A letter home

When Iris and I were taking our ESL certification course, our teacher would read letters from students now teaching abroad. I can not speak for Iris but as someone who loves attention I obviously wanted one of my letters to be read in the class someday. My teacher asked for an update/something for class so I obliged here. In a very long letter. Since it covers some of my thoughts about living in Malaysia after three months, and some information about where I work I thought it might be fun to share on here. Enjoy!

Oh, and since it would seem mean to write a post without a picture, enjoy:

This has nothing to do with Malaysia, expect that I saw it online a few weeks ago while living in Malaysia and it makes me laugh every time I see it.
This has nothing to do with Malaysia, expect that I saw it online a few weeks ago while living in Malaysia and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

Hi Laura!
I hope everything is going well in the States. I of course want to update you on everything happening in your former student’s live and if you decide to share part of this letter with one of your classes that would be a lifelong dream. Well, not lifelong but certainly something I wanted since you read some of Colette’s letters in class. Speaking of Colette, she has already visited us here. The first thing she did was talk about how she hated it in Korea, and proceeded to list everything she missed about living in Richmond which made Iris go into a big old home sickness spell. Fun!

It is fun now that I am an expatriate to refer to America as The States, or Stateside, or that place I used to live. I enjoy that and the general live of being an expat. It is fun to be the stranger in a strange land. As time passes it becomes less strange but I am always a stranger here. I do not think that this is that unique or something that will ever change. Malaysia is a country that is diverse but very homogeneous; it is open but at the same time very closed off. 60% of the country is ethnic Malay and they are a protected class. They are purposefully over represented in the Government to ensure that their rights are never trampled. There is freedom of religion but Islam is the national religion. It is a fascinating country to live in, especially now as they appear to be having a bit of a “spasm” if you will. There have been protests by the young and other ethnic groups over freedom of speech and having more rights, and counter protests by Malays who want to protect the integrity of Malaysia aka the ethnic Malay group. And the Prime Minister is being accused of stealing a few billion from the country but good luck finding anything about that in the press: The papers are government owned and because of a very vague law called the Sedition Act, they generally view any negative views of the government as a crime.

So the point being that living in a country that has a hard time giving full rights and recognition to the 40% ethnic Chinese and 8% ethnic Indian/Tamil who have lived here for generations, a big tall white guy like me will always be a stranger. There is a certain degree of fun to that when I am free to observe it on my own. When it is pointed out to me abruptly it is a different story.

So enough ranting, let’s talk about teaching English!

I moved here without having a job or any prospects, as I think you know. While this was scary as hell, I did have the security of a partner who had a job. Iris got a job as a special education teacher at a really great school before we left, which is why we moved to Malaysia in the first place! Everyone told me before I moved that it would be fine, that I would find a job when I got there because that is how this whole thing works. This did little to calm my nerves. The first couple of weeks I was here I spent a few hours every day applying to jobs while sitting in Starbucks. This did not produce any results. I had one interview in those first few weeks, but that was one I had set up while living in The States. This was with a language school that was just a few blocks from the Petronas Towers. Most of the students were Arab, from North Africa in particular. I met with one of the woman in charge for an interview within the first week of arriving in the country. The interview went well and I was invited back to do a lesson plan demonstration about 2 weeks later for the boss with a real class of students.

The lesson plan demonstration did not go well. I talked way too fast, despite you telling us almost every day in class to slow down! I did not get the job but it was a great experience as afterwards the boss and her second in command, both of whom had observed the lesson plan, gave me a ton of constructive criticism. It was really helpful.

Well, after about three weeks I hit a point where I had applied to every single opening I could find listed on every single job message board there was. I had gone through the list on Oxford Seminars website of language schools in Kuala Lumpur and searched for jobs. Nothing. Most of the time I did not even get a reply. By this point Iris had started work, and we had moved into a nice little apartment in the Desa Sri Hartamas neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur, about 1 mile from where she works. (Another bonus of living overseas: Cooler neighborhood names! I am sorry, but Desa Sri Hartamas or Kota Damansara is much more fun to say than Stadium or Museum District!) One day I was swimming in the rooftop infinity pool of our building, something that almost every condo tower here has, when I noticed that there as a Korean ESL school one block from our building. Looking around I noticed at least one other store sign that said ESL or Cambridge or some buzz word that told me right away that this was an English school. So I went down to our apartment and searched for every school in the neighborhood. I then wrote to every single one of them, regardless of whether they had posted a job or not, and introduced myself and gave them a copy of my resume. I had been told by my Oxford Advisor that one of the better ways to find a job was to go school to school in person and drop off a resume. Not having a car and the average real feel temperature here being 105 degrees I decided that the digital way worked better for now.

The very next day I got a call from The Language Studio, a small school three blocks from where I live. They had a possible opening for a part time teacher. Given my complete lack of other alternatives, I jumped at the chance. I interviewed with the Head Teacher and it went well. It was one of those interviews where I knew I had the job right away. But this made me a bit sad, as it was only for 6 hours a week and would really not be a lot of money at all. (about $30 a week!) But it would give me experience so when they asked if I was okay with part time I said yes.

Well, a few days went by and I got the call from the Head Teacher: I had the job. But there was also a possible opening at one of their other branches: Would I be interested in a full time job that pays a lot more? YES! So that Monday I met at the Sri Hartamas branch (they have three total) with the Boss of the whole thing. Again, right away, I knew she loved me. Let’s face it I am charming. She offered me the job right on the spot.  I said yes and the next day she gave me a contract to sign. The job was for HEAD TEACHER at the Ampang branch. So yeah, I went in to interview for a 6 hour a week part time job, and ended up with a job that is 60% teaching 40% administrative and puts me in charge of a branch! Amazing turn of events!

