An alternative American perspective

Given the mainstream media’s generally uniform coverage of the recent anti-American violence in the Islamic world, it’s important to remember that these events do not represent the sentiments of most Libyans or most Muslims.  This is why in my last post I linked to an Atlantic article covering a pro-American rally held in Libya where demonstrators carried signs of sympathy for the deceased American officials.

Shortly after publishing that post, a young American student sent me an essay she has written about her experience living with a Muslim family in Malaysia.  Like the Atlantic article, her essay provides an alternative perspective.  But in this case, it is an alternative perspective on American’s views of Muslims.   Please take a moment to read her excellent post.

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Malaysia and the recent anti-American protests throughout the Islamic world

Hi everyone,

I want to give a brief update on my community and Malaysia in general given the recent anti-American protests and violence throughout much of the Islamic world.

As you probably know, the protests are in response to a youtube video produced in the US that is highly critical of Islam and directly insults the Prophet Mohammad.  Protests have been violent in some countries including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia which have all recently overthrown their respective governments during the Arab Spring.  In Libya four Americans were killed including ambassador Christopher Stevens.  This Radio Australia report has more on these events and here is Secretary Clinton’s response to the video and the violence.

While the violence is unacceptable, it is important to remember that these events do not necessarily reflect the sentiments of the majority of people in these nations.  This Atlantic Wire report showing pro-American rallies in Libya is a good counterpoint to the mainstream media’s coverage of these events.

In Malaysia the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur was closed on Friday but it issued a security message to Americans in Malaysia informing them of protests planned throughout the day and encouraging them to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  As expected, Malaysia did see widespread protests but they remained peaceful.  In my rural predominantly Muslim community I did not see any protesting and when I visited the market and local restaurants nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  I will keep you updated should the situation change.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against a film deemed offensive to Islam, outside a mosque after a mass Friday prayer in Kuala Lumpur on September 14, 2012. (Credit: AFP)

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Selamat Hari Kemerdekaan!

Happy Independence Day Malaysia!

Malaysia recently celebrated its independence day which commemorates the end of British colonial rule on August 31st, 1957.  At the time the land which presently makes up peninsular Malaysia was called the Federation of Malaya.  Interestingly, the country of Malaysia would not be formed for another six years when the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore united in 1963.  Singapore would later be expelled from the union after major race riots in 1964.

Secretary Clinton issued a statement on August 29 wishing Malaysians a happy independence day.  In that statement she speaks about the ongoing partnership between the US and Malaysia the role of the Fulbright ETA program in that partnership.  Pretty Cool!

Also pretty cool is this old photo of Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” (Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!) at Stadium Merdeka on August 31st, 1957.

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Environmental Education. Part Two: Acting Locally

My classes were surprised when they calculated the annual garbage reduction that would be possible if each student took a few simple steps (see previous post).  This was the reaction I had hoped for but I was worried that the information would simply get filed away in their brains without any changes in behavior.  After thinking about this disconnect for a while, I decided to push one group of students a little further.  With the help of other teachers, I organized an overnight environmental education camp and beach clean up.  My hope was that giving students an opportunity to address pollution in their own community would empower them to continue taking action after the activity was over.

The camp began at school where we reviewed previous discussions about pollution and then spent some time talking about the local environment.  From the discussion, I could tell that students were  proud to live in a country with incredible biodiversity.  They quickly listed a number of animals native to Malaysia including the Sumatran rhino, pygmy elephant and orangutan.  To this list I added the hawksbill turtle which nests within an hour of our school and Taman Negara, one of the oldest rainforests in the world.   After taking some time to discuss a few of the cooler Malaysian animals (and do a few impressions), I reminded students that it is up to all Malaysians to protect these unique species.

With the country’s amazing environment in mind, we carpooled to Bukit Keluang, a beach near our school.  Once students had set up their camping gear, we gathered in front of the tents.  An orange sun was setting over turquoise waters and the white sand beach curved away from us gently.  It was picture postcard perfect; except for the garbage that was strewn everywhere.  Drawing a diagram in the sand, I explained how trash on the street is washed into rivers and eventually into the ocean where it is broken into ever-smaller pieces.  I also explained that these pieces of trash are often eaten by animals that mistake it for food – and die as a result.   I hoped that this discussion would illustrate a connection between littering, the overuse of plastic and the local environment.

Later that evening we fired up the barbeque and had some delicious fish for dinner. The next morning, after prayer and breakfast, I divided students into teams and passed out gloves and trash bags.  The teams spent the next 90 minutes competing to collect the biggest pile of trash.

One of my favorite moments was when we met a group of teachers in training who were at the beach working on a class activity.  When I explained who we were and why we were cleaning the beach, some of the young women were so impressed that they joined us in the cleanup.  As the day began to heat up, we brought all the garbage together to see what we had accomplished.  It was a pretty impressive pile that filled two large garbage bins and then some!

I visited the beach two weeks after our cleanup.  Sadly the shore had as much litter as ever.  Of course it will take more than one group of kids spending one morning cleaning a beach to solve pollution problems in my community.  But hopefully some of the students will take a few of the lessons to heart and perhaps next year the scouts will spend two weekends cleaning the beach.


