The View from Immersion

Guest article by Alena Ja
Agnes Scott College

As I looked at my students bobbing on tip toes in the impossibly clear Sabah ocean, I could see their hesitation. I had cheered them on as they ran down the beach after their scuba instructors, for many their first time seeing the ocean, watched as their enthusiasm quickly decelerated from ankle deep to shin deep, knee deep, waist deep, all the way to a doubtful chest deep. Now as their bright red life jackets kept their heads just above the aquamarine waves, they hovered over that last step of submergence. Even safely roped off in the shallowest section of this gorgeous beach, the idea of fully immersing themselves in a strange body of water, of letting the ocean’s foreign world swallow them whole, kept them from entering the marine world they had just been so excited to explore.
SMK Tandek Divers preparing for their first snorkeling experience.

From the moment they heard they would learn how to scuba dive in an American Embassy sponsored conservation program, my students were overwhelmingly excited. They would be able to travel to the state capital, stay at a city hotel, eat at new restaurants, and of course finally experience the ocean that surrounds their home on the island of Borneo. Their endless questions quickly overcame their shyness, talking to the strange new American Fulbright ETAs. Many of them had never seen the ocean or been to the coastal capital of Sabah before. A two-day trip, learning about ocean ecology, environmental challenges, and scuba diving to see the world underneath the foamy waves, sounded like an adventure they’d never forget.

My students come from a town called Kota Marudu, a tiny agricultural town full of corn and vegetable markets, sheltered by rolling hills. Although Sabah is a place known for its beautiful beaches, with tourists from all over the world coming to enjoy its brilliant sunsets and colorful kaleidoscope of reef life, the people living in Kota Marudu will only laugh if you ask directions to the beach. The ocean may be twenty minutes away, but it is impossible to get to, and a dangerous part with strong rip-tides. Only a few know how to swim, and even those that do learned in gentle streams, not in the endless depths of oceans. For a region plagued by floods, the ocean is a distant terrifying thing, a massive, ferocious, pulling body of water every child was warned endlessly about. In all of my personal interviews with the students selected for my Scuba Discovery program, every one of them said they were frightened by the ocean.

SMK Tandek students expanding their school garden with four new vegetable beds.
Yet, in the month leading up to the trip, my students were overflowing with awe. They watched Blue Planet videos with wide eyes and many “oohs” and “ahhs”. We made a game out of hand signals for submerged scuba divers; the okay sign became our new motto. Research on local Sabah marine species, like sharks and stingrays, only made them more excited to see the ocean “circle of life” of their home. They all pushed their admitted trepidation aside and threw themselves fully into preparation. They memorized safety protocols and fish types, conducted thorough medical exams and answered my endless anxious questions about how they were feeling and what they needed. Even when I stressed their understanding of emergency signals and reviewed the strict medical requirements of diving, their faces were solemn, but I caught the frequent furtive smiles passed to one another. They were unstoppably excited, unbelievably thrilled, and even on the before-dawn bus drive down to Kota Kinabalu, the three hours to the wharf had been filled with chattering anticipation.
SMK Tandek Divers on board to begin their Marine Discovery program. 
Now that they were finally in the ocean, reality was setting in. There is something so viscerally terrifying about putting your head under water, as if that thin layer of water above you becomes a transparent wall, trapping you forever in a world without breathable oxygen. Even with shallow sandy ground only inches away, the senseless desperation for air can be overwhelming. No matter how experienced you are at swimming, there is always a small panicking fear that grasping currents will keep you from ever surfacing again. For my students, so comfortable with solid dirt and hot sunshine, a salty merciless ocean was a world away from all they knew and loved. Immersion into this world was overwhelming, and all of our months of preparation for this wonderful moment was fighting desperately with the fear of drowning in it. 


I know a little about immersion. With a mother born and raised in Hawaii, and a father who taught me to swim as a toddler in the freezing San Francisco Bay, I’ve been swimming all my life. I grew up on free diving with just a pair of tiny goggles and a deep desire to see my own aquarium without glass walls. I’ve studied marine biology in Honduras with a professor who brought us out to sea by boat and told us to jump right in. I’ve researched the nature of brightly colored blue-headed wrasse, and watched bio-luminescent turtles lay hundreds of eggs as we guarded against poachers. I’ve swam in the bubbles of humpback whales, looked down the huge incoming mouth of a whale shark, and tempted dolphins to come play. And yet, throughout it all, I’ve always had a deep fear of the water. Even while racing to the puck in an underwater hockey game, or getting my advanced scuba certification, there is always a desperate gasping panic for air, at the back of my mind. It has always been clear to me that I do not belong in the water. My world is upward, above the grasping fluidity of deep water, away from the shoving and pushing of the waves. I am always conscious that, while I love all the things to be found in the water, this world is not my own and I could be lost in its depths if I’m not careful.

