By Heleigh Bostwick
“Teenagers are teenagers no matter the country or culture,” said Robyn Suarez of her experience teaching English at SMK Laksamana, a secondary school in Kota Tinggi, Malaysia, where she’s been living since January. There is one major difference that she’s had to get used to, however—the pedestal upon which teachers are placed.
“Every time I walk into a classroom, the students stand up and chant in unison, ‘Good morning, teacher,’” Suarez said. “I must tell them to sit, or they will continue to stand. When class is finished they stand again and chant, ‘Thank you, Miss Robyn.’”
The Williston resident is in Malaysia on a Fulbright Scholarship.
“The goal of the Fulbright program is to promote cultural exchanges between nations,” Suarez said. “You can either propose a research project in a particular country or apply to be an English Teaching Assistant, which is what I chose.”
Suarez, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 2012 with a major in English and a minor in linguistics, was one of 75 people in the United States to be selected to teach in Malaysia.
“Since the goal of the Fulbright program is to have a cultural exchange, I felt that living in a predominantly Muslim country would be the best way to learn about a completely different culture and to share a positive perspective of American culture,” she said.
Malaysia also has a unique sign language called “BIM” or “Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia,” which has various dialects in different parts/communities of the country, so it seemed like an interesting place to be, she said.
“My role is to design my own lessons that get students excited about learning and speaking English with confidence, which they have—slowly,” she said, recalling that during her first weeks at SMK Laksamana, her students barely had the confidence to say “hello.”
“It is a huge help having Robyn in the classroom,” said Marziana Aris, English head panel and mentor at the school. “We have a real life English communication with a native speaker of the language. The students can’t wait for her lessons and are more confident using English as a second language.”
On most days, Suarez is finished with her lessons by 1:30 p.m. With plenty of free time, she’s adopted a “Never say ‘no’ to invitations” motto.
“Teachers and students often ask me out to get tea or walk around the local night market,” she said.
The rest of her time is spent learning to play the harmonica, exercising, reading, writing and journaling, and walking into town to make conversation with shop-owners.
“Teachers and students think all Americans are fat, eat only pizza and burgers, cannot eat rice, and have blonde hair and blue eyes,” she laughed, saying she still hasn’t gotten used to people pointing at her and taking her picture. “My father’s family is Puerto Rican so that is not the case for me. I’ve had to explain that Americans all look different.”
Suarez has encountered cultural differences of her own. “The headmaster at school is a man and I cannot shake his hand,” she said, adding that despite the 90 degree heat, she must wear clothes that fully cover her arms, legs and chest.
Suarez plans to travel before returning home when the program ends in November, but said she’ll always remember the looks people get on their faces when she says that she’s from America. “For many of the Malaysians I meet, I might be the only American they ever have contact with, so I must always be at my best to give the most positive view of America and Americans that I can,” she said.