First Impressions: Sweaty Selfies and the CIA

Guest Article Written by Conor Murtagh

Seton Hall University

My first day at SMK Hosba was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my brief career as a teacher. As I paced back and forth on the grass in front of my condo in Jitra, Kedah, raining sweat, I recall being overwhelmed with nauseating consternation. Granted, it was only 7:00 am and already 90 degrees (Fahrenheit), but I’ll just chalk-up my sakit perut to the looming uncertainty of this new challenge. As hard as I tried to remain calm and focused, my mind couldn’t help but race back to the cultural training we received in KL, specifically how I seemed to remember none of it. Sure, in the past I’ve worked and served alongside people/Marines of all sizes, shapes, colors, creed, gender, orientation, etc., but at the end of the day, we were all products of some form of the American experience. Whether born and bred, or a new citizen, we all shared a sense of familiarity, albeit vast. Nevertheless, this is not America, and I am no longer an active duty Marine with a communal mission to accomplish.

As my mentor Azira’s Proton barreled toward the entrance of Condo 900, the reality of loneliness set in. At my new school, I would not have another American to joke around with, ask questions at a moment’s notice, and most importantly, prevent me from doing or saying something stupid or offensive. I wiped the sweat beads from my ginger beard, and acquiesced to the notion that unlike my past adventures, life as an ETA in Malaysia was about to require a different type of flexibility in my personal code of conduct, and a lot of deodorant.
Form 5 students spend time with Conor in the Cameron Highlands.

The first order of business at my new school was meeting our principal, Sir Yusri Bin Bapu. Standing all of 5 foot 7, Sir Yusri’s towering presence would make The Rock seem meager. After our initial meet and greet, our discussion revolved mostly around plans and expectations for the year, and how much hotter it is in Malaysia than the U.S. (a topic I assume was brought up due to the salty Slip ‘n Slide I created while dripping all the way from the parking lot into his office).

From there, Azira and I trekked to the canteen to take breakfast. As I steamed my way toward the teacher’s table, I could feel the weight of what seemed to be a million stares, most of which I ascribed to my morphing into a mobile, body-odor-scented vaporizer. “Good morning, Sir, I am Mr. Sam,” the head teacher greeted as he reached out to shake my hand, “do you take rice?” I did not know at the time, but this inquiry of rice habit would be the foundation for 99% of the conversations I’d have with the other staff members for my first month. In addition, many seemed very interested in how much money I make, where I live, and why, as a 29 year old, I am not yet married with children. “Mr. Conor, tell me, why are you so much older than the other ETAs?” Mr. Sam questioned. As I looked around the table, I noticed the other staff members muttering to one another while anxiously awaiting my response. I could not understand what they were saying, but my spidey-senses indicated it most likely had something to do with my less-than-subtle sweat stains. Since my mentor had previously informed me that after learning my age, her husband thought I might be in the CIA, I took this as an opportunity to “break the ice,” so to speak. I put down my spoon and fork, finished swallowing the pound of rice in my mouth, pointed to myself, and calmly responded, “CIA.” Expecting to be greeted with thunderous laughter and hearty knee slaps, I was instead met with silence, expressions of confusion, and possibly a little bit of fear.  “Relax, Conor, no one ever said you had to break the ice in a positive way,” I thought to myself in third person. Aside from learning just how lost in translation sarcasm can become, this first 30 minutes at SMK Hosba also reaffirmed two things I have always known, yet feared about myself: I suck at first impressions, and I sweat…a lot.

Conor leads his students through a MiMA team speed challenge.

Despite completely bombing my first staff breakfast, the day soon took a positive turn. I was introduced to my first class, the boys of Forms 4 and 5 MPV (automotive vocational program), or the “shop boyz,” as I like to call them. Unlike some of the other ETAs I’ve heard from, Azira (the best mentor in Malaysia, and only one patient enough to put up with my clumsy antics), let me co-teach right away. Unsure of what to do at first, Azira suggested that I write some common introductory phrases up on the board in English so that the boys could practice speaking. I turned to the whiteboard and uncapped my blue marker. “This is it, big guy,” I thought, still in third-person, but this time forgoing the formality of addressing myself by name, “this is the moment you’ve been waiting for…the chance to really strut your stuff and show what you’ve got.” Well, apparently what I had was a subconscious desire to turn my students into frat boys. By the time I’d finished writing, the whole room echoed with: “What’s up, bro?”; “Who is this white guy?”; “Is he really going to make us speak English?”; “Why is he so sweaty?”; “You should try Nasi Lemak!”; and my personal favorite, an impassioned, “Don’t tell me what to do, bro!”

From that moment on, I realized the best approach is both informative and jovial. Okay, so the boys of 4 and 5 MPV weren’t necessarily reciting Shakespeare during those first few meetings, but they were speaking. I can’t, however, say it has been as easy to get some of the other classes vocal. A great deal of my students, I have learned, subscribe less to the outgoing mentality of the older all-boys classes, and dwell more within the realm of the proverbial malu-malu kucing.  While this “shy-shy cat”-like behavior has certainly posed an obstacle, the more I begin to feel a sense of combined ownership with Azira’s and other teachers’ classes, the more comfortable I feel encouraging the students to take risks. In spite of wariness, one aspect of each lesson I plan to keep throughout the year is verbal communication and presentation. Regardless of the day’s topic, each student must stand up and share at least a few sentences out loud in English. Although some kids look at me like I have an actual butthead, most will at least make an effort to speak English.
SMK Hosba teachers and students spent their holiday camping in the Cameron Highlands.

While it has been frustrating, challenging, and confusing at times, this fluctuation of confidence has taught me that being an ETA is much more hands-on than teaching high school English back in the states. From the invitations to go hiking, to the numerous requests to take and post sweaty, narcissistic selfies on “The Gram,” I now understand that getting to know my students is paramount to effective teaching. I’ve also learned to set realistic expectations for myself. Unlike my first day, I now relent the idea of being the “Prodigal ETA” who uncovers some latent pedagogical talent within myself, and completely transforms the atmosphere of my school into an English-only establishment in a year’s time. However, if I continue to invest interest in my students through answering questions in and about English, chilling in the canteen, coaching sports, encouraging their ambitions, hiking, or taking a selfie, their reticence will decrease, and their willingness to take risks and learn from mistakes will expand. Who knows, maybe even my previously-referenced feelings of insecurity, (along with the night-terrors of being isolated in a dark and damp holding cell with “Baby Shark” blaring on rotation), will too subside. If not, then I can always just sweat my way back to the CIA.

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