Living on the outskirts of a jungle, adapting to different spicy foods, eating with your hands, bearing the relentless heat, and being the only foreigner in the community who does not speak the native language were all experiences that quickly became a part of my life while living in Kulaijaya, Malaysia, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMK Indahpura.
At the beginning of the year, most of the students were excited to see me, but many of them would only stare from afar and avoid interaction for fear of having to use their English. After a few weeks of embarrassing myself through games, lessons, and many awkward attempts to get a laugh, I finally was able to gain the trust of the students while forming one of the most amazing bonds that I have ever experienced in my life–one that I will never forget.
Towards the middle of the Malaysian school year, I had started an after school dodgeball club that was open to all students and grade levels where the students were only allowed to use their English skills to communicate. While the club was initially intended as a way to have fun while practicing English, it quickly gained popularity, and by the third week, participation had reached capacity. It was amazing to see the positive transformation in the students’ interest levels, confidence, and communication skills each week the club met. As the year drew to a close, the students worried about the fate of their dodgeball club pending my return to the United States. Saying goodbye was one of the hardest things that I ever had to do.
Eight months after returning home, a fellow Fulbrighter sent me a link to an article in the local Malaysian newspaper. Upon reading the story, I was truly touched by what had transpired, not only did the dodgeball team at SMK Indahpura continue to exist, but it became an official club at the school! The team even went on to win first place in a local dodgeball competition that they helped to organize and participate in. The dedication of that group will stay with me forever.
My experience in Malaysia was a true transformational period for me, where I learned to embrace life as it presents itself and to live for the moment. Oftentimes, the simplest gesture or occurrence can surprise you with the greatest pleasure and joy.
My advice to Fulbright applicants: Despite the cultural differences that you will encounter, at the end of the day, people are just people no matter where you are. If you smile, listen, and appreciate the diversity that makes each of us unique, you will learn that the personal connections you make with others during your Fulbright grant are absolutely priceless. Whether you are invited to share a conversation over a cup of tea with your Malaysian neighbors, or you find yourself traveling with fellow Fulbrighters to the depths of the jungle to see a Rainforest Music Festival, appreciate every experience as it is presented to you. Embrace the differences and learn to appreciate them. One day, it will be just a memory and a great story to tell. Always live for the moment.