The Fulbright Grant Halftime Show

Please note: This blog post will be a lot less formal than my others, if for no other reason than just because I’m starting to write it at 12:23 AM on a Wednesday. In fact, I’m writing this one pretty much solely for myself, so take the whole thing with a grain of salt. I am rushing to post it because it’s my only chance to write about May before I leave for summer break. In nine hours, Clay and I will hop in Molly Brown and head back to the Dorsett hotel for the Mid-Year Conference, in which all 98 ETAs will reconvene in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate and reflect on the first half of the grant year.

Two nights ago, over a late dinner of roti canai and Milo ais, Clay and I discussed the conflicting feelings arising from this milestone. In some ways, it feels like time has flown by. In others – in fact, for me at least, most of the time these past several weeks – it feels more like a slow trudge. This break, as with the March one, comes at the perfect moment. I’ve been going a little stir crazy recently; my temper is short, my stress levels are elevated and my mind is running on fumes. Two and a half weeks outside of the kampung, with very limited communication and a whole new set of adventures to partake in, is exactly what the klinik doctor would have ordered for me.

Given that I’ve reached the halfway point in my time here (or, at least, almost reached… the real halfway point is June 2), I want to look back upon the seven reminders I set for myself in my last blog post from the States. Each of the seven has come into play in unique and influential ways over these past five months, so they are worth quickly reflecting upon before I turn off my laptop for two and a half weeks.

Without further ado, #1: I will have a worst day in Malaysia, but I will also have a best day.

Indeed, this is true, and this knowledge has helped me get through some of the hardest times here while also helping me savor the best ones. The worst days I’ve had so far were the popped tire incident and a few uncomfortable conversations I’ve had with someone important over the past month (which regretfully I cannot elaborate on until November at the earliest), but even these had positive aspects. Meanwhile, the best days (at least my favorites so far) were Sports Day, my birthday and the field trip to Mud.

More commonly, however, my days are roller coaster rides with extreme high and low points, likely a large part of the reason I feel so completely burnt out when I get home every afternoon. Because of my anxious tendencies, I linger on the negative moments more, but my awareness of this is the number one factor that helps me consciously combat it. I will say, in case I have not vocalized it before, I feel incredibly fortunate to have Clay as my roommate. We have tense moments just like any friends would, but I literally can’t fathom how I would be handling this experience without him as my partner in crime.

Additionally, I would be remiss not to mention Ros. She has been such an incredible backbone for me this whole year, and I cannot picture my Malaysian experience without her as my “second Mom”. To be frank, we have had some trouble recently with our mismatched motives. I want to be sure she understands that I do really love her and I truly enjoy every minute we get to spend together. When I do not respond to her messages, it is not because I am angry with her; instead, it is because I maybe am feeling a little tired and anxious and just need space to rest by myself. With a little room to breathe, I will be good as new the next day and ready to share more laughs and love with her! (Side note: I am also proud of myself for being aware enough to realize this as a need of mine, as it’s a fairly new development for me in my own personal self-understanding.)

#2: I will have to make sacrifices in Malaysia, but my experiences will reward me.

The biggest thing that comes to mind here is just how rural my placement is. I have truly felt blessed that I do not feel as though I “want” for anything here. However, the community itself is very small and the distance I must travel to get to school, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. can be a little disheartening sometimes. On the positive side, because Clay and I live in a legit kampung, we are getting a very authentic Malaysian cultural experience. Perhaps my favorite part is that, in living at a homestay, we have an actual family unit here to help us adjust to and understand the culture.

An added bonus of this homestay in particular is that, because of Mr. Ibrahim’s great reputation, there are constantly other guests in the rooms adjacent to us. We have been able to meet and converse with many different Malaysians just by walking out our front door. The funniest and most recent relevant development on that front happened one night a few weeks ago. I was doing work on my laptop in my bedroom and outside on the unfinished patio I heard the unmistakable sounds of teenage boys shout-singing “Sudah Ku Tahu”, a song I am only familiar with because my students have insisted I learn it on guitar. I went out to see what the fuss was about, only to discover that a group of twenty post-secondary Malaysian students had moved into the room behind the patio. Yes, that’s right. TWENTY BOYS in ONE ROOM. Even better, we came to learn they are supposed to stay here for FIVE MONTHS! I spent several hours getting to know them that first night, but I am sure we will have many more interactions to come. A few of them have actually asked me to help them learn English, which I am open to trying. Given the ridiculousness of the situation though, Clay and I have resorted to calling them “Iota Mu Zeta Alpha” – the Homestay Imza fraternity.

#3: I have more to learn from the people I meet there than I have to teach.

As I write this, I am getting very tired and am afraid my writing will soon become incoherent, so I’m going to resort to brief anecdotes. For this lesson, the memory that stands out came from my visit to Azamy’s home the first Saturday in May. He had been very excited to let me come visit him, and I was equally eager to finally have an interaction with students outside of school hours. I came early in the morning; his directions to me were basically, “Drive to Kota Setia, park when you see water and I will find you.” That was intimidating to plug into Google Maps, but it could not have been more accurate. As it turns out, Azamy lives with his grandparents and his younger brother Hakimi (with special needs) in a small shack right next to the riverfront in Kota Setia. His grandmother runs a food stall, while his grandfather goes fishing to catch “udang galah” (king prawn) to serve in the restaurant. After eating mee bandung and watching some Malay anime cartoons with Hakimi, Azamy and I went and sat by the waterfront.

I started teaching him a few guitar chords, which he really seemed to enjoy. As we sat and played, we watched the river waters slowly rise until they covered the bottom step I had been standing on earlier. Azamy opened up to me about his family situation; his parents are separated and through the divorce he and his brother moved in with their grandparents. He seemed flustered trying to discuss this, but I gave him the time and space to share however he felt most comfortable. He then excitedly brought out his diary to show me. I was nervous at first because I did not want to read anything private of his, but he responded, “It’s okay, Sir. It’s all in Malay so you won’t understand anyway.” He then invited me to write him a message in the journal, which touched me deeply. I gave him some sincere words of wisdom as both a teacher and the child of a “broken home”. I then read it with him to be sure he understood. He seemed to really appreciate it.

The reason I chose this anecdote for this goal is that, prior to visiting Azamy, I had not realized just how – for lack of a better term – “third world” some of my students’ living conditions really are. Sungai Ranggam, for all intents and purposes, is a fairly well furbished school, and my neighborhood in Kampung Gajah is also very well-kept. For the few months prior to this, I had slowly come to assume that perhaps the “developing” areas of Malaysia are not quite so poor or run down as I had imagined. In visiting Azamy’s house, I realized just how wrong I was. Seeing the grime and rust all over his family’s shack, not to mention the fact that they all share a single room, was truly eye-opening. Azamy confessed that he often does not sleep at night, instead coming out to sit by the water and write in his diary. In that moment, I decided that upon leaving I will donate my guitar to him. With an instrument to practice – one that he seems very passionate about – he can maybe use this alone time wisely and develop an incredible skill. At the very least, the guitar could serve him the same purpose it has for me: a fun outlet whenever needed to express feelings and frustrations through song.

#4. As an American representative, my actions and words in Malaysia will carry more weight.

No specific example here, just to save time. However, I will say that it has been a little upsetting to me that I have had to start censoring my blog more. It is 100% my own fault, but because I have given access to so many people, these words that I am intending to write really just for myself must be carefully chosen to appeal to all their potential audiences. I just hope when I come back and re-read the posts several years down the line I am still able to remember the subtext and read between my own crafted lines.

#5: If I do not try something when it is offered to me, I may never have the chance again.

The anecdote here: Clay, Sophia and Esme have been talking for weeks about wanting to visit Gua Tempurung, a famous limestone cave in Gopeng that offers spelunking tours to 10,000 tourists every year. Because of my mild claustrophobia and aversion to the creepy crawlies that tend to live in dark moist places, I was pretty opposed to the idea. As I played through possible excuses in my head, this reminder kept popping up and I realized I needed to go, no matter how intimidated I felt. The crew even suckered me into doing the longest, hardest option of the four tours available: a 4.1 km, five-hour trek through the cave, culminating in swimming through an underground river to return safely to base camp. Looking back, I can say – as I might have predicted – that I am SO glad I did it. It was more physically strenuous than I had anticipated, especially for someone of my height, but it certainly felt like a once in a lifetime experience. I will forever treasure the mental images I captured as I laid on my belly pulling myself forward with my arms through the muddy river while keeping my head down so I would not get a concussion from the low ceiling of dangling stalactites. Maybe I will write more on this in my next post… it was an indescribably amazing experience in hindsight. In the moment, it kind of sucked… but in hindsight, man, was it awesome. And I might not have done it had pre-Fulbright Nate not published this reminder five months ago. Kudos to pre-Fulbright Nate. You go, Glen Coco.

#6: Once this experience is over, it is o-v-e-r and I will spend the rest of my life looking back at this period of time with fondness and longing.

This is a tough one to anticipate. You never know what you will miss most when you are in the midst of experiencing it all for the first time. I suppose in some ways this is the reminder I struggle most with as it puts a lot of pressure to savor every single second of this experience. I have only recently come to the conscious realization that, in spite of the temporary nature of my work here, the way I must conduct my life is very typical and a tad boring… very adult, so to speak. Talking to my besties Sam, Emma and Billy back home via webcam this past weekend, I came to realize that our current lifestyle patterns – working, coming home, eating, sleeping, lather, rinse, repeat, then try to have fun on the weekends – are very similar. Mine is just a fraction more exciting because it’s taking place across an ocean. This is not meant to downplay the experience I am having, of course. Rather, it is meant to illustrate why it is so tough to savor every… single… second. I see no problem with just conducting my life here as normally as possible; I thoroughly believe the greatest lessons I can learn here will come when I least expect them. And the fondness and longing are inevitable. Just walking out of school today and realizing I won’t see the kids or teachers for two more weeks left me feeling surprisingly emotional, so much so that I bolted to the car a little faster than usual so the students at the bus stop wouldn’t see me getting choked up. I can’t even imagine what it will feel like to wave goodbye to them in October.

#7: This truly is just the beginning.

As I prepare to enter the latter half of my grant year, the concern about planning for my post-grant future is starting to linger. Still, I feel less fearful about my prospects than ever before. I know the wealth of experiences I am having this year is providing an invaluable foundation to build upon when I get home. I can’t wait to see what that next chapter looks like, but five months is still quite a long time. Heck, a whole fraternity of boys just moved into my homestay for that length of time. For now, I’ll just keep taking it one day at a time, reminding myself of these goals whenever I can, and remembering especially to savor the smiles over the groans. Someday when I look back, they will both bring me the same swell of emotions.

Halfway through a journey with no end,

Nate

The Little Red Dot That Could

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Just south of peninsular Malaysia, narrowly separated from the mainland by the Straits of Johor, sits a tiny, densely-populated island. Its diversity and heritage are very similar to those of Malaysia, but while the latter is still a struggling developing country, the island is ranked first in all of Asia on the UN’s Human Development Index. Most impressively, it has achieved that status in only the past fifty years.

This is Singapore, yet another country I – privileged Westerner that I am – was eager to visit in spite of knowing little to nothing about it. Malaysia celebrated its Labor Day on Monday, May 1, meaning the ETAs had yet another school holiday. Feeling adventurous, Clay, Sophia, Sarah N. and I decided to take the long weekend for a whirlwind road-trip down to the “Lion City”. The plans came together over the course of a week, but ended up being a perfect little getaway.

Right after school let out on Friday, I ran home and ripped off my baju. Clay and I both hastily stuffed our backpacks with the basic supplies and went to meet the ladies in Kampar. We grabbed lunch to go in the town center; I eagerly grabbed myself a foot-long Subway hoagie, a welcome introduction to the banquet of Western cuisine at my disposal over the weekend.

As we ran back to the car, it started to torrentially rain. (After four months here, I don’t know why that still surprises us every time.) As Sarah drove carefully through the foot-deep muddy puddles, the water splashed out under our tires. Clay cried out, “TEH TARIK!” and we all burst out laughing. The car ride down was exhausting, but fun. We listened to the Chainsmokers’ entire discography, stopped halfway for ice cream and crafted ridiculous Malay sentences. Sophia found “Siapa ayam itu?” especially funny, probably because I used a funny voice to translate it as “Who dat chicken?”

IMG_9058By the time we reached Johor Bahru (the southernmost city in peninsular Malaysia), it was almost midnight. We parked our car at a mall nearby and, after some confusion, found the bus station to get across the bridge to customs. We had to run back and forth a few times to catch a bus, and even once we had it took over an hour to reach our hostel (the Little Red Dot, not exactly my favorite place I’ve stayed). We got there so late that the receptionist had gone to sleep already; we woke her up to get our key, which she was none too pleased by.

IMG_9191Fortunately, we had agreed to shell out a few extra bucks to get a private room for the four of us. It was a tad claustrophobic and the walls had some mysterious mold growing on them, but at least it gave us privacy. As we settled in, I tried to plug in my phone to charge and the power blew out. We – once again – woke the receptionist up, and she kindly if begrudgingly reset the circuit breaker for us. Once this was settled, we all passed straight out.

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Dunkin’ Donuts in SE Asia offer cheese-topped donuts. I opted against them.

We got an early start the next day and stopped by a nearby mall for breakfast. I was thrilled to find a Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, so much so that I ate there the next day as well. After breakfast, I took the lead in suggesting we start our tourism off at the Gardens by the Bay. As an avid fan of Planet Earth, this was number one on my list to visit. Singapore is noted for being at the forefront of urban naturalization, seamlessly integrating a large city environment into the existing natural landscape and making every attempt to minimize their carbon footprint. The Gardens are the apex of this national endeavor, an expansive nature reserve right along the city waterfront.

We started our visit with a ten minute ride in the Gardens’ solar-powered self-driving

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Trapped in a terrifying metal death trap… or, rather, a self-driving car!

car. While it moved at a tortoise speed, it was still pretty thrilling to see such a remarkable modern technological achievement at work. The car’s operator also informed us that the Gardens cost $53 million SGD per year to upkeep – an impressive federal investment for the country, while simultaneously nauseating to consider in comparison to the Trump administration’s massive funding cuts to environmental investments.

We then spent about an hour walking through the “Cloud Garden”, the world’s tallest man-made waterfall, surrounded by a mountain of different types of incredible foliage, staggered based on the altitude at which they best grow. From there, we visited the “Flower Garden” a massive complex showcasing different flowering plants from all the corners of the world (divided by continent). They were having a Van Gogh exhibition where they tried to recreate his paintings from tulips, a concept much more appealing in theory than in practice. We then spied a man doing a strange photo-shoot with two porcelain dolls amidst the flowers, which made us giggle. Also funny: Clay spotted figurines of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in one area of the garden and it instantly occurred to him that, given the “haram” nature of pigs in Islamic doctrine, our students would hate Piglet. ADORABLE LITTLE PIGLET! (All due respect to the faith, of course, but this still gave us a laugh.)

We then walked to find lunch at a nearby mall, stopping briefly to admire the Supertree Grove. The Supertrees are massive purplish metal skeletons adorned at their base with vine-like plants. They are still fairly new installments, but in theory over the coming years, the vines will grow and cover the skeleton turning them into giant biomes in their own right. They were just as impressive in person as I had dreamt them to be. Also, given that the city was relatively quiet because of (Malaysian/Singaporean) Labor Day weekend, we pretty much had these famous leviathan creations to ourselves for the few minutes we were there, a humbling moment to be sure.

For lunch, we went to a world-famous Michelin star restaurant in the mall portion of the Marina Bay Sands hotel (a building vaguely resembling a cruise ship) called Din Tai Fung. Because the restaurant is family-style and franchised, in spite of its fame and awards, it was relatively affordable, so we splurged and ordered a bunch of types of soup dumplings to share and we each got our own plate of noodles. As we joked, we were #BallingOnABudget. Sophia taught us the proper way to eat soup dumplings: poke a hole in the breading, suck out the hot soup, dip the dumpling in soy sauce and dig in. It was absolutely delectable – though not even the best Michelin Star meal I ate in my 48 hours in Singapore. More on that later…

From lunch, we moseyed out to a nearby grocery store to look for western treats, and I was delighted to find American favorite Arizona Iced Tea there. I tried a unique flavor, blueberry white tea, and it was fabulous. Outside the store, Clay and I took a consumer report survey and got keychains of Singapore’s city mascot, the “Merlion”, as a free souvenir gift. We then went over to the mall’s iceless skating rink and watched two adorable kids continuously slip and fall on their butts. Clay really wanted to try it; I hesitated for a bit before agreeing to do it with him, although we both backed out when we saw the price tag for skate rental. Sometimes you’ve got to make choices to #BallOnABudget.

We took a stroll through the other shops, stopping to admire some creepy human-shaped mannequins with realistic cat heads at the Gucci outlet. We played around with some toys in the mall toy store, before going up to look at the DC Comics Café. We were stuffed from lunch, but being the nerds that we are, Clay and I felt obligated to try something. He got a strawberry Wonder Woman ice cream pop and I had a Harley Quinn mint gelato shake. Neither of us finished our desserts.

Before leaving, we had to pee. Clay and I were impressed to find the restroom we chose had been awarded five stars for being one of the best toilets in the whole mall. Like Buddy the Elf, we applauded this questionable achievement. (We have also judged every toilet we have used since then for not living up to this standard.)

