Pen Pals: Christine in Malaysia and Meghan in Indonesia

This is the second piece where ETAs from around the world talk to each other and share experiences. Over a week and some emails, they become pen pals. Indonesiaful has edited their emails for length and clarity. Last time it was Kelly in Indonesia and Yuwen in Laos. This time, it’s Meghan Cullinan in Indonesia and Christine Butchko in Malaysia.

Selamat Siang Christine!

Greetings from Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia! I’m so excited to get in touch with you. It’s crazy to think that this time last year, we were both at Villanova receiving the news that we were Fulbright ETA finalists. I cannot believe how fast time has flown for me in Kendari. I have less than 100 days left in Indonesia! But, you are just getting started with your grant period and I am so jealous of all of the time you have in Malaysia. How have you been adjusting to living in Southeast Asia?

Fulbright grant awardees from Villanova, with Meghan far right and Christine third from the right.

I’m so interested in what your placement site is like in Malaysia! Where do you live? My placement site, Kendari, is a small city that is the gateway to Southeast Sulawesi. Sulawesi is a beautiful part of Indonesia and there are many great beaches and diving spots that I have access to here. There are also many different cultural tribes in Southeast Sulawesi that have unique languages and customs. Kendari is a small and developing city, but a city none the less! We have a mall, movie theatre, and most importantly Pizza Hut!

What is your community like? The people in Kendari have been extremely welcoming, even though I am very different from them. My community is primarily Muslim, though there is some level of religious diversity and I actually found a church that I go to here! Most of my friends are Muslim, but we have been able to have some really interesting conversations to share our own beliefs and backgrounds.

How have you been navigating language in your community? Have you met any other people from the U.S. at your site? I have had to learn a lot of Bahasa Indonesia in order to communicate on my own here. I am pretty much the only westerner, or “bule” as I am called, in Kendari so I definitely stand out in my community. Luckily, I have made a few friends who have received Fulbright and State Department Grants of their own to the U.S. They have helped me navigate the language barrier and have been my Bahasa Indonesia tutors. My students also teach me a lot of language. Their English level is around the intermediate level, so I do have to use a good amount of Indonesian in the classroom when I am teaching. It makes me so sad that I will be leaving soon and I am definitely afraid of losing my language skills.

What is your school like? My school is a public religious school called a Madrasah, so my students devoutly practice their religion at school and they receive a religious education along with their formal education. It has been very interesting to teach at a religious school in which all of the students have a religion other than my own, but it has been a great learning experience. My students teach me something every day! Are there Madrasahs in your community too? I teach 10th and 11th graders who are very eager to play games and participate in creative learning activities in order to learn English. I have definitely been busy trying to keep them entertained in the English class, but I know that they appreciate my preparation.

Anyway, I guess that is all for now! I am looking forward to learning about your community and sharing our experiences beyond Villanova’s campus, all the way in Southeast Asia!

Sampai Nanti!

Hi Meghan,

I can’t believe you have less than 100 days left in Indonesia. Time certainly works in mysterious ways — it’s been a little over a month since I’ve arrived in Dungun, Terengganu, Malaysia but it feels like it’s been a day and a year all in one. I’m sure you probably feel the same way.

My placement, school, and community actually sounds pretty similar to yours. Dungun (where I’m placed) is a small, costal city in the state of Terengganu in Malaysia. My roommate and I live only a ten minute drive from the beach as well as a 15 minute drive from a huge mountain/hiking trail called Bukit Bau! We have a small but bustling center of town where you can find Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and KFC as well as more traditional Malaysian cuisine.

In Malaysia, food and eating are a huge part of the culture. Eating with my friends and students has been one way which I’ve been able to share in the Malay culture. Have you had a similar experience in Indonesia? Do you have any particular Indonesian dishes or foods you’ve come to love?

My community is also very welcoming in spite of the fact I am very different from them. Dungun (and most of Terengganu) is Muslim and Malay. One adjustment I’ve had to make is getting used to dressing more conservatively in my community. For school, I wear a traditional baju karang which is considered formal wear in Malaysia. The baju (as we call it) is a tunic that goes past your hips and a long skirt that goes to past your ankles. While it’s been a little difficult (and very sweaty) getting used to dressing more conservatively, the experience has been very rewarding. Every day, I’m greeted with compliments from my colleagues and students for wearing the traditional attire. My mentor has told me just how meaningful it is to everyone that I choose to honor the Malay culture in this way. Just yesterday, a few of my fellow teachers gave me some of their old baju karangs so I have more to wear. I was touched by their generosity! Have you had a similar experience? What are some adjustments that you’ve had to make living in Kendari?

