Guest Article Written by Christine Butchko Villanova University For 72 hours, my calves were a trending topic. Two separate calf-exposing incidents plus my incredulity served as a reminder of the beauties and frustrations that come from cultural exchange.
It all started with a poetry slam I was organizing for the students for Resource Room week. Perched on the marble floor of our assembly hall, watching my form 3 students perfect their performance of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabelle Lee”, I absentmindedly lifted up the long skirt of my baju karung to shift my position. Within seconds of feeling a faint breeze grace my calves, I realized that I had accidentally exposed a part of the “tak boleh” zone. I quickly pulled down my skirt. “Oops!” I exclaimed as I looked at my Form 4 girls, “Sorry about that!”
Some of my female students, like Sheema, found out I like to run and now they join me once or twice a month on my jogs by the beach!
This situation would not be worth mentioning were it not for the text message which I received later that night from one of my students.
“I want ask you apologize…”
“I not purposely…”
“Look at your calf I think. Please forgive me!”
“What? Omg don’t apologize! I don’t care, lol, I just hope I didn’t offend you by accidently showing off my calf!”
“Actually not just me who see it. Alia and Aida look it too.”
“It’s no big deal. I’m sorry for showing off my calves to you.”
“You’re not angry?”
“No haha I don’t care. I wear shorts and short skirts in the US all the time.”
“Oooo. Okay. Have you eaten?”
I brushed the exchange off. It was just another instance of how courteous and polite Malaysians are to a fault. By the next day, I had all but forgotten about the texting exchange. Walking into school sporting a new purple baju which had been gifted to me from a fellow member of my English Panel, I felt good.
My Form 3 students were hard at work during our leadership speaking workshop.
But after my first class of the day, my calves again took center stage. One of my female students sprinted up to me with a note in hand.
“Miss, I want to tell you that your baju is… uhm… melihat melalui (see-through), and you cannot wear it anymore.”
“Uhm, I’m sorry… I don’t quite understand?”
“I see… your calves. The boys might see too. It’s not okay.”
“Oh, uhm, I’m so sorry to offend you and thank you for telling me?”
I quickly walked out of the room.
I wish I could say I was cool, calm, and collected, but truthfully, I found myself on the verge of tears after the exchange. I sat on the stairs for a moment to collect my thoughts before heading to the Bilik Guru and slipping on my smiling American cultural ambassador pants. It was just a small comment. I had heard comments like this so many times before, yet why did it sting so much?
Deep down, I recognized that some of my emotions had stemmed from the deep embarrassment I had about making a mistake – an innocent mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. I knew that I had broken etiquette; my community was conservative and I was in a professional setting where I had bared my calves (albeit through sheer material). This was disrespectful, but it was a small slip up with an easy fix: just don’t wear that baju again.
But as the day went on, however, I found myself becoming frustrated. So you could kind of see my calves through my already conservative baju – what’s the big deal? Malay men and boys wear shorts all the time.
My students are dedicated competitors when it comes to English language games, like this word staircase activity.
As I reflected, I came to realize that my frustration had actually little to do with dressing conservatively. Modest dressing and wearing a tudung(hijab) is a personal choice which the majority of women in my community decide to abide by. My annoyance, rather, stemmed from my perception about the different standards for male students compared to female students in my school community.
The other week one of my colleagues told me, “I told the boys I care twice as much about them because they’re twice as important to our society.” At first, I was taken aback, but I realized, when I asked her to clarify, that what she meant she has to give more of her attention to the boys to keep them motivated to do their schoolwork and stay engaged in class. Since most of the girls are already actively engaged in school, perform well on exams, and attend university at higher rates than their male counterparts, they don’t need as much motivation or attention to do schoolwork. While I did understand the point she was making (classroom management is a delicate tango), I found myself struggling with the disproportionate amount of the teacher’s time which the male students seem to receive compared to the females. I felt like I watch a lot of my female students go through secondary school quietly, receiving far less attention and positive reinforcement for their efforts. As someone who went to an all-girls school for high school, this was frustrating to see.
A photo of my mentor, some students, and I during Hari Guru (Teacher’s Day) celebrations.
But, after consulting another fellow ETA, I realized that I could easily channel my frustrations into tangible actions. Through my unique position as an ETA at my school, I came to realize the power I possess to enact the change I want to see in both my students and community. Since this “Ah ha!” moment, I’ve begun implementing small changes in the way I engage with my female students to support them as best I can. I encourage the girls in my classes to be the first to participate and make a point to praise them for a job well done on assignments and class discussions. I focus on highlighting female leaders and pioneers, particularly Muslim leaders and pioneers, in my lessons and speaking workshops. I started a leadership workshop with my Form 3 students, where I give the girls in the class the avenue to be leaders.
I do recognize that I can’t (and shouldn’t) intend to entirely change the system, especially while I am a guest in Malay culture. I also realize that any change I enact will be on an individual basis. And while I certainly don’t have all of the answers, I do have the capacity to make a difference even if it’s as simple as giving a student the confidence to raise her hand.
Post-four hours Chorisicle practice, my students and I took some time to relax by taking a lot of photos.