I haven’t paid for a meal once in the three weeks that I’ve been at SMK Badak. I don’t even get the opportunity to pull out my wallet. Nor am I given the chance to even offer to pay my own fare. It just doesn’t happen.
In Malaysia, the people take pride in taking care of others. As one of my favorite teacher companions put it, “As humans we are so busy. We do not have time to invite our friends to our home for a meal. We do not get to spend as much time with their family as we want to. So we take small step. We buy them breakfast, or bring them snack. ” Take a moment and let that comment soak into your soul.
The longer I’ve been here in Bachok, the more I’ve realized how different Malay culture is from my American culture. In Malaysian culture, people spend money on things that bring people together. There is no better example of this than Malaysian obsession with food. Good food brings good people. And good people bring good conversation. In my American culture, people spend money on the things that will bring them temporary personal happiness. We buy the latest and greatest gadget only to replace it the next year with the new model.
In Malaysian culture, people believe that their health and wealth are a blessing from a higher power. It is their divine responsibility to repay those blessings with small acts of kindness whenever possible. This is why it is not uncommon to hear teachers arguing over who will pay for everybody’s breakfast every morning in the canteen. They are not arguing over how to split the bill. And they’re not arguing over who owes what. They are attempting to out insist all the others at the table and have the honor of picking up the tab. In my America, we believe that our well being and wealth are the direct result of our personal dedication and hard work. When people go out to eat in the States, they pay their own way. Or one individual pays for all those at the table and then files the charge as a business expense.
In my American culture, you are only as powerful as you are private. We, as Americans, guard our personal lives with the innate fury of a wild animal thrown into a cage. You guard your secrets and only reveal them to your closest friends. Social media privacy settings are often turned all the way up to eleven. In Malaysia, you read like an open book. Nothing is off limits and people often openly discuss somewhat private issues. Sometimes I wonder if there is such thing as a private Malaysian social media account? I doubt it.
However, my most important observations have come from my time at school. In the Malaysian education system, teaching is a well respected profession. Teachers are greeted and the beginning of every period and thanked before they leave. As I make my way towards the door after class, all of the male students will approach me to either shake my hand or salaam, bowing their bodies low enough that they can touch their forehead to my hand. Al of my Malaysian teacher friends are proud to be a teacher. They share stories from their younger years and encourage me to stay in the profession as long as possible. In the American school system, teachers are not as often the recipients of respect. They are often the ones receiving the blame for the failure of the nation’s children.
Admittedly, these are all generalizations. Obviously, there are exceptions to these rules in both cultures. It is important to note that I am not ranking one culture over the other. I am simply sharing my observations. But I think there is something to be learned from these experiences. Too often we, as Americans get caught up in our own daily lives. We focus on ourselves over everybody else. When I lived in Chicago I witnessed this firsthand on a massive scale: thousands of people passed each other on the streets with blank stares. Emotionless figures mindlessly moving through their concrete jungle. They would not speak with those around them. They powered off their voice boxes to conserve energy for their daily grind. I even found myself at time falling into this trap at times. I would hop on the L on my way to and from school, throw in my headphones, and watch the stations roll by.
Living in Bachok has not only reaffirmed the importance of life’s meaningful relationships, but it has also reminded me that these relationships must be cared for. Building a lasting relationship is like planting a fruit tree: the more you care for it the more fruit will fill your basket. But who has time to care for a fruit tree, let alone other people? Sometimes I need to remember what my teacher friend told me, “We do not have time to invite our friends to our home for a meal…so we take small step.” We’re all busy. Life is very busy. But we can all take small steps.
I speak from personal experience when I say, the size of the gesture does not matter as much as the thought itself. My teacher friends from SMK Badak haven’t brought me fancy or expensive gifts. They haven’t handed me a Bachok coffee mug and continued on with their day. They invite me to sit and eat with them at the canteen. They want me to feel welcomed into their school community.
These small gestures add up over time.
The level of hospitality I’ve received over these past four weeks has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. People who I have never met before will stop me on my beach run and ask, “Sir, why you come to Kelantan?” or, “Sir, why you come to Bachok?” When I tell them I’m a teacher at one of the local secondary schools their faces beam. “How you enjoy Bachok so far?” they ask, their anticipation nearly causing them to fall off their motorbikes onto the sand.
I answer their question honestly.
I tell them that I love living in Bachok. I love the people and I love the food. I love the pace of life, I love the relationships people have with one another, and I love the sea. But more than anything else, I love the way we have been welcomed. I love the small steps that people are willing to take to ensure that I see the real Bachok. The real Kelantan. The real Malay culture.
It would take a Tesco-sized bag of paper towels to wipe the smiles off of their faces. Their grins stretch from cheek-to-cheek. “Thank you,” they say before we part ways. “Thank you for coming to Kelantan.”
If only they knew the true weight of my words when I answer, “No, thank you.“