Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Closing And Opening Chapters

So I've been meaning to write since the end of the 2016 school term which was almost two weeks ago, but stuff and things (moving houses, mostly) have taken up most of my time and I haven't made the time to write anything here until now. So here goes.

The last week of school was a tough one. On the one hand, I was looking forward to moving out of that school and moving closer to my wife. On the other hand, I dreaded leaving the friends that I had made over there. It was the first time that I felt like I was closing a chapter of my life, one day at a time, for about a week.

Perda had been a learning ground for me. I first learned what it meant to be a full-time teacher, which was eye-opening to say the least. I was made aware of the full scope of being a teacher, and I learned for the first time that it might not be the thing for me.

I also learned about people the ways in which I could be a better friend. This was largely due to the friends that I made while teaching there. I never thought I could be such close friends with people who were significantly older than me, but they've taught me that there's more to people than just their age. If I give people a chance, just like I gave this group of people, they might surprise me by being super nice, kind and accommodating to a snot-nosed greenie like myself. They taught me to trust and to be trustworthy. They taught me loyalty. Not by telling me to be these things, but by embodying those traits and showing me how it's done. I shall be forever grateful to them for that.

Moving houses has been alright, in reality. It's just me who dislikes packing things and unpacking things that has made me feel like it's not so great. Attitude problem ja sebenaqnya. My wife and her family has been super helpful throughout the process, so I am grateful for that as well. I just try to help where I can. After a full week of work on getting the new apartment ready, it still isn't ready to be lived in quite yet. There are still a few finishing touches that need to be attended to before we can finally call it our new home.

I'm looking forward to see what life has in store for me in the future. What will the school be like? Will I be able to cope with the new working environment? What new people shall I meet? Will I be able to keep meeting up with old friends at least semi-regularly? Will I be able to take on projects more freely in the  coming months? Will I squander the opportunities that come my way? All anxiety-inducing questions, but I'm trying to take it one day at a time. That's about as much as I can take on a daily basis, if I'm honest.

Here's to the next chapter. May interesting stories come out of it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Forum Questions Brainstormed

What are some of the factors that contribute to the lack in English proficiency amongst Malaysians?

First and foremost, I think it's safe to say that for the vast majority of Malaysians, English isn't our first language. So we have to look at the issue from that perspective. It would be unreasonable to expect a person to be able to use their second language as well as a person who uses the same language as their mother tongue. Expectations need to be managed, in that sense.

However, it would also be reasonable to expect a person to have more or less an okay grasp of the language if they're supposed to have been learning the language for 11 years (as some Malaysians would, having gone to school from the age of seven to the age of seventeen). So there's that side of the equation that needs to be taken into consideration when managing one's expectations as well.

Through my own limited experience of teaching and listening to the people around me, it hinges a lot on how much one is exposed to the language on a daily basis. People who have limited opportunities to listen to, read, watch and interact with English material or media will most probably also have a limited understanding of the language. This is true of any second or third language user.

Think about a third language that you've been exposed to. For me, it might be Japanese. I know some Japanese phrases, but nowhere near enough to be able to carry a conversation in the language. This is directly related to how much Japanese I expose myself to on a daily basis, which is probably once a year. So it would be reasonable to say that my Japanese is terrible, because I am not exposed to the language nowhere nearly enough.

To illustrate a different example, I'll use my students. The ones who have a firm grasp of the language more often than not are exposed to the language. Their parents play them English songs, English tv shows, English videos, and get them English books. Compare this to the students that struggle with the language. More often than not, they aren't getting as much exposure to the language. Because of the lack of exposure, the opportunity for them to get better at the language is limited too, since they aren't able to engage with the language on a regular basis.

How does one improve their English ability?

Carrying forward the previous argument, I would say that one of the first steps to improving is exposing yourself to as much of the language as possible. Be in an environment that is conducive for a person to pick up the language. Read, watch and listen to English material whenever you can. Do that to the point where one can even think in the language without breaking too much of a sweat.

Then one can start producing English material. By that, I mean write and speak in English. Writing and speaking are skills, much like a bicycle. So if a person has limited experience riding a bicycle, one shouldn't expect to be able to participate in Le Tour de Langkawi after a week of practice. It'll take a long long time before one gets any good, but with hard work and persistence, one should be able to reach the level of ability that they desire, later, rather than sooner, might I add.