From the mall, Sarah suggested we head to the city’s famous Ferris wheel, the Singapore Flyer, one of the largest in the world. In spite of a hefty price tag, we all went along with it, and it was mostly a good decision. We laughed comparing it to the awful, rickety Ferris wheel we had ridden for RM2 in Kuala Perlis, noting that this justified the extra cost of this giant ride. We shared our capsule with some other tourists, but like good American tourists, we treated it like our own; we took full photo-shoots and I did a Jordan Rodnizki-esque interpretive dance when we reached the pinnacle of the circle. In all seriousness though, it was beautiful to see the city from that high up, and amazing to consider how new all of the immense structures on its skyline are. In spite of its incredible GDP, the city really felt to me like it was just getting started. From the top, we could see all the way to Malaysia to our north and Indonesia to our south. The southern bay was also full of hundreds of barges full of cargo, an unmistakable sign of the city’s wealth and importance for trading purposes.

We all felt pretty wiped when we came back to ground level, so we headed back to our hostel for some brief recuperation. After an hour or so, we set out to find the city’s Baja IMG_9189Fresh in Little India. As I noted in my Bali blog, I’m not much of a fan of Mexican food back home, but something about wanting what I can’t have has made me crave salsa, sour cream and guac as much as any of my friends. After dinner, we wandered to a nearby bar where we sat and chatted about ETA life, political qualms and our feelings on marijuana legalization. I ordered a Singapore Sling cocktail, which only felt appropriate to try for the first time in its namesake city. For the record, I thought it was delicious.

Post-drinks, we were set to head straight home. On the walk back toward our hostel, however, we saw an intriguing sign outside a quiet building. It read: “Club Bebe: a true cultural experience”. In a burst of spontaneity, we decided to check it out. We walked up a long and sketchily well-lit set of stairs, through a door at the top to find what immediately appeared to be a strip club. There were no dancers at that moment, just a lot of flashing neon strobe lights. Captivated, we took a seat at some barstools behind a red velvet couch and ordered a pitcher of cheap Carlsberg to split. The hostess brought us a little dish of stale potato sticks to split and informed us that the performance would begin in half an hour.

As we sat, we took in our surroundings. The stage was glorious; a huge LED screen projected an apparently hyperactive version of a Windows 2000 screensaver, bordered by spider window decals and flanked by two poles. On stage left was a DJ booth and a full wardrobe of costumes; I was tempted to grab the red boa I saw out of habit. As we sat enjoying the music, the promised half-hour came and went. As we questioned the hostess’ info, Clay and Sarah (facing away from the stage) noticed some suspicious activity behind Sophia and I. We turned around to see a number of beautiful, well-dressed Asian women flirting with some clearly inebriated older Chinese businessmen. A few of them got up and left through a small corridor behind the bar. It was at that moment we were struck by a hilariously harrowing realization: Club Bebe was a brothel.

Okay, maybe not exactly. We went to scope out the corridor under the ruse of needing to use the restroom (which was closer to 1.5 stars, I might add) and noticed that the customers were only sitting in the rooms watching television with the ladies. Still, something was odd about it, an aura intensified by the discovery of a large set of lockers next to the kegs in the back area. Thoroughly freaked out and equally amused, we ditched to head home, but we were glad to have given Bebe a shot. One could say that Bebe was BliBli.

We passed out shortly after getting home. The next day, Sophia split off to meet with

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National Museum of Singapore

some family friends who lived locally. Clay went to the National Art Gallery, while Sarah and I went to the National Museum instead. The two hours we spent there (hardly enough time, if I’m being honest) were probably my favorite part of the whole trip. The museum’s main exhibit covered Singapore’s history all the way from its earliest records as a small East Asian fishing village to its many race-fueled riots to its presently booming economy. I could have spent days going through the exhibit, but alas we were on a schedule to meet back up with our friends for lunch.

When we finished in the main exhibit, Sarah and I walked over to another exhibit area

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Singaporean Malays in the early 1900s, adopting the fashion style of their British colonialists

with an eye-popping sign. We went in to find we were at the top of a giant planetarium, a walkway spiraling down around the circumference of the room. We walked through and were greeted by projections of poorly-animated cartoon animals frolicking alongside us. We think it was trying to show the different types of plant and animal life native to Singapore, but the whole thing was very strange. When we reached the bottom of the dome, we found a pair of black beanbag chairs. We laid in them and gazed up to see projections of strange flowers raining down from the ceiling. Yet again, we did not understand its significance, but we were thoroughly immersed for several minutes. The exhibit was honestly pretty poorly executed, but we still had fun getting confused by it. Let’s just say it would have been a big hit at Woodstock or Burning Man.

We then made a quick pit stop in the museum gift shop. The souvenirs were not

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The real mystery: who would want to read this?

particularly interesting, but we were charmed to find a “Mystery Book Vending Machine”. For $20 SGD, the machine would dispense a random book written by a Singaporean author, wrapped in used printer paper to hide its identity. We both risked it and got a book. Sarah’s was an awesome-looking comic book, but I was decidedly less lucky; I got the first two books of a sci-fi trilogy about a girl who learns she can talk to pterodactyls. Later that day, I found the bookstore that ran the vending machines and they graciously allowed me trade my weird purchase in for a book I actually wanted – The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer-winning novel set during the Vietnam War written by a Vietnamese author. I figure it will make good reading material during my upcoming June travels.

After this, we met up with Clay and took the subway over to the Mall where Sophia was with her family friends. On the way there, we were stopped by employees of a cosmetics company and interviewed for a viral video about Mothers’ Day. It has since gone viral and been viewed over 20,000 times, so our international celebrity is continuing to grow. At the mall, I got an underwhelming tuna sandwich and tomato soup combo for lunch while Sarah and Clay got Mexican for the second time in two days. Sophia briefly introduced us to her parents’ friends before bidding them farewell. At this point, Clay had plans to meet up with an online gaming friend while Sophia and Sarah decided they wanted to go shopping in the mall. This didn’t appeal to me, so I split off to go on an adventure of my own.

A brief bit of cultural context: Singapore’s history and culture are very closely tied to those of Malaysia. In fact, when Malaysia declared its independence in 1963, Singapore was a state within Malaysia just like Perak. The Malaysian government that took shape was dominated by Muslim Malays. While they preached the importance of setting up a moderate democracy as the basis for the country, the government was intimidated by Singapore, a region heavily populated by Chinese immigrants. Threatened by the potential lack of support they would face from the people there (in spite of reassurance from the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew), the Malay government kicked Singapore out of their union. This means Singapore is, at least presently, the only country in the world forced into independence.

Back to the present day: given the importance of Singapore’s Chinese population to its history, not to mention the fact that I already have had significant exposure to the Malay and Indian cultures, I decided to complete my trifecta of cultural exposure by exploring Chinatown. This led me to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a massive five-story temple made famous because it contains an alleged tooth relic of Siddhartha Gautama. I have been to several Buddhist temples this year, but this was far and away the most striking in every facet – architecturally, informatively, spiritually. The main room on the first floor had a giant statue of Buddha Maitreya (believed to be a future enlightened Buddha who will come to spread teachings of dharma after they are forgotten by the terrestrial world). The statue was carved from the trunk of an ancient tree and painted gold, so in the lights of the temple it was exquisite to behold. The walls of this room were lined with thousands of small ceramic statues of different Buddhas. In the center, roped off from tourists, a congregation of Buddhists was deep in prayer led by several monks.

After a brief period of admiration, I felt vaguely unethical joining the crowd of tourists observing the praying faithful like some sort of exhibit. I headed upstairs to the second and third floor, full of incredible art and treasures depicting different Buddha figures. I then went to the fourth floor where the relic is housed, taking my shoes off and putting my phone away as a sign of respect. The actual sanctuary is behind a set of glass windows so it can be viewed and worshipped from afar. The tooth is housed in a massive gold stupa housed within walls made of solid gold tiles (aside from the aforementioned windows). On the sides of the observation room were decks with pillows for prayer purposes. I sat upon one and meditated for a few minutes. I found my thoughts were more frantic than usual, likely because of the exhaustion of travel and chaos of April (see my previous post), so I decided to take 100 very deep breaths and use the counting as a way of clearing my head. It worked beautifully, and I left the sanctuary feeling a few pounds lighter than when I came. I also took a quick detour to the massive prayer wheel on the roof, surrounded by 10,000 miniature Buddha sculptures, but only visited briefly as I did not want to disrupt the congregants using the wheel to pray.

Leaving the temple, I still had some time before I needed to meet up with the rest of the crew, so I moseyed through some of the street stalls, admiring singing bowls and paper lanterns but opting not to buy any. At the end of the market street, a sign caught my eye:

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A Michelin-star hawker stall, with a name as long as its queue

the “cheapest Michelin star meal in the world”! Having whet my appetite the day before at Din Tai Fung, and feeling displeased by my mediocre soup-and-sandy lunch, I made a pit stop. The restaurant, called “Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle”, is the first hawker stall in the world to be recognized by Michelin for its excellent cuisine. I got lucky in that the queue line (sometimes up to two hours long) only took about ten minutes to get through. For just a few SGD, I got a take-away box of chicken noodles doused with a perfectly portioned dose of sweet chili sauce. While I waited for my food, I watched as a television screen above the kitchen area displayed an interview with the stall’s founder, who said that the greatest thrill to him was not the award itself but rather that his success might award more legitimacy and attention to the amazing culinary work being done at all the hawker stall restaurants in Singapore. I can attest that the food was delicious, easily one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Asia thus far and well worth the visit.

After meeting back up, my friends and I went to the Bugis Street Market, a famous – if slightly overwhelming – street of shops and stalls in all shapes and sizes. Clay and I each purchased a set of 24 keychains for $10 SGD (a steal of a deal) to use as prizes for our students. After some more window-shopping, we struggled to pick a dinner spot, eventually setting on a gyro place nearby. Sarah mistakenly ordered hers with “hot chili sauce”, thinking it would be just a spicier version of Malaysian chili sauce. In fact, it was so hot she could barely finish the first bite of her meal. I thought she was exaggerating, so I took a bite as well… and I can confidently say it was the hottest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I could not taste anything for about twenty minutes, and I had to drink a liter of water and a can of Milo to calm the burn.

My compatriots were all pretty exhausted by this point, so we opted to go back to the hostel and call it an early night. I was a little disappointed at first, but I realized it was a good decision, especially given the long day of travel ahead of us to make it home by sundown. While lying in bed, Clay and I listened to Hasan Minhaj’s spot-on White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, and then I took advantage of the hostels high-speed WiFi to call and catch up with Mom.

The next day we packed up early, checked out, grabbed a quick breakfast nearby the IMG_9183hostel and then Uber’d to the customs station to bus back across to Johor Bahru. After retrieving our car, Clay got into a wrong lane and almost ended up driving us back over the border to Singapore. Other than that, the ride home was more draining than it was eventful. There was substantial traffic getting back; we passed the time by playing a “Car-P-G” game in which Clay narrated a role-playing story about a space shuttle on which the other three of us were astronauts. I became enamored with the character I created, a spunky Texan recruit named Don Jon Rambutan. With a few pit stops and some laughter, we were home in no time… err, I mean… 12 hours later.

I really enjoyed my experience in Singapore. To this ignorant tourist’s eye, it appeared to be a perfect combination of the freedoms of the United States with the deep-seated diversity of Malaysia. Further research has enlightened me to the fact that the island has many social struggles of its own, largely due to the controversial political decisions made (perhaps necessarily) by Lee Kuan Yew in order to catapult the tiny society to international success in only half a century’s time. Still, the country’s many virtues – among them its appreciation of nature, its policies for equal opportunity, and its forward-thinking societal developments – are estimable and distinctive in comparison to the rest of the region, the continent and even the world at large.

The image from my trip that will stick most with me came from the National Museum. In one room of the main exhibit, a seven-minute video clip plays on a continuous loop. It shows the first public interview with PM Lee after Singapore was forced out of Malaysia. As I watched this footage and listened to him speak – even though it was in black and white, even though its subject is deceased, even though I have no direct personal ties to the history being depicted – I felt a kinship with the man. While Lee Kuan Yew is a very complicated historical figure, one whom I have since become fascinated by, in that moment he showed his raw humanity. Unwillingly thrust into a position of immense responsibility, his emotions brimmed over his political walls and he began to weep for the irreparable fracturing of his old homeland and his new one.

As he composed himself, he offered these reassuring words to Singaporeans: “In the end, sometimes history takes many devious turns. Just as a river loops and bends around mountains and valleys before it reaches the sea, so the history of a people takes many loops and bends before it reaches its destiny.” I could only imagine the strength it took to preach those words at such a distressing moment, but within them – all these years later – I found reassurance for myself. The United States is certainly going through quite a loop right now, and I too am approaching yet another bend when I return from Malaysia; still, rather than being tormented by the twisting river we ride on and the uncertainty of its destination, I can take solace in the knowledge that there is a greater unseen destiny ahead. With this conviction, I can take a deep breath (or a hundred) and carry on one day at a time.

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In short, Singapore was expensive, impressive, informative and inspiring. In some ways, it felt like an urban embodiment of my own spirit: in spite of its amazing growth over its short history, its successes are just getting started.

Reveling in wanderlust,

Nate

The Quiet in the Chaos

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Dinner with Clay and some of his students… They made me try “otah-otah”, a.k.a. mashed fish brains. Surprisingly, not bad.

Americans love the idiom, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” As with many parts of my life abroad this year, I found the complete opposite to be true. With exams in March and my trip to Bali, things were very calm, but April has been a veritable monsoon of emotions and experiences.

I rang in the month with a weekend getaway with my ETA peeps Clay, Sophia, Esme, Emily and Ashira. It came about when we were invited to a luncheon in Ipoh with the Cultural Affairs Officer of the US Embassy, Michael Quinlan. Over wonton soup and some kuih, he checked in with us about our experiences thus far in Malaysia. In one of my answers, I mentioned the concerns of the majority of our cohort with regard the anti-Muslim rhetoric being broadcast frequently from the States. He gave an incredibly professional yet impassioned response about performing our given roles to the best of our abilities and fighting complacency at any cost. I entered the luncheon uncertain of its purpose and left feeling inspired and empowered to make a difference, however small, during my time here.

IMG_8272From Ipoh, we headed to the ferry to Pulau Pangkor, a relatively small island just off the coast of Perak. While we waited for our ferry, we played Frisbee in the grass by the dock. For some reason, the new disc turned our fingers bright orange. When we got to the island, we took a van to the Coral Bay Resort, dropped off our bags and then walked down to the beach a couple kilometers away. Having been to the incomparable Dreamland only two weeks before, I was super underwhelmed. There was barely enough sand to sit on, the beach was full of trash and the water was murky. Clay on the other hand, having spent his spring break in dusty Myanmar, was on top of the world. He, Emily and Esme decided to be adventurous and swim out to a rock maybe 100 meters from shore, while Sophia, Ashira and I waded in only as far as our shoulders and had a nice heart-to-heart about our love lives. After only half an hour or so of beach time, I noticed dark clouds starting to roll in so I suggested we clean up and find some dinner.

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We went home and took quick rinse-off showers. While waiting for my turn, I found a pack of toothpicks on a table in our hotel room and challenged myself to fit as many as possible into my hair. On every tenth toothpick, Emily would give me a sticker from the massive sticker-book she brought for her students. I called it quits when I reached 100. For dinner, we walked down a little stretch of Chinese family-style restaurants next to our hotel that all looked pretty much the same: Tiger beer signs, plastic chairs packed with customers and tablecloths reminiscent of a Maryland crab feast. Choosing dishes was a bit of a chore because we all have vastly different diets, but we settled on a few after some lengthy discussion. I decided on a whim to try sugarcane juice as my drink, and I did not regret it.

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We were planning to head straight home from there, but we noticed the bar next door had karaoke, a must do for our Perak crew. After our karaoke adventure, we grabbed some snacks from a convenience store nearby and then headed back to the hotel. We got a taste of home by watching America’s Funniest Home Videos; we loved the winning video, in which a driving father gagged while his son was vomiting in his car’s passenger seat. Sophia then invited us all to watch a news clip of a dead Indonesian man being cut out of the body of a python. Afterward, we had a cuddle puddle on one of the beds and gossiped like middle school students until we passed out. The next morning, we packed up, checked out and grabbed a disappointingly expensive breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

We took a shuttle to a beach on the other side of the island, hearing it was somewhat nicer than the one closest to the hotel. This was true; the beach was larger and cleaner, the sand was less rocky and the waves were calm. However, after only an hour, a torrential downpour started. Sophia and I took shelter in a little gazebo on the edge of the sand alongside some campers. We laughed as we watched a monkey use the weather as an opportunity to raid their campsite in search of food. When the weather settled, we headed back to the hotel for a quick dip in the pool before leaving for the ferry.

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After a delay with the ferry and a long drive home, we got back to our homestay shortly after 4 PM. Ibu Nor Rizah had hosted a makan-makan in memory of her late brother earlier that afternoon, but several of her family members were still at our house and eagerly invited Clay and I to join them. I ended up befriending the family’s kids, allowing them to play with my beach ball globe and guitar. We hung out for over an hour and had a total blast. It made me very excited for the upcoming Hari Raya festivities in mid-June, in which Ibrahim is very excited to have Clay and I participate.

