Class Satu-D

Students at SMK Selising are divided by test scores, with the top scorers going to “A” classes, and lower scorers going to “B,” “C,” and “D” classes.  I teach the A, B, C, and D classes for forms 1 and 2, or the equivalent of 8th and 9th grade.

That means I teach the youngest and lowest scoring students in the school, the 1D class. Most of the students in “Satu-D” are not literate in their mother-tongue, Bahasa Melayu.

Most of their parents are truck drivers, soldiers, or sell food at the night market. This is their seventh year taking BM class, and at least their third or fourth year taking English, but they still cannot read or write proficiently in either language. The combination of poverty, an exceptionally hierarchical culture, and teacher shortages means that these students have had little to no resources and guidance throughout their education.

They sit in a dirty, bare, cement classroom with a couple of anemic fans. They wear ratty shoes and their notebooks are falling apart. Their lack of nutrition, health care, and education makes them come across as much younger than thirteen. They look about 9 or 10.

For the first few weeks it was nearly impossible to get them to speak at all. They couldn’t respond to “How are you?” or “What is your name?” They would cover their faces in their hands, turn away in embarrassment, laugh uncontrollably, or just stare like a statue. This is understandable because even if they knew some English, they would be too shy to use it with me because I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met.

How was I supposed to teach this class? I didn’t speak BM and they didn’t speak English, and even when I wrote on the board they couldn’t sound out the letters.

We started from the very beginning. I decided to focus on spoken English and useful basics, rather than try to teach them a topic from the Form 1 national curriculum that would be over their heads and irrelevant.

I have a small whiteboard eraser that I started tossing to students when it was their turn to talk. The physicality of throwing the “duster” and the silliness of missed throws and catches broke the ice. After a few weeks they could say “Hello, my name is___. I am from Malaysia. I live in Kampong____. I am thirteen-years-old.”

I realized that they did not know the days of the week or months of the year, so we worked on that next. I started every class having them tell me the day, date, and year.

Every class we worked on a simple sentence structure they could memorize, because they could not read the words I wrote on the whiteboard. Then they would use the vocabulary they had learned to practice in sentences like “My favorite____is_____” and “Do you have a___?” They learned colors, animals, fruits, vegetables, classroom objects, emotions, etc.

I have a policy that speaking English should never be used as a punishment because students will then associate it with punishment and won’t want to speak voluntarily. That’s why I give students a few chances to skip their turn until they are ready and have heard other students answer successfully. When the students realized they’d get more attention and reinforcement from volunteering, they started clamoring to raise their hands first.

At assembly every week I present an English word to the school. I give students imported Tootsie Rolls for being brave enough to come on stage to spell the words and use them in a sentence. Then I start every class by asking students how they feel that day, and they have to use one of the many words of the week they’ve accumulated. After a couple months, the 1D students could be heard saying “Miss Christy, today I feel phenomenal,” “morose,” “euphoric,” “zany,” “invincible” and “jubilant.”

I keep the Tootsie Rolls in my office to lure the students in. To get candy (gula), they have to make a sentence using the word of the week. Groups of students come in all the time, speak some English, and are pleased to have tricked Miss Christy into giving them gula.

Now that I’ve arrived at the end of the year, I’ve noticed remarkable progress in this group of students, much more so than the higher-scoring classes I teach. The students who would not speak at the beginning of the year are now regulars at my office hours. They come whenever their teachers miss class. They pick up the English books I have sitting on my desk and read aloud every word they know.

Now when I start class they fluently blurt out “Today is Monday, twenty-four October, two-thousand-sixteen.” I can throw the duster around out-of-the-blue and ask “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What is your ambition?” “What is your favorite animal?” “What is your favorite fruit?” “What is __ color called?” “What is __ number called?” “Say the days of the week backwards.” They can give me directions to go right, left, ahead, behind, etc. I can name a person, object, time, or place and they can tell me if its best to use “Who,” “What,” “When,” or “Where.” They can use past, present, and future tense.

Now when a group of 1D students walks by, they confidently say “How are you today, Miss Christy?” When I ask them the same, they proclaim “I feel invincible today.”

New English

I’ve learned a lot of English in Malaysia. Even when a friend here speaks to me in English, they often have different ways of expressing themselves, managing a conversation, asking a question, or saying yes and no. It’s not a different dialect of English, it’s a distinctly different style.

This year my biggest communication barrier was not the difficulty of learning Bahasa Melayu, as I had expected, but the difficulty of learning the cultural context and nuanced meanings behind Malaysian English.


Politeness is done very differently in Malaysian English. I rarely hear “please,” “thank you” or “excuse me” here. Politeness is not a word you attach to a sentence. Instead, it’s expressed through indirectness. It’s impolite to say “I’m going home now.” I’ve learned that you must say “Teacher Christy wants to go back home now. Is it okay?”

It’s been hard for me to get used to this Rococo style. I’m a speaker of American English, a language in which Hemingway’s five word sentences are celebrated, and we’re constantly told to “get to the point.”


