For the past year Taylor Byrd has called Malaysia home. The world traveling English teacher has learned a lot about herself and the world as a result, but nothing more important than this: if you want to change the world you have to get to know it first.
Our summer counselors excel at icebreakers. If every time you walked into a room a theme song introduced you, what song would you choose? If you could trade places with any one person for the day, who would you pick? What would your superpower be? It’s not just camp. The “real” world has their own set of standard-issue icebreakers as well. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Any kids?
On the surface, these questions seem innocuous enough, but as a cultural linguist will tell you, they have power. They signal to others that we’re playing the same game by the same rules. Dig down a few levels and you arrive at our shared cultural values. Dig down even further and you arrive at the important existential questions about why we’re here and how we matter to one another. Take for example America’s most common ice breaker, “What do you do?”. As human beings we do an awful lot, but it’s not a question about eating, reading, or climbing mountains. It’s a question about work. The fact that it’s become so common as to border on cliche signals the place of honor we give to occupational identity.
We don’t reflect on these questions much, because we understand their purpose. But what happens when you meet somebody who plays by another set of rules? What happens when the question they lead with isn’t, “what do you do?” but, “are you Muslim?”. What happens when the first words out of a stranger’s mouth are, “Hi, Nice to meet you. Are you married?”.
Around the world, human beings are playing hundreds of games with hundreds of sets of rules in order to make important distinctions between good and bad, insider and outsider, legal and illegal, acceptable and unacceptable. If we want to change the world, we have to get to know it first. The first step is learning the rules of the game.
A Messy World
“Ms. Taylor? Aren’t you scared of terrorists?” Taylor Byrd’s student asked the question many in her class and community were thinking. A student teacher at Frontier High School, Taylor, affectionately known by camp staff as “T-Byrd” had finished a week long study of the small island nation of Malaysia where, in just a few weeks, she would spend a year teaching English on a Fulbright grant.
Malaysia, like many countries in Southeast Asia, has a religious majority that practices Islam. Despite strong political stability, a thriving economy, bustling tourism, and a consistent top 30 ranking on the global peace index (for comparison, America ranks 93rd out of 162 countries. Syria comes in last), the spectre of violent extremism haunts American discussions of the small island nation. “I get it,” says Taylor. “I probably thought like that too when I was in high school and I didn’t know people who practiced religions other than my own.”
It’s not an altogether surprising phenomenon. After the close of the cold war, American foreign policy shifted to the middle east. The media landscape is saturated with fear-inducing imagery of admittedly scary events. As violence and demagoguery dominate column inches, social media feeds, and airtime, entire cultures and populations are left in the dark, totally forgotten, or when brought to light, unfairly lumped in with dominant media portrayals. In an era of constant vigilance against a zealous minority of well -armed, well-organized insurgencies, it’s easy to overlook the quiet majorities, the ones who go about their day to day life in relative anonymity, doing their best to provide for their families, enjoying whatever happiness life affords them, and weathering storms as best they can. When we do put forth the effort to get to know other people and other cultures, we find out quickly that the clean and neat boxes we create for ourselves to organize and characterize our world crumbles when confronted with the messy, interconnected, individualized nature of humanity.
An Adventurer’s Heart
T-Byrd’s childhood home sits on a huge swath of land connected to civilization by a numbered county road. Houses are sparse amidst the rows of corn. Unbeknownst to most folks passing through, this is popcorn country. A treehouse of dreams, complete with a black hole slide escape hatch, dominates the backyard where a number of animals roam. Shy by nature, T-byrd is most comfortable in the quiet bigness of rural Indiana.
On first impression, T-Byrd’s shy disposition cloaks an adventurer’s heart. She dreams big, possesses eagle-eye observational abilities, an insatiable appetite for learning, and an almost inhuman work ethic. In 8th grade she wanted to be President. In high school she devised a master plan that would take her from a classroom to Washington, DC where she would change the face of national education policy. Her desire for travel finds its roots in a desire to understand and ultimately help people. She’s a student of religion, an advocate for the oppressed and underrepresented, and a master relationship builder.