That’s so wonderful that you’ve found friends who have helped you learn Bahasa Indonesia. I’m considering starting a language exchange with some teachers at my school as a way to learn more Bahasa Melayu! As luck would have it, my roommate’s mom is from Indonesia and so my roommate speaks a fair bit of Bahasa Indonesia. It’s a very similar language to Bahasa Melayu so she’s been helping me learn and navigate speaking in my community. Each night, she drills me in vocab. I’m slowly but surely learning it! But I’m always eager for more help with learning. Do you have any tips or tricks that have been particularly effective for you?

While Terengganu and Dungun do have Madrasahs, I am in a regular public school that is forms 1 through 5 (the US equivalent of grades 7 through 12). In spite of the fact it’s a public school, the students also take a course about Islam and pray each day at school. Because I went to a Catholic school for high school, my school here reminds me a lot of my own high school experience in its own way! My school is only about five years old so it’s relatively new. Most of my students are fairly weak in English. But through the classes I teach as well as a weekly English Speaking Workshop and Riddle of the Week challenges, I’ve begun to see some improvements already. The students are very malu malu when it comes to speaking English, but they do love taking selfies.

I’d love to hear more about your school. Have you gotten involved in any activities? Have you had any funny teaching moments? What have been some challenges or some rewarding experiences you’ve had?

I can’t wait to hear back from you! It’s wonderful how we’ve been able to find and create our own Villanova community halfway across the world.

Berbual lagi nanti!


Hello again!

It sounds like you are off to an exciting start in Dungun! You are right, our sites do sound like they have many similarities!

Kendari is tucked away from the ocean so I am actually 5 minutes from the bay or “Kendari Beach” as it is called, even though it isn’t exactly what you would call a beach! However, there you can find so many traditional foods! Grilled fish and corn are sold all along the water, as well as a traditional banana dessert called Pisang Epe and a fruit drink called Sup Buah. I often go down to the bay to watch the sunset and eat with friends! In the mornings, this has also been my favorite jogging spot. They are building a mosque in the middle of the bay, so it is beautiful to run along the road out there.

I’m so glad to hear that you have experienced the same realization that food has been one of the ways you build relationships! Food is VERY important in Indonesia too and my friends and co-teachers constantly want me to try new food and eat, eat, eat. Rice is the most important food in my community, so important that if people want to ask if you have already eaten they will just ask, “Have you had rice?” In the beginning, it was difficult to ever refuse food so I found myself constantly having to eat! But now, my friends and co-teachers know my eating routines and the foods I like so that has made life easier. Gado-gado is my absolute favorite food it is egg, tempeh, tofu, vegetables, and lontong (rice cooked in a banana leaf) covered in a delicious peanut sauce! The fish is also unlike anything I have ever had before. What are your favorite foods? Is rice as important in Dungun as it is in Kendari?

It is great that you have a site mate to explore Dungun with! I am alone here in Kendari, which has its challenges, but it has definitely forced me to be more independent. I think that is how I picked up the language so fast! In order to do anything on my own, I would have to speak some Indonesian, even if that involved struggling on Google Translate while trying to ask someone a question or explain myself. It is nice that your site mate has found that her prior Indonesian language knowledge is very similar to Malayu. I think that it is so interesting how similar the two languages are! I got a really intensive 2-week training of Indonesian when I arrived so that definitely helped give me a foundation. Did you get language training at orientation? Back in Kendari, I have had two different Indonesian tutors over the past seven months that I have met through the university and English events. They have become my closest friends! Not only do we learn language together, but talk a lot about culture. Working with them has allowed me to ask some more challenging/deeper questions in order to get to know my community better. Where have you met your Malaysian friends?

It is interesting to hear about the religious influence at your school even though it is public. Because religion and public education are treated very separately in the U.S, I think a lot about the predominately Muslim dominated religious education in Indonesia and what that means for students from other religious backgrounds. I also have found it interesting to compare my experience at Villanova, being a part of the religious majority, to my experience in Kendari, being a part of the religious minority.

As for my students they are also malu malu, but they have opened up a lot more during the second semester, so that has been exciting! In order to motivate them, I started a ticket rewards system that I use to give them positive reinforcement when they do activities in class and participate. At the beginning of every month, students can exchange their tickets for rewards like a selfie, being teacher’s assistant, school supplies, ice cream (like the girls in the picture), and even a class party!

