Stories from the gym

Yes, I finally decided to do something about my incessant complaints about my weight gain and went to the gym for the first time in months yesterday! Woohoo!!

While I gingerly pressed the buttons on the treadmill in the gym (I live in an apartment), I noticed a girl staring at me from afar. She was by the door, curiously sticking her head in to get a small peek at what I was doing. I smiled at her while she walked nervously and stood right next to me. She was one of the cleaners, as I noticed from her uniform. I didn’t know if I should continue running, or ask her if something was wrong, so I said hello kak, sihat?

She was taken aback but asked if she could stand there and watch me, for she has never seen how the machines work before and has never dared to ask. I said sure, but inside I was getting a little annoyed. I mean, how am I going to run when someone’s watching me?? After two minutes, I was already panting and sweating and there she was, still staring wide-eyed at the treadmill and me.

Then there was a man’s voice some distance away and she scurried away immediately, mumbling something about how she’d better get back to work. About fifteen minutes after when I’d moved on to lifting weights instead, she came in again, this time with another cleaner friend in tow. They both smiled widely and stared at me pulling the handlebar down, and gasped when it made a somewhat loud clang when I was done with it. I asked if they wanted to try too, and told them how it works and which muscles I was using. They got excited when they heard me speaking in fluent Malay, and started chatting with me while I moved on to the other machines.

It was a short conversation but I couldn’t believe how fast they’d warmed up to a complete stranger who was merely trying to tell them how to lift weights! The other girl was 17 while the first one was my age, and they were both from Kelantan. They came to KL because they were lousy at school and they thought there wasn’t a point in continuing anyway. “Buang masa je kan kat sekolah, mak bapak kata baik cari kerja”. I told them very cautiously that going to school increases their chances of getting a better job, to which they disagreed politely. “Ramai kawan kite orang habis sekolah pun sama je, buat kerja sapu sampah, cuci tandas semua, asalkan dapat duit lah. Kite bukannya macam orang KL, pandai cakap English, pandai jadi doktor”

Here I was lifting my 20-pound handlebar, listening to these two girls telling me their stories so candidly, and I was left completely dumbfounded. The younger girl had to go back to work, and before she left she said “akak ni baik dan peramah lah, biasanya orang tak layan pun, nanti kite borak lagi ye” which hit me with guilt like a ton of bricks. I usually never speak to the cleaners before, and this was only because I was getting uncomfortable with them staring at me!

Meanwhile the other girl was still accompanying me while I continued running on the treadmill. I had gotten used to her, so I was still chatting with her while I almost died climbing a hill at 6km/h. Sweat was dripping everywhere, I was panting like a dog, my eyesight was blurring up, and there she was saying “cepat sikit! boleh lagi! 5 minit lagi!” T______T what did I do to deserve such kindness and moral encouragement from someone I just met an hour ago?

When I was done, she wiped the machine clean since I had obviously deposited a lot of bodily fluid all over it wtf. I told her I have to go, and she said bye cheerfully and asked me when I would come to the gym again. “Insha’allah esok!” but I never went today cos my legs were too sore and I was busy 🙁

I just wanted to jot this down because it was probably one of those AHA! moments for me. Aha! I knew I was doing Teach For Malaysia for the right reason, how can people think that kids in KL are smarter, and that there’s no point to school because they will still work as a cleaner after anyway? Aha! I might have wasted more time talking to them than actually working out, but it was a conversation I will never give up for anything. Aha! being fluent in Malay comes in handy after all 😀

I really hate to be overselling Teach For Malaysia, but I wholeheartedly believe in their cause and mission. As someone who comes from a somewhat more privileged background, from a middle-class family that lives in a pretty adequate suburbia that’s within driving distance to everything I ever need, it’s easy to bitch about what the country is lacking and to nitpick on every flaw we have. But I also realize that we have grown so far apart from many of our fellow Malaysians who live in this very same country we’re in. Malaysians who are barely surviving, and here we are complaining while we drive nice cars and have meals in restaurants.

I think this dawned upon me the most when I was google mapping the school that I’m going to teach for the next two years. I’ve been an ardent google map user, but I’ve always only used it to see how I can get to Bangsar, or Damansara. I realized that zooming out of Klang Valley, there really isn’t much and roads become a lot less connected (in fact, only one main road in Gemas). So, when I say the government should do this and that for me, am I thinking about people from these places? They are Malaysians too, but who is speaking out for them? Do we know what they want, or do we even care? Frankly, I have never thought of that before. I’ve been so self-absorbed in this whole pursuit of a better country for ME, for people who are like ME, and it’s so easy to entrap ourselves in this Klang Valley bubble. (sorry I’m digressing a little here)

I’m really interested to know why these two young girls said there wasn’t a point in going to school, was it because they come from families who didn’t think it was possible to be successful? was it because they don’t have someone to look up to? Most importantly, was it because they had teachers who never once told them that despite where they come from, they can achieve success, just like the “smarter people in KL”? (remind self to ask them tomorrow when I go to the gym, which I WILL BE *gung ho)

I have heard first-hand teachers saying that about their students. “There’s no hope for these students, the best thing we can do is keep them out of trouble”. No, there’s no hope for them because no one told them that they can do it. No one has believed in them, or told them that there’s no excuse to not do well because of their origin and socio-economic background.

I have had the privilege to not just go to a university, but a university abroad nonetheless. Many many other Malaysians out there might not even go to a university (in fact, 4 out of 5 working Malaysians are only educated up to SPM level) so education inequity is definitely well and alive. Although I have not seen it in my bubble, I know it’s there so it’s about time I acknowledge it. To be honest, if anything, I feel quite ashamed. Ashamed because I had wanted to leave this call of urgency behind, leave my country behind.

Ok I realize it’s been a long post, and to you it might have been a whole lot of fluff and nonsense but it’s something I believe in so just entertain me lah haha.

On a completely different note, I wonder how I suddenly became this serious person that I am. I was reading my old posts and I used to be so funny T__T. My resolution for the next few months is to get back my sense of humor, and I’ll start by googling for jokes so watch out for a funny post next wtf