The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Trying to be calm and collected, I deftly maneuvered around the room, looking over students’ shoulders to see their progress on a foldable activity charting comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. Praising a student for writing “more fun” instead of “funner” and then quickly hopping over to the other table to re-explain that you can’t always just put “-est” on the end of any adjective to make it superlative, I was only 70% focused on my larger lesson. The other 30% of my brain was entirely honed in on tracking the movements of the mid-sized cockroach who had joined our class for the day. Knowing that my students lived in rooms very much like the one we were using as a classroom, cockroaches are a part of their lives on a daily basis and I didn’t want to be the wimpy foreigner who couldn’t handle a couple of oversized antennae wiggling across the floor. But, being barefoot, it was essential that that dang, prehistoric bug didn’t get anywhere near my feet! (Yes, I also have cockroaches in my house, but they are mostly confined to the first floor laundry room, and when I see them, I always squawk like a terrified owl and run for higher ground, hollering at Thad to come destroy the evil that can’t scurry across my floor with impunity. Such a reaction would probably not gain me much respectability in the classroom, so I use every ounce of my willpower to keep my shit together, at least temporarily.)
Some days it is cockroaches and others it is rats. Always there are lizards. The abundant wildlife in my classrooms would lead one to believe that I’ve taken up a new career as a middle school science teacher, but alas, English is still my first love and my new little friends are just an added bonus.
Moving every couple of years means it can be difficult to have a prolonged career trajectory, but we knew that would be the case when Thad joined the State Department. Trading my career for the ability to have a lifestyle that not only settles us in far-flung locations for a few years at a time, but also gives us the chance to travel on a regular basis was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, nor was it an easy one. At the time, I’m not sure I realized just what it meant, employment-wise, to uproot every couple of years, but with a few moves behind us now, I’ve come to see that while there can be a lot of frustration inherent in the process, there is also a level of freedom that would be unachievable if we had stayed as educators in Idaho.
This go-round, unable to find a position at the embassy in KL, I decided to look beyond the official diplomatic community and see what other opportunities existed around the city. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, the branch of the UN that deals with helping refugees resettle into safer countries. Malaysia is home to a huge number of refugees, many of them coming out of Burma. These displaced families are here trying to get their documents and paperwork in order so that they can apply for visas to resettle to any number of western countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Families can be here for years as they get in line for resettlement, which means certain “daily-life” activities need to carry on- schooling being one of them. To facilitate their continued education, the UNHCR supports dozens of refugee schools across the city, where students take daily courses in English, math, science and their local language. After filling out the forms and getting the necessary background checks, I was assigned to a Chin refugee school in the center of the city. The neighborhood is a rundown one and the school is merely a set of rooms in an apartment building, but volunteering there two days a week has quickly taken me back to my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In class, when I am not stealthily dodging cockroaches, we review basic grammar points (like most TOEFL students, there are problem areas that need constant attention) and talk a lot about western culture. Since the ultimate goal of these students’ families is to move to an English-speaking country, we talk a lot about western holidays, mannerisms and classroom behaviors, but there are also a whole lot of pop culture chats. Who knew Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber were so beloved by Chin students from Burma? I’ve learned vast amounts about soccer, as they all have favorite teams and players and most of the boys are horrified at my immense lack of knowledge of anything “football”-related.
When we learned we were headed to Malaysia for our second posting, I was disappointed to find out I wouldn’t be able to teach at the international schools due to visa regulations. (This rule has since changed, but the modifications came about too late for me to apply for positions since international schools hire in January/February of each year and the visa requirements didn’t adapt to fit my needs until late April.) Thinking that I couldn’t teach, I turned my eye to other positions within the embassy community, looking at a couple that seemed to be perfect fits with my background in education and volunteering, but when neither of those worked out, after a few days of wallowing in the misery of rejection, it was back to teaching I found myself, although in a different manner than I had ever imagined. Now, I spend two days a week in small rooms, with just ceiling fans for ventilation and a not-quite-erasable white boards, helping upper elementary and middle school aged kids prepare for a life-changing move, but couching it all in lessons about Thanksgiving and One Direction. It may not be what I had planned for myself for this second State posting, but, as it often turns out, the unplanned experiences are the most rewarding.
(*Note on photos- Because my students are minors and refugees, I did not want to post any pictures of individuals to the internet, as they have fled their home country out of concerns for their safety and security.)