Who do we look to for role models?
I think that's a personal decision. There is no wrong answer, as long as one perceives that that chosen role model embodies something that the person wants to achieve someday in the future. It can be celebrities that one admires, it can be a father/mother figure in one's life, it can be a teacher, it can be a restaurant cook. As long as a person shows certain attributes that one would like to have, then there shouldn't be any reason that they can't be role models to someone else.

For myself, I sort of pick and choose attributes. I will admire Kendrick Lamar's song-writing ability, Yasmin Ahmad's optimism about life, my wife's passion and musicality, Michelle Obama's eloquence, Iñarritu's film-making ability, my friends' brains, etc. so that I don't fall into the trap of idolatry, where everything everyone does is positive, even the things that disagree with my principles. I am open to learning and understanding from people I admire, but if one is at fault and does something that calls for criticism, I want to be able to make that judgement call, even if they're my hero in certain aspects of my life.

What kind of English is acceptable? (Manglish or Queen's English)
I hold the belief that all forms of language, in their own way have something to offer. I made a video poking fun at the "ew" language used by certain people several years ago, and even though in principle I don't ever see myself using that variation of language in the future, I can better appreciate that it is used for self-expression, and if it's understood by both the transmitter and the receiver, then it shouldn't be too much of an issue.

The struggle happens when there's a misunderstanding between two parties because of the form of language. If one uses Manglish in a setting where formal English is expected of them, then a disconnect forms and effective communication is harder to achieve. It's the same the other way round as well. When the setting is informal, in Malaysia where people are used to speaking in Manglish, then the use of formal English isn't very suitable. People can still understand each other, but a barrier is formed that restricts effective communication all the same. So in answering the question of what type of English is acceptable, one needs to use the language that suits the context of the use. If the context calls for more formal language, then use that. If it calls for Manglish, then use that.

Where is the best place to improve? (home or school)
I think both the home and the school has their place in helping us get better at the language. We spend a lot more time at home, so it would be great to have a lot of exposure to the language there, find opportunities to expose yourself to the language at home. Similarly, at school one could practice as well. The added feature of learning language at school is the availability of a teacher to consult. So effective feedback can be received from teachers at school, which helps in improving one's language ability as well. In both cases, one has to be proactive in finding ways in which to improve their language ability. One can spend as much time at home or at school, but if one doesn't put in the effort to get better, chances are their road to progress will be slower than if they were to be more proactive.

When is it okay to talk to our friends in English?
When our friends are okay with us speaking in English. As I have said in answering a previous question, it weighs heavily on context. Who are we talking to? Are they receptive to the idea of speaking in English? How would speaking in English make them feel? Would it be helpful to both parties of one started to speak in English? One needs to make sure the environment is conducive for such interactions. One also needs to be clear about what they're doing, so as to not rub people the wrong way.

What are your current pursuits of knowledge?
I'm learning how to write songs. I'm learning how to be a better film-maker. I'm learning a little philosophy here and there. I'm learning comedy as well. I'm also learning public speaking.

What area of knowledge is opened to us with the use of English?
Most of the internet is in English, so if one wants to learn something through the internet, chances are, English is involved in it somehow. So much content is available in English and not available in Malay that it's sad that so much knowledge remains out of reach for some people just because of the language barrier. One either needs to find a translated work, or work on understanding English better to gain access to the barrels of information that is available to us in this day and age.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ambition As A Tool

So earlier today I started listening to a new podcast called the "The Tim Ferriss Show". It's one of the more popular podcasts in the world and I got on the train rather late for a person who calls himself a fan of podcasts. It's a show that "deconstructs world-class performers from all different trades and specialties", which means Mr Ferriss (who is himself a best-selling author of multiple books) interviewing other super successful people to find out what makes them tick.

The first episode I listened to was an episode from last year, episode 118 with Alain de Botton, a philosopher who has written several books and has a Youtube channel called The School of Life, which – among other things – tries to tackle the big questions of life such as "The Meaning of Life", "The Secrets of Happiness" and "Higher Consciousness".

