I just returned to “civilization”, after spending a week hanging out with a bunch of Malaysian indigenous kids in the middle of nowhere …
Let’s backtrack a little: There’s this awesome guy I happen to know – Jarod is an inspiring English teacher, making ripples of change, in his school in the middle of the Borneo jungle. Being on a gap year of sorts, a few friends and I thought it’d be cool to visit him and his kids, and try to help out.
So, after a few emails, Facebook messages, Whatsapp chats, Google Hangouts, confusing Google docs … and half a year, the five of us found ourselves following this teacher into his school, literally in the middle of nowhere.
(To be precise, this middle of nowhere refers to a certain area in East Malaysia – getting there takes a two-hour flight, followed by 2.5 hours on a techno-music-blasting ferry along Southeast Asia’s longest river, and then another hour-long mini wooden boat ride.)
Let me try to explain the context here: Malaysia is an extremely diverse country (racially, religiously, economically, politically etc.). As a developing nation, with wonky leadership and a politically-charged approach to education, our education system really isn’t that great, in terms of promoting critical thinking, educating informed citizens or really, achieving basic literacy and numeracy. The way the system has failed the kids of Malaysia makes me angry and sad, and gets me all fired up to do all I can to help, to make it better.
So what do you do, when you’ve been one of the lucky few, who’ve had the upper hand and the privilege of a good education elsewhere? For us, the answer was to learn more about what’s really going on out there, and try to make things a little better, within our capacity.
Hence, our creativity-based, educational program, aptly dubbed “Aram, Katibas!” (“Let’s Go, Katibas!” in the Iban kids’ native language) was born.
According to our Google docs, we were supposed to go in to:
In other words, we went in thinking we were there to share and teach the kids what little we know about learning, dreams and life … But truly, they quickly turned the tables around and taught us buckets more than whatever we could have offered.
Because what are the chances of being able to reach out to the absolutely sweetest bunch of kids, a world away? And to learn that they’re not so different from us, after all? They may look a little more tanned, actually know how to hunt animals (like whut), speak a different language, and not have understood all the weird tasks we threw at them … but I have all the respect in the world for them. For their spirit, strength and heart. Talk about attitude over altitude. Despite visibly having the odds stacked against them, these kids have so much optimism and spirit in them to keep going.
Also, what are the odds of meeting and working with an incredible educator, with so much strength, spirit, optimism, resilience and heart? Who’s shaking things up in his corner of the country (or jungle), and really, making ripples of change?
All this, we could never, ever have expected, as we sat in front of our computers, wondering whether the kids would even understand English (a little, which was enough), and whether there are alligators in the river (apparently so, but we didn’t meet any!).
I’ve come to realize that life has this weird knack for creeping up behind you, and surprising you with the most beautiful moments and humbling lessons, when you least expect it to.
We talk about things like social justice, community service, measuring social impact … These and more are all what I’m excited to learn about at Tufts … But I’ve also realized that the biggest things often lie in the little moments.
Like when the little girl who took 24 hours to squeak out seven words … finished off with the loudest speech at the end of the week.
Like when the boy with a definite glint of maturity in his eyes … raised his hand after a session, and asked what he needed to do to get a scholarship. (Trust me, that was major.)
Like when the young woman who’d previously given up – because of certain naysayers who tried to put her down – regained the fire to keep trying no matter what.
Like when a bunch of indigenous kids, surprise their teary-eyed facilitator with an ENGLISH song (OMG!) at the end of the program, as they hung around and refused to leave.
I guess we’ve made a tiny difference in the lives of these wonderful kids; I hope that impact lasts for long enough – for them to continue believing in themselves and dreaming big.
But what I do know for sure, is that they have made a mark in my heart that won’t be fading away anytime soon.
And from the very bottom of my heart, for this wonderful slice of my gap-almost-year, for all the soul-shaking, inspiring, overwhelming, moving and humbling moments that unfolded … I am thankful. :)