My American directness has gotten me into a lot of trouble in Malaysia. To me “maybe” means something may or may not happen, but here “maybe” is often used for politeness and indirectness, but doesn’t detract from the certainness of a statement. If someone says “Maybe you come to my house later?” I interpret that to mean I may or my not go to their house. But I’ve learned that the real message behind this is “Please come to my house, I’ve invited all the neighbors to meet you.” To further the confusion, if I said “Okay, maybe!” it would mean “I promise I’ll be there.” Because of this, there have been many situations in which I’ve accidentally given an American-No and a Malaysian-Yes.


Even though indirect politeness is used a lot, there are some surprising situations in which Malaysian English is much more direct than American English. It’s very common here to make forceful, imperative commands. In American English you would use the conditional and “please.” If I’m offering someone food, the polite way in American English would be “Please help yourself to some____” or “Have some_____” or “Would you like some_____?” It has taken me a long time to get used to the Malaysian way. “Christy, eat” or “Christy, come here, eat now.” I was insulted and taken aback by this for a long time. Even once I understood the cultural translation and was no longer offended, it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable about being ordered to sit and eat banana fritters.

Different Meanings

In Malaysia English sweet=cute, smart=good-looking, and clever=smart/intelligent.


“Okay” has a very different meaning. If you say someone’s work is “okay,” it means it’s severely mediocre. In Malaysian English “okay” means “good.” After I made a speech for the 500 assembled students and teachers my first week here, I sat down and asked a teacher “How was it?” and she said “Hmmm…. It was okay. Should have been longer.” I thought that meant I had bombed and that she was being charitable enough to call it “okay,” when it actually meant “Good job, but I would have liked to hear a little more.”

Ending Conversations

“Okay” is also used to end conversations. It is normal here to abruptly end a conversation by saying “Okay” and walking away. It is fine to let your conversation partner know that you don’t want to talk to them anymore. When showing additional rapport and consideration, people say “Okay, I go first” and walk away. This is clearly very different from American English. In American English conversational style, it’s impolite to end a conversation abruptly without giving an acceptable excuse, like “So sorry, I’m actually running late!”


I often hear dramatic, elaborate, poetic ways of describing feelings here. A common phrase is “sweet, sweet memories.” This means “happy memories.” There are also many romantic ways of describing a partner or friend “He is my lover, we go to honeymoon somewhere very, very romantic. He is too handsome.” Or “She is my dear friend, she is so beautiful, like rainbow.

Chatting with a friend before we break fast one evening during Ramadan.

During my time in Malaysia I’ve adopted a few of these styles of speech. Realizing the nuanced meaning behind words, has done a lot to increase my cultural understanding, not to mention my interpersonal understanding. Every time I learn about an interesting use of an English word in Malaysia, it makes me really think about the hidden meanings and habits of the words I use.

Selamat Hari Merdeka!

Malaysia became independent from British colonial rule on August 31, 1957. In a similar tradition as the American 4th of July, Malaysians feel the boom of fireworks, sing patriotic songs, and eat grilled meats on Hari Merdeka.

One Malaysian Independence Day tradition that a lot of Americans are missing out on is the patriotic bike ride. Students decorate their bikes with Malaysian flags and their state flag, and ride down neighboring kampong roads declaring “Selamat Hari Merdeka!” to everyone they see.

On the day of my school’s Hari Merdeka celebration I arrived ready to ride and without a bicycle. In classic fashion, a teacher saw my predicament and last minute drove back to his house to fetch his kid’s bike. Another teacher quickly taped a Malaysian flag to the bike and I hopped on just as everyone started rolling.

Students went all-in on their bike decorations.
Excited pre-bikeride selfie. Around 20 girls and 90 boys participated.


Most teachers (not pictured) chose to complete the route on motorcycle.

We set off through the kampong by the school. Male students whose energy gets them in trouble in class were able to stretch their legs, do some wheelies, occasionally fall off their bikes, and put their skills on display. They brought selfie sticks and didn’t miss a chance to capture every moment of the ride.

We peddled under the stark 11am sun through neighborhoods that opened up into expansive paddy fields and distant blue hills. The cows and goats and chickens grazed and pecked as we went by. I couldn’t believe the sheer greenness of the rice plants in the sun, and the lush jungle creeping in wherever it could. We rode and rode and rode, falling into a pleasant rhythm between the kampong and the raw countryside.

After what seemed like a long time, we stopped to eat rambutan, a Dr. Seuss-inspired fruit. We took selfies and a government official even stopped by to take a group photo.

Rambutan. The white fruit is sweet and mild, like a pear, and the pit is poisonous and tastes like almond.

We claimed one lane of the state highway on the way back to school. I biked with my friend, the school accountant, a fit and entrepreneurial leader at school. We laughed and complained when students passed us, and eventually rolled right back to SMK Selising, sweaty, sunburnt, sore, and victorious.

Ready for the celebration to continue.

Everyone returned safely from the bike ride and then it was time to start the ceremony. There was a patriotic fashion show, singing, flag waving, and of course, food.


A participant in the fashion show.
A very dedicated mother.
They sewed these themselves.