An update on Ibrahim’s patio: two months into construction, it is still not completed. Every day, I giggle when I get home from school to find five to ten Malaysian workers slaving away in the heat while making no visible progress. The structure is a tad absurd to look at: immense, ornate and totally out of place. It includes multiple intense Roman columns and is almost as large as the actual house. Every time Clay or I ask Ibrahim when it will be finished, he says, “Maybe two weeks?” We were pleasantly surprised to learn it will include a ping-pong table, so we are anxiously awaiting its grand opening – which will inevitably be celebrated with another makan-makan, I have no doubt.

At school, the first half of April was largely consumed by preparing for and debriefing from my big field trip to KL, as I described in my previous blog post. Thus, more frequently than I care to admit, my lesson plans this month have been a bit of an afterthought. I assumed the lack of progress being made in my speaking workshops could be caught up in May, but I learned just this week that my students are about to enter yet another two-week exam period leading straight into summer break. The upcoming two weeks will be useful in prepping for some more of my long-term projects, but I’m going to have to kick butt come June to get the students on track for our (god-willing) September drama performance.

While my classes might not have been as successful, I have continued to develop my friendships with certain students. My John Wick buddy, Shahrul Nizam, still makes me laugh every time I talk to him. Little Ibrahim from 1AK, for whom I have stood up in the face of classroom bullies a few times, eagerly greets me whenever he runs into me. The girls have started to converse with me about more than just my stunning good looks. Even some of the boys who were shy at first now light up when they see me. One student in particular, Syuib from 5IR, seems to think of me as an endless orb of knowledge; every day, he asks me about the meaning of English words or phrases, my thoughts on certain topics or even if I can fix his broken computer.

Perhaps the student I have grown closest with though is a 4IK student named Azamy. He is unique in that, despite being in the “lowest” class, he shows a true desire to learn. Anytime he has a free moment, he comes (with his sidekick Azli in tow) to visit me in the bilik guru. Because he does not have WeChat, he is the only student I have given permission to use WhatsApp with me. I just recently learned that he often texts Haziq first to check the grammar of his messages so he can be sure he uses proper English when he speaks to me. He has invited me to come fishing with him and his grandfather, introduced me to new music and taught me about his favorite anime shows. He even changed both his cover and profile pictures on Facebook to photos he took with me. I feel as though he is teaching me more than I am teaching him, but it is nice to know I am influencing at least one student this much.

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My attachment to my community hit a pinnacle on my birthday. I had casually dropped hints about it for a few weeks before – not because I was expecting anything, but just in hopes that the students might remember and be extra cheery with me that day as I was a little nervous about being homesick. Turns out I got way more than I bargained for. In the morning, I walked over to Clay’s and was greeted with a gift bag of Milo products – ice cream, candy, cereal and the drink itself. (I have to find a way to repay him; his birthday is the day our grant ends, so we must celebrate early!) When I got to school, I walked into morning assembly (wearing the new kurta Ros bought for me in KL) and was surprised to hear my name mentioned amidst the incomprehensible Malay announcements. Suddenly, in unison, all 340-odd students at Semesra sang “Happy Birthday” to me. In the moment, I was super embarrassed, but Ros filmed it and posted it to Facebook so I can look back on it and smile.

The day only got better from there. Besides baking a cake, Ros also bought a second one from the fancy (and absurdly pricy) restaurant Secret Recipe. The other teachers brought some side dishes, so we had a potluck in the morning in the bilik guru. Much to my surprise, my jokes from the KL mall were taken seriously; Amy gave me a whole bag of Minion-themed gifts (and also, for some reason, cologne) and Ros bought me two adorable Minion dolls. I’ve named them Bean (i.e. “Mr. Bean”) and Buntat (a beloved Malaysian character), and I talk to them every day like they are my pets. I’m sure my dog Louie would be very jealous.

One of my speaking workshop classes, 3 al-Farabi, even held a little surprise party for me during their English period. One of my first student friends from Semesra, Haikal Iman, baked me a Milo cake and gave me a statue of the Petronas Towers for my desk. One of the girls from the class also gave me a giant stuffed bunny, a stuffed Gingerbread man wearing a Santa hat (not sure where a Muslim child would have found this, but I digress) and a heart pillow that says “I love you”! Long story short, I was spoiled rotten by my community.

The day was actually more complicated than that though. To emphasize, I had a fantastic day and was humbled that my school went so far out of their way to make me feel special. However, in the midst of all this, around lunchtime that day I came into the bilik guru to find Ros openly weeping while several other teachers comforted her. I asked, “Is she okay?” and one of the teachers harshly retorted, “Clearly she’s not.” As it so happens, our principal is planning to retire next year and thus has very high hopes for excellent SPM scores this year – especially given that Semesra has never had a student score an “A” on their English exam. Accordingly, he decided to take Ros’ highest-performing (and favorite) class – 5 Ibnu Sina – and give them to Haziq.

I had to keep mum about the situation given my precarious position as an ETA, but here’s my take. In some way, I can understand Tuan Haji’s thought process; Haziq is young and is a published author, while Ros has been teaching English here for a decade with no “A” scores to show for it. However, he did not take into account that Ros has been single-handedly grooming these 5IS kids in English for three years straight. Haziq was also intimidated by the prospect of tackling the class given his total lack of experience teaching Form 5. This is not even mentioning how messed up it is, both for students and teachers, to switch a class’ teacher halfway through the school year; perhaps this would have gone differently if Tuan Haji had chosen to do it in January rather than a third of the way into the year.

Of course, these are only my observations of a very complex and layered scenario. To me, though, it just demonstrated the pervasive lack of communication between teachers and administrators – another similarity between America and Malaysia. It also led me to see both of my mentors in a new light; Haziq was clearly stressed by the whole situation and uncomfortable being thrust into drama, while Ros’ irrepressible sadness and hurt gave a window into how deeply she cares about her job and her students here. If I did not already have great respect for her dedication, this sealed the deal. Ultimately, everything worked out; once she calmed down the next morning, Ros stood up for herself to the principal and negotiated a compromise to relinquish a different Form 5 class in order to keep 5IS. Still, the whole ordeal sent her into a bit of a downward spiral that she has (and, consequently, I have) been recovering from ever since.

Anyways, back to the subject of my awesome birthday. When school let out, Clay and I drove over to Kampar for dinner at our favorite Western restaurant, Wing Zone. Sophia and Esme joined us, and my three awesome friends surprised me with a FOURTH CAKE! Clay had privately messaged my grandma on Facebook to ask what kind of cake to get. In an instance of “older people should not use technology”, she replied on his public page where everyone could see it, so he deleted her answer. Also, in her reply, she never actually answered his question, so instead he asked Ros. During a round of “Whisper Down the Lane” in class the week prior, I had jokingly used the sentence, “I want to smash my face into a chocolate cake.” Yada yada yada… I got a chocolate cake. (And yes, I did smash my face into my slice.)

After dinner, we wanted to play Catan at the Board Game Café, supposedly open 6 PM to midnight every day, but when we arrived it was closed. In another funny cultural moment, we called the owner and learned he had just decided not to come in that day. (I have found that this is not uncommon in Malaysia; publicized “business hours” seem to be more of a suggestion than a mandate.) Instead, Sophia had the idea to go a few doors down and try playing “snooker”, a more complicated version of billiards. Upon entering the hall, we were enthralled by the ambiance. Our olfactory systems were gobsmacked by a wave of moldy stench. Mysterious water dripped from the ceiling onto Sophia’s head. Everyone else in the building was Chinese, so we were the sorest thumbs there. While we played, Sophia asked the front desk to play “Happy Birthday” over the loudspeakers for me; they played an unintentionally hilarious acoustic Christian rendition they found on YouTube. We then hijacked the sound system and listened to Ed Sheeran, Weezer and Nickelback on repeat. I’m sure this only confirmed American stereotypes to the other people in the joint, but what the hell. It was my birthday after all! When our hour was up, we got kicked out despite not having finished our game, so we swung over to a nearby bar for a quick game of darts before heading home. All in all, a solid end to an amazing birthday. 23’s going to be a good year.

The following weekend, I skipped two English camps in Perak for a mini-Easter break. I had a lazy Saturday, but on Sunday my Catholic guilt caught up to me. I dropped Clay off in Changkat Lada for handball practice and then headed to Teluk Intan for Easter Mass. I chose a church called St. Anthony’s because they specifically listed an English-language service. Most of the crowd was Indian, but there was a significant Chinese contingent as well; the readings were subtitled with projections in Mandarin. The pastor was a stern-looking Indian man, whose Homily was not exactly indicative of what I would consider the “holiday spirit”. He essentially spent half an hour yelling at the congregation for not being committed enough to their faith to help out in preparations for the holiday. I understood the point he was trying to make, but after twenty minutes of lecturing my head was starting to hurt. I took out my iPhone to check the time; at that exact moment he changed gears to criticize the use of technology during religious sermons. Two hours into the ordeal, I overcame my guilt and respectfully ducked out of the service. I grabbed McDonalds’ for Clay and I on the way home. Hopefully God understands.

Adding to the Easter and birthday festivities, my mom also sent me an amazing care package. It was detained by customs in Ipoh, so I had to pay a fee to for it to be shipped to Teluk Intan where I then had to pick it up in person. It was a lot of hassle, but well worth it. The package had Peeps, mint Oreos, Fruit Gushers, extra socks, two new Frisbees, and tons of root beer candy. For clarification: I had read somewhere before leaving the States that Malaysia did not have root beer readily available. As the saying goes, we always want what we cannot have, so I drank a lot of root beer in the weeks leading up to my departure. Upon arriving here, I was pleasantly surprised to realize root beer is readily available pretty much everywhere. I guess I forgot to update Mom on this one, but no matter. The candy was still great.

Along with Easter, there has been a strong undercurrent of religious themes in my daily life this month. One day, I came into school to discover the Form 5 boys setting up a large painted box in the middle of the parking lot. I instantly recognized it as a replica of the Kaaba, the sacred building in Mecca toward which Muslims face when they say their daily prayers. As it turns out, once a year, the school brings in an Imam to explain to the students the requirements of the Hajj, the journey to Mecca that all financially-able Muslims are expected to take at some point in their lives. After the lesson, the students in Forms 4 and 5 put on traditional garments and walk through the stages of the Hajj journey together.

The kids were eager to let me watch and even invited me to participate, which I respectfully denied out of consideration for our religious differences. I still learned a lot from watching the rehearsal. The students recited an Arabic prayer while circling the box seven times. They then each collected seven pebbles and chanted “Allahu Akhbar” while throwing them at a board (which, in Mecca, is actually three walls), an act meant to symbolize stoning the devil. The whole ordeal reminded me of the time I played the role of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross in 5th grade. I am not sure whether this sort of practice is common in more diverse schools, but it was inspiring to see given Semesra’s religiously homogeneous population.

Later in the month, on Hari Kecemerlangan – a day in which classes are cancelled to host a ceremony celebrating student exam accomplishments – I was invited to join the teachers for a luncheon at the Kuarters Guru. Before the meal, the teachers separated into two rooms based on gender and said an extended afternoon prayer, meant to honor and bring comfort to the spirits of the dead. I initially sat myself outside so as not to intrude, but my principal invited me to join in the prayer circle alongside the teachers. As they sat around and chanted their prayer in Arabic, I meditated and said a few Christian prayers of my own. This moment – practicing our individual religions with a shared intent – is something I hope I remember for many years to come. In spite of my own personal tumultuous relationship with religion, this Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

Shifting gears: this month, I also spent a lot of my free time planning for upcoming trips. The most pressing one is a two-week summer break, in which I will be traveling to Cambodia and Vietnam. I am really pumped about both of these countries for many reasons that I will invariably elaborate upon down the road. [As of the time I write this,] I am also taking a long weekend road trip to Singapore with Clay, Sophia and Sarah N. It is coming together very hastily, but I’m sure it will be great despite my lack of preparation. Along with a significant portion of the ETA cohort, I will be visiting Borneo in July for the Rainforest Music Festival outside of Kuching. In August, we have our one-week autumn break. I am thinking of using my allotted personal days to extend it through a second week to visit Japan and [to the chagrin of my mom and Ros] South Korea. I am trying my best not to allow my anticipation for these trips to overshadow the importance of my work in school, but they are a nice buffer on hard days as a source of excitement.

More importantly, given that I am almost halfway through the year, I am starting to look at post-grant plans. MACEE surprised us early in April by asking for what date we’d like to return to the United States (anytime between the end of our job on November 2 and December 31). I decided, after lots of thought, that I was comfortable missing Thanksgiving but really wanted to be home for Christmas. I settled on December 20, giving me exactly 50 days from the end of my grant to travel. I originally planned to visit Australia and New Zealand at the end of the year because they’re not too far from Malaysia. I realized in my research though that it is only slightly more expensive to travel westward instead; given the abundance of cultural opportunity in comparison to Australia, I immediately shifted gears and started building a dream backpacking trip through Europe. Stay tuned for more details on this.

Perhaps because I have started planning my return to the States, April was the first time I’ve felt homesick since being here. The feeling has not been all-consuming. Instead, it has been manifesting in smaller everyday ways. My patience for cultural differences is wearing a little thinner. I’ve been snappier than I should be with Ros and some of the students. I feel more tired than usual but also have trouble falling asleep at night. These are little things, but they add up quickly and are tough to overcome. One of the biggest assets that has helped is the series of letters my family wrote for me at my going away party. I came here with eleven envelopes of notes from home, and each month when I feel at my lowest point, I turn on some soft music on Spotify and devour the next set of letters. I then tape them up on my wall, a little shrine to remind me that what I am missing is not as far away as I may think. I owe a hearty debt of gratitude to everyone who wrote to me, and especially to my mom and grandma for making these happen. They are instrumental in maintaining my sanity.

To help cope with homesickness, MACEE called all of the Perak ETAs to Ipoh in mid-April for a program called Water Break. For three days, we held workshops on identity, FOMO, productivity, motivation, self-care, program policy refreshers and team building. In some ways, it was helpful in giving us a space to have difficult conversations, but it also felt strangely unnecessary to me. Perhaps because our experiences in our schools are all so different, sharing and listening to others’ stories of the positive and negative aspects of our schools seemingly had no effect on my well-being. If anything, it was just draining. I almost wish we had just been given time to bond casually instead; I feel like the discussions that needed to happen to build a supportive community might have been more effective had they arisen naturally.

Perhaps the most resonant conversation from the weekend was the very last one we had. We took a moment to each reflect on one aspect of Malaysian life that makes us smile. After we all shared, Esme astutely noted that, despite all venting about our different personal annoyances and anxieties, the one factor we all had in common was the relative simplicity of our happy moments. Whether watching the sunrise on the drive to school or a certain inside joke shared with students, she said, the things that bring us joy are the instances of “quiet in the chaos”. She challenged us all to work on noticing and savoring these moments more actively. Easier said than done, of course, but an important idea to keep in mind in the midst of all this craziness.

Programming aside, a few fun memories came from the weekend as well. We did a modeling session using the clear wall of the hotel’s infinity pool. The cafeteria had a make-your-own cendol bar, a privilege I definitely abused. On our second night, we learned that some local celebs, the morning radio hosts from Hitz FM, were staying in the same hotel. We befriended them and they invited us to a party they were holding at a nearby bar. We went and had a fabulous time. I tore up the dance floor and won a free t-shirt, while some of the ladies got access to their private Instagram accounts and have been messaging with them ever since. This only added to our egos as local celebrities ourselves.

Another bonus of Water Break for me was the chance to bond with Meena Ponnusamy, MACEE’s Director of U.S. Fulbright Programs. During KL Orientation, Ms. Meena was a bit of an enigma, a constant presence but nary said a word to the ETAs. She chaperoned our Water Break trip with Morgan and Becca, and I was fortunate enough to sit next to her at dinner both nights. I learned a great deal in that time. A native Malaysian, Ms. Meena has been working for MACEE for thirty years and has seen the ETA program in Malaysia grow from a muddled mess in 2006 to the thriving success it is today. Back when it started, there were only ten ETAs, all stationed in Terengganu (the easternmost peninsular state). She said the first year of the program was so chaotic that she was not convinced it could survive to a second year. However, when the ETAs came back to KL for their “debrief” at the end of the grant year, she said all ten completely switched their tones, emphatically defending the program and insisting it continue on. That memory is part of what has driven her tireless efforts to keep the program running in spite of its occasional shortcomings. In addition, the members of that first cohort have frequent reunions back in the States and have all been back to visit their communities in the years since. These conversations I had with Meena were unequivocally the most positive outcome of the Water Break weekend for me, a new source of inspiration for when times get tough in kampung life.

When we left Ipoh, eleven of the fifteen Perak ETAs headed south to Gopeng to try out the town’s nationally recognized whitewater rafting with Nomad Adventures. I had been rafting once before when I was a Boy Scout, but I was still a little nervous about this experience. I should have known better; it was a blast and a half. I took it upon myself to name my boat with Grace, Clay and Sarah S.; after a slew of puns, we settled on “Capsize Matters”. Much to the chagrin of the “S.S. Faisal”, we definitely had the best guide – a chill, professional dude from Ipoh named Zack. Over the course of four hours and twelve kilometers, we went through seventeen sets of rapids. I got thrown from the boat in a harsh area and pegged up against a rock by the rushing water, but Zack used the straps of my vest to hoist me back into the raft within ten seconds. Most importantly, I wasn’t scared, which was a little victory for me, indicative of how far I’ve come with regard to my anxiety these past few months. I would highly recommend this experience to anyone. Expense aside, I already want to go back!

