Letter From Kuala Lumpur: What Binds Us Together

“All men are brothers.” The sentence came back to me here in the middle of a dinner hosted by the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange for about 100 Fulbright U.S. English Teaching Assistants soon heading home. The words are from a novel published in China in 1589, Tale of the Water Margin, about what one learns through struggles in a world almost constantly at war. The sentence was later used by Gandhi as part of the title for his book of autobiographical reflections on how many people with many differences could live together if they thought about the aspirations that bound them together.

I was seated between Stephanie and Christine and asked them about their experiences and challenges teaching in secondary schools in rural Malaysia. They had all the right answers about adjustment, transformation, and service that we hope goes with being a Fulbrighter and with being part of Generation Study Abroad. They asked what I did for Fulbright, and I explained a bit about advocacy and congressional education.

Then I asked what each would say to their Senator or Congressional Representative about what they were bringing back home from the experience.

Christine told us that her parents had been able to visit and that the benefit of the Fulbright had already returned with them. “People in America these days are afraid of Islam and uncertain about what to think about the Muslim people they meet. My parents met many here and saw that the religion was not threatening. That as people we had a lot in common. And they brought that message home already.”

Stephanie came here in part to discover her roots—her mother had come from Malaysia and immigrated to the United States “with just $300 in her pocket.” Stephanie taught in a school near a large palm oil plantation. “My students are all very poor and know they will work on the plantation. I was disappointed that I could not really persuade them to go on in their education but learned a lot about how I could still teach them critical thinking. They really wanted to learn that. So maybe I also learned that one can live with poverty but also think and challenge things that are not fair or right. Since I want to work in communities back in America that are facing poverty, I think I learned that teaching is not always about showing someone a way out but a way to live if they can’t get out.”

Gandhi and Shi Nai’an would have been impressed. I know I was. All men would have been fortunate to have these two as sisters. They found insights about our common humanity that are as important to rural Malaysia as they are to the places in California and Maryland that are home.