Greetings from Malaysia: Q&A with Norma Lamo ’11

As a participant in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, Norma Lamo '11 traveled to Malaysia during the first week of January 2011 to teach English to Malaysian students and devote some 25 hours per week to community involvement. Lamo, who returned home in November, shared her experiences while still living in Malaysia.
Sean Ramsden
Norma Lamo '11 teaches an enthusiastic group of Malaysian students the finer points of making pizza.

Norma Lamo '11 teaches an enthusiastic group of Malaysian students the finer points of making pizza.

Just days after earning her bachelor’s degree in Management & Leadership, Norma Lamo ’11 added a unique coda to her undergraduate experience when she was accepted into the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The Clinton, N.J., resident traveled to Malaysia during the first week of January to teach English to Malaysian students and devote some 25 hours per week to community involvement before returning home in November.  

After a two-week orientation in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital and most populous city, Lamo and 50 fellow English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) were assigned to various states for further training. Lamo, who was at her school in Ajil, in the Hulu district of Terengganu, since February 1, shared her experiences while still in Malaysia.

You specifically chose Malaysia over a number of destinations. What made the strongest early impression on you? Is there anything completely different from what you expected?

None of my expectations were accurate. We started off in Kuala Lumpur, which is very metropolitan compared to where I am currently living, in Terengganu. The first two weeks there, our schedule was packed with workshops, lectures and information sessions. We had language classes, cultural visits, and guest speakers to teach us about the education system and different aspects of the culture, including religion.

How is living in Terengganu different than life in Kuala Lumpur?

In many ways, Kuala Lumpur is a lot more diverse and a lot less conservative than Terengganu, which is known for being one of the most conservative states. Also, I am the only ETA in my district, so I live at my school, which is fairly rural, in the girl’s hostel. So now, after seven months, Kuala Lumpur is like a retreat for me. I can wear a sundress, eat Western food, go to Starbucks, see a movie, and blend in. I love Terengganu, but Kuala Lumpur is like my home away from home.

Is there a cultural or artistic component to your classroom experience? Outside of class, how do you spend your days?

I have a lot of freedom in what I teach, and so I try to make class interesting and incorporate cultural lessons as well. When I am not teaching, I stay at school and try to make myself available to all students, and this is what I enjoy the most. I’ve had the opportunity to help our school’s Red Cross organization administer first aid at sporting events, to serve as a track & field coach, attend overnight camps, and to be involved in English competitions such as debates. I also organized a cooking club that I hold every week, where I teach students how to make Western food.

I also socialize with the other teachers. Through them, I have had the opportunity to visit their kampongs, or villages, attend a traditional engagement ceremony and try new foods. Outside of the classroom is really where most of the cultural exchange takes place. Because I am only a part-time teacher, I have a lot of free time during any given day, which allows for unpredictability. This has been very positive because I have to find ways to be constructive and use this time; the best days are the most unpredictable.

You are there to teach, but what have you learned during your experience?

I have been to some of the most beautiful places, but also seen a lot of poverty. I was surprised to learn that Malaysia is actually one of the more developed nations of Southeast Asia, and that has really put things in perspective for me. My lifestyle at home was very comfortable, and in contrast to some of the standards of living I have been exposed to here, the difference is greater than I would like to admit. 

You were a Management & Leadership major at Rider. Has this experience leading a classroom, especially in such an unfamiliar place, altered your career plans at all?

My interest in public health has actually increased since I’ve been here. I have had the opportunity to observe different aspects of the health care system, and there are some major differences between Malaysia and the U.S. For example, they don’t have school nurses. A taxi or motorbike is a common substitute for an ambulance, and not all prescription drugs require a prescription.

While I love my students and they bring me a lot of joy, I want to pursue a career in the business sector of the health care industry. I am gaining a cultural intelligence that I could not have gained elsewhere, and also developing as a leader. 

Will you be on the hunt for Malaysian cuisine once you return home? What other bits of the culture do you anticipate taking back with you? 

Before coming here, I went to one Thai-Malaysian restaurant I know of in New Jersey, and nothing on the menu is like what I eat here. One dish unique to Terengganu is keropok lekor, a fish sausage that is fried or steamed and served with a chili sauce. It is definitely an acquired taste, but I really like it.

What is one thing most Americans don't know about Malaysia? 

I think one of the largest unknowns is the diversity of the country and the dynamic between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations. While each of these groups is considered Malaysian if they were born and raised in the country, they are not all Malay. To be Malay, you have to be Muslim. Every Malaysian also carries an identification card that states their religion, and if you are Muslim, you are governed by a different set of laws. The Malay-versus-Malaysian is a delineation that I don’t fully understand, but it creates tension. Hence their “Satu Malaysia,” or “One Malaysia,” campaign, which calls for unity.