It is amazing how these tickets have motivated even my lowest level English learners! My students love their tickets and believe that they are a gift from me, which is something really special. I also have an English Conversation Club at my school that meets once a week. We just finished out School Level Storytelling Competition that all the ETAs run at their schools in Indonesia, and next month my winning student will go to Jakarta with me to compete against the other ETA’s winners! Your riddle of the week sounds really interesting! That is a great routine to get your students excited about English outside the classroom. How is your teaching going?

Berbicara denganmu segera!

Meghan Cullinan

Selamat pagi, Meghan,

I’m happy to hear that you’ve helped your students participate more through a ticket system. I might look into doing something similar to help increase participation especially in my younger classes. While most of my students are relatively weak in English, there is always one or two students who will encourage their friends to speak up or participate in class. They also are always helping each other find the right word to say when they stumble in speaking. Seeing the support and love that my students give each other is one of my favorite things about teaching in a Malaysian secondary school. What are some of your favorite parts of teaching in Indonesia?

While my time tutoring has equipped me with some experience in the classroom, I’ve found that teaching has been a hard yet rewarding challenge. Classroom management has been a little challenging for me but luckily I have a co-teacher in the classroom who is able to ensure that all the students are attentive and cooperative. Fortunately, most of my students are very excited about having an American teacher so I’ve had few discipline problems. My biggest challenge is not talking too fast! How has your experience teaching in the Indonesia differed from your experience teaching in the US?

I can also definitely relate to the constant eating with my community. Ironically, surprise meals and snacks have become a very expected part of my day – especially from many of my students and teachers who want to make sure that I try all of the wonderful cuisine which Malaysia has to offer. While rice is a big part of the food here in Dungun, it’s not nearly as important as fish is. Of course, being a coastal city, this makes total sense. Keporok Lekor, a fried fish sausage with spicy sauce, is a traditional and popular dish here. I’ve been offered it a few times by my teachers and quite like it! But similar to your experience, a lot of the teachers are beginning to learn my eating routines and the foods I like (although my love of oatmeal has been a big topic in the Bilik Guru). Personally, my favorite Malaysian dishes are roti canai, which is bread with spicy dipping sauce that is eating for breakfast, and pisang goreng, or fried bananas. A few students have noticed how much I love pisang goreng and will occasionally give me some as a gift which is so sweet!

Wow, I didn’t realize that you were living alone! It has been nice to have someone to explore the Dungun and Terengganu with as well as help with lesson planning, but it is also nice to be pushed out of your comfort zone by being more independent. Are there any other ETAs who live close to your placement? My roommate and I are still in the process of finding our Malaysian friends, but fortunately, we’ve joined a Zumba class which has let us meet more people our age and practice our Melayu. While we did have a brief language training at orientation which gave us “survival skills”, it has really been on us to learn how to speak the language. Some of the teachers at my school seem eager to do a language class swap, so I’m thinking of learning more Maleyu that way. It’s interesting how much you are able to pick up just through listening and being a part of your community.

I can definitely agree with you about how interesting it is to be a religious minority in my placement. I’m beginning to have some very interesting conversations with people in my community about faith and what being Muslim means to them. There are a lot of similarities between my own Catholicism and Islam, but of course, there are also many, many differences. I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about Islam than I previously knew. Given the current political climate in the US which tends to be relatively Islamaphobic, I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to have such frank conversations. One of the most interesting things I’ve come to learn is just how vast and different the practice of Islam is. Chatting with a member of my cohort who is also Muslim, I’ve come to realize that the way in which Islam is practiced in my community and in Malaysia is very different from anywhere else in the world. Have you had a similar conversations or come to similar realizations?

All the best,


Selamat Hari Istirahat!

It is finally the weekend so I have time to respond to your email! I have the day off today, even though my students still have school. I have a difficult time asking students what they did over the weekend because they only have one day of rest! I definitely think my students could benefit from a two day weekend. Do your students have school on Saturday too?

I’m so glad that you are enjoying being a teacher! I’m sure your tutoring experience has been helpful to at least get you started on explaining content. I also struggled with classroom management in the beginning of my time in Indonesia, and I still do. The language barrier can make it challenging to set clear expectations about behavior and routines with your students. Additionally, systems of classroom behavior and disciple are really different in Indonesia. For example, students usually collaborate on everything, even exams, which was shocking the first time I gave a test!