Growing up, T-Byrd attended a private Christian school in Lafayette and during her freshman year, moved to Frontier high school. “It really shaped who I was going from private to public. I didn’t appreciate having such a supportive, tight knit community. Being thrown into a whole different situation made me develop my adaptability and flexibility. It taught me to be comfortable in different situations.”
Five minutes in the car is all it takes to travel from T-Bryd’s front door to the entrance of Camp Tecumseh. On Saturday afternoons in the summer, it’s not uncommon to walk into a living room full of napping summer camp counselors looking for sleep after a long week. As a kid, she attended 4H camp and day camp, but her fondest memories come from her time on staff. In high school she worked with retreats groups on weekends, and in college worked as a resident camp counselor.
T-Byrd nervously entered her first staff training in 2011. “Honestly, it took me awhile to get comfortable talking to people. My first instinct was the be quiet and observe.” Over the next three years, T-Byrd would move into a coordinator position and eventually lead Camp Tecumseh’s trips as she grew in confidence, and excelled at the art of conversation and relationship building.
T-Byrd has always had a sense of wanderlust. The summer before she started at Ball State, T-byrd travelled to Poland for a month as a 4H ambassador, where she visited different 4H clubs to observe the differences between American 4H and Polish 4H. “Here, much of 4H is based on livestock shows. In Poland it’s all about crafts; very intricate crafts, and lots of folklore dancing.”
For four years, she had wanted to partake in a study abroad program, but the cost put it out of reach. As an education major she found an opportunity to student teach at a Department of Defense School on a military base in Germany.
For months, she visited Germany’s little walled cities, wine country, metropolitan areas, and surrounding countries. In Belgium, she even met up with the foreign exchange student who had stayed with her in high school. While in Germany, T-Byrd was lining up her options to travel the world in the Peace Corps when she got a call from the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. A spot had just opened up in the Fulbright program, and they wanted to know if she would travel to Malaysia.
The Fulbright program, America’s largest and most competitive educational exchange, facilitates opportunities for Americans to teach in other countries, and brings non-US citizens to teach in American schools. T-byrd would serve as an English teaching assistant (ETA), and would be co-teaching with a panel of Malaysian English teachers.
Nestled on the northern tip of the island of Borneo is the town of Kota-Marudu. Named after the bay that serves as the town’s economic hub, its 66,000 people suggests it’s a small city, but the vibe is undeniably small town. “It’s a bit like camp. The people like being outdoors and building relationships. It’s a tight knit community.’
As an English teaching assistant T-byrd had been assigned to work with a group of English teachers at the equivalent of an American high school. The school serves roughly 500 students, of which 60% live at the school in a hostel. With 40 kids in each class, T-byrd saw seven classes regularly, and saw the rest of the kids as she coached track and participated in other after school activities.
Typical of a tight knit community, the teachers and students enjoyed a close relationship. “Students came to see teachers all the time. They’d chat about anything and everything, and the teachers listened to them and cared about them. The teachers I knew would do anything for their students. If they needed money for a plane ticket to Kuala Lumpur, the teacher would pay for it.” Most of the kids came from the surrounding mountain villages with very little money. One student, on his three hour walk to school, had to cross 48 rivers and streams (he lived in the hostel and visited his family on weekends and holidays). Some of their parents are farmers, some operate small restaurants out of their homes. Some don’t do anything for work.
For Malaysians, senior year is only an option for students who have passed the SPM, a standardized test that determines eligibility for university. The teachers resigned themselves to the reality that outside of sports scholarships, many of their students wouldn’t ever make it that far. As a result, they placed an emphasis on getting to know their students as individuals first, and students second. They were taught how to be good people, and how to be responsible members of society.
While the teachers show tremendous care outside of the classroom, they expect perfection in the classroom, and dole out corporal punishment when the standard isn’t met. Students would get slapped on the fingers for using the wrong article (a instead of the) or get smacked on the head for getting an answer wrong. “I wasn’t ready for that. I physically reacted to it in the classroom. The teacher hit students a lot less when I was in the classroom after he saw my reaction. The kids would get really excited when I came to class.”
