6 questions with Wes Milillo ’12 (Fulbright ETA, Malaysia)

Interested in learning more about the Fulbright US Student Program?  Take a study break and join us for Friday Focus on Fulbright this week: Dec. 6th, 202 Hall of Languages, 12:30-1:30 PM.

Please RSVP  here: http://nationalscholarships.syr.edu/?event=do-you-want-to-be-fulbright-scholar-and-travel-the-world

Me and my students at an after-school “jamuan” where we ate “mee goreng” and talked about America.

Me and my students at an after-school “jamuan” where we ate “mee goreng” and talked about America.

1)      What’s been the most surprising aspect of your experience in Malaysia?

The most surprising aspect of my time here has been the readiness and willingness of the local people to engage me in their customs and practices. Arriving in Malaysia, I was not sure how I would be received, but after a short while I was fully incorporated into all of my communities activities and daily affairs. Especially in my school where I was sent, I became more than just another teacher in the school, I was invited into fellow teachers’ homes to gain a truly authentic experience. We quickly became friends and I was accepted into the school as more than just a guest, I had become a fellow teacher. As a racially trifurcated country (Malay, Indian, Chinese), another pleasantly surprising experience has been the opportunity to stand at the fork in the road that leads to three different, yet constant, worlds. Experiencing these three cultures, each one underscored by the constant Malaysian country has been a really rewarding experience.  I learned that if one truly jumps in, truly holds one’s nose and leaps, the heart swells with love like a parachute, gently grounding one in a new reality.

2)      Who has been a particularly interesting person that you’ve met?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one person because I’ve met so many interesting people during my Fulbright experience here in Malaysia. Speaking broadly, it was a great pleasure to get to know my fellow American Fulbright participants. They all come from such varied and decorated backgrounds that being constantly involved with such motivated people helped push me to do more and more. They are an extremely wonderful group of people to whom I’ve had the pleasure of becoming professionally and personally connected. I’d also like to say that my fellow teachers have also been extremely interesting in their own ways. Eager to learn about who I am and where I come from, they often have radically different backgrounds and beliefs that have both humbled and entertained me.

Me and my fellow English teachers in my office.

Me and my fellow English teachers in my office.

3)      Describe a memorable meal you’ve had – the food, company, and setting.

It was during our first potluck meal in our school that I realized I was no longer in Kansas (…Toto). To preface, Malaysian food is often very hot (both in temperature and spiciness), and heavy. Rice is a constant staple, as are noodles. Because food plays such an important role in this culture, one must rarely refuse to eat when in good company. As such, March witnessed Wesley’s first Malaysian potluck experience. As the teachers poured into the office, so did the food. Hot, steaming, spicy Malaysian foods and desserts. And yes, this was around 7:30 am. Everything from fried rice to lamb stew to fried chicken to curry puffs were all ready to be consumed. Not wanting to be rude, I automatically accepted every bit that was placed in front of me. An inveterate sweater, I was sopping wet as I literally stuffed myself plump with food to the point that my jaw was fatigued from chewing! And my pants were stained with curry oil.

4)      What are you doing for fun?

My spare time activities had an enormously diverse list of activities that ranged from private hobbies to participating in extracurricular sports. As a Malaysian ETA, I’ve had loads of free time and, unapologetically spent it doing many different things. After school I led different activities like movie clubs, English practice groups, and even played softball and soccer. At nights I even played badminton with the teachers. Malaysia also has many holidays so I’ve been able to travel internationally all over SE Asia. (Little secret for my SU friends thinking about applying: Malaysia is one of the few Fulbright programs that authorizes international travel). I’ve had a fantastic time going around Malaysia as well, from private islands to charming seaside cities rife with knickknacks and other old-world goodies. I also ample time to read, exercise, and reflect on life (probably the best part…to me at least). There have also been the innumerable cultural events, as well as fellow ETA get-togethers in nearby cities or Kuala Lumpur.

5)      Tell us about your teaching assignment.  What’s your weekly schedule like?

Because the weeks changed so frequently due to religious festivities and other events, there was never a dull moment. My commute was admittedly treacherous. I rode my motorbike on the urban highway that also hosted the less-than-polite Singaporean commuter traffic each morning. After arriving at school and successfully dodging death, I would begin my day. I would teach three or four classes a day. My lessons often tried to incorporate reading, writing, and speaking and ranged from formal grammar lessons to lessons on American culture. After school, depending upon the month, I would  lead activities like “English Language Society” and “Coffee with Wes.” Other activities I assisted with were softball and  debate. Informal after-school activities were a great way to bond with my kids and learn more about them and their culture. Weekends were often spent doing other things like travelling and other leisurely activities. A lot of time was spent with my fellow teachers doing things with them like cooking and eating and going to the movies and eating.

Me at a Chinese festival back in march.

Me at a Chinese festival back in March.

6)      Any advice for SU students applying to a Fulbright ETA?

Just one man’s opinion but here goes. There are several questions you should ask before you apply to the Fulbright program. Why are you applying? Do you have the patience to be a teacher? Are you thick-skinned and cautious? Is there anything you would rather be doing? The most successful people in this program are not the overachievers, they are the ones who’ve given of themselves entirely to this program’s cause: cultural exchange and international cooperation. They are the ones who’ve not stood on formalities but rather have rolled with the punches and adapted as flexibly as possible. They are the ones who’ve compromised somewhat and struck the balance between self-accomplishment and fitting in. It’s their system, it’s their country, it’s their culture.  A good GPA and a dollar won’t get you a ride on the bus here. You have to be committed to this- committed to seeking the right balance. Are you mature and capable enough to represent your country? Like it or not, when you are in a completely different environment you are representing your country, your background, your family, yourself. Remember that they see you before they hear you, and first impressions are crucial. You will be uncomfortable most of the time, you may be singled out, you will be challenged. Can you empathize with people who may not be at all capable of empathizing back? The decision to apply should not be taken lightly. Be prepared to be judged and be willing to embrace discomfort. For your efforts and sacrifices, you will grow, you will love. With a good effort and a little luck, you will get back tenfold what you put into it.