Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Great Debaters and Other Thoughts in the Night

I originally wrote much of this piece back on May the 5th. However, it remained incomplete and I had never gotten around to finishing it until now. Consequently, I am posting this piece which took place a little over half-way into my time in Malaysia.

As I write these words, I reflect on the fact that it’s been fourth months and a day since I landed here in Malaysia. Those four months might have well been four years in terms of the amount of experiences I’ve had. I mean it’s not like I haven’t lived abroad before—I spent a wonderful six months in Sydney in 2005—but this time, I wasn’t just passively experiencing life, I was actively living it. Right now, having just showered after the longest run I’ve been able to do since arriving, and still perspiring from a delightful catharsis, I write these words as though I just awoke after a rejuvenating siesta, the kind that truly refreshes the body and soul. Feeling wide-awake, I’ve decided to pen my thoughts.

Initially I thought I would write about reflections on these past four months. But then I thought, why do that, when I can talk about what I did today—a day that perfectly sums up my life in Malaysia. So instead of a reflection piece, I’m putting some words to paper or, rather, words to my laptop and from there the world wide web to give those who care—or don’t—a snapshot from my life on May 5, 2009.

I woke up today at around 830am. I ate what can only barely be called a breakfast—a pb&chocolate sandwich hardly seems to be what a 23 year old transitioning vegetarian should be eating—and got ready to go to school. I hopped on the internet—the one thing I make sure to do religiously here in anywhere I go—and caught up on the news from around the world and the usual bundle of emails I receive in the morning. After a quick skype conversation with Naumaan and Irfaan—God bless the creators of skype, my link to those most important to me in the world—I hopped in my Kancil—a small, four-door compact that takes me from point A to point B, most of the time…—and headed to school.

The usual seven-kilometer commute to work was no different today, except that I had to stop off at the dobi to pick up and drop off some clothes. When I got to school (I teach at a public high school here in the Malaysian state of Terengganu, in the district of Kemaman, and the city of Kerteh)—on Malay standard time as usual—I looked around for my Form 5 (equivalent of high school seniors) student who would participating in a district-wide public speaking contest. After locating her in the open-air passageway, some of my Form 2 (equivalent of eighth or ninth graders) wanted me to come teach their class. Apparently their teacher wasn’t at school today—unfortunately, an all too frequent occurrence here, and this is supposed to be one of the top schools in the district—so they wanted me to fill in. They were really excited and practically dragged me into my classroom so that I could teach them. I kept saying to no one in particular that I had to go to public speaking competition but the students were in just too ebullient of a mood to listen. So I stepped into class, explained to them that I would have to be leaving momentarily, and decided to briefly play this education “Exploring Malaysia” game with them. Basically, it’s a game with a bunch of flash cards—almost exactly like trivial pursuit—that ask the students trivia about Malaysia. I looked at the class the class and they looked disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to play the entire game with them, as they always seemed to enjoy playing this game more than any lesson plan I’ve ever done. So with a heavy-heart, I had to leave the students because I had to go to the public competition with my other students, the one’s I had groomed in the art of rhetoric.

The public speaking competition was being held in the biggest city in Kemaman, in the city of Cukai. I had to do the half-hour commute alone in my Kancil on a tortuous, but fairly scenic, route to get to the high school where the competition was being held.

I arrived at the school, SMK Cukai, around 1030am. I met another one of the ETAs who happened to be there with her students and we exchanged pleasantries for a bit. I then spoke with my Form 5 Indian student who was participating in the event. Her name was Shamin and she had prepared an excellent speech on Global Warming. In total, there were 18 students who spoke from the different district schools, giving between 5-6 minute speeches on prepared topics. Shamin delivered a fairly good speech which began, “Oh no, the sky is falling! Not really, but global warming…” and the audience seemed to like it. She was clearly in the top segment of the debaters and the students discussed all sorts of things, from the greatness of the tomato to the issue of bullying. The competition seemed to drag on since it got progressively warmer as the day went on—we were under an outdoor, roofed auditorium—and there were so many speakers. Thankfully there was a break before the impromptu round, during which everyone was able to relax and eat.