In the midst of all of these hectic events, there were some little memories from the month that I want to keep. Please forgive my lack of effective transitions here, but enjoy these three particularly memorable stories. They are each important to me in their own way.

Memory #1: This month, Clay and I barely spent any time with Ibrahim’s son, Muiz. While we were busy, he was even busier finishing his internship / certification program. At the end of the month, we decided to fix this by inviting him to come with us to see Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 in Teluk Intan. As movie buffs and Marvel nerds, Clay and I were especially pumped to learn that it was being released two weeks earlier in Malaysia than back home. Thus, despite being a school night, we went on opening night, Muiz in tow. He seemed, curiously enough, more excited than we were. It was not long before we learned why. Naturally we started with dinner at McDonald’s, only to discover – in a milestone moment – that Muiz had never eaten at one before! He told us he was a die-hard KFC fan, so we were honored to help him relinquish the Colonel for a clown. Clay even let him try the new “French Cheese” nugget dip – a perplexing concoction, though I am unsure whether it is worldwide or only released in Malaysia.

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Driving to the cinema, we found half of Teluk Intan completely flooded as the nearby river overflowed during the day’s monsoon. Thus, we had to roll up our pant legs and literally wade through about a foot of water to get to the theater. I treated Muiz to his ticket as a belated graduation gift. At the snack stand, I also shelled out an extra RM5 to upgrade my drink to a cup shaped like the character Groot – an excellent souvenir. As we took our seats, Muiz pulled a double whammy, revealing to us that he had previously only been to one movie in his whole life. That night, we were able to give him two experiences that meant a lot to him. For the screen junkies that Clay and I are, it turned a regular night at the movies into a truly memorable one. This sounds silly, but it was really uplifting to share some things we enjoy and derive comfort from with our new friend.

A bonus laugh: during the trailer for the new Pirates of the Caribbean, Muiz turned to me with a serious look and asked whether I believed the Earth was flat. I took a minute to process, before assuring him that I knew the Earth was round. Second-guessing myself, I asked him whether he thought the Earth was round. He hesitated a moment, then nodded. I don’t know what to take from this in terms of cultural learning, but it gives me the giggles every time I think about it.

Memory #2: Next month, our school will hold a special party called Hari Guru to honor its teachers. On this day, teachers are encouraged to dress according to a certain theme; this year the administration chose “Twins”, meaning teachers must pair up and dress in the same outfit. Naturally, Ros insisted she and I be a pairing, but this necessitated a shopping trip given how different our wardrobes are. Thus, we rebels with a cause ditched school an hour early one day to try and find matching shirts. As it so happens, our differences in fashion sense extend far beyond gender lines. She liked clothing with bright colors and huge logos, but refused to wear horizontal stripes because they “make [her] look fat”. Meanwhile, I focused on softer fabrics with more muted colors but cool designs and patterns. We shopped for nearly two hours trying to find something that worked for both of our tastes before finally settling on a red, white and blue polo shirt. When we finally checked out, we agreed mutually that we should probably never go clothes shopping together again. Still, a fun afternoon… and I got a nice shirt out of it!

Memory #3: Wednesday mornings at Semesra, our first few periods are reserved for kokurikulum activities. Typically, this means we split off either into “uniform bodies” teams or assigned clubs for mini-lessons, ranging from playing hangman for an hour to learning the Heimlich maneuver. In early April, I was surprised one Wednesday to find that the day’s activities included an Iron Chef-style sandwich-making competition that I was invited (read: invited myself) to help judge. Using the equipment in the “home ec” classroom, three teams of students were instructed to make a sandwich and smoothie of their choosing. Fascinatingly, all three teams chose to make a fish sandwich. One team took a big gamble by cutting theirs in the shape of a bunny. They cleverly used two leafs of lettuce as ears, but misstepped by drawing a face on the bunny using chocolate sauce, completely desecrating the integrity of their flavor palate. It’s an added shame, because they made easily the most delicious smoothie: a dragonfruit-apple punch, of which I unabashedly drank three servings. The second team’s chances were ruined because they made an “apple milk” smoothie, which indeed tastes as strange as it sounds. The winning team made an “apple assam” smoothie, which I found a tad bland, but as with most things in Malaysia, convention won out over risk. Still, please do not let all of this detail distract you from how strange and hilarious it is that the whole school’s morning classes were cancelled to allow a small group of kiddos to compete in a cutthroat cooking challenge.

In short, the “lion” of April roared right by. As I walked out to my car on the last full day of school in April, taking the long way around as usual, it began to rain – a drizzle that quickly turned into a downpour. With the weather, the whole monsoon of experiences and emotions from the month blew through my brain. In my fatigue, I almost failed to notice the ever-inquisitive Syuib walking toward me with a big smile. As I passed him, he turned and said, “Sir, I have a question.”

“Yes, Syuib?”

“What is that phrase you say about this month?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Something about April showers.”

“April showers bring May flowers?”

“That’s it! What does it mean?”

“Well, in April it rains a lot which can make things seem sad, but it is really a good thing because the flowers need the water to grow.”

“Okay, Sir. I understand. Maybe next month the flowers will grow even bigger.”

“Maybe, let’s hope.”

“And then maybe there will be a rainbow!”

“That would be nice, Syuib.”

For a moment, I don’t notice how wet I am getting from the rain. I feel the eye of the storm looking straight down upon me. I find myself in a moment of quiet in the chaos, a chance to smile and catch my breath. Hopefully this time the idiom is right, and May will bring more moments like this. I could use a rainbow right about now.

“Sir, can you help me fix my computer?’

Then again, I suppose – even in the chaos – there’s joy to be had.

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Staying optimistic,

Nate

Broadway, Here We Come!

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Shortly before coming to Malaysia, I discovered a script for a play entitled The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It was a one-woman show on Broadway in the ‘80s starring Lily Tomlin as twelve characters loosely tied together through their relationships to social fads of the era. The narrator is a crazy old bag lady named Trudy who believes she is performing the play to introduce a group of aliens to American culture.

When I began introducing my students to the concept of “drama”, I could not help but think that I must have looked like this crazy old bag lady to them. I intentionally embodied a big persona in class to show the fearlessness and self-deprecation required to be a performer, but was often met with horrified stares and uncomfortable giggles instead. Early in the aforementioned play, Trudy discusses the aliens’ inability to differentiate between a real Campbell’s Soup can and a Warhol painting of one; similarly, I found that my students had trouble deciphering what of my behaviors were purposefully outlandish and what genuinely came from me. Over time, even I have had trouble separating my true self from the “character” I play here.

Ros noted a few days ago that I’ve seemed a little off for the past couple weeks. Part of this can of course be attributed to the stress of planning the trip. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, the constant level of attention drawn to me can be exhausting, especially given the parts of myself that I must constantly alter or suppress to fit within my host community. Coming back from spring break, the perpetual need to spread a positive image began to chafe on my morale – first at home, then at school. At a certain point, I could no longer tell when I was actually happy from when I was just showing face.

On top of this, last week was a big emotional drag for me, knowing that my closest friends in the United States were reuniting without me at Mask and Wig Club Night. I always saw this day coming, but it did not make it any less crappy in the moment. All week, I was barraged with GroupMe notifications and Facebook posts reminding me of the year of experiences back at home that I am missing out on. I would sooner classify this as extreme disappointment rather than homesickness, but all week I felt like I would have given pretty much anything to be home for just that weekend.

This internal disappointment was compounded by the mountain of work on my plate to prepare for my lawatan to Kuala Lumpur. To be clear, this is not meant as a complaint. I was happy to do the work necessary, and incredibly blessed to have such a supportive team behind me in the Semesra English Panel. Still, as I was grappling with a mild depressive state to begin with, digging up the energy and optimism required to prepare for the trip was a Herculean effort. Thus, even as I went to bed the night before the event, I found myself curiously unenthused, my judgments clouded by otherwise lingering thoughts.

Waking up the morning of, however, the anticipation and passion that went into planning the project finally caught up to me. I smiled the whole way to school, even as I lugged four cases of water onto the buses and firmly reminded the students to be respectful and engaged during the day’s events. Before I knew it, we were on the road. I rode the first hour of the journey on the Form 4 bus, though the students were very tired and mostly slept or sat quietly.

The biggest adventure of the day came in the form of a special camp banner. Some context on this: the Embassy stipulated in our grant letter that their logo needed to be displayed at the event, and since we had no control over the programs for the performance, a banner was the only logical option to satisfy this requirement. Plus, Ros and I agreed it would look nice in the photos from the day and could later be used as a decoration for the CUBE. I stayed up very late Monday night designing a professional looking banner so I could print it in Teluk Intan after my Embassy luncheon on Tuesday. The next morning, I excitedly showed it to Ros only to be met with a blunt, “So boring! It should look more fun.” Thus, with only half an hour before leaving for the print shop, I had to design a brand new banner. Luckily, I am a pretty expert Photoshopper, so I whipped one up in a jiffy. Ros was still disappointed that I had opted not to put her and my faces on the banner, but she approved it nonetheless. In short, preparing the banner was a whirlwind, and a frustrating one at that.

Fast forward to our bus ride to KL, about half an hour after we left school. I suddenly realized that, in the hubbub of the morning’s preparations, I had left the banner back in Sungai Ranggam. I placed it on the bench next to the bus with the teachers’ personal bags, perhaps subconsciously hoping that someone would notice and grab it were I to forget. Lesson learned; I was wrong. As it turns out, the poster rolled in between the slats of the bench and onto the ground where no one saw it. Fortunately, Semesra’s amazing security guard, Pak Cik Ibrahim, drove by the school and found it. With the help of one of our bus drivers, we got in contact with another bus headed to KL from Manjung and they agreed to pick it up for us on their way. Crisis averted, but it gave me some heart palpitations for ten minutes or so. (Major props to Haziq and Kalmeet for keeping me level-headed during this.)

We paused halfway to the city for breakfast at a rest stop. I had pau kacang and teh ais, walked and chatted with the ever-curious 5IR student Syuib, and took some “fly” selfies with my 5IK buddy Shahrul Nizam. Cikgu Guna then surprised the teachers with Dunkin Donuts, so I had a nice double-dose of carbs for breakfast. I switched onto the Form 5 bus (spreading the wealth) and we hit the road again, halting briefly at a toll plaza where the Manjung bus passed our long-lost banner across into our window. Our buses arrived in Kuala Lumpur shortly after noon and parked at a mall close to the theater for lunch.

During this break, Ros and Amy decided to take me on a special little shopping spree for my impending 23rd birthday. Ros wanted to buy me a shirt or outfit that I could wear both in Malaysia and back stateside, hoping I would think of her whenever I wear it. I jokingly retorted that I only wanted a gift if it was Despicable Me Minion-themed. At one point, I tried on a red baju Melayu that I loved, but Ros hesitated to buy it because she felt it would only be wearable in Malaysia, not America. It was a fair point on her end, but later I went back and bought it for myself anyway as a birthday (/ proactive Hari Raya) gift – a steal at only RM100. Ultimately, Ros decided to get me a kurta as my gift. Much to her chagrin and Amy’s entertainment, I held a little fashion show, trying on a bunch of different colors before picking the one I liked best. I settled on a black shirt with gold accents. Ros said it looked handsome on me, but shook her head again when I told her I felt like a Malaysian cowboy wearing it.

At 2 PM, we re-boarded our buses and drove over to the Panggung Bandaraya theatre. In the lobby, I secretly purchased magnets for each of the chaperones as thank you gifts, and even bought one for myself along with a souvenir program. After meeting our Mud representative, the extremely helpful and professional Ms. Hera Keziah, we were led into the theater and seated in rows 2-8. Regardless of how close we were to the stage, it was a fairly intimate performance space, reminiscent of the Helen Hayes on Broadway. Also, we made up the vast majority of the audience, with only about 10-15 other tourists at the performance.

The show itself was exactly as I anticipated, a perfect blend of the diverse cultures that make up Malaysia. For example, there were three leading men: one Malay, one Chinese and one Indian. Given that my school’s student body is 100% Malay, it was important for the students to see firsthand that Malaysia’s history is not centered solely around their ethnic group (a lesson many white Americans could afford to learn too). The show was not exactly Broadway-quality, but given the relative lack of musical theater in East Asia, it was still a pleasant surprise. The cast was incredibly talented, the music was reasonably catchy and the sets and costumes were memorable.

There were three main highlights of the show that will stick out in my mind for many years to come. Firstly, there was a segment in which the leading Indian man went to a temple to pray for help. Behind him was projected a statue of a Hindu goddess. At one point, the statue came alive on the screen behind him, and he and the goddess danced an intricate ballet together. Seeing a live actor – who, I should add, was quite graceful for a 200-lb. man– dance in unison with a projection in this sensitively choreographed, spiritually motivated context gave me goosebumps.

Secondly, another point in the show represented the village of Kuala Lumpur being flooded by monsoon rains. Initially the staging of this moment was very standard:, with rumbling thunder sounds piped into the theater and bright “lightning” strobes flashing. However, as the “rains” continued, the crew employed a truly magical theater device as a giant mud-colored cloth came shooting out from the back of the stage over the heads of the audience, while blue lights flickered above to simulate the rushing water. For a good twenty seconds, it truly felt like we were drowning in a mudslide, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it in all my years of theater-going. (Take a hint, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. #BroadwayBurn)

The third, and undeniably most memorable, moment came during a scene set at a feast in a kampung. One of the actors came into the audience and hand-selected our good friend Cikgu Guna to come onstage and participate in the scene. He joined an ensemble member to help make chicken curry for the party guests. He then got to use a giant pot and wooden stirrer to make a percussive beat that the cast followed for a traditional saucer dance. Funny as it was to see Guna looking awkward onstage, it was even more thrilling to see how enthused the kids were at watching their teacher make a fool of himself. Don’t worry, we still haven’t let him live it down. The next week, I even made him his own personal certificate like the students; it read “Best Actor – for excellence in cooking chicken curry”! He’s a great sport.

At the very end of the show, the whole audience was invited onstage to dance with the cast. The students were shy as always, so I led the charge and dragged Danish from 4IK with me to encourage his friends to follow. Ultimately, the vast majority of the kids ended up joining in. Ros filmed it for posterity, but I will always remember the mental snapshots I took in that moment – my teacher colleagues cheering us on in the audience, and my students giggling eagerly behind me as they, in an unconventional way, performed on-stage for the very first time.

After the show ended, we stayed behind and took photos with the cast. Then, six actors held a thirty-minute question-and-answer session for the kids. I had the students prepare questions in advance, but many of them were too nervous to stand up when the time came. Thus, the teachers ended up calling on students to ask questions. After a few of them broke the ice, more hands shot up. They were actually very thoughtful in their inquiries, and the actors gave great responses – articulate, but at a level that the students could understand. Before wrapping up, two of the performers wished the Form 5 students luck on their SPM exams and encouraged all the students to work hard every day so they can someday achieve their dreams. Hearing these words from actors – mini-celebrities in their own right – seemed to register more with the students than the constant repetitive reminders that their teachers give them on a day-to-day basis.

After the Q+A, the students were led (one form at a time) on a backstage tour by several stagehands and the Stage Manager. They got to touch the props from the show, take selfies with the set and ask questions about how things work behind the curtain. They all seemed particularly enthralled by this unique opportunity, given that it’s something even most audience members do not get to see. A few of the girls posed eagerly with umbrellas from the monsoon scene, one boy had fun poking the baby doll prop and some of the kids even tried to replicate Guna’s chicken curry cooking. After our tour, we bid a fond farewell to Panggung Bandaraya. I gave a big thank you to Ms. Hera for all her help in making this possible and she asked me a few questions about the Fulbright program, encouraging me to let other ETAs know about the work of her organization. Duly noted!

An added bonus of the trip that I did not realize in advance was that the theater is located just across from the Dataran Merdeka, essentially the Malaysian version of Independence National Park in Philadelphia. It was there in 1957 (atop one of the world’s tallest flagpoles, still standing) that the British flag was lowered for the final time and the Malaysian flag was first raised. Then, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Chief Minister of Malaysia, led a crowd of citizens in chanting the word “Merdeka!” seven times to announce that Malaysia would henceforth be an independent country. While we waited for our buses, the students and I spent about 45 minutes taking pictures on the field, playing games and even filming a Mannequin Challenge (shout-out to Kalmeet!) Given how exciting this moment at Dataran Merdeka was for me, I can only imagine how thrilling it was for my students to see (many of them for the first time). I still remember my first time visiting Independence Hall in America. Even throughout college I would get chills anytime I walked by it. It’s funny how we, as individuals, can feel so connected to the history of our homelands despite how rapidly and significantly our national identities have evolved over time.

At one point during our time on the lawn, we saw a small fire in an alley across the street; I rhetorically asked what happened, and my sassy 4IS friend Hafifa responded that some locals were just trying to kill a mosquito, which I found hysterical. A few minutes later, Guna came over to ask if I had remembered to bring the banner from the theater with me. I of course launched into a panic, thinking I had lost it for the second time in a day. He smirked smugly and pulled it out, neatly folded, from behind his back. Kalmeet could not stop laughing. They apologized through their cackles, but said, “Nate, you should have seen your face!” Cruel and unusual as this prank may have been, these two moments showed me something important. My community at Semesra finally is comfortable enough with me to be able to make jokes, use sarcasm and poke fun. They feel safe enough to realize that I will laugh with them instead of taking offense, to know that we are on the same page. This realization was one of the day’s major victories for me. In hindsight, maybe misplacing the banner was one of the better mistakes I’ve made.