I started with this episode because a friend of mine recommended it on instagram, and upon hearing Mr de Botton's voice, I instantly recognised it from the School Of Life videos which I have watched several of in the past year or so, not knowing it was Mr de Botton's voice all the while. I highly recommend The School of Life to whoever wants to start dabbling (or at least listen to) philosophical questions and explorations.

Back to the podcast episode, I was definitely absorbed in the conversation that Mr Ferriss and Mr de Botton was having. They tackled issues as to how philosophy can be useful to everyone in everyday life, how modern day universities have made philosophy out of the mainstream's reach as well as how to be happy in life. And there was this one thing that Mr Ferriss said that forced me to pause the episode and be mind-blown by for a bit, which was "ambition is a good tool, but a terrible master".

This quote might have been around for a while, and Mr Ferriss might have just plucked it from a cat poster somewhere in his office, but it definitely was new to me and shed a totally different light on ambition from how I've been viewing it all this while throughout my life.

I've always viewed ambition as a goal, as something to strive for, an end product. I want to "achieve" an ambition, and thus live life, for lack of a better term, "berkiblatkan" these ambitions that I have. Everything I did was to service these ambitions of mine and I'd always thought that that was the "correct" way of looking at it.

But Mr Ferriss said that it was possible to use ambition as a tool, as a means to an end. And what I imagine that end to be is happiness (however you want to define happiness is up to you). Because what's the point of having lofty ambitions if all they do is make you miserable? And I have to admit that I'm definitely guilty of that. I allow myself to kick myself in the head so much because I haven't reached my ambitions yet.

All it takes is a change of perspective, from seeing ambition as an end to seeing ambition as a tool to make me feel a lot less crappy about myself. And in my mind, that makes sense. I shouldn't let my ambition use me, I should use my ambition. Use it as a fire that drives me forward toward a goal, while at the same time being mindful of being kind to others and myself and count my blessings and give myself the permission to be happy as often as I can.

As it is, I'm still struggling with this paradigm shift, as you could probably read. I'm still figuring it out and I have a lot to learn still. It would probably take me a couple more listens to the podcast episode as well as more time thinking about it (not to mention the reading material I'll have to go through) before I am fully able to grasp the concept. But here's to paradigm shifts and learning new things in order to allow ourselves to enjoy our time on Earth better, yes?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Micro Malaysia

So a couple of months ago I received a call from the people of FIXI (a local book publishing company) in which they asked me if I would be interested in editing a short story anthology for them. Given that this was a new experience to me and that I am a fan of books and stories in general, I took up the offer with very few questions asked.

The book shall be called MICRO-MALAYSIA and the details are in the following picture:

I'm excited to be taking on this task, and as of writing this, I am just starting to embark on the journey by going through the entries hoping to find some gems within the entries that have been sent in (there are more than 200 entries as of writing this post).

If you're reading this right now, I would encourage you to try it out. Please make my life more difficult by sending in as many entries as you can. Who knows? You might get to put "published author" on your resumé if all goes well. Although, as the editor, I make no promises. My focus right now is finding the best pieces to include in the book, and that's that. Hopefully I'll be able to find 100 pieces that stand out. I want this book to be good. Like, good good.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Incremental Gains

So the other day I was listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast called "In Praise of Incrementalism". It talks about how the gay rights movement followed the incrementalist approach in fighting for their cause to get to where they are now (in the US, at least) and how the journey of that movement may inform the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today's modern day US. It's a moving episode, and I highly recommend it if you're in the mood for listening to a podcast.

It made me think about the thing that has been occupying my mind as of late, which is an English Language workshop that I'll be conducting at the International Islamic University of Malaysia this weekend. I'll be handling two slots, which consist of a slot about grammar (snorefest, I know) and another on building confidence (in case you're wondering whether it's the act of making one's belief in their abilities better or the piece of infrastructure called "confidence", it's the former).

I have worries for both of them, as one would expect from anxious little me. I am struggling with finding a way to make a two-hour session on grammar un-boring. I've reached into my little bag of pedagogy and I have a few things prepared, but I'm not fully convinced if it's enough, and I am at a loss to find anything else to add to the session. I've never actually tried to teach young adults before, since the only teaching experience I have is in teaching people below 9, so it's a new kind of challenge to prepare lessons to people above 18. Not to say that I have no experience talking to such people. Indeed I have attended forums and events in which I have had to address young adults multiple times before, but never before have I ever had to talk to them about grammar, so we'll have to see how it goes.

