Malay teacher bridges cultures through lifelong journey in Chinese education

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PETALING JAYA: A mother’s persistence forged a deep bond with Chinese education for Malay teacher Suzana from an early age.

From primary school to secondary school, college, and beyond, she remained within the Chinese education system, which profoundly shaped her career and life.

In an interview with Chinese language news portal Sin Chew Daily, Suzana, now 41, shared her journey from being a student learning Chinese and understanding Chinese culture to teaching Malay to Chinese students and introducing Malay culture to them.

Suzana spent her primary school years at SJKC Chi Sin in Muar. Initially, she thought she would attend a national secondary school, but her parents decided to enrol her in an independent Chinese secondary school.

She later continued her education at Southern University College.

Suzana’s connection with Chinese education did not end after graduating from Southern University College. She first worked as a temporary teacher at Foon Yew High School and then returned to her alma mater, Chung Hwa High School in Muar, to teach Malay.

This year marks her 21st year of teaching at Chung Hwa.

Suzana’s mother grew up in a Chinese-majority village in northern Johor and couldn’t communicate with her neighbours due to the language barrier. This experience influenced her mother to send all her children to Chinese primary schools to learn another language.

Suzana, the fourth of seven siblings, was the first to attend a Chinese primary school, and her younger siblings followed in her footsteps.

Interestingly, Suzana’s sister is also a teacher in an independent Chinese secondary school, currently teaching at Kluang Chinese High School. Suzana’s three children also attend SJKC Chi Sin.

When Suzana entered the Chinese primary school, she had no foundation in Chinese.

The first two to three years were particularly tough for her—getting zero on dictation tests, not understanding mathematics, and struggling to communicate with classmates. She often had to ask or answer teachers in Malay. However, through perseverance, she gradually mastered Chinese by the third year, making her school life much smoother.

“Learning another language is an advantage; it will differentiate you from others,” Suzana’s mother told her. Reflecting on the challenges, Suzana recalls the help she received from her neighbour’s family, who often assisted with homework, and she reciprocated by teaching them Malay.

Despite the initial struggles, Suzana looks back fondly on her Chinese schooling experience and would choose it again if given the chance. She now shares her experiences with her students to show them that any language can be learned with determination.

Many of her students find Malay difficult and are reluctant to learn, but Suzana encourages them through various methods.

“I often introduce Malay culture, customs, and food, including the definition of halal and morning prayers.”

After exams, she even arranges for students to learn how to make Malay pastries. She believes that understanding each other’s cultures fosters respect and reduces issues related to race and religion.

Suzana decided to pursue teaching in independent schools after her high school teacher mentioned the lack of Malay teachers there. She chose to major in Malay at Southern University College.

All her three children attended Chinese primary schools, and although her eldest son now attends a national secondary school, he must take Chinese classes as per their agreement.

Suzana believes that while Chinese primary schools have a lot of homework, students are disciplined.

Like her mother, she does not want her children to forget Chinese after graduating from primary school, so she insists they attend independent Chinese secondary schools.

“Mastering another language is advantageous. After graduating from Southern University College, all my job applications were accepted, showcasing the beauty of being able to communicate seamlessly in any situation.”

Suzana noted that many Malays are reluctant to send their children to Chinese primary schools, fearing it would affect their religious beliefs.

Her mother, however, supplemented their education with after-school religious classes, ensuring that they adhered to their religious practices while benefiting from learning another language.

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