The impromptu round went by much quicker and the students had only three minutes to speak on a topic that they had 20 minutes to prepare a discussion for. The topic was significance of freedom. I practically jumped for joy when I heard about the topic, since I had done a whole series of classes on various freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. When it was Shamin’s turn to perform, she did quite well, except that her speech only lasted a little over a minute. This was quite typical for most of the speakers, or some speakers would just completely freeze and say nothing, so I hoped it hadn’t ruined Shamin’s chances at winning an award. Before the speech, I had mentally ranked her as the third best speaker out of the eighteen students there. After the conclusion of the impromptu speeches, I thought she was definitely still in the top 5 and, hopefully, still number three. Alas, when the award ceremony happened, she didn’t place in the top three and had to go home empty handed. Nevertheless, I know she learned a lot from the various public speaking lessons we had together and her general public speaking confidence had gone up significantly. It was an interesting event and then I started my drive back to Kerteh.

I drove straight to the Mesra Mall. This mall had been my savior throughout my time in Malaysia. I would always go here to eat and I would often go to the Indian restaurant Hameed’s. I went there today and had two dhosa masalas with daal and orange juice. I added some Famous Amos cookies to my meal and my feast was fantastic. The four places I would most frequent in the Mall was Hameed’s, Secret Recipe, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Famous Amos. Since I basically ate out every day, I felt like a college student all over again.

I then drove home completely full and quite drowsy. I got into bed to relax for a bit and let my body digest. I then received the now-familiar buzz of an incoming text-message and instantly smiled. Seeing the message woke me up from the daydream and I decided to leave the sloth-like position I had been in and head off for a long run.

I ran for about 45 minutes and my head was full of ideas that I wanted to write about. The run itself was amazing, it was one of those runs that I could have just kept going on and on with, but it got too dark, so I had to come back home. I came in and relaxed; I watched my sweat drip down my eyebrows, nose, and chin, all the droplets collecting in an ever growing pool in front of my contented legs. I grabbed some drinks and then I wrote a few things down on paper on the different thought that were running through my mind. I took a quick shower and then began writing a blog post about my day while the endorphins from running gave me a pleasant high.

One thought that had I been mulling over was how different interpersonal relations are outside of America. Generally speaking, American relationships tend to be superficial and people don’t naturally feel the urge to help people out. While I recognize that this is not true for all of America, I do think that this is very true for urban America. Relationships reflect the consumer society that America embodies—everything is transitory and disposable, both things and people. Relationships in other countries, particularly non-Western societies, tend to be more authentic and real. People care about you for who you are, not what purpose you serve them. While it is true that people will constantly float in and out of one’s lives, I have come to notice that my strongest relationships have been forged outside of the US, or with people who are originally not from the US. Sadly, this is the state of American society today.

I also reflected on the concept of freedom as it had been discussed ad nauseam by the debater’s today. I think that the strength of Western Civilization lies in its respect for basic freedoms—freedom of speech, assembly, religion. I’m definitely no Uncle Barack…errr…Uncle Tom and I despise Kipling’s alleged Burden, but I do recognize that these cherished fundamentals that exist—however much reduced in the post 9-11 era—in the West do not exist anywhere near the degree they need to be in the East. There needs to be more freedom of thought, so that people can pick and choose from the marketplace of ideas what to believe and not believe. This freedom deficit that does exist in non-Western societies needs to be rapidly and radically reduced, so that the benefits of innovation, diversity, and pluralism can flourish and help these societies grow. Freedom is a beautiful, under-utilized asset, and wherever it truly flourishes, so too do those societies.

As I finished up writing and prepared to go to bed, I realized it was the perfect day—well almost perfect minus a particular noun—and I was very happy at this moment in time. I recognize I’m where I need to be and I hope that I captured essence of the thoughts running through my mind. I was glad to pen my thought for a bit and that I did so before they had a chance to forever slip out of my mind. So Malaysia has been fantastic to me so far and I only hope that things will keep getting better.

Originally written on: 5-5-09
Completed on: 9-16-09
-Nausherwan Hafeez

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