I know I am writing a lot but obviously I have a lot to say. I also wanted to give you a lot of options of what to share with a class if you are so inclined. Feel free to share the blog too: kiinkl.wordpress.com

My job is amazing! I mostly teach which is kind of nice. The branch I work at is the main branch, so when Teresa the Boss is there, she runs everything. When she is not there, her number two of the whole company kind of runs things. Then me. So I do some administrative stuff and ideally I will do more supervision of teachers at some point soon, but mostly I teach and try to get more students for the schools. Next month we are doing a speech and drama competition for younger students. It should be fun!

I teach every level. As the only teacher on salary at the branch when a sub is needed they use me first if they are able to. I have taught 8 year old “Alphas” as we call them. Basic English, can communicate if you talk very simply. I have taught pre-intermediate Adults. This is one of my regular classes that meet three times a week for two hours each time. Twice a week for two hours each go I teach pre-intermediate 10-12 year olds. They are more advanced than the adults as most of them have been learning English their whole live. Right now I am also teaching a night class to two adult learners who are very low level pre-intermediate.  I am also the de-facto Speech and Drama teacher at the school. Every teacher does Speech and Drama but on weekdays during the school holiday of the summer I had been doing Speech and Drama for one hour everyday with the higher level elementary students.  We did a short one act play about every two weeks on a small stage in our drama hall. In addition to this we worked on dictation and annunciation through various games and activities such as tongue twisters and the like. Saturdays are our big days here, and something I never considered I would have to work on before I moved. But if you end up at a business and not an official school, Saturday is the jack pot day. During the week days we would have two classes of maybe 12 adults total, and two classes of kids numbering about 15 if that. On Saturdays we have two 3 hour sessions, and have a full house. Every classroom is full of students, with probably 120-150 total in each session for my branch alone. On Saturdays I am now teaching our highest level kids, the IGCSE class. These are the kids preparing or desiring (or their parents desiring them to usually) take and pass the native English speakers tests from Cambridge so they can go to University abroad, or just get into an international high school here in Kuala Lumpur as they are typically the best.

I was “prepared” to teach all of my classes by the Oxford class and you. I put that in quotations because while you told me about what to expect when I taught, a lot of it did not click in until I started teaching. YOU HAVE TO GO SLOW! While for some of my students this means talking slow, it means what you told us. If you think your lesson has too small of a focus it doesn’t. It probably needs to be smaller than you think if you are teaching Elementary learners. And talking slow is one thing, but talking simpler is something you told us to do that I did not really process until I was standing there one day in front of a classroom of Korean women who had no idea what I was saying to them. That was my first day of teaching and it went about as well as most first days go. I have been lucky that most of my adults have been okay with speaking in front of their peers, getting it wrong and being corrected by me in front of their peers.

I am biased, but I have also been lucky because The Language Studio where I work is a really fantastic and well regarded place. The level of students we get for some of our classes is pretty high, not only in their English but their willingness to learn. Like all school experiences there are a few bad apples. I have one student who only says “okay”. Oh he can say more, a lot more, as he is in a high level English class. But one day recently he decided that as a teenager, he does not want to say anything other than “okay” when in class and do no work. I have another student who just finally, after two months, stopped asking if I love him. Every question he asked in class was “Do you love me Teacher Kevin?”  He would write on the board during our breaks “I love Teacher Kevin GAY”. Now he was not calling me or himself gay, just saying that two guys loving each other is a gay thing. Again, we are in a very conservative Muslim country where homosexuality is not really a thing. Another student apparently has a crush on me, and so every time I correct her she stops talking to me as if it is some kind of lover’s quarrel. Lastly, I had a boy in one class who spoke English well but one day decided to have a lot of pride in Korean and only speak Korean in class. I would ask him to speak in English only, and he would say “no Korean is best” and start chanting Korea. One day he drew a picture on the board illustration how it was a Korean, not an American, who was the first person on the moon. He was a fun one for sure. Not as much fun as the Libyan 16 year old that had a swastika as the background on his tablet. I asked him way and he said it was because Hitler was a good guy. We have been told as teachers to avoid sensitive topics but I could not let that one go! Turns out the kid had never heard of The Holocaust and just liked Hitler because he had kicked Russia’s butt in World War Two. Forgetting the fact that this is not true, it was a bit of a relief!

Well Laura, this is really long. I could go on. There is so much advice I want to give to the future ex pats out there. So much to warn them about and so much to tell them to look forward to. Overall Iris and I love it here. We have gotten used to the heat; although about once a month I will have a very bad day of sweating in class, something that has lead a few younger boys who are not even in my classes to call me “Disgusting Teacher”! My boss brags to people sometimes about how me, an American, works at her branch. She is big on my being seen by the parents and by them knowing that I am an American. Stranger in a strange land.

If I never write another letter to you, and you might request that after the length of this one, I have to leave your students with this advice-something you talked about in class too I think: Try it! If you are in another country and they offer you a weird looking fruit that smells really bad and is so notorious that Andrew Zimmer, who eats insects for fun, won’t even eat it-Try it! I get instant respect from Malaysians when I mention that I have tried Durian, the king fruit! I get instant affection when I tell them the truth-that I love it! Try it try it try it! There is no point in moving thousands of miles away from home if you are just going to try to recreate a familiar experience there. Be adventurous and try it! Say yes to the new weird and smelly!

Selamat Tinggal!


PS-Everyone speaks English here. Most of them speak it poorly. But EVERYONE tells us not to bother to learn Malay but we are trying because as I said before, try it! People treat you better in another country when you try to use their language. They might laugh because you have learned a formal version of it and they think your accent is funny, but they will respect you nonetheless!

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