie, or that white foreign lady at zumba.

Back in April of 2016, a few weeks before I graduated from University, and a month before I embarked to find one of the hottest places in the world, Djibouti, I found out I was chosen by the U.S. Fulbright Commission to be a Fulbright Educational Teaching Assistant (ETA) of Malaysia. To say I was honored, is the least I could say. I still remember screeching with excitement to my favorite LS2 team members.

But what does being a Fulbright ETA really mean? Questions I asked myself up until orientation…wait, I still ask myself every day.

Fulbright is the largest U.S. exchange program that sends researchers and teaching assistants to about 140 countries. Annually, close to 1,900 students and young professionals receive this grant. Thank you to Arkansas Senator William Fulbright for filing a bill in 1945, over 360,000 Fulbrighters from the U.S. have represented the U.S. around the world.

Most importantly, because President Barack Obama met with Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, the Fulbright Malaysia program has grown and now, I am currently am typing this post on my couch in Bera, Pahang, Malaysia.


Since parting my lovely friends in Zimbabwe on January 2nd, I spent two weeks of orientation in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, with the MACEE (Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange). I learned all of the thrilling details of my grant like if I am bit by a dog and get rabies, if the U.S. government will pay for my shots, or cultural oddities like always take off your shoes before entering a household OR ELSE the world will end, or what my role as an English Teaching Assistant translates to. Which not so surprisingly enough, translates “whatever your school or community needs”.


Bailey, my housemate, and I

I then parted my small U.S. bubble to head to Kuala Terengganu, a city on the opposite side of the peninsula for a one-week orientation with Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. This is what I was required and expected to do as a teacher assistant by Malaysia. In the eyes of the U.S., I am here to be the best sort of cultural ambassador I can be, but in the eyes of Malaysia, I am an English teacher and my purpose is to raise their English scores. I am to do this through classroom conversation, extracurricular activities, speaking workshops, and English camps. Lucky for me, I have free reign to do as I please.

Which brings me to Bera, my home for 2017. Bera is a rural township in the heart of Pahang, the largest geographical state on peninsular Malaysia. If I had to compare Bera to an in the U.S., I would compare it to the Midwest or Iowa, even. The most centrally located placement is 30 minutes from me. I am two and a half hours by bus to Kuala Lumpur, about two and a half hours to the East Coast, 10 hour drive to Thailand and about an 8 hour drive to Singapore.

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YAY technology- the red dot is me.

The way that corn is to Iowa, palm oil is to Pahang. Pahang is rural. Bera is rural. And my school encompasses this population. The name of my school I teach at is called SMK Mengkarak because although my address is Bera, I live in the outskirts. My high school is the high school for large township of Mengkarak. Over half of my students live at the hostel across the street because many of my students come from smaller villages and palm oil plantations between 20-40 minute drive into rural Pahang that I have yet to explore. As far as I am concerned, my students leave every other weekend to a mysterious place full of palm oil and family.


Being that my school has a rural constituency i.e. the need for the hostel, means a few things for me. One in particular is that the sort of students I have at my school might look a little different than other ETA placements. Some basic history, some decades ago, Malaysia officially made itself a Muslim state due to the expansion of Islam. However, Malaysia has a variety of religions and ethnic populations. If were to enter the town next to ours, one might think I am walking around in China. There is a large Chinese population throughout Malaysia. You also will find groups of Tamil (Indian) people. But what makes my school a little different (or similar to rural) school is that I have a large orang asli population. Many of the orang asli (indigenous) population live in rural areas such as Bera. When I use the term indigenous, I do not belittle them, but rather use it literally. Many Malaysians are immigrants- immigrating from across Asia. The orang asli were here for centuries. What is so important here in Malaysia, is that since Islam became the state religion, most people are expected to convert to Islam. The state of Malaysia is so forward in conversion, that those who are Muslim receive extra benefits. It is a disadvantage to be non-Muslim. This causes many poor families to convert to Islam on paper even though they may not actual practice. Which is something I see happening in my community. However, I am lucky to see a variety of religious and ethnic diversity. My school is 50% made up of Malay (Muslim Malaysians), 20% Orang Asli, 20% Chinese, and 10% Tamil (Indian).

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Perks of chaperoning weekend trips to Raub- Miss MacKenzie gets stuck on the zip line and they have to bring out the ladder.

Since most of my students live in the hostel, this adjusts how my school functions. The school knows that most students are around and require programming, so most of the school sports are done at the hostel, some of my teacher friends are wardens at the hostel, and weekend trips are organized around the weekends that they stay at school. Every other weekend, I go assist with hostel-wide (300+ students) aerobics or jogging club. I head over to the field sometimes after school to hang out with them or send for the hostel students to come to my zumba extracurricular. But most importantly, the students living in the hostel often come from poorer families living off plantations in rural Malaysia. It is a hard life out there. Today, my school gave some money to low-income families that need financial assistance. The first week of school, there were two deaths of parents because they did not have enough money for hospital care. Unfortunately, I learned this is fairly common. Some of my students have phones, but computers are a rarity.

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Me attempting to teach

My school is fairly low on funds in comparison to others. My school does not have Internet except on two administrator computers in the principal’s office. There are no projectors and one sound system for the whole school. Printing is sometimes available but other times not. A few weeks ago we ran out of toner and no one was allowed to print until the following week. Teachers must buy all of their own pens, pencils, whiteboard markers, etc. For me, I have been forced to become creative in my teaching. I improvise a ball for a small bag my school gave me. I make up games instead of showing videos. I make students repeat words, I bring my own speaker to play music, and I try my best to describe using actions.

