A Series of Unfortunate Events

I should have known, really. My attempted communication with the school, where I was to volunteer for a year, was on the hazy side of vague.

I had been in Penang for less than 24 hours, and was sweating. A bit because I was in very humid 30 degree heat. A lot because I was delivering what was fast becoming the most factually inaccurate comparison ever made between life in the UK and Malaysia.

Originally I had been tasked with ‘introducing myself’. No problem, other than it was scheduled to last an hour.

By my reckoning, ‘Hi, I’m Katie’ (or ‘Miss Katie’, as was insisted) would only take about 10 seconds. If I said it really slowly.

My entire life story was unlikely to last 60 minutes. It wasn’t as though I could even tell the class what I’d be doing at the school, largely because I didn’t know myself yet. ‘Generally helping out’ was as specific as I’d managed to drag out of anybody.

Something of the panic must have shown in my eyes, so I was invited into the Principal’s office —the first of many visits— where he suggested I first draw a world map, then conduct a country comparison. The children, he assured me, were eager to ask lots of questions.

I didn’t like to point out that, having set foot in the Malaysia less than a day before and seen little beyond the Arrivals Hall and my new living quarters (4 feet away from where I was now sitting), I was ill-equipped to conduct such a lecture.

By the time I’d said my name and drawn a map that would simultaneously offend artists, geographers and anyone who lived anywhere between the UK and South East Asia, I was still 58 minutes away from being home dry.

I moved onto climate (the compelling convulsion to comment on the weather being the default for any Brit), then covered food, transport, culture, the entire education system (twice) before finding myself delving dubiously into politics.

The Principal sat at the back, belching distractingly. He was to continue his intermittent burping throughout the next 3 weeks. Presumably longer, but after 3 weeks, I decided to pack it all in and move into clearer airspace, south of the border. But we’ll get to that.

2 reluctant questions later (were Westerners really allowed to wear shoes indoors like the Hollywood blockbusters portrayed?) and I was shown back into the Principal’s office. Clearly things hadn’t gone to anyone’s plan.

It was put to me that perhaps they hadn’t understood my accent, and therefore a word I’d said. Which, all things considered, would have been a relief.

On the other hand, it was somewhat of a surprise to discover that my entirely neutral East Midlands accent had been mistaken for Cockney. It was yet more of a surprise that my protests to the contrary were taken with more than a pinch of salt, until I was almost tempted to agree with his misinformed assessment of my vocal origins.

Principal number 2 was the Principal’s wife, head of the Kindergarten next door, and didn’t seem to care whether or not I was from the East End. I was halfway through my first encounter with her, mostly focussed on the upcoming Christmas concert, when a look of excitement dawned upon her face. ‘Of course! You’ll be Mary! You can act!’

It wasn’t a question.

My experience of acting was limited to drama lessons at school in my early teens, and a failed open audition for Luna Lovegood, where I, along with tens of thousands of hopefuls, waited from dawn to be granted an audience with the Harry Potter casting directors. When I finally filed into the audition room, I was asked my name and where I was from. ‘Hi, I’m Katie and I’m from….’ at which I broke into a coughing fit, having tried to breathe, swallow and talk at the same time.

‘I can try’, I qualified.

The following morning I was told to get my bearings in the Kindergarten. I sat with a group of 4 year olds, engrossed in a ‘morality’ lesson. The day’s motto, recited in English, Malay and Mandarin, was ‘I must not drink alcohol.’

There was a reinforcing visual interpretation, acted by the teacher, of what would happen should this rule be disobeyed. As she swayed and staggered, I wondered if she’d been offered a part in the Christmas production, or whether I could interest her in being Mary.

Whilst the children were colouring in the relevant picture, depicting a small boy lying on the grass and covered with vomit, an empty bottle by his side, I stole a glance at the rest of the book. The previous lesson, of which I was now sorry to have missed, read: ’I will not kill myself’. The corresponding picture showed a child holding a dagger to his head.

The following week’s motto, ‘I am very good-looking’ was taken to heart by 3-year-old Nicholas (Nee-ko-lass), who informed me one day in a strong American accent ‘My Daddy cut my hair and now I’m cute’. Well, I guess he had been, until about 10 seconds ago.

It was time for another visit to the Principal’s office. These averaged 3 a day; usually an opportunity for me to answer for past inadequacies, and present new ones. I had never claimed to be able to play guitar, for instance, but the disappointment this spawned was eclipsed only by that following the revelation that I knew no appropriate songs in French, Spanish, or, indeed, ‘Scottish’ to teach the children.

This time, it appeared, I was to conduct a lesson on Korea. North, presumably.

‘Korea?’ Double checking, I knew, was key.

I might have questioned it further, but I wasn’t about to let myself down again. I might not be able to speak ‘Scottish’, but I could Wikipedia a country as well as anyone.

‘Okay, I can do some research into it.’ I tried to warm to the idea. ‘We could maybe have a debate’.
‘A debate?’
‘Yeah, a discussion. On how best to deal with the situation or something?’

We had long moved on before it dawned on me.

‘A few minutes ago… the talk on ‘Korea’… Did you mean Korea, the country, or ‘careers’, as in jobs?’
‘Jobs, yes. Ko-re-a’, he repeated. Incredulous at my stupidity.

I got through the rest of the week attempting to placate the boy with autism, and spare him from the ‘rod of love’ — the words of which were etched into the ruler specially reserved for one of his ‘moments’.

Saturday was lie-in day: work didn’t begin until 8, although sadly nobody had bothered to inform me. No children were around, so we began with a staff meeting, the subject of which happened to be me. I squirmed as each teacher was asked to share some thoughts about how grateful they were for my presence at the school. They squirmed as they were forced to answer. The end of term couldn’t come soon enough.

And when it did, I was out of there. Time for a new adventure.


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