After re-boarding the buses, we stopped just outside the city limits to have dinner and allow the students to partake in their Maghrib (evening) prayers. All of the teachers except Haziq went to Burger King and had some hilarious conversations. Then, while most of the teachers went for prayer, I swung by Baskin-Robbins to get myself a congratulatory milkshake. I met up with some students waiting for the bus and they tried for the millionth time to get me to confess to having a girlfriend. I jokingly told them I was dating the bus, and then pretended to make out with the windshield, which got a hilarious variety of disgusted reactions.

On the ride home, I sat between Ros and Amy. We watched a bit of a movie that was playing on the television at the front of the bus. In the clip we saw, a man named Jijoe fell in love with a girl, and only seconds later was shockingly hit by a truck and killed out of nowhere. Jijoe has since turned into a running joke for us; anytime we are doing something fun, we say, “Too bad Jijoe couldn’t be here!”

I’ve always had great conversations on late-night bus rides. From Devon Prep field trips to Mask and Wig tours, some of my strongest friendships have been built on heart-to-hearts had while driving at night. Sure enough, Ros and I kept this tradition alive. I opened up to her about my anxiety, my parents’ divorce and even my illness in 10th grade. Thankfully, she was very receptive to all of it, listened calmly and interjected only to express support or ask clarifying questions. It further cemented my belief that I am the luckiest ETA in the program, if not the world. At times, she may be a little too much like my mom, texting to check on me every five minutes, but Ros truly cares about me and wants to make sure I know I am wanted, accepted and loved here. Difficult as it is at times being apart from my friends and loved ones, it is hard to feel homesick due to the care and friendship Ros has shown me.

Yes, there may be days when I feel sadder than usual, when I miss home or just seem un-energized, but these are normal. For every “off” day, I will have an “on” one too. Ros need not worry because I will surely tell her if something ever is wrong, and I know she will be the first person to jump up and help me fix it. Of all the blessings that have come from my time in Malaysia so far, my relationship with her tops the list. I truly hope, as we’ve discussed a few times now, that our friendship will continue beyond my time here.

We got back to Sungai Ranggam very late, close to 10:30 PM. The students trickled out, and I thanked them all for their cooperation and optimism. I parted ways with the teachers, breaking a cultural rule by giving Ros a “thank you” hug (with her consent, of course). I then drove home in my good pal, Molly Brown, with some showtunes blasting through the car stereo and a delirious grin on my face.

As I cautiously navigated the dark bumpy roads to Kampung Gajah, I thought back on the ending of that Lily Tomlin play, when Trudy finally brings the aliens to see her show. She asks them what they think of the experience, only to learn that they spent the entire time watching the audience instead of the play onstage. When she tries to correct them, they reply that the show is nothing special; instead, they find true magic in the shared experience of human beings – mostly complete strangers – building a momentary community by sitting quietly in darkness while collectively discovering and processing their emotions.

I then reflected on that afternoon, sitting in a theater for the first time since leaving America. In that moment, I found myself playing the role of the alien, looking around at my students, watching smiles spread across their faces. Perhaps we are still mostly strangers to each other, but shared experiences like this are strong enough to break through even the thickest cultural barriers. With every laugh, sigh or gasp I heard, an intoxicating sense of fulfillment inflated inside my chest. I breathed out my earlier disappointment and inhaled fresh satisfaction. I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything, even Club Night. In that moment, amidst my own momentary community, I found my genuine self once again.

In the words of the bag lady: “The play was soup. The audience, art.”

Softening in the spotlight,

Nate

ETA, Pray, Love

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Little known fact: Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. It is curious then to note that the most popular tourist destination in the country is an island where nearly 85% of the citizens are Hindu.

This is Bali, one of the 17,000-odd islands that make up Indonesia and one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Southeast Asia. Its strong tourist reputation did not fully arise until the latter half of the 20th Century, but its economy and local culture are now heavily bolstered each year by more than four million vacationing visitors hoping to “find themselves” – a number that now includes me.

With a year-round school calendar, Malaysia offers many short breaks throughout the course of the year. The three major breaks are one week in March, two in May/June and one in August/September. ETAs here typically use these breaks to travel outside of the country (on their own dime), a luxury which Fulbright recipients in other countries are not typically granted.

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Our motley crew. Not pictured: Claire’s two giant water bottles swinging furiously on her backpack.

For this break, I bid a fond farewell to my Perak peeps and met up with six of my close friends from orientation to travel down to the “Island of the Gods”. Five of them – Brendan, Martin, Janna, Claire and Betsy – are placed in Sabah, the easternmost part of Malaysia on the northern tip of Borneo. The other, Anna, is in Pahang, about five hours east of me on the peninsula. It’s funny how pumped I was for this reunion given that I have been apart from these people for five times as long as we were ever together. Still, while most people planned their first break around the place they most wanted to visit, I based mine around the people with whom I most wanted to travel. For Anna and I especially, we have been suffering from the Fear Of Missing Out (or, as Millennials like to say, FOMO) given that our closest friends have all been able to hang out in the same state. However, the five Sabahans reminded us that every ETA placement has its pros and cons.

The trip to Kuala Lumpur International Airport was a tedious one. Mr. Ibrahim graciously offered to drive me to the bus station in Teluk Intan, so we left at 6:30 AM and I treated him to teh tarik and roti canai as a token of my gratitude. My shuttle left at 8:00 AM and arrived at KLIA2 around 11:00. I then meandered through the airport for three hours while I waited to convene with my travel buddies. I stopped in a bookshop and purchased a copy of Eat Pray Love for some light vacation reading, which seemed appropriate since it is the most famous book about Bali. After passing through security, I met up with my peeps in the airport food court. We spent two hours catching up on our Malaysian adventures.

In comparing our placements, Brendan inquired whether any of us had started to view our kampungs as “home”. I said “no” instinctively, but the question still intrigued me. Given all the obstacles and differences I had faced since arriving in Kampung Gajah, the idea that it was my “home” had never crossed my mind. Ultimately, I justified my uncertainty to myself with logic: it can never really be my “home” since I am perpetually aware of the temporary nature of my residence there. Either way, it provided some solid food for thought as we boarded our plane to Bali.

We landed at the Denpasar airport around 8:00 PM, simultaneously exhausted from a long day of travel and eager to immediately start exploring. We were picked up by two drivers from our hostel in Canggu, a gorgeous little hideaway called the Farm Hostel. On the way there from the airport, I sat in the front seat and discussed Balinese culture with the driver. He explained to me that Balinese Hinduism is unique because the culture influences the religion, whereas the reverse is true in most other Hindu regions of the world.

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The rice paddy next to our Canggu hostel. As I took this photo, Janna and Betsy enlightened me with the story of how rice is harvested, which they learned watching a YouTube video while hungover.

The Farm Hostel was tucked away down a dark and bumpy alley next to a rice paddy. Given the relatively affordable price (~$24 USD per night), the accommodations were exceptional. There was a garden area with picnic tables and motorbikes for rent, an upstairs with ping pong and a TV, and downstairs a pool and two large bedroom areas with air-con, curtained pod beds and beautiful open-air bathrooms. The three boys all stayed in one room while the girls snagged the second.

After dropping our stuff off and locking up our passports, we answered our immense hunger by heading to a burger joint called the Pit Stop. We instantly realized how much we have missed western food. I’m sure the place is good by any standards, but in that moment I swear it was the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. I was even able to wash it down with a cold beer, a luxury which is readily available on the Borneo half of Malaysia

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Our celebratory first-night shot

but is unthinkable on the peninsula given the conservative religious culture. While there, we ran into a group of Australian jocks who recommended a beachfront bar called Old Man’s for some introductory Balinese nightlife. After a celebratory round of tequila shots, we perched ourselves at a picnic table and giggled with awe over the relief we felt upon noticing ourselves lost in a crowd of white people for the first time since leaving the US. This, of course, did not stop us from making fun of the drunk Aussies who started a conga line when “Fireball” came on.

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Walking on the beach at midnight

The bar closed at midnight, but we still had some juice in our engines, so we strolled down to the beach where I dipped my feet unknowingly into a third ocean (the Indian) for the first time. In the velvet darkness, the waves were harsher than they appeared, so our innocent attempt to wet our toes ended with us getting soaked by the splashing tides. At some point, I ended up having a brief Hamilton karaoke session with Betsy while Anna and Claire looked on dumbfounded. When we were finished on the beach, we decided to head back to the hostel to get some rest so we could be ready to rock-and-roll for our first full day on the island.

We slept in a tad the next day and woke up famished. After a slow start, we (with a new friend from the hostel, Sydney) ventured out to a nearby organic restaurant Betsy had stalked down on Instagram called the Avocado Café. There, I had an amazing chai latte

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Cang-goons

and some divine maple-apple pancakes. After brunch, we walked over to the Canggu beach. In the light of day, we were slightly disappointed to find that the beach’s sand was black because of the volcanic activity on the island. While it twinkled beautifully in the sunlight, it also made our feet look like they were made of graphite. Nevertheless, we spent the day lounging by the sea, drinking water from coconuts and laughing as other beachgoers – making the same mistake we made the night before – walked nonchalantly into the water and got barreled over by the stealthily strong waves.

As evening fell, we moseyed over to a dinner spot with mediocre food but a stupendous bathroom. On the way there, Betsy bought “chicken lollipops” (satay) and “became her best self”. We were all very sluggish post-meal, so we took some time to regroup at the

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Redefining the “banana” in Bananagrams

hostel. We got cleaned up and pre-gamed our nighttime activities with an X-rated version of Bananagrams (making the dirtiest words we could with our tiles). Our cackling got the attention of one of the Balinese workers who hijacked Anna’s tiles and made the most vulgar, profane set of words in board game history.

Shortly thereafter, we were joined by some other hostel-goers: some Swedes named Heidi and Dan and a kickass Texan-turned-globetrotting-Australian called Sam Jackson. We had such fantastic conversations with them that we almost – almost – forgot to leave for the bar. This moment helped me realize that meeting other people is by far the greatest gift of travelling. It helped me break down some of my walls and made me incredibly eager to make friends in the other hostels I visit this year. Claire caught a case of the giggles while repeating the phrase “puan-puan dan tuan-tuan”, the catchy Malay way of saying “ladies and gentlemen”. After taking some hilarious Snapchats, we rolled back out through the dark alley toward “Ex Machina”, a bar we had passed several times but not yet visited.

The bar seemed odd at first as some funky international jazz group was performing and most of the patrons were sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the dirty bar floor. After their set was finished, however, the place really livened up. Janna accidentally broke Anna’s beer, I had a nice chat with some random Eastern European girl, and a chubby Chinese guy challenged Betsy and I to a dance-off (which, to be clear, we slaughtered – though I ruined my jeans in the process). The night flew by and before I knew it, we were back at the Pit Stop eating late night burgers in a torrential downpour. We closed out the joint and then Janna and I ran home while having a serious heart-to-heart, which I treasured in spite of my sopping clothes. In Canggu, ending the night with wet clothes seems to be a trend.

I was startled awake by my phone’s buzzing, only to find that the girls had gotten “hangry” and ran off to brunch without the boys. We were only a little miffed, but we pretended to be downright pissed so the girls would have to be apologetic. In fact, we didn’t let them live it down for the whole rest of the trip! We went to the Betelnut Café where I got some mediocre scrambled eggs. We then sauntered back to the hostel and checked out (after some last-minute conversations with Sam and the hostel owner, Aryo). We caught a taxi from a nearby stand to head to our AirBNB in Ubud, the cultural heart of the island.

We booked the AirBNB pretty last-minute and it was only a few US dollars more than the hostel, so we were not expecting much. Upon exiting the taxi, we saw a sign for the place – “BliBli House”, IMG_8010a name that will live eternally in our hearts. We followed it through a quaint little abstract art studio, with foliage and bright canvases around every corner. At the back of the studio was a small set of wooden doors, through which our palace awaited. The place was magnificent: a private pool, small kitchen area, tropical plants, beds crafted by angels. To enter the house, we had to cross over stone steps floating in a koi pond. We had access to the roof, which gave us a perfect view of the neighborhoods around us. The maids who were fixing up the house even brought us cold washcloths and fresh-squeezed orange juice to celebrate our arrival. Our jaws were agape from the moment we stepped into the house until we checked out three days later. We decided “BliBli” will forever enter our vocabulary as a word to describe something so shockingly magnificent you cannot believe your eyes.

After settling in, we went to lunch at a cute little nearby restaurant called Kopi Desa. Janna and I split grilled cheese and tomato soup and I got an Oreo milkshake, all of which were heavenly. We then went back and swam at the house, joined by Janna’s friend Kate, a down-to-earth young woman who recently finished a teaching program in Thailand. That evening, we decided to walk into town, taking in all the exquisite sites along the way. Anna stopped for her requisite Magnum ice cream bar, and we dawdled in some local souvenir shops where I discovered a traditional Balinese fertility sculpture (or, to be blunt, a penis-shaped bottle opener). I picked one up to show the group and at that exact moment, in an instance of perfect comic timing, a group of five Balinese schoolboys passed by and began pointing and laughing at me.

I’ll pause here to give a few cultural tidbits: firstly, Indonesian currency is super confusing. The base amount is 10,000 rupiah. While it felt really baller to go to an ATM and withdraw 1,000,000 rupiah, that was basically $77 USD, and given the relatively high prices in Bali, that lasted each of us about two days before we had to do it again.

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A sample of offerings in BliBli

Secondly, the Balinese believe heavily in the existence of spirits in all parts of the natural world. They leave little offering boxes woven from palm leaves and filled with gifts of fruit, flowers, crackers and incense everywhere to appease the spirits and win their favor – and I mean EVERYWHERE. In doorways, on car hoods, next to the pool… we could not walk five feet in Ubud without passing one. On the plus side, things seemed to work out for us all week, so maybe these boxes did their job. Perhaps the Balinese really do know something that the rest of the world doesn’t.

During our walk, we were enticed to go see a local kecak fire dance later that night. We sat on the perimeter of a temple courtyard, while around one hundred Hindu men sat in
the middle in concentric circles surrounding a large torch. The men used their voices (different patterns of “kuh” and “chak” sounds, hence the name of the dance) to build IMG_7878complex rhythms while actors in elaborate costumes performed a story from the Ramayana epic. The dance lasted about 90 minutes. It was tremendously powerful, if at times a tad confusing, to watch.At the end, one man entered a trance and danced across a pile of burning coconut husks, an amazing moment nearly ruined by some disgustingly insensitive audience members who decided to use flash photography with no concern at all for the well-being of the man in the middle. On a more lighthearted note, one of the men in the circle spent the whole time making high-pitched “ooh” noises to keep the tempo for the others; we laughed as we imagined how bummed he was when that cast list came out. After the dance, we got dinner at perhaps the only eating establishment in Ubud open at 9:30 PM. Enticed by a glowing testimonial in the menu, I tried kombucha for the first time despite being blissfully unaware of how it was made. It was pretty good, but I am glad I did not learn the ugly truth before I ordered it because otherwise my inner germaphobe may have come out.

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We got to bed early that night so we could wake up in time to watch the sunrise at 6:00 AM from our roof deck. It ended up being a little disappointing because of a barricade of clouds along the horizon, but even a disappointing sunrise in Southeast Asia is a pastel masterpiece in its own right. It also helped us get moving early. Our landlord, Mr. Nyoman, made breakfast for us (overpriced, underwhelming scrambled eggs – another Bali trend!) and I took advantage of the solid BliBli WiFi to FaceTime family (say that five times fast). I called Mom and John first, then Amy, Gram and Grandpa. I was particularly delighted to talk to the latter group because I have not spoken to them since arriving here; I tried a few times but the teachers’ lounge / rehab hospital WiFi link has not been kind to us. Grandpa told me this year has taught him two things – enjoy life because it can change on a dime, and patience is key – both of which are relevant to me in this moment as well.

Once breakfast was finished, we headed over to the Monkey Forest, a temple where hundreds of monkeys roam freely and interact with the guests with no regard for personal space. Betsy bought a bunch of bananas to give to the petit primates. She then turned her head for a split second and one conniving little critter came and snatched the whole bundle right out of her hand. Later, Brendan disobeyed the rules of the temple and tried to touch one of the monkeys, almost getting his finger bitten off in the process. I did not have any monkeys jump on me, which was at once a regret and a relief. From the forest, we went to lunch where I split an amazing bowl of parmesan pesto pasta with Janna.

Afterwards, we headed to the Ubud Market, an extensive and densely-packed area of souvenir stalls manned by desperate salespeople who stop at nothing short of shouting in your ear to get you to buy from them. When I purchased from a shopkeeper, they would take my bill and rub it all over their wares in hopes that it would bring them good luck in the rest of the day’s sales. The tough part was that all the stalls had essentially the same exact products, so we pretty much had to pick a place we wanted to buy from and stick with it. I ended up getting quite a few souvenirs for the teachers at my school, my Mask and Wig classmates, family members and of course myself. Some were perhaps a tad overpriced, but for a couple I haggled good deals, so it all balanced out. Plus, the exchange rate worked in my favor, although it did feel pretty awesome to spend hundreds of thousands in cash on one shopping spree. Now I know what Kim Kardashian must feel like walking down Sunset Boulevard (that is, if the stores were only two feet apart and the employees actively threatened her).