The second slot is where incrementalism comes into the discussion. In building self-confidence, one needs practice. One is inclined to feel a lack of confidence when one feels that they lack ability in doing a certain thing. I would be very doubtful of my ability to play the piano because I know for a fact that I am very bad at it, and I know that I'm very bad at it because I've had very little practice with the instrument. I would, however, be more confident in playing the guitar, because I've been playing the instrument (on and off) for ten years now.

And in setting one's expectations in practice, one cannot expect to be able to play Beethoven after a day, or even a month, or even a year of practice. One needs an incrementalist mindset when thinking about playing a brand new instrument. So from 0% knowledge of the piano, work to get to 1%. Don't immediately set your sights on 100%. Yes, it's great to be ambitious about things, but in setting expectations for yourself in practice sessions, we need to take it one step at a time, increment by increment, from 1% to 2%, then to 3% and so on and so forth. Celebrate small wins, keep working to get just that little bit better, and before you know it you've reached great heights.

I am also reminded of the analogy of the ladder. One has to go up the ladder one step at a time. It may be slower, but it works, and ensures that the likelihood of one falling off the ladder altogether is minimised. So in climbing that ladder, one has to try one's best to focus on that next, immediate step above them and try to reach for that one and that one only at the time. Reach for the next one when you have already a firm grip on the step that you tried to grasp before it. Similarly, in anything that you're either trying to get better at, or in something that you want to achieve, at all points of the journey, one has to find out what the immediate next marginal but incremental step is and strive for it. It may not be glamorous, but it is the closest guarantee one has to making it work.

All this talk of incrementalism is directed at me too. I find that in the things that I want to achieve and be better at, I compare myself to people who are already great at the thing all the time. It's unhealthy in the sense that I feel down all the time and it demotivates me because I feel like that level in unattainable. I have to readjust my lens and set my focus on marginal incremental gains, as I have been saying in the past few paragraphs. That will help motivate me to get better because I will feel like those goals are a lot more achievable, thus motivating me to achieve those small steps going forward. As I've said so many times before on this blog, it won't be easy. But I guess it was never supposed to be.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Invigilating Preschool Teachers

So for the better part of this week, I was involved in invigilating an English language proficiency test meant for public preschool teachers. This involved being in a big hall to stand around and make sure nobody cheats on the reading, writing and listening papers as well as conducting a speaking test.

The reading, writing and listening papers were pretty straight forward. All I had to do was hand out some papers, wait until the allotted time was up, then collect them for marking. Waiting for people to finish answering written tests may not require a lot of skill, but it sure as heaven requires a lot of patience. I don't think that I would have minded it as much if I was allowed to listen to podcasts or even read a book while waiting. But, no. What was expected of us was to hand the papers out, wait while doing nothing, and collect the papers at the end. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more. Even having conversations with the other invigilators would be problematic because that would mean being a distraction to the people who were sitting for the papers. So I paced back and forth, sat down, stood back up, drank lots of water, went to the restroom, came back, paced back and forth again. Not the funnest thing in the world, I assure you.

The speaking test was a lot more engaging, since I had to speak to the teachers, or to put it more accurately, get them to speak and listen. I got to talk to eight preschool teachers, four at a time, about their families, travel dreams and their thoughts on the teaching profession. Some of the teachers' expressions sounded rehearsed, but I guess that is to be expected in a test setting. English certainly wasn't the first language of any of these teachers, so of course they would want to go into the test with some lines nailed down before doing it.

I felt that they were somewhat more candid in their thoughts about being a teacher though. Several seemed to go off script and started just telling the group their grievances about their profession and some shared stories about their kids and their real life classroom experiences. That was more engaging to me as the person on the other side of the marking sheet. Because they were more engaged in the conversation, I inadvertently became more invested in them. I was glad that they allowed themselves to open up and explore their thoughts more plainly because it felt more sincere and hit closer to home. And although the marking rubric is still the marking rubric and I had to give them points based off of their language proficiency, they definitely brightened up my day with their willingness to share. By the end of the sessions, I wished it didn't have to end so quickly, since I was absolutely invested in their thoughts and stories. But of course, a test was a test, and the preschool teachers wanted nothing more than to have the session over and done with so that they can go back home to their families and not have to face the stress of taking the test anymore. I would feel the same way if I were in their shoes.

