Teaching English in Malaysia: Brittany

For our next stop with ESL ’round the Globe, let’s meet Brittany, a motivated and adventurous gal who’s currently teaching in Batu Pahat, a city on the southwest coast of Malaysia. After arriving in the country earlier this year to teach English as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, Brittany was quickly won over by the friendly people and beautiful landscapes. Read on as she shares about coconut bowling, PDA no-nos, an allegory involving Angry Birds, and which word you should never utter in a Malaysian classroom.

Brittany on a beach in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

 Brittany, how did you end up teaching English in Malaysia? How has your English major helped you in the classroom?

I chose Malaysia for many reasons, but mostly because I had so enjoyed studying abroad in Thailand and wanted to have a taste of living in a Muslim country after focusing on Muslim writers for my Honors Thesis. I do think being an English major has helped my teaching, even if only to help the other teacher’s respect my knowledge of the English language. As an American, they think that I’m far more capable of “American slang” than so-called proper British English. I think my English major also helps me explain things about English a bit better—and attempts to make their rote memorization a bit more interesting!

Oh-so typical careers like “watch-maker” and “taxidermist”

English is often used as the language of business is Asia; in your experience, do schools do a good job of preparing students for this?

Honestly, I think it depends on what kind of school the kids are sent to. Most of the kids who will inevitably become businessmen and women are trained to speak English from an early age in international schools. It’s depressingly classist actually, as most of the rural and poorer schools don’t have very good English education at all. English is just so far removed from their daily lives.

The gorgeous courtyard at Brittany’s school

You make a good point that opportunities are not available to everyone. What is your school setting like? What sort of materials are you provided with? I was amazed at how beautiful your school courtyard was, so lush and tropical!

            My school is a pretty typical Southeast-Asian school—I love the way the border between indoors and outdoors doesn’t really exist (although it can get hot!) and the school courtyard is full of lush plants.  Teachers here provide almost all of their own materials, although I have a small budget from Fulbright for this that I really appreciate.

            School here happens in two sessions—morning and afternoon—in most larger schools. The sessions take a different subset of students. For example, at my school, the equivalents of grades 10-12 attend morning session and grades 8 and 9 attend afternoon session. Another interesting thing about Malaysian schools is that the children never change classes—the teachers do. So, I spend my days going from class to class. It is honestly a little bit harder this way; I can’t really build a steady classroom atmosphere and have to carry the excitement everywhere I go. Also, it’s quite common for electricity not to work in the classrooms, so I can’t rely on watching a movie or having a projector for my lessons. Sometimes, it’s pretty daunting to have to walk into a classroom with nothing but a piece of chalk and try to get the excitement going! But, I love it all the same!


Students in traditional costume welcome the ETAs to their state of Johor

Spanish schools share that aspect of the teacher changing rooms, so I know what you mean about having to carry the excitement with you! Besides classroom differences, what customs took you off-guard when you first moved to the country? I noticed a sign of an embracing couple with an X through it–how is PDA treated?

Sometimes I think Malaysia is the exact opposite from America. Having ceremonies or school assemblies is literally a daily activity; there is at least one every morning. Even the smallest school activities are treated with such pomp and circumstance—giving the discipline teacher a new cane or putting up the schools newly painted sign—there are ceremonies for that! Ceremonies usually include Muslim prayer songs, drums, and at least a few balloons or prizes. They love to celebrate!

PDA is such a no-no! Being a Muslim country, Malaysia is pretty conservative with dress and how people show affection in public. It’s interesting though, because over a third of the Malaysian population is Chinese or Indian and they usually ignore these boundaries. So, it’s kind of a whirlpool figuring out how to dress or how to act in public.

None of that PDA business!

That’s fascinating…and confusing. How integrated did you feel in your new community? What do you do in your free time?

I actually live in a larger town, so there’s a different sense of community than you’d find in a small village or compound. However, I am very close to my teaching staff at school and get to experience all things Malaysian through them, which is really great! In my free time, I like to go to the markets, read, and travel around Southern Malaysia with my English Teaching Assistant (ETA) friends. My town is a sleepy one, but there are always tons of people at the local kopitam (coffee bar) to chat up!

Brittany’s gang of students

I’m glad you have a welcoming group of people to rely on in your town, and that you get to explore other parts of the country, as well. In visiting Malaysia, how important is it to have a working knowledge of the language? What recommendations do you have for visitors to the country?

Well, learning Malay is pretty easy at first. Many words are just Malay phonetic versions of English words, such as sains (science) and sekolah (school). It doesn’t get harder until you get into the particulars. In the typical tourist areas, there are almost always people who speak English to help, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Just become familiar with Muslim customs and dress appropriately!

Garden in Kuala Lumpur

Will do, thanks for the tips! What items do you miss from the US? On the other side of things, what item or product would you ship home to have friends and family see/try?

I miss cheese, milk, and pork. Milk is especially weird here since it’s usually flavored. Most of my students don’t like the “original” flavor of milk. However, I have fallen for some local bites, like pau (Chinese barbecue buns) and kaya, which is a kind of coconut jam.  I also want my friends and family to try out coconut bowling—now that’s a blast!

Malaysian sunset

 Coconut bowling?! I want to try that! And what about difficulties—what have been some of your most challenging moments?

Being an ETA can be so lonely. Even though there are other ETAs within an hours’ drive and I actually have a housemate, I really miss having the safety net of friends and family. For example, when my car battery died, I had a rough time when I realized that I couldn’t think of anyone to call to help. But things like that get better. Making a “family” abroad is never as natural as your own friends and family back home, but it’s definitely something worth working towards.

Working with the racial issues within Malaysia can also be challenging. Everything, somehow, relates to race differences between the Chinese and ethnic Malays, the two major ethnic groups. I have to watch myself constantly. Because my Chinese students (and the Chinese people) eat pork, the word for pork has become an ethnic slur from the Malays, who are Muslim and view pork as unclean. This sounds pretty straightforward, but I soon realized that I pretty much couldn’t say the word “pig” without getting a rise from my class. Even Angry Birds, which is so popular here right now is viewed as an allegory of the way the Malay (birds) get their eggs (wealth) stolen by the Chinese (pigs). Ridiculous, right? I get pretty tired of navigating that landmine.

Yikes, that sounds like treacherous territory indeed. Let’s step back into the classroom—what humorous or unexpected questions have students asked you?

My students have a very unique view of the world that constantly fascinates me. They have rarely heard of a culture other than their own and are absolutely shocked by cultural differences, even small ones. It absolutely blew their mind to find out that I didn’t usually eat nasi lemak (a local rice and sardine dish) for breakfast in America and that no one in America wears baju kurung (the local long-sleeved polyester technicolor dress). If they have heard of cultural differences, they still don’t quite understand. For example, one of my students asked me, “Teacher! Do you have spaghetti with every meal like we take rice?” Umm, no, but thanks for trying.

Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia

A big thanks to Brittany for answering questions about her time in Malaysia. Enjoy the rest of your time as an ETA, and sneak in as much coconut bowling as possible!

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  1. I love the anecdote of blowing the kids’ minds because you don’t eat the typical dish for breakfast or that in the US we don’t wear their normal outfit. It’s the same for me when I tell kids in Spain that we don’t eat lunch at 2 and dinner at 9 … or that the kids change classrooms instead of the teachers!

  2. Malaysia is an awesome country to teach in! I have been here for over a year and enjoyed every bit of it. Luckily, I am here with an NGO, which covers accommodation and even gives me enough money to live on, and they take good care of me. If interested, visit http://sols247.org and join me 🙂

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