At this point, Brendan, Martin and I were exhausted from our early morning, so we walked home for an afternoon nap while the ladies soldiered on to do the Campuhan Ridge Walk even though it was raining. We ended up chilling for the rest of the day, getting dinner at Kopi Desa and then drinking by the pool while counting down the minutes to Brendan’s 23rd birthday. We played an intense round of “Never Have I Ever”, the Sabahans demonstrated a local dance they learned during state orientation and at midnight we “iced” Brendan before all passing out.

The following day, “Chegoobie” Brendan’s birthday, was probably my favorite of the whole trip. We planned to sleep in a little, but instead were startled awake shortly after 7 AM by BliBli rattling and rumbling like it had been hit by a truck. We ran outside, only to realize we had just experienced a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Even though it lasted less than a minute, it was enough to really get our blood pumping, so we headed out early to the Yoga Barn in town for a “yin yoga” class. We first stopped in the studio’s café where I had overpriced banana bread and a smoothie with spirulina (which I joked would be the name of Janna’s firstborn daughter). The class itself was pretty expensive, but Betsy managed to befriend some nice older ladies who gave us a few gift cards for free classes so we ended up paying half-price.

The studio was built into a treehouse-type structure, with spiral staircases leading to a large platform on which more than a hundred yogis were sprawled out on mats with blankets and blocks beside them. We arrived just in the knick of time so we were at the back of the room, but it ended up working out well. The type of yoga we did involved taking extremely uncomfortable poses and holding them for ten minutes at a time. It seemed silly and a tad frustrating at first, but after a few minutes of pain and discomfort on each pose, I was able to forget the awkward sensations in my limbs and meditate on my thoughts. The hour and a half session flew by and we all left in a dreamlike state, floating like fluffy Balinese clouds.

After yoga, we eagerly satisfied our cravings for Mexican food at a place called Taco Casa. I am not a particular fan of Mexican food in the States, but given that it is nonexistent in Malaysia, even I had a Pavlovian response to the smell of guacamole and salsa. We got two pitchers of sangria and a plate of nachos for the table, and I ordered some mouthwatering quesadillas for myself. It was a bittersweet reminder of how much our diets have changed since arriving in the region.

After lunch, we went home for a pre-scheduled afternoon session of Balinese massages (and pedicures instead for Betsy and Janna). Five very nice older women came over to BliBli and gave us massages in our beds. I had never gotten a massage before, but wow. What an experience. I am not even sure how much I enjoyed it to be honest because my thoughts wandered the whole time. First of all, Martin and I were lying right next to each other, so there was this uncomfortable air of realizing we were both having our torsos rubbed down silently and simultaneously. Then, there was my inner desire to befriend the lady massaging me; I couldn’t help but wonder her name, where she was from, if she had children, etc. This interpersonal curiosity of mine has largely been a blessing during my travels this year, but it made for a strange mental barrier when this woman’s thumbs were pressed into my shoulder blades. And lastly, there were the moments in which my body decided to surprise me with a tickle or twitch that I had never experienced before and my body reacted accordingly, as though a doctor was tapping my knee with a hammer. In hindsight, I think all of this means I am too tense and could – in theory – really use a massage!

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Post-massages, we all chilled by the pool and were surprised by a visit from another ETA, Noah, who we had not seen since KL. We spent a few hours catching up and hanging out before getting dinner at a pizza place nearby. Noah was – in a word – rambunctious and after a few large Bintangs took it upon himself to try to DJ at the pizzeria, much to the chagrin of its three employees. From dinner, we headed back to BliBli where we were joined by a bunch of other ETAs visiting Bali for break! I will probably forget a name or two, but here’s who I remember showing up: Joey K., Josephine, Sophia B., Shaina, Naja, Christa, Julia, Alex, Jacob, Anthony, and Jay (my long-lost roomie, who I was particularly pumped to see).

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Reunited and it feels so… corny?

After two months apart, it was fantastic to see some familiar but forgotten faces, easily my favorite night of the trip. It ended up turning into a collegiate-type party, though Mr. Nyoman was incredibly forgiving. (His only rule: “No pool water in the koi pond.”) From my perspective, this semi-rager was actually rejuvenating; it’s easy to forget in our conservative communities that we are still young adults with wild sides. We also spent hours having heart-to-hearts on the roof until, sadly, we had to say goodbye again until mid-year in May. Alas, such is the struggle of ETA life, making friends in far places.

The next day was a rough one. We had a very slow morning, both due to the festivities of

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Our Bali trip in an “Eddy” meme

the prior night and our own hesitation to leave our beautiful abode in Ubud. After a lazy final brunch at Kopi Desa and some half-hearted packing, we bid a fond farewell to Mr. Nyoman and his family (selfie included, of course). We then took a sweltering hour-and-a-half taxi ride to the Karma Backpackers Hostel in Uluwatu, which we had only booked the day before during lunch at Taco Casa. The hostel was – in every conceivable way – a step backward, but we made the most of it. After dropping our stuff off and Googling the nearby beach options, we decided to check out Suluban Beach, noted for its beautiful cliffs and white sand. As promised, the beach was at the bottom of a high cliff with restaurants and souvenir shops built up the side. We stopped for a small late lunch and then trekked down the cliffs to the sea below.

At the bottom of the cliffs, we found ourselves in a claustrophobic cave with limestone rocks jutting out at the level of our heads. We followed the other tourists ahead of us and went single-file through the cave. At one point, we turned a corner and were shocked to find the ocean literally crashing on top of us. We had to hold our breaths and brace ourselves against the impact of the waves, lest our heads be split open like durians against the rocks. After a nice drenching, we all made it to the sand area, just as dazzling as promised. We went out to ride some waves, but the sand was full of sharp, spiky rocks and shells that quickly turned my feet into the face of Chucky. Eventually, we found a smooth sheet of rock to rest on about twenty feet out from shore.

We stayed there for an hour or so until some clouds rolled in and a nice surfer frantically alerted us that it was time to get out. We braved the currents, heading back out through the small cave area, and then went to the top of the hill to watch the sunset over a well-earned beer. For dinner, we headed to a cute little outdoor restaurant called the Cashew Tree. It was packed when we arrived, so we chose to sit on pillows on the ground – the star treatment. I enjoyed a phenomenal chicken teriyaki bowl and got to bond a little IMG_8065more with Martin, who shared some thoughts on his experiences last year with AmeriCorps. From dinner, we headed home where the girls called it a night while the boys stayed up for a few rounds of Uno (which I dominated. Boo yah.)

On our final morning, in spite of my deep-seeded fear of bicycles, we rented motorbikes from the hostel. Aware of my concerns, Anna graciously allowed me to ride on her back, Lizzie McGuire Movie-style. A nice employee gave us some brief driving lessons and then – still desperately unprepared – we took to the open roads of Uluwatu. We were quickly stopped by some policemen who tried to force us to bribe them for not having motorbike licenses, but they backed off upon realizing we were U.S. Embassy employees. We laughed in hindsight at how each of us reacted in the situation, from Martin pretending to speak Spanish to Janna wagging her finger and kvetching.

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Our biker gang, “Cikgu City”

Anna led the charge to a brunch spot, and we chuckled as we honked our bike horns turning each corner. Brunch was a transcendent experience. I ate a good ol’-fashioned BBQ pulled pork sandwich, cole slaw and all, washed down with an ice-cold Coca Cola. Having this little taste of home did wonders for my spirit. From there, we rode out to a beach our hostel recommended to us called Dreamland. Yes, the name sounds corny, but I cannot overstate how stunning the beach was. We parked our motorbikes and walked over a little grassy knoll to find ourselves smack-dab in a “Wish You Were Here” postcard: turquoise waters, beautiful cliffs, white sand, relatively few tourists and clear skies. We intended at first to beach-hop over the course of the afternoon, but we ended up spending the whole day there because the idea that anywhere else could be better was unfathomable. To put it simply – Dreamland was BliBli.

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We headed out in the late afternoon. Anna and I had a rough start with some scary hills and a brief moment of panic following a wrong turn, but Claire and Martin came to our rescue. We followed them to Uluwatu Temple, an astonishing sanctuary built on top of a cliff facing westward over the Indian Ocean. It is the most-Instagrammed place on the island, and for good reason. The view of the sunset over the waves was breathtaking. I purchased a set of Hindu prayer beads here, the pinnacle of my Eat Pray Love journey. We also briefly got to see Jay, Anthony and Alex again, an added bonus. It was a peaceful end to an action-packed week.

After the temple, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy last meal in celebration of a wonderful trip together. We found an Italian place near the hostel, called Pizzaria Italia II (yes, including the spelling error). We decided to ball out and spend as much of our IMG_8165remaining rupiah as possible. We bought garlic bread, salad and wine for the table. Five people got their own full-size pizzas, while Brendan and I split a margherita pizza and spaghetti carbonara. The restaurant owner was so pleased with our business that he even gave us free shots of limoncello. We handily broke the million-rupiah mark, which we then calculated to be $12 USD per person. We were flabbergasted. For the price of a Big Mac, we had one of the most amazing meals we had eaten this year – certainly the most comprehensive one.

Sitting around that table as we laughed and shared our appreciation for one another, I could not help but reflect on the nature of these friendships I had built. These are very unusual relationships. Even with all the stories we have exchanged, we know curiously little about each other. Personally, I have spent a cumulative total of three weeks with this set of people. It amazes me to realize how deep the roots of our friendships have reached in such a short time. Being trapped together in a foreign land, we have found comfort and familiarity within one another. Without our families to rely on, we made one of our own.

As we landed back in KLIA and parted ways, my earlier “FOMO” was usurped by gratitude – for these goofy, intelligent, inspiring people I now call my friends; for these incomparable experiences that are sculpting me into someone new; for black sand and white sand, rambunctious monkeys and awkward massages, puan-puan dan tuan-tuan, disappointing sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. We did not “find ourselves” in Bali. Instead, we found each other.

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On the drive home, the exhaustion of traveling finally hit me. As Mr. Ibrahim’s car turned past the Kampung Gajah Town Center, I smiled contently. Logic be damned; in the back of my head, a little voice whispered, “you’re home.”

Eating, praying and loving,

Nate

It Depends on Your Placement

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A portrait of me made from magnets in the CUBE by some Form 1 boys!

My Bali blog post is in the works, but in the meantime, I also wrote a post for the official MACEE Fulbright Blog! You can read it here.

I was honored to be asked to write for it as I read the site incessantly last year in preparing to move to Malaysia. I wrote my post on a broader set of themes in hopes of inspiring future generations of ETAs by giving them a more general sense of what it feels like once you finally get over here.

Otherwise, I have lots to update on in the weeks to come, so stay tuned for more information on my adventures!

Busy as ever,

Nate

The Long Way Around

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In spite of all the motorbikes and dangerous animals, Malaysia is a much quieter country than the United States. Coming from a loud family, this was a shock to my system at first, but I have adjusted to the serenity. This adjustment also means that now if I notice things seem quiet here, it must be pin-drop, cricket-less silence.

This is how my school was last week. All of the students were taking school-based assessments, which seem to entail three two-hour-long sections for each of their classes. This means I did not get any time with them, save for occasional waves through classroom windows or brief chances to offer encouragement at the bookends of each day. Even the other teachers were perpetually busy proctoring or grading the exam papers, so I frequently found myself alone in the bilik guru. In some ways this was a blessing, as I also had a load of paperwork and reports to complete for the month of February. In others, it was demoralizing and lonely.

But even these negative feelings were a learning experience for me. They showed me with absolute certainty that interacting with the students is my favorite part of the job. Getting to impart knowledge, build relationships or just share an inside joke across cultures with these incredible young people is what drives me. This is not by any means an astonishing revelation, but it is an important confirmation.

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Semesra, the morning after a monsoon

In general, life here is still going great. I have been continuing to bond with my students, in particular the boys. A few of them have shown special talent for playing guitar, so I have started leaving my instrument at school for easy access whenever spare time presents itself. Still, I have been dealing with some personal angst, feeling as though I am unevenly splitting my attention between genders here. Granted, there are a lot of factors driving this. I am the first male ETA my school has had, which means – because of the gender norms here – the male students have not interacted with the past two ETAs nearly as much as the female students have. The boys are very eager to finally have their turn to befriend an American. Meanwhile, the girls generally love to spend time with me, but every conversation quickly devolves into being told how handsome I look and being asked if I am single. There are a few students who are exceptions, and I am trying to focus my attentions on them when I see them, but for the majority of my female students, the barriers of language and gender are proving hard to overcome. (Side note: I helped a few Form 5 girls with whom I am friendly on a painting assignment, and they gave it to me as a gift! I hung it above my bedroom door.)

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Speaking of bonding with the boys, the bilik guru is immediately adjacent to a homeroom of Form 5 boys who shout to me when I pass by in the corridor. Their enthusiasm and sheer volume anytime they see me makes them hard to avoid. In spite of being the lowest-performing Form 5 homeroom, they have captured my heart. They are like my very own Malaysian “History Boys”. Their focus subject is motor repair so they can work with motorbikes and cars when they finish school this year.16832310_10210027025527185_1121778876192014245_n

A funny story: They love to borrow my deck of cards to play with in their spare time. Last week, they came to me looking grim and told me they had lost the cards, which I quickly
forgave. A few days later, they brought me a new deck which they said they all bought together for me (questionable, as the cards were clearly used, but sweet nevertheless). Later that same day, when I walked by their classroom, I saw them playing with the original deck of cards! I think they scammed me just so they could keep my cards without having to ask permission whenever they wanted to borrow them. It gave me a good chuckle.

Since last time I posted, Semesra had its “Sports Day”. The event was similar to an American “Field Day”, but it had an unusual air of pomp and circumstance. Many parents and some local officials came to visit for the day. The students all wore uniforms and costume pieces to indicate which team they were on. They began the day with a big procession, marching across the school field as the sounds of marching band music were piped in. The athletic events were basically the finals of the track and field events that the students had been participating in every day after school that week. The top three students in each event were awarded medals and would go on to represent Semesra at the district-level competitions later in the year. I helped with timing the students during the track races; in between matches, students and teachers alike enjoyed watching me dance to the – for lack of a better word – eclectic playlist being played over the school speakers.

There were also competitions for the parents and teachers in which I was invited to participate. I raced car tires across the field with the fathers in attendance, and I competed in a balloon-blowing competition with the male teachers. I was handily beaten in both cases. At the end of the day, there was a big tug-of-war match between the four student teams. Ros assigned me to Team Yellow (Kuning), and I very intensely cheered them on. They easily beat Team Green (Hijau) but ultimately lost to Team Red (Merah). For some salt in the wound, I made a bet with Mamat, a Form 2 boy on Team Red, that if his team won, he could call me ugly (hodoh) and I would have to call him handsome (kacak) whenever I was asked. I have regretted said decision ever since, although it is actually kind of a fun inside joke I share with him. Ultimately, Sports Day was one of my favorite days of the year thus far. I was bummed it happened so early in the year, but my male mentor Haziq explained that if it happened any later the weather would be too hot and it would be dangerous for students’ health.

Thanks to Ros and her family, I finally got a baju melayu – a traditional Muslim Malay outfit that is worn on Fridays for prayer and on special occasions such as Hari Raya. It was hard to find one in my size, so Ros had her 6’5” brother-in-law send an old one to her mother, 17358975_10212597966286869_6032040182610038669_owho tailored it to my size. It is in the Johor style, meaning the shirt is worn untucked and the collar is loose. I purchased a genuine Terengganu samping from Cikgu Nawawi at my school for RM100; it is beautiful, ornately laced with gold thread. Our principal, Tuanhaji Mohamad Ismail b. Suhada, purchased a songkok for me to complete my outfit; as it turns out, they do not make them big enough for my huge head, but I am squeezing into the one he gave me and I treasure the sentiment behind it. I love being able to wear my baju as a symbol of respect for my students’ culture; I was worried at first it would be culturally appropriative, but the whole school seems genuinely excited to see me in it each Friday.

We have had three English camps since I last wrote a blog. The first was our statewide “fairy tale” camp in Ipoh. It was an intensely stressful but ultimately fun bonding experience for the 15 of us. We got to Ipoh very late Friday night after Clay and I went to the wrong mall on the entirely opposite side of the city. Turns out there are actually three malls in Ipoh called “Aeon Mall”. While walking through the wrong mall, we were cornered by a Chinese woman named Hazel who recognized us as Fulbrighters and ranted to us for a half hour about racial inequalities in Malaysia; it was a fascinating cultural experience that we are still deconstructing three weeks later. After realizing our navigational error, we drove across the city and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning making props and decorations for the camp. After getting a few hours of shuddeye in a gorgeous homestay, we trudged back to the (correct) mall and set up shop before the stores had even opened.

