March 1, 2017
On July 26, 2016, Tommy McCarty left from BWI airport, and over 25 hours later he arrived in Alor Setar airport in Malaysia, where he is spending almost one year immersed in Malay culture.
McCarty (‘18) is a participant in the joint program between American Field Service (AFS) and Kennedy-Lugar Youth and Exchange Program (YES) Abroad. In response the 9/11 attacks, in October 2002, Congress created the YES program, which grants scholarships to students from significant Muslim countries to spend one year in the United States.
With over 900 Muslim students traveling annually to the United States, YES Abroad, an extension of YES, was created in 2009. YES Abroad is essentially the same program as YES, but in reverse: it grants current American high school students and recent graduates a full scholarship to study for one year in a country with a significant Muslim population in order to promote mutual understanding between different cultures.
McCarty applied and was selected as one of the 65 high school students in the YES Abroad 2016-17 program. He began his application process by applying to The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a summer program in a foreign country sponsored by the State Department. While McCarty was not accepted to NSLI-Y, he was referred to the YES Abroad and promptly applied. Countless essays and recommendations later, McCarty was admitted to the program in Malaysia, his top choice. Out of the dozens of country options that YES Abroad offers, Tommy chose Malaysia for their unique and diverse culture.
“There is a lot of culture because the three main races here are Malays, Chinese, and Indians, so it’s kind of like getting three in one,” McCarty said. Because of this immense cultural diversity, McCarty is able to experience several customs and traditions first-hand. “Every time there is a holiday with a different race, I will go to their house,” McCarty said. In the beginning of January, McCarty celebrated Chinese New Year with a Chinese family in Penang, and in November, he celebrated Diwali with an Indian family.
McCarty’s knack for new cultures and languages is not a recent interest, however. Ms. McCarty said that her son has been “taking Chinese at the Howard County Chinese since he was in third grade.”
Because McCarty had a strong foundation in Chinese from the Chinese School and French from his Atholton classes, he quickly picked up Malaysia’s official language, Malay. Before leaving for Malaysia, Ms. McCarty recalls her son using Google Translate and a variety of other apps to increase his proficiency in the language.
Of the six people living in McCarty’s house, only his host father and aunt speak English. “First, it was very difficult to speak with Tommy because their American slang is very different from me. After one month, I can understand, and Tommy can speak Malay very [quickly],” said Tommy’s host father, Mohd Hanif.
For the first couple of weeks of in Malaysia, it was difficult for McCarty and his host family to understand each other, so they often acted out movements, McCarty said. To tell McCarty to shower they would say the Malay word for shower and rub their head, Tommy laughingly recalls.
Along with his host father, McCarty also lives with his host brother, grandma (tok), grandpa (wan), aunt, and uncle. In Malaysia, it is very common, especially in villages, that entire families live together or near each other.
In school, McCarty noted that it was easy to make friends because many of his classmates were “obsessed” with his unique features. McCarty, a lean, six-foot, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian, looks drastically different from the short, black-haired, often plump Malaysians.
However, McCarty’s uncommon physique causes him to often stick out from his peers. “I fit in my class at my school, but when we go to the cafeteria, I do really stick out just because of my appearance because I’m so different from everybody else. It’s not like America where we have all sorts of people,” McCarty said. Once, during a school assembly, the teachers took a picture of the school, and Tommy could easily tell where he was since he was the only one without black hair.
In addition, the Malaysian environment drastically differs from America’s. Where McCarty lives, “everything is either a rice patty, a jungle, or a hill,” he said. His backyard borders a rice patty, which McCarty described as “gorgeous.” During McCarty’s first month in Malaysia, his host family hosted a get-together with the three other AFS students stationed in Malaysia. “We went in our backyard and played in the rice patty and got really muddy and disgusting, but it was so much fun,” Tommy said. “It was nice to talk with all the different host families and talk about the students, and how we’re different and we’re all similar in ways.”
Another large component of Malaysian culture is food. “Everything revolves around eating,” McCarty said. “Anytime they plan anything the most important part is food.” Instead of forks and spoons, like in America, Malays’ silverware is simply their hands. In the beginning, this was a difficult yet humorous adjustment for McCarty. “[The] first time when Tommy came to my home, Tommy used the right hand to eat [because there was] no spoon. Tommy must [have] taken about one hour to finish the [food],” Mr. Hanif said in a chuckle.
Just like in America, McCarty attends his local high school, Sekolah Menengah Kebngsaan Ayer Hitam (SMKAH), five days a week. However, McCarty goes to school on Sundays and not Fridays, as it is the holy day for Muslims, a strange adjustment for him. All of McCarty’s classes are taught in Malay, expect for his English class. While these tests are often challenging for Tommy, he tries his best. “I take all the test that [the other students] do, but I kind of fail because it’s all in a different language. But I try my best.” While McCarty is not technically graded for his work, he still participates like a normal student enrolled in the school.
Recently, McCarty triumphed. “The other day we had a pop quiz in history, and I won. I got the high score; I was so proud of myself. And it was all in Malay!” McCarty has been excelling in Malay, and his teachers have noticed, as well.
When McCarty’s school friends don’t have too much homework, he often goes out with them to eat or play badminton or futsal, a sport very similar to soccer but played with a mini-soccer ball. Because all of his Malay friends are much shorter than him, they are much stronger players and often joke with McCarty’s lack of futsal skill.
Another large component of Malay culture is religion. Islam, the official religion of Malaysia, consists of 61.3% of the population, Buddhism is 19.3%, Christianity is 9.2%, and Hinduism is 6.3%, according to the CIA World Factbook. Unlike religious freedom in America, the Malaysian government requires that all Malays be Muslim. McCarty has attended a few prayer services at the local mosque, where he dresses in religious garb: a Baju Maria or a malay shirt.
Islamic law also influences everyday clothing choices, requiring that both males and females wear modest attire. For McCarty, he must wear pants out of the house and usually wears long-sleeved shirts in order to show politeness.
While Tommy’s American family will not visit him in Malaysia, Ms. McCarty said that the entire McCarty family plans to travel to Malaysia once he returns to America. “In fact, when I video chat, his host grandmother says ‘When are you coming?’ every time,” Ms. McCarty said. “She’s very excited.”
Similarly, Mr. Hanif and Tommy’s host grandma want to visit Tommy in Maryland; however, it takes much planning and money to do so. “We must spend a lot of money to pay to go to America,” Mr. Hanif said. “It takes about 30 hours to go Maryland; that is very long to me.”
No matter the results of these travel plans, Tommy definitely plans to keep in touch with his host family. Once Tommy returns to America on June 21, he will become a youth ambassador for the YES Abroad program, where he will deliver presentations to his schools and other local venues hoping to spread the word about the benefits of exchange.
For the rest of his time abroad, McCarty plans to savor his time left in this exciting country, forging relationships with his host family and friends and forming lasting memories. McCarty truly believes that “exchange is a great thing, and there’s so much to learn going to any country.” He encourages everyone to learn a new language, research an exotic culture, or even travel abroad on an exchange program. After only six months in Malaysia, McCarty said, “It’s the greatest experience I’ve had in my life.”