This past week has been an emotional one, seemingly throwing all of the feelings that one can experience within the span of six days. Writing about it feels like pulling teeth. I go back and forth between wanting to talk about it and not, knowing that sometimes people don’t want to be burdened by the weight of these conversations, especially when happiness and good events are generally expected.

This past week was P’chum Ben, a three-day holiday in Cambodia that honors ancestors; it is customary to return to one’s home town. As a result of the holiday, we took off the entire week. As a result of that result, I planned a visit to Malaysia, where I lived for almost a year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant back in 2014.

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At the graduation ceremony back in 2014

Because it had been three years since I had been to Malaysia, I was returning to my former school with competing expectations. One set was more realistic than the other: more than half of the grades were unfamiliar to me, and I knew that many teachers had left. On top of that, there was no way that I could possibly relive the same experiences that I had in 2014. The optimistic set, however, wanted so desperately to see all of my former students, flooding my mind with such waves of memories that had long been dormant that I would occasionally well up just by seeing a classroom. (I’m feeling tears form as I write this now…)

Getting to the Malaysia, however, proved frustrating. There was confusion with my visa upon leaving Cambodia, forcing me to pay an unpleasantly expensive overstay fee as the minutes before my flight departed dwindled down. This then naturally created serious anxiety for my return, with doubts growing about whether I could actually stay in the country for the second half of my internship (even though I had worked it out with AAC beforehand; the political atmosphere did nothing to allay this concern). Since this post is not about how I’ve had to cut off my internship early, you can tell that everything worked out, but this worry latently ate away at me throughout the week. Exacerbating the vexation was the unexpected diversion of our flight due to poor visibility and weather at Kuala Lumpur. We ended up waiting an additional three hours before finally arriving at the airport.

But then when I finally got wifi and checked my email, I find out that my grandmother had passed away.

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Visiting my friends, students, and colleagues helped. I didn’t see everyone, and the realistic expectations proved to come true. However, many new memories, big and small, now accompany the ones from 2014. I feel emotionally full.

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At the graduation ceremony in 2017.

Throughout my visit, I also contemplated the difference between the work that I did at the school level as an ETA and the work I’m doing now on a more national level with AAC, mostly in terms of the enjoyment that I get from it, but also perspectives about impact. Naturally, the personal connections I’ve developed as an ETA heavily influence(d) both my enjoyment and perspective on impact, even though I’ve questioned the overriding purpose of my role as a foreign English teacher in the school. I feel my influence is more tangible than having a report in AAC’s computer files. I can’t, however, judge my work at AAC too early; I still have five weeks to go, and there’s no predicting what can be accomplished within that time, as well as how my reports might influence AAC’s future work. Perhaps the emotional high of my visit to Malaysia clouds my assessment of my work’s impact here.

But writing this now, I’m contemplating whether it’s beneficial or even necessary to compare the two types of impact: at the school level and at the policy level. One sees influence every day in the classroom, but can be disjointed; the other has national impact, but also progresses jauntily as it gets implemented. Both are dependent on the actors involved, naturally, but I suppose at the end of the day it’s a matter of how one finds fulfilment in the scale of their impact when they work in this field. I guess I’m still figuring out which scale I prefer.

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One of the many pictures taken that day.

I suppose I decided to write this post after all not only to discuss briefly that debate about impact, but also to share another dimension of the internship that doesn’t always get discussed in our pre-departure conversations. How do you deal with the death of a loved one when you are across the world? How do you cope with a flood of emotions when all of your closest social communications have to be virtual? I don’t have the answers.

But I do promise to write more about what I’ve been doing at work. Until next time.