The Opposite of Malu

Guest Article by Brittany Edwardes
University of Central Arkansas
SMK Datin Onn Jaafar

One of the first Malay words that I learned was malu, meaning something like a mixture between shy, embarrassed, and ashamed. Its cultural impact is far reaching across Malaysia- my students use the word frequently to avoid using their English in front of their classmates or because they are honestly too shy to speak. One of our jobs as English Teaching Assistants is to coax our students out of their malu, to encourage them to be comfortable with their speaking skills and help them gain confidence in using their English. This is not an easy job, but we work daily to make English a little more fun and a little less terrifying. Such is the life of a cikgu (teacher).
While malucan be one of the more challenging facets of the Malaysian classroom, there are also many wonderful, joyous sides to it. My students are enthusiastic and hardworking and like all Malaysians, are well-known for celebrating every occasion with style. One of these occasions is Hari Guru or Teacher’s Day. While Teacher’s Day in America may be a small footnote of a holiday, Malaysians do it big with gifts, contests, a feast, and performances by the teachers. A few weeks before Hari Guru, I was shown the program by one of my fellow teachers and noticed that I was given a slot to perform a song in front of the entire school. This was news to me, someone who has shunned public appearances for as long as I can remember, and I quickly negotiated reading a poem instead. A few of the teachers and students begged me a bit more to sing, but I was firm. I have no delusions about my own musical talent, and was certain I would disappoint them.
The weeks passed and what would be one of the most exciting days of my Malaysian school year arrived. We started the day with a drum chorus, a speech from our principal, and a massive feast that continued my love affair with Johor’s famous nasi briyani.  I competed with other teachers in an obstacle course of silly races, laughing as our very distinguished principal sprinted while holding an egg on a spoon in his mouth. I felt closer to my fellow teachers and students than ever before, forgetting all the things that we let differentiate us. As the day ended and the gifts were being passed out, I began to prepare for my own Hari Guru performance. I had been given the final slot- I was to be the last act of the day and was extremely nervous about reading my heart-felt poem of thanks to my entire school.
Reading the poem, while nerve-wracking, went very well. I had carefully written and practiced it with my mentor to be half in Bahasa Melayu, half in English as I wanted everyone to understand what I so desperately wanted to express. I read it steadily, appreciating the acoustic guitar background provided by one of my students. The kids, some of whom probably have understood less than five words I’ve ever said to them, loved it. The teachers teared up. It was everything I wanted it to be.
I finished. I bowed. I started to walk off stage, but there was something restless about the whole place. The kids began to chant “Song! Song! Song!” and I heard the opening chords of a song I could not possibly sing. Frantically, I stuttered, “No, saya malu!” (“I’m shy!”), but the crowd laughed and I knew exactly what I had to do. I couldn’t promise that it would be pretty, but I was about to rock Adele’s “Someone Like You”. If I refused to let my kids bow to their malu in the classroom, I certainly couldn’t give into mine.
After I finished, wholeheartedly singing what must be the longest song ever penned,  my jubilant students ran up to start congratulating me. “Why so red, teacher? “Teacher sounds beautiful!” and finally, “Wow. You are so brave.” It was then that I knew I had done the right thing. While I had been begging my students all year not to be malu, I had not understood the true nature of their struggle. I realized, finally, that they did not do these things just because they didn’t want to, but because they were afraid, just like I was before I began trying to mimic the impossible range of Adele in front of my whole school.  I knew that instead of asking my students to ignore their malu, I needed to encourage them to do the opposite, to be brave.
The aftermath of my singing sensation has been both humbling and exciting. Although I still blush when imagining how I must of really sounded onstage, my kids really did think I was the best thing ever. “Saya malu” has, ironically, become the phrase that the kids who speak absolutely no English run up to me and say. However, these same kids never said anything to me before, so I consider it to be a success. It inspires me that we connect, defiantly, through our shyness and work to to be brave even when we are malu.

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