Monday, June 25, 2012

Reports, Reports, Reports

I'm writing a lot of them, about now, and I feel like l should double-dip, these topics mean a lot to me.

Personal Community Service Report

It's strange to me to see the difference between the volunteer work I performed in the US and the community service I did in Malaysia. What I have to offer as a volunteer and the connections I can find to organizations in need of a strong back of an open heart seem to be of more value in my home country, or so it seemed for the majority of my stay in my host country. Before departure, in one of our YES orientations, we were briefed on the importance of community service in our host communities and given suggestions as to how we might get involved. However, the timing of our arrival in Malaysia (halfway through the school year, right before Ramadan) made it challenging for students such as myself to find someone to help.
Still, soon after my arrival at SMK Jalan Tiga, my first host school, I took the initiative to bother my counselor about volunteering opportunities. The scout group wasn't doing anything for the rest of the year, and the other community-oriented organizations were finished. With help from my host family, and counselor, I began teaching language classes after school to a few students at a time. I began with English to form three students, and the waiting list crowded enough that we had to split into two groups. I taught 5 classes, about two hours each, to both of the groups, and the classes included some reading out loud , some grammar, some vocabulary and far more class participation than the students were used to. I also briefly taught french (around 5 classes, one hour long) to any interested prefects, and one private class to a form five student who wanted to study abroad in a francophonic country. While I was with that family, I was also given the opportunity to teach spoken and office English to workers at UPM GSM because my host mother saw the need for improved communication with the foreign students attending the university. I taught around three classes twice (one for the men and one for the women) on Fridays, and although it was initially difficult to hear the students speaking, we made progress in speaking confidence, simple past and future tenses, and basic report writing. For all of these classes, I probably spend a half hour preparing for each hour of the class. This usually included a lesson plan and supplemental materials, as well as room for expansion on topics of interest and a quick discussion of current events to warm up the class atmosphere. I unfortunately had to stop after Ramadan as everyone went balik kampung, and by the time I could resume the classes I found myself no longer staying with that host family. I attempted to make the same school-based effort in my new school, but the communication between my counselor and I was far less direct and frequent, so I dropped the idea and remained inactive in the school community except for a performance or two.
It was refreshing to get really involved during those few days in Kuantan with the other American girls- an excursion detailed in our group report, and I certainly hope we helped those we volunteered with as much as they helped us, I only wish I had known about these opportunities earlier. In conclusion, I didn't get to volunteer nearly as much ad I wanted to, which is one of the only things I regret in this year because I truly enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching and volunteering in that way.

Final Monthly Write Up

Almost all of the paperwork is finished, almost all of the clothes are packed, almost all of the goodbyes are said. All the remains is what I've been saving- papers like this one and my school transcript, clothes I'll be needing in Washington, and the farewells closest to my heart, This last month has been intense in a way that's kept me just busy enough to restrict my alone time. Refrain from misunderstanding me- I have had plenty of time to reflect on events and feelings; I have taken hours out of time otherwise spent with family and friends to write in my journal or on my blog. But it will never be enough, I always find a new bit of myself in each of these reflections. All of the write ups brought be closer to the time I spent here by separating me to the occupation of "narrator", each of the blog posts that kept my family informed and my friends entertained let me express the experiences in mediums that have become comfortable.
This month- these weeks- have been a series of realizations that there are an innumerable amount of "lasts" to be recognized. From the last drink at a local cafe, the last day of school, the last time I'll wash the sheets, it all seems so significant. I've heard if compared to the weeks before departure, but that's inaccurate in my case. Those weeks were spent in anticipation of a beginning, these weeks are spent in anticipation of an end. I spent hours recalling the "firsts" to combat the bittersweetness of the "lasts", but no comparison could be made and no consolation was found, there. I suppose it's only natural to squeeze every half hour out of the last five days, to spend the time with family making memories and with friends promising more, but it feels like someone else's life in a numb way. It's a comfortable numbness, though, one that will most likely shatter on the plane home. Moving through this period, I record everything and remember nothing except the feeling, which is why this write up is devoid of any dates.
To satisfy my favorite government clones, let ti be noted that I attended a chapter farewell event and volunteered in its preparation. I also met frequently with my volunteer at hipster coffee shops I wish I'd discovered months ago. Conversations were begun and cut short by impending curfews of the night and the year, and toasts were made with teh o ais limau and milo panas, and tears were shed- all these things seem far more important than what I was asked to write about. I fear these things won't be understood by this audience or friends and family and state department people, but I've realized that I'm really only writing for one person- eighty-year-old Margaret Desjarlais. Thank you for reading, though, it means more to me than I can express, here.

