Dispatch from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: taking a gap year.
by Lea Yamamoto, Class of 2016
To the unsuspecting eye the school looks just like an ordinary suburban row-block house. But every morning at 11 am, a white van pulls up with thirteen refugee children from Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Myanmar and Iraq. All eager and bright but equally as mischievous, we've then got about three hours to teach this bunch of overactive troublemakers a bit of basic education, "we" being the three current volunteers right now.
The oldest child is twelve, the youngest five. Everyone's at a different level in each subject (English, Math and Science) and most are way behind the standard of their age. Their families are all temporarily stationed in Malaysia while trying to seek asylum in other countries. As that's such a timely process, the majority of the kids have spent most or even all of their lives here, each with different educational backgrounds.
The school has been running for about four years now. International volunteers only started coming about a year ago, and rather by coincidence. Ever since, it's just been through word of mouth that new ones show up. I've spent about a month here now, and although the kids often drive us crazy we can't leave them either. They can be the sweetest most adorable little devils and although we are not experienced teachers, we're working with them on their English and basic Math so that when they start receiving local education in the next place they go, they can keep up with the other students.
I ended up here in my 5th month of traveling. My first destination in September 2016 was Mongolia, a few months after graduating YIS. Once there, I started at the bottom: my job was to shovel yak, goat, and sheep manure. Under the bright blue sky, surrounded by the vast beauty of such pure nature, I think that might've been the most beautiful and honest work I've ever done and will ever do. I was also busy chasing yaks to their milking grounds, herding goats and sheep over little mountain peaks, and taking part in a traditional cold-spring therapy.
After Mongolia I took the train down to China where I volunteered on a farm in rural Sichuan and came just in time for the sweet potato harvest. In Vietnam, I worked at a hostel while thoroughly enjoying all the fresh lime and herbs, chili and fish sauce from the streets. Then came Laos, where I met another girl with the same travel philosophy and we had the best time in the back of pickup trucks, following the endless dirt road through landscapes of funky mountains and sleeping in the stunning outdoors. Next was Thailand where I tried meditation, exploring spirituality, chanting with monks at 4.30am, plus joining policemen in coffee breaks that never seemed to end. The wind then blew me further and further south until I ended up in Malaysia, where I am now teaching the refugee children. It's hard to say where I'll go next. I tend to have so many plans that I don't know until the day before where I'll be heading.
Not going to Uni straight after high school was definitely the best decision for me. I'm gaining so much from being on the road, attaining practical skills we don't learn in school: planting, harvesting, fishing, etc. And meeting the most inspiring of people: fellow travelers roaming the world to also learn and explore, with whom you can have the greatest discussions, but more valuable even, someone whom you can simply spend some time with. Locals you can't verbally communicate with, but who you have the deepest connections with; who take you in, feed you, shower you in kindness, compassion and worry. Who sometimes throw you in the bath and give you new clothes cause yours are covered with holes and dirt. Who let you camp in their backyard and show up offering you breakfast in the morning. Money loses its allure here in my gap year, and then and you realize that all you really need is kindness and some hospitable company.