Beyond the podium sit seven hundred perplexed students. Less than a minute in I realize that my speech makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but am comforted by the fact that less than seven people in the audience understand me to begin with. After a roaring applause I sit back down. My mentor once more reminds me that my accent is impenetrable, that I talk too fast, and that no one was listening, but besides all that I did a good job.
For the first few days of work I wander the corridors and acquaint myself with different classrooms and take copious notes that I am quick to lose. Different teachers treat me to school lunches and press me on pertinent issues like whether or not I “take rice” in America, how often I “take rice” in America, how much I’m getting paid, if the food is “too spicy,” and why I’m not taking more cold fish with my morning breakfasts. From there the meals tend to proceed in dead silence, punctuated by the sounds of exaggerated chewing and the suckling of fish bones. It seems I failed most of these interrogations. Having gotten the answers they needed out of me, many choose never to speak to me again for the remainder of the year.
From the open-aired balconies above, Indian students pucker their lips to produce kissing noises launched in my direction, much like how newcomers are greeted in prison, I imagine. I find out later this is a widespread cultural means of getting one’s attention, and relax my guard somewhat. Few students are endowed with the legendary bravery to approach me however, but the ones that do eagerly inquire about my relationship status and why I am taller than them. Most, however, are contented with a shrill “hi sir!” before scurrying around the nearest corner. And in extreme cases girls yelp and run from my mere shadow. Gauging their reactions I begin to envision myself as a terribly disfigured, gargantuan troll-like beast, slobbering everywhere and barking in arcane tongues whilst forcing an understanding of prepositions and Simon Says upon the hapless children. In time my terrifying novelty subsides, of course, and I become merely a benign, incoherent behemoth.
My school, SMK Muhibbah, is comprised of some seven hundred students, over half of whom are Orang Asli, the aboriginal group native to the Malaysian peninsula prior to the arrival of the Malays. This unusual demographic makes the school rather distinct, as it was established relatively recently, alongside a giant hostel, to accommodate the growing number of indigenous students entering the education system. Many of the students, I am told, have been plucked from the jungles for the first time in their lives and placed within the peculiar confines of our campus.
The lowest ranking class in school is quaintly referred to as “Teratai”, or ‘lotus’, and is comprised entirely of thirteen-year-old Orang Asli students. These students are all Animists, and because of their ‘non-believer’ status they are separated from the other aboriginal students who have been converted to Islam. It’s just a matter of convenience, an administrator later explains, so that they can learn morals while the other students learn the pillars of Islam. Either way, they have been in school for less than a month when I naively stride into the classroom and pen my name, Mr. Zack, on the whiteboard. After a slow, overly enunciated, kitsch-infused introduction, I open myself up for questions. They stare at me completely wide-eyed and bewildered. Some of the girls in the back gasp and burrow into their desks. In the ensuing silence I realize I am an alien.
In the states we fetishize the idea of alien abduction as an escapist fantasy. Should we be so fortunate as to be teleported onboard the operating table of an extraterrestrial craft, we might simultaneously learn that we are not alone in the universe, and that of all humanity we were selected as the optimal candidate for dissection. And when we awaken the following morning, our existential loneliness now forever quelled, we will scratch our bizarre scars, look to the skies, and smirk knowingly. But the Orang Asli are not so lucky. An unscrupulous bureaucratic tractor beam vacuums them up from the jungle and sloppily deposits them in a distant hostel. They’re badgered in unintelligible dialects and plopped into a concrete box and expected to work on subjects that many have never seen before. With marginal resources and only a faint grasp of Malay, they are left to flounder in the back of class, just barely deciphering the psychobabble of education. And once a rigid social hierarchy is imposed upon them and a sense of inferiority instilled, well, at that moment a tall white guy wanders in and yells “HEY GUYS!”