The word ‘temporary’ is ingrained into an ETA’s DNA. Monsoon weather is temporary. Fear of saltwater crocodiles is temporary. Our very presence here is temporary, a harsh reality that our Fulbright experience is nearly halfway finished. Reckoning with such a transient notion can be extremely defeating: why bother growing roots when you’ll inevitably be drifting along again with the next big wave?
And yet it is this exact ephemeral facet of the experience that allows for its full color. Appreciating the fragility of this gift allows us to love more deeply, to emote more passionately, to feel more motivated. What was once unfamiliar jungle, a precipice of the unknown on the opposite side of the world, has finally started to feel like home. Who knew four months of corralling herds of children and multiple bouts of traveler’s diarrhea are all we needed?
Students know if they fall asleep in English class, they’ll be running extra laps at practice
The truth is that it takes so much more than child leashes and some antibiotics to feel at home; it takes full integration into one’s community. For me, Fulbright is more than a day job. We are here to build the personal and professional foundations of meaningful cultural exchange. With our presence here so fleeting and our mission so large, there is little time to waste.
Using sports as a way to quickly integrate myself into the Batu Kawa community has easily been the most rewarding aspect of my time in Malaysia thus far. Between training the school basketball team, playing daily games at school with students, and watching district-wide tournaments around the city, basketball has been a way for me to immediately connect myself to a fervent passion already latent in my community. To be honest, I’ve become a basketball dad about 25 years earlier than expected, though the Gatorade coolers for halftime and the polo shirt tucked into my jeans are still a few decades away.
Team members not pictured: Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant
Even though basketball has been something I’ve known my entire life, there are significant adjustments to playing and coaching that watching YouTube tutorials simply can’t prepare you for. There is no way to prepare for your point guard having six fingers on one hand and boasting about how the increased surface area allows for better dribbling. There is no way to prepare for bats flying around during every practice or game, a swift reminder that you are indeed playing ball in the middle of the jungle. There is no way to prepare for the sheer amount of excitement when your community feels a genuine connection- when your students feel they can approach you as a friend and mentor, and not only as an English teacher.
This is the crux of the Fulbright ETA experience: building genuine connection with your community despite your temporary placement. Basketball has been the vehicle for me to meet students I do not get the opportunity to teach during the day. It has facilitated wedding invitations and team banquets a clear 45 minute drive from my house. It has even forced me to sing karaoke with school assistant principals and district officials in arguably the most nasal rendition of ‘Country Roads’ ever produced.
Note: Audio recordings of this karaoke attempt have been deleted for the sanctity and public profiles of all involved
Especially in a placement passionate about the sport, basketball has been an incredible way to quickly feel like a member of the community family, to form connections salient across the chasms of cultural divisions that hopefully withstand the test of time. As I continue to remind myself with every passing three-pointer or team huddle, even though our presence here is temporary, the memories and bonds that we share with our communities won’t be.