Hands down one of the best days of our trip was the day we spent on a strange historical quest in Kuala Pilah, a town about one hour south of Kuala Lumpur. We went to find the school where Rebecca’s dad had taught during his three-year stint in the Peace Corps after college from 1964-1968. We didn’t know what we would find when we got there. It was an educational adventure for us, one in which we learned that quintessential lesson of travel: no matter where you go, things are more similar than they are different.
We began our adventure by asking every bus company at the bus terminal if they traveled to Kuala Pilah. Tourists don’t go, since there aren’t many (if any – I think I saw one “megalithic” site on the side of the road) tourist attractions there, so us asking about how to get there confused just about everyone we spoke with. Finally, we found someone who could explain in plain English how to get there: take a commuter train to Seremban, then catch a bus to downtown Kuala Pilah. The entire trip took about two hours and cost us about $10 total.
We started by walking around the town, taking pictures of places Tim might have traveled. The main street, with its KFC and Pizza Hut, some of the side streets with the Chinese-owned businesses, and the bus station. I had to use the restroom. After I was finished, I emerged to find the man whose job it is to collect 0.30 Malaysian Ringgit with his cell phone camera, taking a picture of me as I paid my restroom fare. It was the first time I’ve noticed someone taking a picture of me, though Rebecca’s pretty used to it by now. (Us brown-eyed, brown-haired people are less remarkable.)
Armed with our GPS-enabled cell phone, we began the walk along the road up to the school, which was about a mile away. As soon as we started walking, a woman pulled her car over to ask us where we were going in pretty decent English. We were headed to the Za’Ba school, we explained.
“I’m headed that way. Do you want a ride?”
Sure, we answered. Why not. Worst thing that happens is that we are kidnapped and held for ransom. But there are two of us, and only one of her, so we felt pretty safe. After asking us questions about why we were headed to a school and how old we were — Asians don’t see this as rude — she dropped us off at the main gate.
The security guard didn’t speak any English, and after taking our names down on the visitor sheet, let us go without any hassle, hugely different from what we would have experienced in the US, given our heightened fear of kidnappings.
After a few minutes, we began attracting some attention from the students, who approached us and asked us where we were from. “California, United States.” Kind of like saying, “I’ve come from Mars to see you go to school.” What the heck were we doing there, they must have wondered. We tried to explain that Rebecca’s dad had taught there, but we’re not sure it got through.
Ultimately we walked up to the main school building to peer into classrooms, at which point we finally ran into a teacher, Ms. Ying-Ying. She was doing a homework session with some students, but she was gracious enough to find someone to cover for her and take us to the principal’s office. There it was arranged for another teacher to show us around while Ying-Ying finished up with her students.
Our tour guide, whose name eludes me now, showed us all around the school grounds. I took pictures of everything, including some of the curious students, who waved and smiled at us like crazy. Most of these kids had never met Americans, much less young American women, before, and were both excited, shy, and happy to practice some English. Apparently the first thing people in Malaysia learn to say in English is, “Where are you from?”, because every single one of the kids we encountered asked us.
The teacher explained that this school was now a regional, or “state,” sports academy, essentially a boarding school where boys and girls who excelled at sports from around the area were sent to develop their skills. The best students were then plucked for the national sports academies, where they did the same thing, and the teams they were on then played the state schools. So the state schools lost their best players, only to have to play them later — pretty unfair.
The students had to qualify, so they didn’t have to pay, but with the kids’ schedule and emphasis on sports, the teachers lamented that the kids didn’t really learn anything but sports. They went to class during the day, did sports practice in the early afternoon, and then they were basically too tired to do homework. So the teachers would assign homework and then do it with the students, since they didn’t have time to really work on school outside of school. Not much of an opportunity to let that classwork sink in.
We met a second teacher, who was a teacher/soccer coach, and he explained about the problems the school had. And here’s where the similarities to the American school system really started to become uncanny.
“These are kids who really need more time in school, and less time playing sports,” he complained, “since they aren’t the best students to begin with. But we put them in a school that emphasizes sport, so they don’t become better students.” Emphasizing sports over education? No way.
Another problem — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — is that schools are underfunded in general, and in the sports schools like theirs, the money that does come is for better sports equipment. The stadium and the field was brand new, and gorgeous, while the classrooms that we saw were the exact same ones that Rebecca’s dad had taught classes in 50 years ago. On top of that, the Malaysian equivalent of the Department of Education keeps coming up with new theories on how to make students do better, and keeps changing the curriculum and increasing the number of standardized tests to make it “better.” Without consulting the practitioners, who, despite years of experience, are regarded not as professionals, but as babysitters. Teaching isn’t respected in Malaysia, he told us; teachers are underpaid and disregarded by the government. No kidding!
We ended our visit by looking at old yearbooks with Ying-Ying, to see if we could find some pictures of Tim from the time he was a teacher there. Sadly, they didn’t have anything that went back far enough, but they promised to keep looking in the archives for us after we were gone, and to send us things if they found them. We sat in the library going through the books while students from various classrooms dribbled in to look at us. Most of them were too shy to speak to us, but some of them asked us some questions or showed off by naming the US capital, and a few other things they knew about America. Like that The Amazing Spiderman was made there.
The teacher/coach saved us a bus ride and drove us back to Seremban, since he lived out there and was headed back for a break before soccer practice. He talked to us the whole way about education, and teaching, and how he loved it despite the obstacles. “The students that remember you the most were your worst students. The good ones go off and forget their teachers, become lawyers or doctors, someone important.” Of course he was really looking forward to a time when he didn’t have to work anymore, since it was getting harder each year to deal with the bureaucracy of Education. (Side note: he had recently lost a 21-year-old daughter, the second child he had lost in the past few years, so we think talking to us reminded him of her. We never heard how she had died, but he had had a lot of children, and had lost too many, which was a familiar story to us from our travels as well.)
So we had to travel thousands of miles to hear the same story we hear from all of the teachers we know. As they say in Asia, “Same same, but different.” It’s too bad that our worst habits are becoming the norm all around the world, while some countries like Korea and Finland, countries that invest in education, see test scores and literacy rising. I wish I could say that things are looking up, but I don’t know that it’s going to get better in the next however many years before we have kids. So I guess we’ll be forced to supplement school with stimulating activities at home, the way our parents did for us.
One thing is for sure, though: we will be traveling with our kids, so they get the same kind of quality experience we had in Kuala Pilah. That’s how they’ll learn that even though people may look and sound different, that really, we’re all the same and deal with the same kinds of problems. After all, that’s the most important thing for someone to learn anyway.