AFS Office/ Program Write-Up

In retrospect, a great deal was tolerated on our account thing year. Our families accepted a lot about our foreignness, as we accepted a lot about the foreignness of this place and ourselves in this context. Judgement and criticism was withheld, and we said a collective "never mind, lah", taking it all in stride. We called it a learning experience and got on with our lives. This made some students annoyingly tolerant; accepting of all but the directly harmful. Others were made cynical or sad like a beaten dog. Although we were prepared in orientations to deal with culture shocks, many of us trusted that our program's volunteers would provide a respite for communication problems and cultural differences, but in many cases that oasis was a mirage in a desert.
The error liess in expectations, as usual. If one national office cannot guarantee a liaison to a student of a chapter willing to work with students and host families, it should not be promised to students pre-departure. Although the inconsistent presence of these and other parts of the network of communication are culturally understandable, they are not internationally acceptable. Certainly, it is taken into account the nature of organizations in developing countries, but that problems are allowed to grow once they have been identified is disappointing. Fortunately, students such as myself are more than willing to work with volunteers to brainstorm and come up with a framework that might better suit the culture of the organization, its aims, and the individual participants in the program. The main complaints of the host parents and students to AFS Malaysia and the primary source of miscommunication and resulting problems lie in the chapter organization.
We recognize that the office has to beg volunteers to become chapter leaders through incentives and networking opportunities, and beggars can't be choosers, but stray dogs will reject meat that is too far gone in their foraging. We respect that Malaysian culture gives ultimate respect to the hierarchy and that chapter leaders are given a lofty position, but we request that screening and checkups be carried out to keep problems from getting out of hand as they did this year. It is a good plan to have host parents act through chapter organization, but communication between the parties needs to be maintained; host families need to be notified of AFS events in advance. As the chapters hold this power, they have the responsibility to use it wisely. Chapters are also entrusted with the responsibility of choosing host families in the beginning, and this should be taken far more seriously than what this students has observed. In this matter, it is a question of student safety (first) and organization reputation (second) to choose host families, but too often families and homes are not properly scouted out, perhaps to blame is the fear that a look too far into a hosting situation will reveal private problems and this will make the potential family uncomfortable and unwilling to host. At this point we need to recognize that hosting a student is uncomfortable sometimes, this is inescapable. Being hosted is often uncomfortable, we all learn from this, and these challenges need to be met to achieve the goals of AFS.
Through the grace of the universe, students this year were blessed with a volunteer in the office that has represented them accutately and with cultural sensitivity. I had the pleasure of being a student under her, and she acted as my liaison for the majority of the year, and many of my batch will swear that she is the diamond in the rough- the clarity in the enigma of AFS Malaysia. Her name is E Laine Chong, and with every meeting I have with her I become more impressed by her personal and professional dedication to this cause and these students. This does not make her popular at the office, but she somehow manages to function under tense environments with a few extra cups of coffee. She has overseen and assisted my individual and external growth from the beginning, making sure my situation is manageable and making positive out of the more challenging times, without making light of them. She is mature enough to earn the respect of all of the students, while maintaining a young, approachable face. She is able to listen to us, and admit her own challenges to help those she counsels. We carry a pipe dream, the students and I, that some day AFS Malaysia will be filled with Es, who seamlessly manage our progress and who we can keep in our hearts. I genuinely hope this ideal can be worked toward as a goal. In conclusion, a change in the organization of the program can seriously benefit all parties, although it may be awkward or uncomfortable at first, and a model should be taken in this case of a certain volunteer who has helped us solve our problems and reorient ourselves to the goals we came here to achieve.

