After-School School and Night Plogging in Kuala Lumpur

Wednesday night found me at Beacon of Hope Community Tuition Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's megacity of seven million humans.

The students admirably attempt to pay attention after a long day at regular school.

This center serves kids who don't get enough love at school. Whether they're labeled as needing extra discipline, or they're underperforming academically, these kids aren't being heard or valued in the standard school system.

My wise friend Annie Want once told me (after I couldn't absorb one word of the verbal instructions at frisbee practice), "Remember, it's not that you don't fit the system, it's that the system doesn't fit you." I think that's true. The school system doesn't fit these kids perfectly, so the Community Tuition Centre steps in with additional classes (math on Mondays, English on Wednesdays), field trips, and an awards ceremony run by volunteers.

The group got more animated when I showed photos of lemurs and ticks.

This Wednesday, I was the English class volunteer. I was told that the students enjoy hearing from foreigners about their home countries, so I made a PowerPoint about Seattle, Walla Walla, and all the places I've visited so far on the Watson.

Before I got into the details, I explained the general concept of a Watson Fellowship and asked the students to do a little imagining. "What would you do if you got a fellowship?" I asked the crowd of attentive faces. "What topic would you study for one year? Which countries would you travel to?"

I gave the class a few minutes, then asked the boy on my right to give his answer. As we went around the circle, many students struggled to speak up. As in American schools, these kids haven't been trained in imagination. Creativity is squashed under demands to take tests and memorize. But with enough cajoling, they were willing to give it a try.

Who's that taking our picture?!

One middle-school boy said he would take his whole family to Bali. I told him that wasn't quite the spirit of a Watson, but when I learned that he seldom gets to see his family because both parents work away from home for months at a time, I figured he had the right idea.

Another said he would use the money for pilot training in New York. Upon prodding, he said he would be happy with flying either planes or helicopters. A bit practical for a Watson, but I liked the focus.

One student said he wanted to visit Madagascar for photography. (This was before I'd mentioned my own itinerary!) He said he would both take photos and meet photographers. "What would you ask them?" I wanted to know. "How they decide what looks good to take a picture of," he answered. Sounds good to me.

A young woman with a stern expression and eruptive laugh had announced earlier that she wanted to become a police officer. Her Watson dream: travelling to India, where she would learn how to denature a bomb and figure out why young people go into terrorism.

One student, determined to become a football player (that's soccer to you Americans), would travel to Paris and learn about, you guessed it, football. I later summarized his plan as learning about football in France, to which he heartily objected, "Not France! Paris!" Maybe we need to add an after-school geography class.

One girl had her answer ready as soon as she was called on: "I want to go to Switzerland to learn English." An unorthodox choice for that language, I told her. Upon further questioning, she admitted she just wanted to go there because she loves the cold. As we sat in the sweltering Malaysian night, I couldn't fault her for that.

My favorite proposal of the bunch came from a student who said she would go to the neighboring country of Indonesia to learn about peat fires and how to put them out. She'd ask Indonesians about the haze caused by the fires. I told her that was not only a great idea, but very close to my friend Sam's real-life Watson, "The Language of Wildfire: Collisions of Nature, Society and Uncertainty."

Someone had the brilliant idea that we should all dab in our group photo.

As you can tell, these students were very good at English. They understood and spoke it like a first language, with a heavy Indian-Malaysian accent. I found out that most of these kids are trilingual. They grow up speaking Tamil at home and Malay in the community, and they pick up English at school. Some of them attend Chinese school, so they also speak Mandarin. Can you imagine how desirable a trilingual or quadrilingual employee would be in America?

Unfortunately for these students, their linguistic talent is underappreciated in Malaysia, a country of polyglots. As Tamil-Malaysians, they face prejudice throughout the political and judicial systems of their country. This group is more likely to drop out of school than any other.

A super-quick primer on Malaysia's racial makeup: 50% of Malaysians are Malay, 23% are Chinese, 12% are non-Malay indigenous (Dayak, Iban, Biyaduhs, Kadazan, to name a few), and 7% are Indian. The other 8% are "non-citizens." (Where this leaves multiracial Malaysians is unclear. In a country where race and religion are listed on government ID cards as defining, immutable features, there doesn't seem to be a lot of space for bi- or multiracial identities.)

Of the Indian-Malaysians, the majority are Tamil, and this group tends to be marginalized in Malaysian society. For example, Indian-Malaysians:

  •  experience a poverty rate of 70%, while the national average is 3%
  • are more likely to be pulled over by the police and required to do a breathalizer test
  • receive less than 1% of the country's education budget at Indian schools
  • comprise only 2% of civil servants
  • comprise 60% of urban squatters and 41% of all beggars
  • make up 95% of deaths by police gunfire and 90% of deaths in prisons

Reading these statistics, it's not surprising that the school system is failing these Tamil students, and it's even more obvious why a center like Beacon of Hope is a vital resource.

We got a traditional group photo, too.

I was brought here by EeLynn Wong, a woman I met online through the Malaysian Nature Society Facebook page. She's one of those superhumans you wouldn't believe exists until you see her in person. Before meeting me, she offered me a ride and lodging (by sharing a bed) for the annual Raptor Watch festival. Soon after, she invited me to couch-surf in her extra bedroom for as long as I needed a place to stay in Kuala Lumpur. And that generosity never stops flowing. EeLynn cares for six rescue cats and volunteers just about every day of the week. She bathes dogs at the SPCA, teaches English, runs a Green Living group, collects food and clothes for Kuala Lumpur's homeless, and advocates for refugees.

After the Community Tuition Centre class, EeLynn and I grabbed a late dinner of roti canai and carrot-milk (that's carrot juice mixed with condensed milk and ice) at a 24-hour Indian restaurant.

When she doesn't have an official volunteering commitment, EeLynn doesn't take the night off. She goes plogging! Yes, that Swedish fitness craze where you jog while picking up litter! Except in Malaysia, it's not much of a fitness activity, because you can barely take five steps before bending over to scoop another pile of trash into your bag. EeLynn took me night-plogging at Taman Mayang Jaya, a park near her favorite recycling center. I was eyed suspiciously by two street cats, who eventually warmed up to me enough to sit on my trash bag. Helpful.

Plogging in botanically correct pants.

Stuck to EeLynn's fridge is a list of 24 new year's resolutions, printed in rainbow ink. Number two on the list says, "Get at least five hours of sleep a night." While that may be EeLynn's goal, I would surely perish of such sleep deprivation! Here I am aiming for eight hours a night --- nine if I'm lucky. Given these basic differences in our human constitution, I don't expect to reach EeLynn's superhuman volunteer status. After a couple late nights, I'm already wiped out.

I know I am not addressing global systems of oppression with one classroom exercise or ten pounds of litter, but gosh, I am reminded of how satisfying these simple actions can be. Next time I'm bored at a party or wondering which Netflix movie to watch, I might just grab a pair of tongs and go night-plogging instead. And if you're sitting nearby, watch out... I might pull an EeLynn and wrangle you to come with me!