As part of the grant, T-byrd had to run events for students in English. Relying on her Tecumseh background, her first event was “American summer camp.” T-byrd found an open spot in one of the surrounding villages, and the village chief agreed to let her use the space in exchange for a six pack. “It was the easiest thing to do ever. We made friendship bracelets, cooked hobo dinners, talked about Native American history, played ultimate frisbee, and even had a campfire program where we did the making eggs skit.”
From January to November, T-byrd adapted to Malaysian life, but it wasn’t always easy. “One of the biggest things I struggled with was breaking stereotypes in Malaysia. A lot of Malaysians love to put you in boxes and keep you there. If you don’t fit in, they don’t really understand you and they won’t put the effort in. They ask you your name, religion, and marital status right out of the gate.” On the flip side, Malaysians never ask about occupation. It’s not important from the standpoint of personal identity. “They want to reflect their values, which to them comes from their religion, race, and family status.” T-Byrd was lucky to have a group of English teachers she could open up with about some of these issues. “My co-teachers realized that not everyone fit into these boxes, and you don’t have to. We could talk about these things.”
In November when the school year concluded, T-Byrd packed her bags and prepared to depart Malaysia. Before she returned home, she planned a month long trip around Southeast Asia. “It’s so amazing. There is so much untouched beauty out there. And the people are so friendly. They want you to enjoy their homes.” She met up with fellow ETAs from the region occasionally, but mostly set out alone, taking advantage of generous homestays and hostels.
Vietnam, the highlight of her trip, provided the most emotional and intellectual whiplash. “I really wanted to visit the war memorials, but in the beginning I had no idea how much the war affected the people there.” On her first morning, T-Byrd went on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. “My tour guide had been a member of the Viet Cong, and he hated Americans. His family had been killed and his home destroyed. Later, she visited a museum in Hanoi. During the war, it served as a prison for American soldiers, the same prison that held John McCain. “The museum was all propoganda. The first half of the museum depicted the French occupation and how poorly the French had treated Vietnamese freedom fighters. The second half depicted how well the Vietnamese freedom fighters treated Americans.” Astounded and alone, she pulled out her cell phone to record a video showing Christmas among POWs when six security guards surrounded her. She immediately put her phone back in her purse, and the guards silently followed her into the next room. As she visited more sights, and talked to locals, her mindset shifted. “It’s all propaganda. Some citizens know that, but many don’t. I met this guy whose parents were doctors. He was upset they had worked so hard for their career, and they were still so poor. It didn’t improve their lifestyle at all. At first, they supported the communist government, but if they had known what would have happened, they wouldn’t have. We were having this conversation at a tea house as quietly as we could, knowing that we’d get in trouble if anybody heard. I had started my trip angry at my country, and ended it thinking that the Vietnamese needed to open their eyes.”
In December, she left Southeast Asia and arrived home in time for Christmas. She plans on joining the Outdoor Education team before moving to Colorado to start work with Teach for America.
T-Byrd’s experiences abroad satisfy an innate desire to see the world, get to know it, and ultimately shape it. Although she’s no longer gunning for the White House, she’s still considering pursuing her masters degree and joining the policy makers in Washington, DC to reform education. However, her camp experience and her overseas experiences have added a new wrinkle to her master plan, a development that stems from the power of change that occurs through individual relationships. “I’ve been thinking a lot about doing adventure trips with at risk youth. I think there’s a huge opportunity to impact kids through these kinds of experiences.” Regardless of where she ends up, she hopes she can use her experiences abroad to provide kids with a wider perspective.
In order to change the world, you must first get to know it. As we manage our own little worlds with like-minded people from like-minded backgrounds, it’s easy to buy into the argument that everything is falling apart when we turn on our televisions to discover that our way of life looks radically different from the rest of the world. At the end of the day, the world is messy. Humanity is messy. People are messy. The boxes we use to categorize others don’t contain what we thought. And that’s okay. It’s only through exploring the messiness that we understand the perspectives of others, and hopefully through it all, the threads that bind us all together.