The whole experience allowed me to interact with adults in a weird way. Like, what I had to do was encourage the teachers to speak so that I would be able to better assess their ability to speak in English, so when they got to a dead end in their monologue, I'd chip in with a question to get the thoughts flowing again so that they may talk again. A lot like an interview, and I liked it. Like, I was facilitating their thought process and reminding them of things they already know, just needing the slight nudge in the form of the right question to get the thought out there. And I like being able to do that.

At the end of the session, one preschool teacher asked me if I was from the JPN (Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri), and was surprised to know that I was a primary school English teacher. It was fair of them to think that, I think, because if I were in their position, I wouldn't expect the person assessing me to be a peer of mine either. The teacher who asked me that said that I seemed more like a counsellor, and I found that amusing. I asked her why she felt that way, but she couldn't find the words to explain why she said that, but I thanked her anyway.

I'd like to comfort myself with the thought that she said that because I was able to make her and and the other teachers feel comfortable expressing themselves in a test setting. That I was able to ask the right questions to get them to continue speaking and sharing. But of course, it could also mean that I didn't seem like I had any competence to handle a class of school children. It could also mean that I lacked the gravitas to be able to control 30 screaming kids at any given time. I guess I'll never know what she meant by that, but I guess that's okay.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


So the other day I was thinking about what to talk about with my students and my brain suggested "why it's important to be polite". After that popped up, I immediately interrogated the thought with another question, which was "is it important to be polite?" followed by "what is politeness? How is it different from respect? Why does society value politeness?" I explored it within my own brain and below are some of the thoughts that I was able to scrape up. Mind you, I am no authority in this matter. I didn't even bother googling it, showing you how much of a pemalas I am. So take and leave from it what you will.

I think that at the core of my understanding of politeness is respect, and because I already talked to my students about respect, I didn't want to be redundant. If we already have respect as a concept, why was politeness a necessary concept to introduce into our language and our understanding of the world?

When I think about respect and politeness, I think they're similar but not the same. Respect comes with it a certain gravitas that I can't quite put my finger on. It's about recognising other people as equal human beings and treating them the same way one would want to be treated. When I think about politeness, I think about people being submissive, silent in the background, and about conforming to other people's expectations of you, like the respect you have for the other party exceeds the amount of respect you have for yourself. This may be a flawed interpretation, but it's the way I understand it, so I'll run with it for this piece.

To address the next question of why society places a high value on politeness, I could only think that over the years, the concept of politeness has become a socially constructed tool used to maintain the status quo. It is desirable for a parent to maintain the position of power they have over their child, so the child has to be polite towards the parent, and if they're polite, they're good, because then the status quo is maintained and parenting becomes a less difficult task. Teachers desire a certain amount of control over their students, so a polite student is desirable because it makes the teacher's job easier, and the status quo is maintained.

So people in positions of power expect people in positions of less power to be polite to them, and people in positions of less power expect their peers to be polite to their "superiors". That's the way it's supposed to be, and the way it should always be. It's interesting to me that the concept of politeness is used commonly as a tool to help in power relations.

It is rarely expected of people in positions of power in the relationship to be polite. The person who is supposed to be  polite is always the child, the employee, the student, the person in the less powerful position. If a boss is polite to an employee, the boss is hailed as a humble person of the people. If they're impolite, then they're just being a boss. Being polite is, however, is expected of the employee. If they don't abide to the socially accepted rules of politeness, then they're considered as being rude and vulgar.

After typing it out, I hope you understand why I was reluctant to talk to my students about politeness. I ended up talking to them about honesty instead, a much easier value to get behind, in my opinion.

I hope I don't come off as condemning people who value politeness. I try to be polite whenever I can. I was raised to be a polite person, and given the chance, I try to make the people around me feel as comfortable as they can. I'm always on the lookout for social cues as to what peoples' expectations of me might be, and even though I'm really bad at doing that, I do at most if not all times try to come off as a respectful and polite person. It's become a habit of my being, I guess. But intellectually, those are my thoughts on the concept of politeness.

I may be completely wrong about the subject, but at the moment, this is what I think of it. If you feel differently about it, please drop a comment telling me off.