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Dari Kampala Ke Kuala Lumpur

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Clare shares her stories and photos from home. With audio.

If we imagined universities as a microcosm of society, what could we say about Malaysia based on our campuses? If we used how we interact with each other in classrooms instead of grades as our mirrors, how would that reflect upon us?


Clare’s story is a very personal one, so I don’t really want to use a bunch of statistics to blend her into a ‘flock.’ But Clare was, until recently, one of the 86,000 foreign students currently studying in Malaysia. So you could imagine her being somewhere in that impressive crowd that filled the Bukit Jalil Stadium to almost full capacity during the Malaysia-vs-Singapore match this past July.

Looking at it from that perspective means imagining roughly a stadium-full of doe-eyed young hopefuls coming and leaving — and living — with us, a trend that our education ministry does not expect to diminish in spite of increased tuition fees for foreign students starting next year.

I think I speak for many of my peers about how the university experience becomes a blur of numbers, statistics, and timestamps. It’s quite the creature to feed — punctuality, negotiating group mates, timely offerings of tuition fees, arranging class schedules, playing the grades game. We throw ourselves into these rituals believing it’s all part of preparing for the world ‘out there.’

But I have a reason for my conscious decision to describe Clare’s presence in Malaysia as ‘living-slash-studying’. There is an education to be had in studying, sure, but there’s arguably just as much of it to be had in living — and let there be no doubt that Malaysia has generous lessons in the latter, even for those staying just awhile.

I know we can be preoccupied with thinking about how to get people to fly here (considering, for example, “Are our tuition fees too high?”), but after everything that Clare has shared with me, I think it should be just as important to ask, “What do they take back on the flight home?”, and, “What is it that they leave behind?

In Clare’s suitcase of experience, so much of what is familiar and lovable about my home is now hers to know and love as well, and vice versa. I wonder how many in that ‘stadium’ feel the same.

If we imagined universities as a microcosm of society, what could we say about Malaysia based on our campuses? If we used how we interact with each other in classrooms instead of grades as our mirrors, how would that reflect upon us?

This is why it interests me, as a university student myself, to see the communalism clicking into place quietly on campus, one semester after another.

I try to imagine Clare’s experience with that, in her first week of university, absorbing one of her first lessons about Malaysian living and wondering what to do next.

Yet, if her experiences (and mine, and many others) are anything to go by, I’m unsure as to what extent we can exalt our status of a multiracial society, especially if our country’s future workforce somehow sort themselves according to their own ‘kinds’ on Orientation Day.

Not all do, of course; there are always a few exceptionally friendly students, and there are also the solitary ones who drift around from class to class to library, sitting nearby without saying a word. Sometimes I see more of the latter, with only their earphones for company. And like Clare in the beginning, sometimes I am one of them.

At first glance, there’s the story of a twenty-something Ugandan business student studying in Malaysia. But after poring over our conversations, I tried my hand at the living part, in the classroom full of mirrors.

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