Reading is in its own way a form of freedom. When you read a book, you can walk straight out of your world and into another one. And in it, there is comfort, familiarity, safety, and protection to be found—what can feel like a warm embrace amid loneliness.
Living abroad for six months is hard. Harder than I chose to believe back in April when I was packing my bags and saying goodbye to family and friends. When I experienced homesickness here, I found my comfort in books. Calling and texting home helps, but it still feels different than an in-person conversation or a hug. But a book? That’s the same anywhere. Everywhere. Holding a book in your hands, taking in the words of a beloved author, that feels the same no matter where you are. Since moving to KL, I have found myself coming back to the authors I found comfort in in the past. The writing that made me sit back in awe as I understood myself better, seeing my feelings in words I never had before. It’s grounding to read that familiar writing here. It feels a bit like being held.
At the end of August when Faaiza and I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, that was the peak of my homesickness. The peak of feeling like I just wanted to go home and get back to what I know. We found this bookstore, Lost Books, and it was amazing. The largest collection of second-hand books I’ve ever seen. Walking from shelf to shelf, the only books standing out to me were the ones by authors I’d read and loved before. I walked out of that bookstore with a book by Tim O’Brien, Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, and Silvia Federici. If you were to ask around, I’ve gone on tangents about these authors and what their writing means to me more times than I can count. I think it ties back to this concept of familiarity. This sense of familiar feelings amid a turbulent time in loneliness and feeling homesick.
A significant part of my experience with MSRI is teaching a prep class for English and Math. I have a class of about 12 refugee students varying from ages 13-21. They’re a diverse group! Together coming from Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Palestine. Teaching students their second or third language when I only speak English is interesting. I’m working with mature, developed students, but I can only connect with them through a language that is still a work in progress for them. There is so much more to them than what I can see in my classroom. I think this is an important lesson to keep in mind in education. There cannot be only one measure of ability or smartness.
For example, one of my students is 17 years old and this is his first time attending school. He speaks and understands Somali but cannot read or write even in his native language. Learning how to read and write in English is his first time learning how to read or write in any language. And yet, spending day after day with him, I can see how bright and capable he is. How quickly he picks up new concepts and his curiosity for more.
It’s hard to imagine walking through life without reading or writing. Through writing, you can better understand yourself and relate to others. It’s a form of connection that can go deeper than conversation. I already spoke of my own connection to reading; how it invites you in, pulls you away from your own isolation. With my student, I imagine what it must be like to flee your home country, enter a new one without speaking the native language, and wait—hope—for a new home with the right to live like anyone else. The often traumatic experience of a refugee, nonetheless a young teenager. Without the ability to read or to write, how do you escape? If not in the words of stories like your own, where then do you find solace?
It’s been interesting switching from the student role to the teacher role. I hit a big learning curve. My time in this position has transformed my perspective on education and how I want to engage with it.
Education is a lifeline.
Having taken so much of my education for granted, I can sometimes be distanced from this fact. Truth be told, I can be so critical of education in my own personal life that I can entirely forget this fact. I spend a lot of time reading about and studying political theories, the power dynamics of systems and institutions, and the intricate hypocrisies built into these systems and institutions. On my end, it’s led to a lot of skepticism. A lot of sarcastic remarks that can really border on the sardonic sometimes. Overtime, it all amassed into a sort of apathy and resentment toward education. In retrospect, to put it bluntly, it made me a bit of an asshole. Education is a lifeline. And it’s worth putting your everything into it—as a student and as a teacher.
But as I sit here writing about reading and writing, education is far more than that. It’s a lifeline not only in the literary sense, but also in the space it gives for curiosity, connection, awareness, and personal growth. My students are mostly new to Malaysia, only having left their homes in the past few months. In the process of navigating an entirely new culture and life, they get to spend a few hours every day in the classroom. I’ve watched my students make new friends with their classmates, learn about different cultures and backgrounds, and grow in their confidence. In that sense, education is also protection. It puts you in a space with values of respect and responsibility. Our education systems are oftentimes fixated on arbitrary measures of progress. But working as a teacher, I know the growth I’ve seen in the past few months is not quantifiable.
While I’m often on the skeptical side of respecting an education system that values these arbitrary measures, I also see clearly now how worthy it is to put in effort and not turn an apathetic eye to your education. Trying is not just about doing well. It’s about engaging with an environment that pushes you to communicate and dedicate yourself to a purpose.
Kurt Vonnegut is the first author who taught me to be critical of the systems around me, but he has also championed literacy and education since the beginning. To finish my blog post, here are two quotes from a book of his I finished recently: Armageddon in Retrospect.
The first is from Kurt on teaching (and I couldn’t agree more):
“The very best thing you can be in life is a teacher, provided that you are crazy in love with what you teach, and that your classes consist of eighteen students or fewer. Classes of eighteen students or fewer are a family, and feel and act like one.”
The last is a quote from Mark Vonnegut describing his father’s writing:
“Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.”
The world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.