Whose this Allah guy anyways? You get the impression the whole city is searching for him. Someone insists its just drunken karaoke emanating from that building with the dome on it, a ‘mosque,’ they call it.
I have come to Malaysia on a Fulbright Grant. That “someone” who referred to the Muslim call to prayer and its constituents as drunken Christmas carolers is also a Fulbright. As is the guy who belligerently transformed all the glass and ceramic in his room into confetti, and the girl who sobered up only to find herself sobbing, shoeless, and peeing on the floor of a locked restaurant in a mall at three in the morning. The guy who peed on the interior wall of the American embassy, the guy who vomited on the bathroom floor of the marine’s barracks within said embassy, and that couple that just emerged, disheveled, from the janitor’s closet, are also Fulbrights. We are told that we are among America’s best and brightest young diplomats, and for three weeks of pedantic orientation we are reminded of this superlative. More significantly, though, we are informed of our underlying mission. Through visits with the ambassador, various ministry officials, state department goons, regional anthropologists, babbling megalomaniacs, mumbling old women reading off power points, embassy folk, and linguistic specialists, we are taught that our 10 month presence serves to carry out a number of tasks.
Succinctly, the Fulbright was originally created in the aftermath of World War II under Senator Fulbright, who believed that world peace and global stability could be attained through sustained, positive, tangible social interactions and bonds between people from different countries. Sending throngs of overzealous, educated, and impassioned young Americans abroad as harbingers of peace and intercultural understanding would be the ultimate exercise in soft diplomacy he reckoned. In time the world’s populations would no longer see one another as dangerous anonymous entities and amorphous statistical spreads. Instead, maybe, they would be able to match a face or a friend or a fond memory to said country, and in the long run, if done properly, maybe that could foment peace. The Fulbright program has grown massive since, and its means have become tailored to suit the many countries it operates within.
As the embassy informed us several dozen times, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib, met with Barrack Obama, and they shook hands in front of some flags, and Najib requested that Obama send more supple young Americans to his country to teach his peoples proper English under the pretense of Fulbright. So here we are, 75 of us, assigned to run-down, low-performing, peripheral schools throughout the peninsula. Obama’s little gifts. And while the bulk of what we do is teach English, despite having no qualifications whatsoever (beyond speaking English ourselves), our work is as much a PR stunt and a politically charged gesture of goodwill as it is a teaching gig.
The real goal is to wedge ourselves in favorably in this geopolitical hotspot. In the heart of South East Asia, Malaysia is both a strategic locale in terms of future maritime entanglements with China, as well as an emergent economic power in and of itself. And it is also, and here’s the kicker, quite Islamic, whose followers we do not have a very good track record with! We are here playing soccer and painting murals and leading English carnivals and drinking tea, but every so often we look over our shoulders and wink at China and flip them the finger.
Contemporary South East Asia is an awkward giant bumbling around in its hormonal adolescence phase. We are here to nurture it and tell it stories in remedial English while it is still young, to culturally invest ourselves in it while it is still nervous, polluted and stupid. But once this giant undergoes puberty and rises into the world, no longer a babbling, dysfunctional invalid, well, our hope is that it will remember us fondly and take pity on us when we ourselves are old and penniless. Though it is an ambitious and uncertain endeavor, perhaps we can at least ensure that the giant will not push our proverbial Western wheel chair down the stairs. And that, essentially, is why I am teaching rural Malaysian children how to make origami Samurai hats.
We have all been ‘pre-gaming’ lightly, but the relentless equatorial sun dizzies us beyond reason. A reddened Colin, a friend since the early days of college, looks stoically at the dress shirt he’s attempting to iron. Per tradition, the Marines stationed in the U.S. Embassy have invited us to happy hour in their barracks within the embassy itself. Of the event, Colin somberly notes, “they’re Marines...” Without a hint of jest in his voice, he continues, “they’re marines…its…its going to be bad.”
“Think about it,” he says, “they have nothing to do but masturbate, lift weights, and stand completely still on their security detail for months at a time.” He runs the iron along the sleeve of the shirt in a very melancholy fashion, “…and now, we bring our women to their doorstep.” He looks down, “it’s going…to be bad.”
It is the first sanctioned opportunity for the Fulbrighters to consume alcoholic beverages– an annual ice breaking tradition - albeit in a very mild cocktail party context. There, shifty eyes diagram the curvatures of skirts; parched tongues relieve themselves with fermented concoctions, and innocent introductions transgress into forward banter. The ambivalence with which one enters an alien country subsides, and at that very moment there is a subtle shift in the collective consciousness of all present. Some rogue cult of synapses goes awry in the minds of the giddy young Americans, and everyone simultaneously forgets what it means to be composed. True colors are revealed beneath the strobe lights.
For three weeks I weave through the city that seems to never stop thumping, be it the blaring subwoofers or the marching crowds or just your imminently hemorrhaging brain the morning after. There are political protests of the Asian variety, with phalanxes of police encircling religious sites, and there are scavenger hunts requiring us to submit the soles of our feet to ravenous ‘therapeutic’ fish. I convince a mentally disturbed man from Kentucky to break into arguments with belligerent Arabic food vendors, and we jointly convince a large Palestinian man to dance outside a pirated music stall, too. In the day we sit and stare and try our best to sort of listen in an oppressive auditorium, and once released we take to the streets and admire the labyrinth of malls and the creatures that lurk them and do as Americans do and complain about everything unequivocally. And on the prophet’s birthday we go to the national mosque to commemorate Muhammad for all he’s done and we wash those birthday cheers down with 8 shots of Asia’s cheapest whiskey, and then all of a sudden we’re plucked out of our tourist cocoons because fun time is over.