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All the peace. 

Ah, teaching- the purpose I am here! Malaysia streams students meaning, based on students’ test results, they are placed in one of five classes. The best students are with the best students and the worst students are placed in the lowest class. This took me a while to grasp, because I went into classes with assumptions. I thought 4E class will have okay English, but my 3A class will have phenomenal English. But the students have proved me wrong. Because students are lumped by their overall performance, some students might score highly on English, but low on others and end up in the median. This also means, that as a whole, some classes are naturally better than others even if I expected the opposite. My 5P, seniors lowest level, have basic English, but my 2C class has better English even though 5P has been learning for 3 extra years. Secondly, Malaysia has 1-2 periods of 40 minutes each, but often time lumped together once a week for 1 hour and a half. I go and teach English to one class for an hour and a half once a week. A few classes, it is split for 40 minutes one day and 40 another. This adjusts my objective and goals for how I push for them to learn. I teach a variety of forms. My students range from 13-18. Even though these students are so small, they might seem like primary school students.

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Post Sunday Aerobics Photos

I already love my students, but in all honesty I had a hard first couple of weeks. Malaysians are extremely shy- and not shy that we Americans might think of as shy. This is the sort of shy that one day I asked a student to pass out paper and she started to cry. I had students run up to me and be so scared to say hello, which then they ran away. I have asked students to repeat after me and they are too nervous those they only blush and stare blindly or say no. I have had students say no to me when asked for a volunteer. This was quite the feat, as I have never been described as shy or timid. Secondly, women are treated to be passive and soft-spoken. It quickly became apparent that boys should volunteer and be rowdy, while the ladies stay behind and watch. While I have never been one to wait for someone else to answer a question, I realize I am fighting a societal norm that cannot be changed over night. But you bet I push my ladies to answer questions and yell louder if it is anything below a normal decibel.

Daily life- The closest thing I can compare living in Bera, Pahang to is the song by Eric Hutchinson called “American Princess”. Now, I am not much of a country singer, but when my friend Madi showed me the song, I thought this is exactly how I feel!

These are some lyrics:

Where she’s from the land of farmers daughters

The folks all say she’s kinda plain

In Japan she’s one tall glass of water
And she begins to make it rain

In Tokyo nobody knows, she’s got a past
She comes on strong goes all night long, she’s upper class
2-3-4 give em all what they’re asking for

Nobody wants you
Back home in the Midwest
Now everyone loves you
American princess
Nobody wants you
But then you got famous
Now everyone loves you
American princess

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Sunday photoshoot at a teacher’s friend’s house

I come from Des Moines, Iowa. Love it to death, but back there, I am not extraordinary. I am another Iowan.

However living, in Bera, Pahang, I might know what it might be like to be a celebrity. Literally every time I leave the house, all eyes are on cameras and me.

Here is just a short list of the odd things that have happened:

  1. (Only a few hours ago) Bailey and I were walking in the market and one of her students comes up to us. I, personally, have never met her and her first words to me are, “I follow you on Instagram.”
  2. A few nights ago, I pull up to a stoplight and notice a young family staring at me in the car next to me. I turn and the wife waves. She hits the husband’s arm; he turns and says, “Aye, you are Miss MacKenzie. We know you.” All I could muster was, “Uhh, cool.”
  3. My second week of living in town, I went for a 30 minute jog around my neighborhood. It was around 4 pm and I only saw maybe 3 young children. The next morning I show up to school and my mentor says, “I heard you went jogging yesterday.” I thought, well this is interesting. She doesn’t live near me and her English is pretty good, so it’s interesting that she didn’t use the verb to see rather than to hear. I ask her, “Where did you hear this?” “Oh, the friend of the counselor saw you running and took a picture, sent it to the counselor, who sent it to the teacher’s group message, where I saw it.” My school has about 60 teachers in it. Fast forward one week later, a student tells me she heard I run and that she wants to follow me next time. Maybe I will have a Forest Gump moment. Fast forward two weeks, I am at a meeting with the district’s head English officer where one of her administrator’s says to me, I saw you running. Because this is the main item of conversation that should be shared at this very important meeting.
  4. I have been asked to grab a drink from another car while at a stoplight.
  5. My mentor heard from another friend that I was in Taiping, literally the opposite side of the country, one weekend.
  6. I have been asked to have my photo taken. I go in for a selfie and am denied. Turns out they only wanted a photo of me. Welp, I guess I am going in for the free style.

Basically, anything and everything I do somehow is spread around the community. My mentor sends me pictures of me that she found from someone in the community. Bailey and I are the only white people for kilometers, but the sort of celebrity-like status we have because we are white and from the states is insane. I have never experienced anything like it. I have experienced staring, but finding photos of me posted on Instagram with a random person that I exchanged 5 words with at the market is new. It is an interesting thing. In some ways it is nice because I know I will always be taken care of. If I go missing for longer than 10 minutes, I think the police will know about it. But on the other side, little things I do like running, I do not necessarily care for the world to know.

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However, friends!

All in all, my town is sweet, kind, and the most welcoming. My mentor, my teachers, my principal, and my students do anything and everything to make sure I am enjoying my time. I know this year will continue to get better and I look forward to getting to know my community. Random creep photos and all.

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Trying out the local durian dish. 

-Cikgu MacKenzie




4 thoughts on “Just call me Cikgu the American Guru

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