Guest Article by Rachel Gellert
New York University
|ETA Rachel Gellert marching with students from SMK Seri Payong
Last week my students and I competed in the Terengganu state level mascot marching competition. I marched with them, front and center as the banner-carrying princess leading the parade. The mascot competition is part of the opening ceremony for the statewide track and field competition. As a former collegiate track athlete, I was overjoyed to be involved in the competition, but as someone who is more comfortable in sprinting spikes than in a princess dress, marching in the parade meant swallowing a healthy dose of the same bravery I am always trying to encourage in my students.
The sun was boiling as my students and I walked onto the stadium field. I was covered from my collarbone to my wrists to my ankles in a beautiful, but not at all light, white wedding dress. A thick layer of makeup was the only thing blocking my face from the sun and I was desperately trying to see through the shadow of my fake eyelashes. Our parade stood on the starting line and waited for the signal to move forward. I turned around and gave a quick thumbs up to the lines of students standing behind me. “Remember teacher, Senyum Sokmo! Smile Always!” the kids shouted. They returned my thumbs up, their own smiles glowing under a sea of sparkling purple and gold.
This was not my first time wearing that wedding dress, marching in ninety-degree heat. Two weeks before, the team from my secondary school (SMK Seri Payong) had won the Marang district level competition and I had been the “secret weapon” in the front of that parade as well. I did not even realize there would be a state level competition until the morning of the event. I was informed around 11am that I would not be teaching any more classes that day. I was in full on makeup by noon and the competition began around 2pm. The day was filled with plenty of the hysterical moments that have come to highlight my experience as a Fulbright ETA in Malaysia. At a petrol station on the way to the competition, I taught two of my Malaysian co-teachers how to pump their own gasoline. At the stadium it took four people to help me climb through a hole in the fence to get to my team. And I managed to eat nasi ayam (chicken rice) with my hands, on the ground, in costume, without so much as smudging my lipstick.
As the band played, I marched with my team around the track, waving to the audience and the panel of judges like a practiced pageant queen. I could feel the excitement of the students behind me and we were buzzing with the solidarity of standing together in the beating sun. Makeup was melting off my face and heat stroke seemed inevitable, but there was nowhere else I would have rather been. As we stood on the field listening to the “important guests” give their speeches (a nearly hour long affair), my students took turns using the sparking parade props to block me from the sun. When the speakers finally began to announce the winners, two girls wearing flower costumes grabbed my hands in anxious anticipation. I could hear the nervous chatter as second place went to the team with the adorable tiger mascot. Of course everything was in Bahasa Melayu so I really had no idea what was going on. But I did understand when the word “Marang!” rang over the speakers and my students erupted in cheers and applause. “ We won teacher! We are the campions! Senyum Sokmo!” they shouted. I jumped up as much as my wedding dress will allow and cheered back, “YAY! Yes, Senyum Sokmo!”
Smiling from ear to ear I could not help but feel how strongly that phrase “senyum sokmo” (roughly translated to “smile always”) reflects my experience so far as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Terengganu, Malaysia. Since day one, the community here has been flooding me with endless, seemingly unconditional love, openness and support. Fellow teachers, students, neighbors, bus drivers, and even the gentleman who sells me canned soy milk at the nearby 7/11, have all gone out of their way to smile, say good morning and make me feel welcome. I go on a casual jog and it does not matter which road I follow, I know that almost every person I pass will wave, shout hello and cheer me on.
Of course there are hard moments living so far away from home, immersed in an entirely new and different culture, doing a job I love, but often barely feel prepared for. However, it is mind blowing how the contagious smiles of friendly, happy people can overstep all boundaries of language and culture to instantly turn my day around. These daily embracing gestures of warmth and kindness leave me overwhelmed with gratitude to be here. It is a feeling I intend to cherish throughout this entire experience. I am excited to share myself with this community, but above all else, I am already humbled by how much the people here have to share with me.
Senyum sokmo, smile always.