Each of our schools brought 6-8 students to the camp. We played Jack and the Beanstalk Jeopardy, did a Peter Pan obstacle course, deconstructed The Little Prince, built popsicle-stick houses for the “three little monkeys and the big, bad tiger”, and even tried to reenact The Wizard of Oz together. (Side note: I never realized how ridiculous that story truly is until I had to explain it to a bunch of ELL kids.) I served as co-Emcee for the event with Sarah N., which was a tad nerve-racking with a few timing curveballs thrown at us, but we handled it like champs. The highlight of the day for me came at lunchtime when one of the Perak State Library officials invited me to perform with a group of buskers in the mall’s courtyard. The band – Rock 7 – loved jamming with me; every time I finished one song, they asked me to sing another. I performed an original song I wrote in high school called “The Glass Half Full”, followed by Andy Grammer’s “Keep Your Head Up” and John Legend’s “All Of Me”. Ros noticed me singing with them and streamed a Facebook Live video of the performance for the world to see. Busking was something I never imagined I would try, much less in Malaysia, so it was a cool experience that I will surely remember for many years.

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The second English camp, the following Saturday, was Casi and Sarah N.’s “Chicago Camp” at SMK Sultan Azlan Shah in Lenggong in northern Perak. Clay and I slept over in Kampar the night before, visiting the local board game café before bed. We left with Sophia at 6:00 AM, stopping at McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich (and, in Clay’s case, a Coke). Clay, Sarah S. and I ran a “Second City Improv”-themed station at the camp. In ironic fashion, we decided not to plan a lesson but rather to just improvise one. We were unsure how it would go over, but it ended up very successful. We played “Whoosh!”, built a “human machine” together and then did some improvised scene work. After the camp ended, we had photoshoots with the row of Nissan Almeras in the parking lot and the school’s “Perak Excellent” graffiti wall. On the way home, we visited a nearby waterfall, the most gorgeous one I have ever seen (sorry, Niagara). Clay and I were disappointed when we were told we could not swim in it as the waters were infected with leptosclerosis, even though the locals still dove in as if there was no problem. On the way home, we naturally stopped at McDonald’s again for a late lunch.

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The photo doesn’t do it justice. It was magical.

The third English camp was at Sophia’s school, SMK Idris Shah in Gopeng. It was themed around the “Friend It Forward” peer mentorship program instituted by the Perak ETAs the year before us. I have opted not to continue the program at my school for several reasons, but it was cool to see it in action. Essentially, the camp was a training day for the “senior mentors” in Forms 4 and 5 who will run programming for younger students throughout the rest of the year. Sophia’s students were much stronger English speakers than mine, so it was easy to communicate with them. I ran an activity to define “leaders” and “mentors”, but I was also pretty sick. I got easily exhausted in the heat and spent the latter half of the camp resting in the bilik guru so I would not put a damper on other camp activities. I felt like a buzzkill but I was really glad I could be there to support Sophia. I even got a cool shirt out of it!

On a vehicular front, things are on the up-and-up as well. Knock on wood, we have not gotten into any car accidents since that first week. We finally got good ol’ Molly Brown back from the dealership, new tire and all (and I even wrote a song in her honor!) With Ros’ approval, I have started parking in the lot of the Teachers’ Quarters outside the school grounds and walking to school instead to avoid potentially scratching the car again on those stupid pillars. When I first started parking at the Quarters, I would walk out the front gate and along the main road past the students’ bus stop until I reached Semesra. After a week of doing this, Haziq noticed and showed me a gate behind the Quarters that leads directly into the school parking lot. Once again, I played the role of the ignorant American unnecessarily doing things the hard way.

In other car news, we recently had another adventure with the Kampung Gajah Police Department. The Monday after our state camp, we were given the day off from school by our JPN Officer, Mr. Faisal, for a celebration in Ipoh. Clay and I got up early to stream the Academy Awards and Esme and Sophia were planning to join us so we could then all carpool to Ipoh together. Somewhere around the Oscar for Best Costume Design, we got a phone call that they had been in an accident nearby and needed to be picked up. It turned out they were in the Kampung Gajah Town Center – only 1 km away from us – when a motorbike rear-ended them, shattering their back windshield. Luckily, they were both safe and the motorcyclist only sustained minor injuries to his hand.

Clay and I, now pros at navigating the Malaysian brass, guided them to the Police Station, accompanied once again by our landlord’s poor, sweet daughter Amalina who graciously translated for us. By the time the report was filed, we realized it was unfeasible to make it to Ipoh, so we drove with them back to Kampar instead, got pizza and smoothies and watched Begin Again in Sophia’s bedroom until we all felt better. Even though it was a traumatizing experience for our friends, it ended up being a memorable day, and we all counted our blessings that everything worked out alright.

Building off the Oscars talk, I have been watching a lot of movies here. Moonlight, Get Out, Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Edge of Seventeen, Children of Men… the list goes on. Clay and I are super thankful to have a cinema in driving distance of our house. We have seen four movies there so far (and counting). We went to see Logan with Ros, her husband and a Form 5 student named Naim. The movie was fantastic, but Ros caught me tearing up at the end and hasn’t let me live it down.

A few days later, we went to see Kong: Skull Island with one of Clay’s students and her sister, Aina. Aina is an Instagram celebrity in Malaysia with 25.6K followers and counting. Naturally, she made us take a ton of selfies together to share with her fans, boosting Clay and my burgeoning fame in South Perak. Aina is also an interesting window into Malaysian views on beauty as she appears to bleach her skin, rendering her complexion several shades lighter than that of her sister. Considering the Western obsession with tanning, it is intriguing to see Malaysians exhibiting the opposite trend.

Skin bleaching is not the only trend here I find perplexing. When we went to dinner after seeing Logan, Ros’ husband felt a little ill so he went to a nearby clinic for a bloodletting procedure, something that I do not think has been actively practiced in the USA since the days of William Henry Harrison. There is also a fascination with ghosts here, and they are actively blamed when someone has an “off-day”. One of my girl students actually had a case of hysteria where she ran through the school screaming and crying before passing out in front of my principal. (Fainting seems to be a trend here as well.) Given that the notion of “meddling spirits” is virtually absent from Western belief systems, I wonder if perhaps this culture enables certain students to act a little nutty sometimes, knowing that the behavior will always be excused as being out of their control. I mean this of course with the utmost respect toward the Islamic faith; as more of a man of science myself, however, I cannot help but question this when I see completely rational students acting erratically.

Clay has been grappling with a “trend” of his own. On a ride home from school, our good pal Mr. Poobalan stopped on a bridge above the Perak River, handed Clay a bag of garbage and insisted he throw it out the window into the waters below. Clay hesitated, but agreed upon further pressing. He came home feeling ashamed and ethically corrupted. A few days later, it happened a second time, but Clay adamantly refused so Poobalan just did it himself, citing his Hindu beliefs as a reason. Out of curiosity, Clay and I began to research both online and through conversations with other Hindu individuals, but we have not found a single source to corroborate that their beliefs mandate throwing garbage in rivers rather than landfills. Perhaps this is an example of, as Clay and I like to say, #JustPoobalanThings.

Below are some of the other random stories I wanted to share from these past few weeks:

  • One of the teachers at my school, Cikgu Abdullah, enjoys spending time and sharing his culture with me. He purchases breakfast on the way to school each morning and then invites me to sit and shares it with me: assorted kuih (my favorite: a sweet green roll filled with shredded coconut and brown sugar) and nasi lemak (coconut rice with spicy sambal, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and ikan bilis, tiny dried fish). It is consistently a highlight of my day.
  • Last year’s ETA, Lainie, painted a map of the United States outside the CUBE room. She made it green but painted in purple her own state (Minnesota) and the home state of the ETA before her, Sondra (Washington). Now that I am settled in here, Ros invited me to color in my state. I chose Pennsylvania because I still consider it to be my true home, even though my family lives in Maryland now. Lainie also painted a variety of American landmarks around the outside of the map, so I added the LOVE Statue from Philadelphia. I am not a great artist, but I think I did a good job with it. I was going to paint the Liberty Bell at first, but it struck me that sharing the notion of “Brotherly Love” with my students would be more impactful than just exhibiting another symbol of American pride.

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  • Ros is eager to redecorate the CUBE Room. To get the ball rolling, I held a student competition to design a new sign for above the door. [For context: the old one was printed on foam board and typed in – wait for it – COMIC SANS. When I saw that, I knew an update was mandatory.] Two girls in 4IS, Hafifa and Hafizah, submitted beautiful, colorful, hand-drawn designs, so I scanned them, fixed them up in Photoshop, added a touch of my own in the middle and got approval from Ros and Tuanhaji. Ros then took it to a shop in Teluk Intan and had it printed on a beautiful canvas banner, which we then stapled to the doorframe of the CUBE. It is so fulfilling to see that I have left a visible mark on the school already. I am proud of the banner and hope it stays long after I have left Semesra.
  • In the middle of this exam week, Semesra suffered a burglary overnight. The criminals broke into the bilik guru and stole money from several teachers (though, surprisingly, they seemed to organize my desk for me as well). A couple teachers found notes on their desks reading, “Maafkan saya, Cikgu.” The robbers also attempted to enter the CUBE (as evidenced by splintering wood around the door handle) but they could not break through the padlock. They stole the central security camera storage unit from the main office, and they even broke into the computer lab and stole the hard drives out of the computers. This was an upsetting event for my school, and the mood was very somber the following day.  The teachers speculated that perhaps it was because of an event happening at the school the following day, in which any parents at the school below a certain income bracket would be given RM100 subsidies for each of their children. They gossiped that perhaps the crime was committed by the Bangladeshi workers who had been setting up for the event the evening before. I questioned this assumption, only insofar as I am aware of racial tensions in Malaysia at the moment because of increasing rates of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While the assumption may still be accurate, I choose to view it as another cultural learning opportunity, equivalent to the current American rhetoric on Mexican immigrants.
  • Last week, I was watching a movie with Clay in his room when Ibrahim knocked frantically on the door. He let us know that the Minister (like a Governor) of Perak was going to be visiting the homestay at 4 AM the next day for morning prayer and asked us to move our car. We then heard him all night mowing his lawn and preparing his house for this esteemed visitor. The next day, we came to find out that the Minister never showed up! Poor Ibrahim looked so disappointed, but hey, at least his lawn looked nice!
  • Ibrahim is also in the process of building a new patio (or, as he pronounces it, “pay show”) for his house. When construction began, Clay and I had no idea how large and ornate it would end up being. Three weeks in, it is still not finished but it looks gorgeous. Ibrahim is very eager to have us use the patio once it is complete; I am sure we will take him up on that offer.
  • Last Thursday, Clay and I stayed home from school because we were visited by Becca and Vaishali, two of our MACEE coordinators. Kampung Gajah was the only Perak placement Vaishali did not visit last year when she was an ETA, so she was excited to see our humble abode. Becca took Clay and I for one-on-one conversations to check in. I’ve genuinely been doing well here, so I felt like I did not have much to say, but it was still nice to vent and talk out the struggles and successes I have been facing thus far. Afterward, they took us to a lunch of our choosing; after some fickleness, Clay and I settled on a chicken restaurant in Kampar called “Wing Zone”. It was a nice dose of American cuisine, some food for the soul. Over lunch, we shared cultural stories and joked about Becca someday starting a New England cult.
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My new “Mate”, Andika!

  • After months of waiting, I finally got a haircut here. There is a small barber shop in the KG Town Center called “Mate”. Clay approached it very skeptically as he self-proclaims his hair as “sacred” to him, but I was very excited to give it a shot. Come to find out, the barber is a hipster 24-year-old guy named Andika. He is fresh out of school and is trying to make a name for himself, having just opened the shop on December 12. The shop has a cool vibe; it’s basically a glorified closet covered in wood-paneling with three barber stations set up. They also have a guitar and a ukulele, and actively encouraged Clay and I to play for them when they found out we were musically-inclined. I gave no specifications for my haircut, but I love the new ‘do Andika gave me (for only RM10!) He buzzed the sides but left the top pretty long. Having not changed my look in 22 years of life, it’s refreshing to take a new hairstyle for a spin. I even went and bought gel, which I’ve been using every day at school. (My boys tell me I look “smart”, and my girls just squeal when they see me.) Andika even gave me his phone number and invited us to hang out sometime, which I fully intend to do. Either way though, Andika will definitely be getting my business again. If you’re ever looking for a trim in KG, I highly recommend him.
  • I neglected in my last post to mention that I took a risk and applied for a grant from the U.S. Embassy to run a special camp for my students later this spring. I wanted to take my “speaking workshop” students to see a musical in Kuala Lumpur. I found an awesome show called “Mud”, a government-sponsored show that tells the story of the founding of Malaysia in English! I worked hard on the application and submitted it over a month ago. I just got word a few days back that the Embassy is fully funding my proposal, so it’s a go! I am completely elated and will be sure to write more about this as the planning progresses.

So, needless to say, life here is very busy. And yes, it is all very stimulating and mostly very positive, but it is also exhausting. Maintaining my stamina is a daily struggle. Every afternoon, I punch my card and saunter out of school desperate for a nap.

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Still, I find enough little moments to keep me feeling strong. Remember how I mentioned parking outside the school grounds earlier? Well, as I saunter out each day, I see the gate Haziq showed me – the one leading directly to the parking lot of the Teachers’ Quarters – and after a second of contemplation, I pass it by.

Sure, the long way is less convenient, and walking along the main road after school is more risky, but that extra minute of walking allows me to pass the students’ bus stop on the way back to my car. That extra minute lets me see their smiles one last time before I go home for a lonely night of lesson planning and YouTube binging. That extra minute gives me one more chance to remind them I am here for them.

As I prepare for spring break – meaning I am now a quarter of the way through my time in Malaysia – I can’t help but think back on the question AJ posed to us during Orientation: “What are you doing here?” Three months in, I have found many answers to that, but it’s funny to realize my top one is the same as it was back home. No matter what continent I am on, I am here to help the kids who need me most. No matter how busy I may be, I will always spare an extra minute for them.

Yes, even if it means I have to walk the long way around.

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“Fadzeilo!” “Najumbo!” “Adudu!” “Amirnang!” These goofballs barely speak English, but I love the poop out of them anyway.

Teaching and learning,

Nate

[PS: I’ll be out of commission for the next week because I am travelling to Bali, but expect another blog shortly upon my return!]

The “10 Sen” Moment

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A Typical Semesra Morning

“Good morning, Sir!” Wan shouts enthusiastically at me from across the kantin.

Selamat pagi, abang!” I reply. I walk to the kuih table and unabashedly pick up a pair of donuts for myself.

“Drink, drink?” he asks, though by now he should know the answer.

Teh tarik, please.”

“Okay.”

As I wait for my beverage, I reflect on my first month in my placement. The adrenaline and novelty of the experience is now wearing off, replaced by responsibility and routine. The pace of life in Malaysia seems much slower than that in the United States, so much so that I sometimes feel time is standing still entirely. This sensation brings occasional frustration as well as frequent relief.

Wan pulls out his calculator, his cash register of sorts. I know the bill already: two donuts are RM0.8 and teh tarik is RM1.3, so the total is RM2.1, but he rounds down to RM2. Whether this 10 sen discount is for expediency’s sake or another perk of being a school VIP, I cannot be sure.

Sipping my tea (and giving Wan a thumbs up so he knows it is sedap), I ponder how my anxiety is affecting my adaptation to life in this culture. In some ways, it makes me feel ineffective just as it did in college; I frequently find myself concerned that I am somehow failing to fulfill my role here to my fullest potential. Example: virtually every day, I take a two-hour nap upon getting home from school. While that is time I could spend doing something more productive – cleaning the lizard poop out of my toaster oven, for example – I have been exerting so much energy during the time I am at school, both mentally and physically, that to trudge through the afternoon would be a masochistic endeavor. On top of that, while I am still surviving with minimal use of my air-con (for financial reasons), the heat is a draining and demotivating cherry on top of the equatorial hot sludge sundae.

Still, in spite of my anxiety, I generally find myself more confident and comfortable than I expected. I have come to realize that the Malaysians around me cannot differentiate which aspects of my personality are American in nature and which are just Nate-isms (though, realistically, those have more overlap than I realize). Consequently, many of the quirks which make me feel socially inept back home are instead forgiven here as “silly American” behaviors. In spite of the parts of my identity that I must hold back for fear of offending my community (i.e. my political beliefs), I in some ways feel more comfortable in my own skin as a foreigner here than I do in my own homeland. [This is a simplified summary of a much more complex set of personal observations which require further reflection, but I felt compelled to share as it is currently on my mind.]

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Dusk in the Kampung Gajah Town Centre

Adjusting to life abroad is made much easier by active self-care. On the last day of orientation, our coordinators advised us to find the western comforts we most appreciate and hang onto them as best we can when times get tough here. I have taken this to heart to great success. I have made it a point to talk to my mom once a week so we can stay updated on each others’ lives. I have tried to watch at least one Daily Show / Last Week Tonight / similar news pundit-type clip every day for a balance of staying informed and being entertained. I usually watch a movie or TV show when I get in bed each night, as they satiate my hunger for American culture. Speaking of hunger: Clay and I even found a milkshake stand in the center of our town which we have already visited three times.

At the same time, we have started to learn how to find comforts within the Malaysian culture as well. There is a drink stall in our town that sells cendol for RM1, and another stand close by that makes a delicious burger wrapped in a fried egg; this has become a consistent dinner option when I am too tired to cook. I look forward to wearing my batik shirt from Penang every Thursday, and I hope to buy a few more when I can find them at a reasonable price. I get pleasure from brushing up on my Malay using the “MemRise” app Clay recommended. And, of course, I look forward to seeing Wan’s smiling face (and those of my students too) first thing each morning.

