Breaking Bread, Malaysian Style

“Mr. Max, did you take your breakfast this morning?” 

“Mr. Max, do you like rice?”

“How do you like our food in Kelantan, Mr. Max?”

“Your breakfast I will pay for.”

“Good morning, Mr. Max, I invite you to join me for our breakfast.”

“Please accompany me this afternoon to a free meal this afternoon.”

I think I’m still digesting.

One of the many murals that adorn the exterior walls of SMK Badak.


In Malaysia as a whole but especially in small towns in Kelantan, food brings people together. It is not uncommon for Malaysians to eat six to seven times a day. Contrast this with the “standard American” trend of breakfast, lunch, dinner, (and maybe a snack thrown in there somewhere), and you can only imagine how my stomach felt the first week.

Even though my stomach may have despised me, my head and my heart did not. My time spent in the canteen or in the teacher’s room snacking was well worth it.

While I would love to spend every second of that time in the classroom, I also had to be sensitive to Malaysian cultural norms. The teaching profession in Malaysia is different than the system I was used to in America. For example, in Malaysian schools, teachers will only teach a handful of classes per day but are responsible for keeping extremely accurate records of their every pedagogical move within those classes. In other words, teachers spend less time in the classroom on a daily basis and more time keeping their records up to date.

Some Malaysian teachers also have shorter class periods to work with. At my school, SMK Badak, classes are only forty minutes long. My secondary classes were anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes long. This difference cuts out a lot of teaching time. This, in turn, requires teachers to create lessons that are much more direct and to the point.

My role this past week: observing from a distance. Thankfully the views were spectacular.


However, there are obviously similarities between the Malaysian and American teaching profession. There is no better example of this than our shared feelings towards unannounced visitors in the classroom. Teachers as a whole, regardless of where we teach, are very proud of our work. But we can also be very self-conscious. When society places the responsibility educating its youth squarely on the shoulders of educators, the weight can become intense. I could not simply walk up to a teacher and ask them to observe their class for a period or two. Although the teacher may have hesitantly said yes, I would have done serious damage to our relationship. Integrating oneself into a school community takes time. This is especially true as an outsider let alone an American outsider.

So I spent my days in the canteen, “breaking bread” with my colleagues.

I spent my time gladly shoveling rice, fish, curry, and veggies into my stomach. I would only visit classrooms when I was explicitly invited. Those were the moments I cherished the most as an educator, albeit they were few and far between. I could elaborate on these few hours for paragraphs, but I will save those reflections for a later date. My progress last week was not made with the students of SMK Badak so much as it was with the teachers. But as the saying goes, all good things come with time.

Only time will tell if upsetting my stomach was a worthwhile investment. I have a feeling it was.

A typical breakfast in Kelantan.



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