Peggy :)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Group Volunteering- A Report from Kuantan

Group Volunteer Project Report
As required by our program, the girls of YES Abroad Malaysia began planning our community outreach project towards the end of April. Because of our slim budget and even slimmer schedule, we determined it would be the best use of our resources to lump our volunteer and bonding trips together into one week. We originally thought it possible to incorporate a cultural element to our trip by going to Sabah or Sarawak during the Gawai celebration, but that wouldn't work out financially and the idea was dropped in favour of a Taman Negara trip, which would include volunteering with the local orang asli group and doing various national park-related activities. This idea, too, was denied, due to insufficient funds and the challenge presented by booking online. After going through a few more plans and realizing the improbability of cooperation with local schools, we were dangerously close to our deadline, which was extended a few times by our understanding coordinator/volunteer, E Laine.
In the end, we opted for a later date, a few days after our original departure day, which would give us a few days with our host families between the End of Stay Camp and our travel. We found a church to work with that wound up being the best cornerstone for a volunteer project, and we were slightly disappointed in ourselves that we hadn't come up with the idea of church-involvement sooner. The people of St. Thomas negated the need to stay at a hostel in Kuantan and supplied the majority of our meals in addition to transportation to and from the sites they organized for us to volunteer at. We are forever in their debt for really putting together a plan that proved difficult to make for a group of connectionless teenagers, stuck somewhere between local and foreign. If there was ever an experience to cause us to realize this balance maintained by exchange students worldwide, it was the weekend we spent with the people of St Thomas.
We arrived in Kuantan mid-morning after and early bus ride most of us slept through. Our group hit the ground running, quickly dropping off our things in the dormitory at the church and getting into cars headed towards a food bank of sorts, where we piled bags of rice and containers of oil and tins of powdered milk and bags of clothing into the trunks. Cradling the cartons of eggs in out laps, we wondered who these supplies would belong to over the brief drive. Our first stop was a shabby-looking house down a long kampung road, where we unloaded some of our goodies to an awaiting mother of six, a refugee from Myanmar. A beautiful woman, the volunteers with us described her as much healthier looking than last year. The children ran around our legs, pushing their school workbooks at the volunteers before scrambling back inside. A few of us went into the house and saw what a home was made from so little, and it impressed us all. We had to leave before we wanted to, but we knew that the foodstuffs were needed elsewhere, too. Our next place was a similar house, crowded with an extended family of a kind, all living together. We gathered that the two mothers were sisters, and most of the children were girls of about 9 to 13. They accepted the packages gratefully, and before we left they offered us cold drinks, which we were embarrassed both to accept and reject. By this time, it was early evening, and we still had one house more. That was more of a frat house than the others, composed as it was of 10 to 15 men of ages 18 to 25 approximately. They were more than happy to have the food and the company of six young american girls, so we sat with them for a short while. I'm sure there were meals taken and discussions had, but the memories fade into the faces of the refugees. That night was quiet, we bonded over a card game or two before turning in.
The second day began early with a bus ride to the local orang asli settlement, where the orphanage made use of our presence and had us move a refrigerator and a washing machine, followed by a few wheelbarrows of mixed rocks. Were were happy to oblige and just as happy to accept their thanks in the form of coconuts, carved by the original expert. After arriving at the church, we took an unanticipated nap before a kindly sponsored banana leaf lunch, courtesy of a parishioner and active member of the church. We had planned to go to the pot luck dinner organized by the Kuantan AFS Chapter, but we elected to cancel because we couldn't bring food and wished to spend some time together. A few elementary school games followed by and American-style dinner at Pizza Hut was a welcome break from the intense volunteer service, that would only heighten in the coming day, which for half of us began with a Catholic service.
We were recognized at this beautiful mass, and returned to the dorm to rouse the sleepy-heads to the light of our busiest day. We spent the morning with the Cancer Link group, plating games with children affected by cancer in some way or another. It was sad to consider the fragility of their lives, so we did the hokey-pokey instead. Three of us went with the volunteers and some laptops to the same area as we visited the first day, and there we helped refugees file for UN status. Those who didn't accompany the first group went and witnessed the absolute worst living conditions to help the children of the family learn what couldn't be taught by the caretakers. Then, they visited the Vincent De Paul community to distribute rations and books to assist their living situations. All in all, this was a morally fulfilling day, and a few tears were shed when we were reminded of the ages of both the victims of cancer and teh rejection of a home country. We were inexplicably considering what it would be like if we were in the shoes of the people we were with and how we would respond to life as we knew it. During each of these global-thinking, local-acting services, there were times we would catch eachother's eyes and share a look of understanding, through sweat and frustration and the occasional tear, it was certainly a weekend of meaningful looks. If we hadn't already planned to move to Tioman for the relaxation part of our trip, we would have wanted to stay at the church and keep volunteering. But like all beautiful things, this year especially, our time in Kuantan came to an end and we were moved along by bus and fate.
We would like to ttake this opportunity to thank our understanding, committed volunteer E Laine Chong, Mis Choo Ching the Kuantan Chapter Leader, Miss Kok Meng, Mr. Peter, Miss Wendy and Father Daniel of St Thomas Church, and especially Mr Dato Lionel for all their help and support and kindness throughout this project. Thank you for helping us make this a success, we couldn't have done it without you!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Personal Report and A Promise for More, Later.