I loved reading about your favorite foods! My love of oatmeal is also a topic of conversation in Kendari haha! I have oatmeal, peanut butter, and bananas every morning, and my co-teachers and friends think it is so strange haha! However, I did convince my friend to try oatmeal for the first time. We also have pisang goreng in Kendari and it is the best!! It is so cool how fish is one of the most important parts of peoples’ diets in Dungun. I would definitely say fish is very important here too, especially in some of the Bajo villages, which is the name for the tribe that lives right on the ocean in Southeast Sulawesi. Most of the Bajo people live off the ocean, so they are skilled fishermen and even make their own boats. I have spent a good amount of time passing through Bajo villages when I am traveling to different beaches or islands near Kendari and the culture is fascinating!

It is great that you and your roommate are able to explore your community and meet new people together! I am the only ETA in Southeast Sulawesi, so my closest site mates are about a 2 hour plane ride away. While that can sometimes be challenging, it has been an incredibly important part of my experience because I have made some very close Indonesian friends. They teach me so much about their culture and Islam. I also was able to join one of the big holidays, Eid al-Adha, and I am excited to take part in some of Ramadan.

I agree that it is important to be able to have such enlightening and reflective conversations with them. I have learned an enormous amount about their religious practices, text, and values. My co-teacher even gave me the chapters of the Koran to read about Jesus and prophets from my own Catholic faith. It has been very interesting to see how much our religious text overlaps! Indonesian has also taught me how differently Islam is practiced. What I find very interesting is that many people in Kendari believe certain practices are rooted in their religion, but I have had friends that have explained that they are actually Indonesian cultural practices that have become associated with Islam in Kendari. Learning from my friends in Kendari, I have realized that Islam in Indonesia is dramatically different than Islam in the Middle East. However, my own prior understanding of Islam only really included the Middle East perspective even though Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world! What I struggle the most with is how to share my own learning and experience living in a Muslim community with my friends and family in the U.S, especially because of the current state of our country. Have you had any interesting experiences discussing your experience in Dungun with people at home yet?

Talk Soon,

Meghan Cullinan

Hi Meghan,

Even though I had a holiday, my students had class on Saturday to make up for the classes this missed because of an assembly that they had about yoghurt (just Malaysia things, I guess). While this is not the norm, occasionally they will have special classes to help prepare for exams or make up classes they missed due to assemblies and special days. One of the things I’ve learned being here is just how exam centric the Malaysian school system is. This week, my Form 1, 2, and 4 kids are in exams so that means I unfortunately won’t be able to see them in class. The Form 5 and Form 3 kids also have exams three times a year which help determine what classes they’ll be in next year and if they go straight to university or have to go to Form 6. It seems like a lot of pressure, and many students seemed incredibly stressed all the time. Is it the same way for your students in Indonesia? Are there a lot of exams?

Because of their exams and how hard they work, I also love to use games and activities in the classroom like you described. It’s crazy how energetic the kids get as soon as you make a lesson into a competition. Last week, I played a sentence scrambles game where I wrote jumbled up sentences on the board (for example, cats/so/love/I/much) and had the students in teams work to put the sentence in the correct order. The students loved this activity, and even some of my shyer students were up in the front shouting their answers. Similarly, I’ve tried to incorporate technology into the classroom, but like your school we don’t have much and it’s a little difficult without a projector. I used my computer to show them a performance from Dear Evan Hansen and then had them complete the song lyrics to test listening comprehensions. I love your Rainbow Fish activity! I absolutely loved that book growing up, and I think my students would also really enjoy it because they live right on the sea. Also to answer your question, I don’t believe there are any Bajo in Dungun. But some of the ETAs in Sabah and Sarawack, have told me that there are towns of people like the Bajo.

I can absolutely relate to what you said about how certain Malaysian cultural practices have become rooted in their religion. One of my good friends from Villanova is actually from Saudi Arabia. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to her comparing, contrasting, and clarifying about the way Islam is practiced in Dungun vs. in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. We’ve had a lot of meaningful and insightful conversations that I’ve really appreciated. Occasionally, our friends will also be there to listen and engage with us which has helped me in explaining my time in Malaysia. Have you had any similar experiences?

I’ve found the question, “How’s Malaysia?” to be incredibly hard to answer. The truth is, every day is filled with so many highs and lows, that it is sometimes hard to put into words! Overall, I’ve found just being honest to be effective. I also always try to be fair by saying that most of my perceptions are framed by growing up near New York City.  Sometimes it’s pretty hard to frame my experience in a way that people can understand, but I do try my hardest. Blogging also helps!


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