Of course, the camp wasn’t free of hiccups. Here are a few things that didn’t go so well.

I arranged for male and female teachers to camp with us to prevent any “inappropriate” behavior among the students.  Unfortunately the school administration did not feel this was sufficient and did not provide guidance on what would be sufficient.  In the end, only boys were allowed to attend.  I’ll need to plan a separate activity with the girls sometime in the future.

After dinner students lit a camp fire while I was speaking with another teacher.  When I came over to check on their progress, I found that they had used a bicycle tire as kindling.  Apparently they had brought it specifically for this purpose.  Unfortunately, it was too late to intervene and the scene wasn’t conducive for a discussion.  I’ll have to address the implications of burning garbage another day.

Unbeknownst to us, Bukit Keluang beach has an area that can be rented out by groups.  We happened to set up camp next to this area.  Around 11 PM a large group showed up, plugged in speakers and treated us to 4 hours of very loud, very bad karaoke.  Nothing like the sounds of nature!

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Environmental Education. Part One: Thinking Globally

Lying just north of the equator, Malaysia has experienced the effects of global warming earlier and more acutely than the US.   Perhaps as a result, most Malaysians I’ve met already accept the reality of global warming.  In the rural village where I live, I have heard people cite global warming as the cause of a number of local phenomenon including; the unpredictability of the rainy season over the last decade, the unusually wet “dry seasons,” and the recent irregularities in the spawning run of a local fish.

Hearing Malaysians draw these connections has been encouraging (only 62% of Americans believe the Earth is getting warmer!).  Unfortunately there is a noticeable gap between belief and behavior in my community.  Many of the people who shared these anecdotes think nothing of casual littering and see no problems with their nightly garbage fires.  Of course, coming from the US, it’s hard to criticize others for being less than stellar environmental stewards.  Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to illustrate the connection between individual actions and broader climate change issues.

I began by showing my classes some of the Discovery Channel’s excellent series, “Planet Earth.”  While watching, I stopped the program regularly to discuss key vocabulary and check for understanding.   After the video, we talked about how air pollution doesn’t have national borders and sea currents move garbage around the world.  Students were particularly interested that trash swept out to sea during the Japanese earthquake is now showing up on the West Coast of the US and Canada.

Our next activity was to brainstorm ways to reduce our own footprint.  With a little prompting, students were able to identify a number of ways to reuse, reduce and recycle in their own lives.  When we quantified the annual effect of these actions, we were all pretty surprised by the results:

1) Approximate height of water bottles, stacked end to end, if each student at school reduced their consumption by 2 bottles per week (by using a reusable bottle):  29.6 Kilometers.

2) Approximate savings (aggregated for all students) if each student at school reduced plastic water bottle consumption by 2 bottles per week:  $48,048.

3) Approximate number of plastic bags saved if each student brought reusable bags to the market once per week:  145,600 bags.

Unfortunately, being aware of the problem, and their potential impact, didn’t seem to change many students’ behavior.  After thinking about it more, I decided to push some of the students a little further.  Stay tuned for the results…and more photos.

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Happy Ramadan!

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection for Muslims around the world.  During the month long holiday, which began on July 21st, Muslims are expected make a special effort to follow the teachings of Islam.  They are also encouraged to practice better self-discipline, empathy and charity (zakat).  For healthy individuals, Ramadan is also a time of fasting when people refrain from eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset.  The fast is designed to direct the heart away from worldly pursuits.

Understandably, students have a hard time focusing on their studies while fasting.  As a result, this month is quickly becoming a time of relaxed academic expectations.  This week I have many of my classes designing comic books.  For this project I’ve asked students to create new and unique superheroes to solve real world problems.   This fun idea, which I’ve borrowed from another teacher, has led to some interesting protagonists.  My favorite thus far is Papaya Man, a huge walking, talking papaya who can instantly create many copies of himself.  In the group’s first draft of the story, scores of Papaya Man replicas work together to rescue a collapsing skyscraper.   I can’t help but wonder if fasting inspired the creation of their fruity super hero.

Not being Muslim, I am of course allowed to eat and drink during Ramadan.  However, doing so in front of hungry students just seems cruel, so I’m on a miniature fast of my own (only during school hours).  Just going from 7:00 – 2:30 without food and water is hard, but it’s only half the length of time that others abstain.   By the time I get home and ransack the fridge I’m usually starting to feel a little lightheaded.

In the evenings I often head to a special market called a Pasar Ramadan.  At the market families pack the bustling rows of tents to purchase Iftar, their evening meal.  They leave with bags of roasted chicken, fried fish, syrupy sweet beverages and an assortment of kuih for dessert.  Families bring their meals home to break their fast after Maghrib, the fourth of five daily prayers.

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Vacation in Burma, Second Leg: Mandalay – Bagan – Inle -Yangon

I have a tough time sleeping on buses at the best of times, and the ride from Bago to Mandalay was not the best of times.  The luggage stuffed into the seat behind me prevented my seat from reclining and the poor monk sitting next to me began vomiting into a plastic bag about a third of the way into the 9-hour trip.  I was grateful for the one comfort I did have though – I was inside the bus.   All night long we zoomed past lumbering “economy” coaches on the Yangon-Mandalay expressway.  Perched atop these old buses were bedraggled looking men clinging to the luggage racks.  Seeing them made it hard to feel sorry for myself.