At this point, I have developed a strong rapport with my students. One day, I showed a few of my Form 5 boys a card trick; now, I cannot walk ten feet without a random student asking me to do magic for them. The students eagerly look forward to Fridays as they know that is the day I will bring my guitar to school (“setiap Jumaat, sahaja Jumaat,” I tell them). The girls enjoy my dancing abilities and are notably fascinated with my Michael Jackson impersonation, much to my dismay. (“Zombie, Sir! Zombie!” is their way of asking me to perform a snippet of the Thriller dance.) The older boys love to teach me Malay slang, though I often repeat their phrases hesitantly until I can confirm they are appropriate for school. In class, I introduced a “High-5” technique to assess understanding; after I give instructions in English, students hold up between one and five fingers to show how much they understood. If I see low numbers, I repeat my instructions slower and often throw in some Malay or charades.

There is also a wealth of humor in the daily goings-on at Semesra. As comfortable as I am getting, there is at least one moment every day that totally surprises me and often knocks me on my butt with laughter. One day, Ros revealed to me that she is an Abba-holic and we proceeded to have a karaoke session to “Dancing Queen” in the CUBE. Another time, my Form 1 students got distracted by the sounds of the “Chicken Dance” song coming from the PPKI room, leading to an impromptu dance party. Most comically, I am told almost every day that I remind my students of Mr. Bean, which I find especially perplexing given how much I talk. (In fairness, I have also been compared to Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Claflin, so I’ll take it with a grain of salt.)

Things outside of school have been going well. Our homestay continues to entertain us. Yesterday, we watched a monkey jump on the awning of our landlord’s patio and cause it to cave in. Another time, a man (Mr. Din) staying in an adjacent apartment asked to borrow my guitar, which led to a cool experience of watching this Malay man jam out Eric Clapton-style on my cheapo instrument. Clay and I have been playing a bunch of board games lately; I narrowly beat him in a three-day-long battle of Twilight Struggle. Additionally, he has introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. I am a level 1 half-elf druid named Febreze, and no, I do not care that you are judging me for it.

Still, we try to get out of the house at least a few nights a week – playing frisbee at his school, getting dinner with students or visiting the nearby night markets. At the Changkat Lada one this Tuesday, we tried a blue beverage that was a dead-ringer for Lucky Charms marshmallow milk. In spite of any small differences between us, we are supporting each other as best we can. I even went to help out at his school’s Sports Day last week, and was rewarded with free satay, a Changkat Lada mug, the chance to try javelin throwing and archery, and a whole lot of fun. (Side note: at the event, 12 students passed out from the heat… and that was only during the opening ceremonies!)

Naturally, we’ve taken some trips these past couple weeks. Last weekend, we trekked to a waterfall in Gopeng with Grace, Esme, Sophia and a local American family they met. I jumped off a nine-foot boulder into the water and prayed not to die. The weekend before, we spent a night in Ipoh to celebrate Sarah N. and Shaina’s birthdays. Highlights included kicking Clay and Esme’s butts at the “Soft Darts Club”, trying white coffee, buying some mini cacti for my house on Concubine Lane and getting my first Malaysian parking ticket (that I promptly paid off at the Malaysian DMV – which, as it turns out, looks exactly like the U.S. DMV). That evening, we had a salon at a Chinese tea house to discuss the current political climate of the U.S.A. and what we can do from our positions here to advocate and speak up.

We also drove to Ipoh for Thaipusam, a Hindu festival in which men make wishes for the year ahead and, if they come true, parade to the local temple with colorful religious floats connected to their bodies by metal piercings. While there, I tried an Indian honey-flavored fried dough dessert and a traditional beverage that looked like milk but tasted like pickle juice. We got in a discussion with an older gentleman who regaled us with his thoughts on the interplay of religions in Malaysia, much to our discomfort. While the experiences I had that day were somewhat out of my comfort zone, they were certainly valuable and I will remember them for many years to come. We will be back in Ipoh again tomorrow night for our state-wide English camp, so stay tuned on how that turns out.

Of course, amidst all of these adventures, there are still many struggles. My washing machine broke two weeks ago, so now I have to do my laundry in Clay’s room (which he has been super gracious about… what a guy!) I have been kept awake a few nights by the sound of the monsoon rains banging against my metal roof. My WiFi is still spotty and seems to always cut out at the worst possible times. I am running out of toilet paper and milk faster than I can buy it. Every time I set out to clean my room, it somehow ends up messier than before. And these obstacles may sound small and petty – indeed, they objectively are – but in the context of the Malaysian heat, the exhaustion of teaching and the mental taxation of being so far away from home, these molehills quickly grow.

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And sometimes the molehills are just moseying cows…

Thus, there are mornings when I find myself feeling gross, groggy and even a little grumpy – mornings which make me question whether I will be able to survive eight more months here with my sanity in tact. But as I walk down the school corridor toward the kantin, I hear a voice call out, “Good morning, Sir!”

Selamat pagi, kawan.”

“Drink, drink?”

And in spite of its redundancy, there is something intangibly special about this “10 sen” moment. I find comfort in its familiarity, inspiration in its courtesy. For an instant, I could swear the clock has stopped ticking.

As Wan pulls out the calculator, I notice myself smiling; my hand waits in my pocket, already clutching RM2.

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Settling in for the long haul,

Nate

On Popularity and Potholes

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(more photos to come)

I wake up ahead of the sun and groggily throw on the outfit I laid out the night before. Sauntering out to the car, my skin instantly becomes moist from sweat, dew or some uncomfortable combination of the two. Clay and I exchange half-hearted morning pleasantries with a shared understanding that we would both rather be asleep. I take the drivers’ seat, blast the air conditioning and accidentally turn on the windshield wipers while trying to find the turn signal. As we clumsily traverse the bumpy rural roads to SMK Changkat Lada (Clay’s school), I wonder how many days it will take before I feel comfortable taking this route without my phone’s GPS in my lap.

The cobalt blue sky is fringed with palm trees, whose silhouettes blend together in the dissipating darkness. Telling him to “make good choices”, I drop Clay at the corner of Chillies, the nickname of his school [whose logo is oddly similar to that of the eponymous restaurant]. I spend the last 15 minutes of my drive alone, accompanied at last by the rising sun. The pink light of dawn acts as a paintbrush, unveiling the vivid colors of the countryside like a tropical watercolor. As I turn onto the final stretch of highway toward Semesra (my school), I again admire the palm trees, their individual fronds now illuminated.

Clearly, this is a romanticized version of what is truly the most stressful part of my day. Every day, the 40-minute stretches I spend driving to and from school nearly give me an ulcer. We were warned in orientation that Malaysian drivers are insane, yet words cannot do them justice. Motorbikes weave in and out of lanes like an Olympic slalom and cars speed past, brake sharply in front of you and turn across lanes. Also, given how rural our region is, the road infrastructure is pretty abysmal; there are potholes every few feet, often obscured by the rainwater collected inside them from the previous night’s monsoon. That’s not even to mention the birds, lizards and monkeys who dawdle their way across the roads for no apparent reason other than to give me an arrhythmia. (Why did the chicken cross the road? To test Nate’s bowel control.) I recognize the need to check my privilege here, but as an anxious first-time traveler, I feel I should be given some slack on this one.

I am reminded, however, of a speech by my literary idol, the late David Foster Wallace, who wisely said, “If you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then…it will be within your power to experience a [hellish] situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

This, of course, does not invalidate my anxiety. The roads will not get any less bumpy in the months to come, nor will the monkeys become more self-aware. However, if nothing else, they will become more familiar to me over time. When I revisit this blog stateside, I will want to remember this morning commute for all its beauty, not its affiliated stressors.

With that out of the way… what have I been up to these past two weeks?

Well, I’ve finally started working at my school, SMK Sungai Ranggam (AKA Semesra). I have thus far found the school to be a truly beautiful place. Aside from the natural beauty that surrounds it, the faculty has been unbelievably welcoming to me and supportive when I make cultural gaffes. While most of my conversations with other teachers in the canteen are hindered by our limited knowledge of each others’ languages, we all seem uplifted by our mutual attempts to understand one another. Meanwhile, the students treat me like a rock star. Form 5 boys play hooky just to walk me to my next class, Form 4 girls giggle and tell me I have beautiful blue eyes, and the little Form 1 babes approach me with a doe-eyed combination of terror and wonderment. Sometimes, I feel bad for causing so much distraction; even just walking through the corridors, students in each class run to the window to watch and holler at me. I would be lying though if I did not admit that this newfound popularity is somewhat invigorating. It gives me a sense of self-assuredness I have never quite felt before.

For brevity’s sake, here is a bulleted list of brief memories from my first two weeks at Semesra:

  • On my very first day visiting the school, Ros told me the students had aerobics during their morning meeting and asked me to dress accordingly. Come to find out aerobics is actually a half-hour-long Zumba workout set to an eclectic combination of ’90s Asian electronica and James Blunt songs. I gave it my all, and the students chuckled accordingly. Mind you, this was before they even knew my name.
  • During my first English Society meeting, my male mentor (Haziq) went to sit on a beanbag chair only to discover four newborn kittens cuddled up underneath. Ros freaked out because she is allergic to cats, so I made a little box for them and hid them under a nearby staircase. A few hours later, I found their mom meowing desperately trying to find them, so I reunited the family. I have since visited them frequently. I decided to name the baby kuchings after the Four Seasons – Frankie, Tommy, Nick and Bob (not the other four seasons).
  • Ros treated Clay and I to dinner with her four children at Pizza Hut one night. Her three daughters were very shy (probably because we are men), but her four-year-old son thought we were the bee’s knees. We ordered Hawaiian pizzas and he insisted we pick all the pineapple off and give it to him. We obliged happily.
  • I stayed after school one day to eat a late lunch with the students. The Form 5 boys apparently think I’m hilarious. They tried to get me to call one of them “crazy”, to which I responded, “Kami semua ‘crazy’.” (We are all crazy.) I was met with a literal round of applause.
  • Ros invited me to go with her and two Form 5 students to see a movie in Teluk Intan this past weekend. The boys chose Resident Evil: the Final Chapter. Not knowing any better, Ros agreed. Needless to say, she was appalled to discover all of the violence and gore it entailed. Several times during the movie, she gasped and scolded the boys for not warning her what to expect. At one point, when the male villain fought the female protagonist, I caught her muttering under her breath, “That’s no way to treat a lady.” She kept a good sense of humor about it though.
  • Unwittingly, I was volunteered to co-coach the girls’ volleyball team at the school. I don’t know the first thing about volleyball, let alone how to coach it to female English language learners in a place where cross-gender interactions are often tricky to navigate. We have our big tournament tomorrow, so stay tuned…

Outside of school, things are mostly going well. Clay and I have become close friends with our landlord’s 20-year-old son, Moiz. While his English skills are shaky, he shows a lot of eagerness to try his best to communicate and build a strong relationship with us. We have taught him some games which he seems to enjoy (though he was frustrated by “Who has the ball?”). He has cooked food for us and helped us strengthen our WiFi connection. I have also begun teaching him to play guitar. We started with “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz since it’s fairly easy to learn. At our first lesson, Moiz had never heard it before so I played it for him once. A few days later, he proudly showed me a piece of paper on which he hand-wrote the lyrics to the song so he could practice it in English. I choked back happy tears. Clay and I both feel lucky to have him around, and it seems like he feels the same about us. Moiz makes Kampung Gajah feel a lot less lonely.

On a related note, our motley crew (led by Moiz) walked into town to the local pasar malam (weekly night market) this past Friday. Clay and I did not expect much given how small our area is, but it ended up being huge. It seemed like every living soul in Kampung Gajah came out of hiding and was intermingling over food, drinks and off-brand retail products. We got satay (and I got Milo ais, of course) and strolled through, taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells. It was an enriching evening, verging on spiritual; in that moment, we both felt a sense of community that we never expected given our initial impressions of our kampung. We both seem eager to go back every Friday that we can.

We also attended our first local wedding this week, at the invitation of Poobalan [who has endearingly taken to calling Clay and I “bros” when he messages us]. The wedding – more of a reception to be honest – was for an Indian couple in Teluk Intan, the bride being a teacher friend of Poobalan. Despite having no connection to the family, we were warmly welcomed to the party. We feasted on a delicious (and mildly spicy) Indian buffet, enjoyed the Tamil music and even took a picture with the happy couple! We left early as Poobalan wanted to take us to try traditional Indian chai at a nearby restaurant. He opened up to us about his past experiences participating in the piercing rituals of the upcoming Thaipusam festival. Afterward, he took us back to visit his apartment, an eye-opening experience to say the least. Clay and I got a good laugh when we looked at Poobalan’s whiteboard of goals for the year. Number 6 on the list: becoming a “muscled hunk”, which he explained to us was more of a pipe dream as a proud vegetarian. He seems pretty eager to have us sleepover, and we will surely take him up on that offer at some point.

The highlight – or perhaps lowlight – of the week came in the form of our car. In a true case of dramatic irony, the vehicle we named the “unsinkable Molly Brown” was damaged in three places this week (all with me behind the wheel, I might add). On a backroads drive from Ipoh to Kampar, we hit a pothole, our front tire blew out and our front bumper cracked. In fairness, the car immediately in front of us also popped a tire on the same hole so I feel less guilty about this instance, but it still was not a pleasant experience. On the plus side, somewhere in my subconscious I apparently saved the information from my auto repair Boy Scout merit badge as for the first time I changed a tire like I was a NASCAR pro. As if this instance wasn’t crappy enough though, a few days later, I scratched her left side on a metal pillar while trying to pull into the tight parking spots at my school without hitting the students in the parking lot. There goes my February stipend…

As I said earlier though, it’s all a matter of perspective, and the tire incident led to one of the funniest moments of my whole grant so far. During orientation, we were advised to file a police report anytime damage is inflicted to our car just to be safe for insurance reasons. Thus, the day after the tire popped, Clay and I implored Poobalan (in spite of his many protests) to drive us to the Kampung Gajah police station after work so we could file a report about the pothole. The initial report took a little over an hour to file, largely because of the communication barriers between the officers and us. When we finished, we were told we had to drive to the police headquarters Batu Gajah (about an hour away) to give our statement and complete the report. We were tired after a long day of school, emotionally spent from the car troubles and already had plans for the evening, so we decided we would wait until the weekend to finish the report.

When we got home, however, those plans changed. I was on the phone with our car rental facility to ask about when we could get it checked for repairs and I received a missed call from an unknown number. Upon calling back, I realized it was the personal line of a sheriff at the Batu Gajah Police Department who was concerned as to why we were not yet there to issue our statement. I tried to explain our plans, even offering to send our photos from the accident and give a temporary statement over the phone, but the language barrier made it very difficult. Attempting to compromise, the officer offered to meet us at the scene of the incident, which baffled us given that it was literally in the middle of a backroad which would be almost impossible to find again. Conferring with Clay and at the advising of both the MACEE co-ords and our car rental facility, we opted to cancel the police report, which perplexed the officer. He said he would confer with his office and then call back.

In the meantime, we got into a pleasant conversation with our landlord and his wife, a welcome relief from the confusion and aggravation of the car sitch. As we were sitting and chatting, I kid you not, an officer on a motorbike and a squad car from Batu Gajah pulled into our homestay. Clay and my mouths dropped. Our landlord, blissfully unaware of what we had been doing, nearly had a heart attack. I can only imagine what he thought we had done in that moment. I looked down at my phone only to find I had missed six calls in ten minutes from the officer. In his impatience, I guess he just decided to come find us. The officers took pictures of the car and the tire while gossiping in Malay with our landlord. They then invited us to follow them back to Batu Gajah to make a statement for the case which we had already asked to close. Why they could not take a statement then and there, I do not understand. Wanting the whole thing to be over with, we instead decided to drive back to the Kampung Gajah police station and cancel the report. This required a written statement in Malay, so our landlord’s daughter Amalina generously offered to tag along and mediate for us. It then took another full hour to – and here’s the kicker – issue a statement stating that we were not going to be issuing a statement.

With moments like this, if we didn’t laugh at ourselves, how could we survive here? I take some pride in this though. I honestly don’t think two years ago I could have handled the types of obstacles I am now facing without tearing my hair out. To see myself navigating the ins and outs, ups and downs, fame and infamy, sweat and dew of life in a foreign country with a smile and a resilient spirit shows me how much I have matured in a relatively short amount of time. And I’m still only one month in.

There will be potholes in the road this year, but I can take them in stride. Besides, I have far more to gain from keeping my eyes up and watching the morning light creep through the leaves of the palm trees.

And if, worst case, I pop a tire? Well… no police report necessary.

Enamored with existence,

Nate

My Home Away From Home

I have finally gotten settled at my place in Kampung Gajah. It has some quirks for sure. I have an unexpected housemate: a gecko that I have named Giuseppe. He has pale skin, dark black eyes, and he constantly darts about like he is running from the cops (speaking of cops… stay tuned for my next post). He’s essentially the reptilian version of Robert Durst. I also was kept awake a few nights ago by some monkeys apparently filming a World Star Hip-Hop video outside my window. Still, for all its obstacles, I love my house. It amazes me every day how, even thousands of miles from the life I knew before, I feel incredibly comfortable and at peace in a place so foreign to me.

Here is a video tour of my crib. Thank you so much to Encik Ibrahim and Ibu Nor Rizah for welcoming us so warmly into their home for this year! Clay and I hope we can be “good neighbors” to you, just as you have promised to be for us.

Now, back to cleaning…

Nate