Tending to this Garden

Guest Article Written by Ashley Bernardo
University of California, Davis

A few weeks ago, I was looking out the window of my gym. It’s muggy and the four fans in the room don’t make a dent in the body heat after a fast-paced Meghan Trainor song. I stick my arm out the window hoping to feel a breeze. Nothing. The music starts again, and I get into my usual spot (yes, let’s take a moment to appreciate that I even have my own spot). From here I can see one of the teachers from my school, Kak Syikin, helping lead the class at the front left. I laugh to myself as I think about how, at the beginning of the year, she would leave her spot to demonstrate proper hip movement to me. Before coming to Malaysia and attending these classes, I would shrink with embarrassment from anything involving hip movement… or really any form of movement that wasn’t running or throwing a frisbee.

Our first Zumba class! Kak Syikin is in the red tudung

Seeing Kak Syikin got me thinking, I am grateful for Zumba because it helped me get closer to her and gave me a newfound love for dancing, but it’s definitely not something I expected to do during my time here. In fact, there are many things that have happened this year that have not gone as expected. In some ways, that fact has been very challenging for me but in other ways it’s been a crucial part of the journey.

Being an ETA in Malaysia is like being given a plot of land to grow a garden in. The plot represents the places I’ve been to and the communities I’ve joined in Malaysia, and each budding plant represents what I’ve done during my time here (each moment of learning, creating, or sharing through individual relationships, lessons, programs, etc.) Please bear with me, while my parents did own a flower shop when I was growing up, we’ve never had the land or the green thumbs for an actual garden. This is a loose analogy.

When I first found out I was going to be an ETA, I had no clue what the conditions of my plot were going to be, but I prepared anyway. I imagined what I wanted my garden to look like – the people with whom I’d like to see friendships bloom, and the programs I’d like to bring to life. Before I set off to see my plot, I gathered those seeds of hopes and ideas. I wanted to be integrated with my school community and build close relationships with the students. I was prepared to do any clubs and projects my teachers asked of me, but I also had a lot of ideas for lessons of my own. I imagined spending all my free time with my kids, playing frisbee, getting dinner, and visiting their homes. Relationships with my teachers, mentor, and housemate would be nice, but the students were my priority.

When I finally came to Malaysia and tried to plant those seeds, things didn’t go as planned. Upon my arrival at school, I found an amazing art program was already in place and discovered that it was very difficult to do certain lessons because of the wide range of English skills, time constraints, cultural requirements, and available resources. I also quickly realized that teachers would forget to tell me about school activities or forget to ask for my help. As for the students, they didn’t ask me to hang out very often and if they did it was usually for a day trip to the mall in the neighboring city (I’m not much of a mall goer but I’ll take what I can get).

Waiting for the train to go to the mall with some of my Form 1 girls

So what could I do? I tried again, found new seeds, and tested different variations of the ones I originally brought. As I went about this trial and error process, a lot happened. Some seeds sprouted only to wither away, like an untouched YouTube channel or a never-held SPM practice session. There are seeds that appeared by happenstance in the form of unplanned activities and surprise friendships. Some seeds grew quickly, like students asking to learn guitar or sing in class. Many seeds sprouted slowly, like my friendships with shyer students or after-school frisbee (which has become a thing as of September). Sometimes I discovered seeds that were planted by last year’s ETA, like my school’s involvement in National Dance Camp. And honestly, at times it has felt like I’m simply raking gravel.

These students tend to get distracted easily but music gets their attention every time!

Another factor at play in the garden was rain. These sprinkles of serendipitous circumstances cultivated my existing relationships, created a fertile environment for new relationships, and took many forms. They appeared as six strangers becoming some of my best friends, finding that my school has a PPKI (special education) program, long practices full of injuries, conflicts, and spontaneous dance parties that produce a tight-knit dance team. The rain comes in the form of exchanging stories about heartbreak and difficult family circumstances with a student, night hiking with the teachers at my housemate’s school, or even museum visits that turn into knee-deep, muddy duck chases (which I was entirely unprepared for). The rain is singing songs with a class that has no teacher, playing freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, or getting the “Jom, makan (Let’s go eat)” text from teacher friends. It is frisbee games in the literal rain and, yes, even muggy Zumba.

You can’t even see me in the picture, I was too slow! Spot the duck

I learned that it’s hard to run through mud

As a garden grows, it affects not only the plants, but the gardener as well. While the act itself is a labor of love, the work can leave you worn thin. I am often physically, mentally, and emotionally drained – yet still hard on myself for not doing enough. Even when I acknowledge the difficulties of living in a new community and culture, far away from my usual support system, I can still fall into the trap of looking over at other ETA’s plots and comparing our crop. These comparisons come quickly through the lenses of Instagram and gossip, and when they come, so do the same questions: Why do they get to do that at their school? Why do they get invited to their students’ houses? Why do their students constantly ask for selfies but not mine? [1]

On top of these questions, well-intentioned comments from my community can also make me feel self-conscious about myself and the work I do. Phrases such as, “Woah, so many pimples” or “You should do what ETA _____ did”, are the ones that I admittedly still struggle with.

Throughout this year, I have learned to a new depth that it is important to take care of myself, especially in order to care for other people, and that me being me is enough. Just by being here and interacting with the people around me, I am doing good work. The value of my time cannot be measured by hours or awards (although data is helpful). More accurately, the value of my time is shown through things like smiles, connections, improved confidence, and conversations – these are the most captivating things in my garden.

Izzatty is a contract teacher about my age and one of the first friends I made in my placement! We’ve talked about many things including cultural expectations for marriage and how we’re managing that

The reality, though, is that a lot of the items in my garden aren’t always very tangible, and as ETAs, we may never see the true impact of our work. Our students might remember something we taught them years from now, or maybe they have been encouraged or inspired during our time here but haven’t said anything. When the going gets tough though, I have tried to remember two things (1) to slow down and treasure my time tending to this garden, no matter what stage of growth it’s in, because time is short and (2) that everyone’s plot looks different, but that we’re all just doing the best we can with what we have.

Me attempting (unsuccessfully) to introduce frisbee to my Form 2 class. At the beginning of my grant, I used selfies as leverage to get students to interact with me – little did I know how close I would become with some of these students

As I was hiking Mt. Kinabalu in September, I noticed lush green bushes and grass thriving in the bitter cold as they peeked out from under the massive slabs of rock. It amazed me that anything could grow in such difficult conditions and I was reminded of the resilience of living things. A garden can grow anywhere, it just takes patience and an open mind. There were many times this year where I felt like my experience was going nowhere – no impact, no progress, and no growth. But when I look at my garden – full of the things I’ve learned, the community I’ve gained, and even the memories I’ve made at the food stalls I frequent – it is blossoming and beautiful. It is full of vibrant moments and emotions, uniquely shaped relationships, and has been pruned by learning experiences. In the end though, the best part has been watching it grow and being part of the process.

My housemate Jac and I at the peak of Mt. Kinabalu

Celebrating Hari Raya with Kak Syikin, Jac, Izzatty, and our Zumba instructor


[1] Comparison has caused me to question if my experience looks different because I am Chinese-Filipino American, and I don’t “look the part” of an American. While that is something I still think about, time has proven that aspect of me to be less central to the important relationships I have here. This is an important topic, but I have chosen not to go in depth on the subject for this post.