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.
From 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nazmi collects his seven pebbles.
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.
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.”
“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.