As though the Yearbook entry requested by AFS Malaysia didn't pose a daunting enough task, I will try to illustrate my year in the context of those who will be reading this report. I've noticed that this challenge of summarizing and presenting this exchange year is one that begins far before my departure, and I am grateful for the preparation in some senses. The monthly write-ups put short-term memories into perspective and aid in collecting miscellaneous experiences and observations, and are therefore slightly more helpful than the journal writing I've committed myself to. In writing a journal, you know your audience as personally as you could, and I find myself jotting the phrase, "don't forget this" to myself once or twice an entry. These reflection processes are excellent- their diversity is one of the features I most like about writing at different times in different situations.

At our End Of Stay camp, the students were asked to write a letter for the incoming country-mates, and it was surprisingly difficult to phrase all of your experience into an advice and encouragement-giving format. I'm sure that as I continue through my school career (and hopefully, life) I'll find more ways to express just what this year has meant to me, utilizing every medium I can wrap my head around. At some point, my memories will begin to fade, and I'll look back into my sent mail and blog and journal and unsent letters, searching for the truth I found here about myself and humanity. My only hope in writing this is to give you a sliver of that light, so you might perhaps understand that no matter how many times I will tell these stories, I will always get something new from them.

This is a personal report, as I understood it (please, if my understanding is in come way flawed, correct it. In my defense, there was a lot of other information coming with the prompt to this essay), and I plan to use this format personally. At an orientation, we were asked to write down our personal growth of the month on small index cards; a different approach than another orientation, earlier in the year, where we wrote down a more public experience or growth. For example, in the first orientation, I wrote that I fasted almost the entire month of Ramadan with my family. In the second, I admitted that it wasn't difficult because at that point, I despised the food. That disgust is a far cry to the crazed hunger with which I now devour any Asian food put in front of me. There was one card on which I wrote that I had found my true family in the students of my new chapter, and the personal realizations that came with that affirmation just boiled over the edges of that brightly colored rectangle. I knew that the community of students that, in a pinch, would sleep on the dirt floor of a hostel after losing their bag and look beautiful the next day, and somehow seemed to respect and love me an an individual, would mean a great deal to me- but it wasn't until I actually wrote it down that it was a fact that they have become my family. My personal growth during this year begins to blur with half-formed opinions and ideas until I put it down on paper (with pen or with paint), and I think that says more about me as the person I've become than anything else in this essay. One of my more noticeable points of personal development revolves around this idea, if you'll bear with me.