Immersion and the fear of drowning in unfamiliar and unfriendly waters is not confined only to water. When I started kindergarten, my parents found me the best school they could, a top Chinese immersion school that would teach me Mandarin and Cantonese by the time I was thirteen and teach me all about my Chinese culture. This meant that I skipped into a classroom my first day of school to a teacher who spoke only in slow, smiling Chinese. All of us tiny students were utterly confused, and for that first day we learned a lot more about body language than anything else. For some, Chinese immersion was easy. For me, I constantly felt like I was drowning. I hated going to class, and I was constantly terrified of being called on, or my teachers catching me whispering forbidden English questions to friends with panicked eyes. I could make out words here and there, but mostly I felt lost, like someone listening to boisterous conversations under muffling water, separated and unable to join in. For someone who just doesn’t have a talent for languages, immersion was a daily nightmare. When we finally started our English classes in fifth grade, I suddenly went from being a delinquent to model student. I topped the reading list, and I couldn’t wait to be called on or have presentations. I found my artistic ability, and an outgoing personality, all which had lay hidden while I had desperately clawed through a language I just couldn’t understand. English is still one of my favorite classes. To me it isn’t grammar or proper structure. It feels like coming home after years adrift in a hostile sea. In more than thirteen years of learning Chinese, I still desperately fear speaking, fear that others will realize I am an imposter drowning in what is supposed to be my own heritage.

This experience with immersion was endlessly helpful for me during my ten months of teaching in Malaysia. With more confidence and understanding than my elementary school self, I no longer fear immersion, and love to travel to new places and soak in the unfamiliar and beautiful things. Nevertheless, it has given me a deep empathy and love for my students, struggling bravely to talk to me despite the fear speaking an unfamiliar language brings. It has helped me to realize my goal of making English accessible and fun for my students this year, a sunny beach picnic rather than a stormy boat ride through threatening waters, making it easier for them to be brave and “just jump in.”

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SMK Tandek Form 2 students performing a funny skit on healthy friendships in English class.
Even with the fear that immersion brings us, it can still teach us life-changing lessons. This is why I keep swimming despite the panic that sets in between breaths in a freestyle stroke, why I always try to order in Chinese at restaurants, why I found myself drawn to a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Sabah. Immersion is a changing of worlds, from one we belong to and can breathe easy in, to one that is foreign, possibly dangerous and lonely, but also possibly full of incredible experiences our safe little world could never give us. The view from immersion can even give us a new understanding of the world we feel at home in. It is like the view of the sky from under the sea.

The Fulbright experience is an immersion, a splashing into another world and culture, blatantly conspicuous in how we do not belong, floundering as we try to reconcile all the instincts that keep us thriving at home with a new and unknown community. We are all unbelievably thrilled to come to our placements, we all have expectations, goals we hope to dive in and achieve. We all fear the sinking and exhaustion that jumping into a pool with no familiar ladders or footholds makes inevitable. And we do sink, we do struggle. We make memories of disastrous and fearful moments, of confusion that paralyzes conversations, of awkwardness and misunderstandings that haunt us. We cry with homesickness and feel like complete and total failures as teachers, as Fulbrighters, as people. We spend much too much on Oreos and struggle to call home with terrible signal, desperately reaching for anything familiar from home to hold on to.

Yet, we soon find that those times were worth it. We see and do things that blow our minds, that make us forget how we are leagues away from our comfort zones. We begin projects that inspire us and connect with students who motivate us to give our all. We make memories with strangers who open their hearts up to us, we cry at the sweetness our students are so willing to give. Traditional songs and jungle noises, like waves, become soothing comfort to our ears. We become, for a moment, an addition to this once foreign world. We remember the moments we began to call it home. We begin to wonder how we will ever go back to America when everything we are seems like it belongs here. We push away the thoughts of leaving the people who have opened up this place to us, the students who have made everything worth it. Most importantly, we see the place we come from through the waves of the world we are submerged in. We appreciate anew the beauty we have in America, and we gain new clarity about its flaws, made more visible when looking from the outside. We begin to realize what we must do when we do inevitably go home, and to understand that how we decide to act will affect those that we have loved here. It’s a beautiful view, because it is a crossing of worlds, one that we belong to and one that we have had the privilege to saturate ourselves in.

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SMK Tandek Traditional food exhibition and food festival.
Now, as I watch my students hesitating between two worlds on this island beach, I know that the choice to plunge into the foreign, scary ocean is completely up to them. They are brilliant and good-hearted, and they will be perfectly fine for staying safe and dry, in a place with an endless supply of oxygen. I also know an ocean of wondrous and awe-inspiring discovery awaits them, and if they have the courage to continue on even with the risk of floundering, it will be worth it. Besides, I’m here (along with a team of highly trained scuba diving experts) to support them, and I can’t wait for them to witness for themselves this incredible part of their home. As quickly as they had run onto the beach, my students begin diving into the water. Taking the plunge, their splashes make me laugh as some smile and make silly okay signals to me. As they begin to call for me to collect their life jackets so they can better submerge themselves, I can’t wait for the wonderful things that the day will bring. They will make memories of brilliant fish and feel the rush of waves in rhythm with their beating hearts. They will swim, maybe not strongly, but fearlessly. They will feel a connection to this part of their home they had not yet claimed as theirs. They will even cry over videos of sea animals killed by pollution, and much later that night they will demand that we DO something, speaking passionately in groups making plans to start campaigns, spread knowledge. They will excitedly tell stories to their friends about their adventure, and much later they will present in front of hundreds of their peers and guest speakers about all they learned. They will also follow my upward pointed gestures as we dive to depths they have never gone to before, and see how far they’ve come from the surface in the distant glimmering of the sun against blue waves, a view you can only get from immersion. 
SMK Tandek Divers on their first dive.

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