We arrived in Mandalay shortly after the sun came up.  Foregoing the ritual of haggling over cab fare, I hopped into the nearest taxi I could find.  After a long shower and a short nap at my downtown hotel, I set out into the city.  Despite the impression most people (including me) have, Mandalay is actually a relatively young city built on a grid of hot, dusty, traffic-choked streets.

As I was walking past a language school a group of teens asked me into their classroom.  Not having anything planned for the afternoon, I was happy to join them for a few minutes…which quickly turned into two hours.  It was hard to leave when they were so excited to practice their English with a native speaker.   They had lots of questions about life in American, but like teens everywhere, they were most interested in the dating scene.

Later in the afternoon I arranged a ticket for the boat ride to Bagan and then I visited the Mustache Brothers.  The Mustache Brothers are perhaps the only comedy act in Burma.  During a performance for Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996 the trio made a few political jokes (mundane ones by western standards) and were promptly sentenced to 7 years hard labor.  The brothers have since been released and now are only allowed to perform for tourists.  Shows are held in their garage while a friend sits in the driveway keeping an eye out for government officials.  Their act shifts between bitter satire and slapstick, but I wouldn’t exactly call it funny.  All the same, it was interesting to hear such open criticism of the government and I was happy to support people who have sacrificed so much in the fight for freedom of expression.

The next morning I headed to the jetty at 4:30 AM to catch the twice-weekly slow boat to Bagan.  The ferry makes the 120-mile trip down the lazy Irrawaddy in 15 hours (when it doesn’t get beached on the shifting sandbars).  All passengers ride deck class, which is exactly what it sounds like: everyone stakes out a small piece of real estate on the uneven wooden floor and tries to settle in for the long ride.

The first few hours were pleasant enough.  The sun was low in the sky and the handful of tourists instinctively coalesced in a corner to watch life drift by.  By 10 AM though, it was heating up and I was feeling ill.  I’d like to blame it on the sheep brain curry I had for dinner the night before, but my breakfast of fruit is a more likely suspect.

The rest of the trip was pretty uncomfortable.  I struggled to keep water and bananas down while the temperature soared above 100° F on the crowed ferry.  I spent most of the day camped out in a dark corner waiting for the nausea to pass.  Later I discovered the other tourists had begun calling me the quiet American.   I slept 12 hours that night but woke up feeling human again.

The next morning I looked over a map of Bagan while eating an extra large breakfast.  Between 1000 and 1200 CE the kings of Bagan built over 4000 Buddhist Temples in the center of present day Burma.  These structures and a few crumbling city walls are all that remain of the ancient kingdom.

The most common way to get around Bagan is by horse cart.  My guesthouse introduced me to Chechin, a local guide, and his horse Pipin.  Chechin has a big smile and teeth stained dark red from chewing too much betel nut.   His grandparents immigrated to Burma from India when the country was still an administrative providence of Great Britain.  Together we spent the day bouncing down the rutted dirt tracks that connect the ruins.  There are so many sites and so few tourists that we regularly had whole temple complexes to ourselves.  At one point a cobra spooked our horse and Chechin yelled out “Oh my Buddha!”  By the end of the day he was telling me of his brother’s romantic exploits with international tourists.  I liked him a lot.

After a few days exploring the temples, I moved on to Inle Lake.  The journey from Bagan to Inle isn’t terribly far, but after a few hours on the East-West highway traffic slows to a crawl as the road climbs into the hills of Shan State.   Shan is smack in the middle of the golden triangle and is the 2nd largest producer of poppy (after Afghanistan), accounting for ~22% of worldwide production.   All the cultivation occurs in areas restricted to tourists and populated by minority groups living in extreme poverty.

A month prior to my visit, Ban Ki-moon traveled to the area to “highlight the importance of addressing the relationship between food insecurity, poverty, poppy cultivation and armed conflict.”  He indicated that he would be requesting UN Member States to increase funding for alternative development assistance for poppy farmers in Shan.  For more info on his visit, click here.

Well above the valley floor, Inle stays reasonably cool.  The lake itself is 13 miles long, surrounded by marshland and dotted with stilt-house villages.  Each morning fishermen in small skiffs cast their nets into the shallow lake while farmers in canoes bring their harvest to market.  On my first day in town, I rented a clunky Chinese bicycle and rode partway around the lake through marshes and rice paddies.   On the second day, three other tourists and I hired a boat driver to show us around the lake.  We visited the market and a number of craft producing villages where I bought too many scarves and cheroot cigars.

I puttered around the villages surrounding Inle for another day or two and then returned to Yangon for my flight back to Malaysia.  After two weeks in Burma I know I only began to scratch the surface of an incredibly complex and isolated society.  While the countryside and Buddhist monuments are definitely the big tourist draws, it is the Burmese people who leave the most lasting impression.  Despite living in significant poverty under a repressive regime, I was constantly amazed at how often they smiled and how easily they laughed.

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