As an exchange student, you can't withhold all judgement- it's dangerous to give the man driving a taxi at 10 at night "just one chance" if your gut says wait ten minutes for the next cab. But the ability to hold those judgments in your head and not act on them until they are affirmed, or it is affirmed that you need to keep observing to get a better picture of the situation, is a skill I've cultivated here. In less dangerous situations, this is mostly about listening and being aware of your surroundings, and being able to see this simultaneously objectively and subjectively- both inside and outside of context. This is a skill necessitated by the personal turmoil I suffered with my first family, cultivated in the constant conversations revolving around it in my second situation, and made use of in my last six months of regular school, good contact with the students, and correspondence between my parents and myself. I feel very fortunate to be able to have people around me that could recognize this shift in perspective, and this ability to observe and think and present fully developed (but still evolving) conclusions. This scrap of personal growth is part of a larger theme that I touch on in all my reports; catalyzation. One of my more developed perspectives on this year and how my experience has shaped me involves the idea that as a teenager, one is a chemical reaction waiting to happen; with all the components of childhood and new found experiences of almost adulthood coming together to react with the individual. Everyone had different experiences, unique components, and the idea of the catalyst is the idea that being in a certain environment with some new factors contributing to your personal experiment (off topic, but what is life but an experiment?), means that everyone matures in a very individual way. I've experienced that catalyst of a year studying in Malaysia, and that has caused me to develop in ways that may not line up with those my peers in the US experienced this year. They may have had to pass an AP Exam or the SATs, or gone to prom, but I attended weddings of three cultures, cleaned anchovies with my hands, and spent what seems like an eternity separated from my parents. Perhaps this very different catalyst will forever label me as the weird one, doomed to spend her life misunderstood; but I see unprecedented opportunity for the highly respected community of people who will return home just as foreign as I will, as well as the potential I see in the recognization I will receive for completing such a challenging program.

My interaction with the program that sponsors me and the program that hosts me made up a considerable part of this catalyst, mostly because AFS Malaysia was a part of the family life in each of my hosting situations, and I collaborated with very few people ignorant to the program. Even on the YES Abroad group's community service/bonding trip, the people we worked with who directed our programs were aware of the organisation and it's successes and shortcomings. That week in Kuantan and Tioman with my fellow Americans was arguably the best week for reflection on this year I had; all this without ever being dull and including intense community service and genuine bonding. This week was entirely without organized bonding sessions or team-building activities, and was full or beach and bicycle conversations between pairs and small groups, which I have come to realize is how we, as people, not just as students, open up. Give a group a series of unorganized challenges relating to a personal and public goal they want to achieve, add some time for enjoying yourself and put a program approval sticker on it, and you'll find that more reflecting and talking gets accomplished than at most orientation sessions. The chapter leadership also seems like a strange contradiction to the human nature of how communication works and the cultural patterns or responsibility and leadership in a hierarchy, but I have other reports in which to detail those problems. Without the program-related challenges, I don't think I could have begun to learn to represent myself in situations where my judgement or honesty is called into question by an authority. As I run through these challenges once more, I have realized that they mean more to my experience and have more to to with the catalyst that is this year that I first gave them credit for.

This is all to do with the self-reflection process I discussed in the opening of this essay, the conscious reviewing of achievements and growth and the acknowledgement or challenges and setbacks is absolutely necessary to getting the most out of this short time that will last a long time. From the letters to my grandmother to the short surveys filled out in haste, from the journal and blog entries to the midnight talks with other students, this experience has given me a great deal to think about and talk about.  In conclusion, it's going to be very difficult to forget this place and these people for a number of reasons. My paper trail and the digital representation of it is only the beginning of the impact this has made on my environment. The impact things have made on my and the contributions that have been made to my catalyzed reaction are palpable; I can feel the changes and sometimes I can recall the series of events that led to the specific growth. Realizing my development and reflecting on it in different methods has truly opened my eyes to the beauty this experience presented me.

So that's what I wrote for my "Personal Report", and I promise I'll write all about Kuantan and Tioman adventures later!