EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this post a week ago but have been behind on putting it up because I have been so busy! I have lots more to share, but I am thinking about restructuring / varying the way I write these posts moving forward because there are so many things I want to share that they seem to just keep getting longer every week. 🙂
After three weeks of living out of a suitcase and getting barely any sleep, my adrenaline is starting to wear off. I am still thoroughly enjoying every moment of my travel, but the nomadic lifestyle has left me craving the stability and routine that Kampung Gajah will finally provide for me, in spite of the isolation and limited resources it also entails. My feelings were well expressed by another ETA, Naja, on her blog here.
I am currently staying at a hotel on the coast of Kuala Perlis. My window overlooks the Straits of Melacca. Across the water, the soft curves of the mountains of Langkawi greet me every morning. I head downstairs to eat breakfast in the hotel canteen, the first of six provided daily meals. Over tea and some sort of fried noodles – they all blend together after three weeks – I reminisce on this third week abroad: a whirlwind of emotions, experiences and plans for the months to come.
Last Sunday, I awoke after only four hours of sleep and dragged myself out of bed to meet my dear friend, fellow Penn alum and ETA Lisa in the lobby of our Kuala Lumpur hotel. We were then whisked away on a day-long excursion by the parents of another mutual friend and current Penn senior, Dayana. Pak cik and Mak cik Mustak blew us away with their generosity, warmth and openness. Even though we had never met before, they treated us like family. They fully exemplified the “Malaysian hospitality” our program coordinators had described many times during orientation. After treating us to a variety of breakfast foods at an Indian banana leaf restaurant, the Mustaks took us to Pak cik’s hometown of Klang, a port about an hour outside of the city in the state of Selangor. There, we took a forty-minute ferry ride to Pulau Ketam, or “Crab Island,” a fishing village built on wooden stilts.
Prior to coming to Malaysia, my grandpa had told me I would have many “National Geographic” moments where I felt so far removed from the American lifestyle that I would feel like I had stepped into the magazine. This visit was the first of those times. Arriving around midday, the tides were low and revealed a sandy sea floor riddled with quite literally thousands of small crabs. We walked cautiously across the island’s rickety planks, avoiding the many stray dogs and motorbikes weaving around us, and marveled at the pastel colors of the village’s buildings, houses and makan stalls. We even approached a fishing boat floating by the dock and spoke to its owners; Pak cik helped to translate for us so we could learn about how the villagers run their fish-fueled economy. On the ferry ride back, Pak cik and I had a heart-to-heart about our families and the little blessings of life in Malaysia. We then went to lunch at their country club where, as mentioned last week, I drank water straight from a coconut for the first time, rendering me one step closer to achieving my dream of competing on Survivor. I gave the Mustaks the link to my blog, so in case they are reading: thank you so very much for showing Lisa and I around. I hope we may reunite again someday, but even if we cannot, I will treasure the memories of this day for many years to come.
The following day, our coordinators surprised us by switching up the planned activities for the day because we were invited to a special event by the Prime Minister of Malaysia himself (though he was not in attendance). With no other information, we boarded a bus to an unknown destination; on the ride, Brendan told Joey and I about a time he puked during a scuba dive and had to swim underwater with chunks of vomit in his breathing tube for another 45 minutes. The event itself was an information session about a youth-based service organization sponsored by the PM called IM4U. After watching a traditional Chinese lion dance (which, to be honest, was not as good as the lion dances performed by Penn Lions at my alma mater IMO), we were taken on a tour of their facilities. While they were very beautiful and impressive (of note: the ball pit, climbing wall, and a café run by young autistic individuals), the whole thing felt very staged as cameras followed us everywhere we went and many young Malaysians were hired to pretend they were using the equipment as a “demonstration”.
The last and coolest stop was the studios of IM4U’s own radio station. Four of us were chosen to be interviewed on the radio show, and I was one of them! The other three ETAs chosen, all women, were asked about their accents. I, on the other hand, was asked whether I was single (to which I responded “And ready to mingle!”) and then taught a Malaysian pick-up line to use on local women: “Sayang, sayang, sayang, sayang,” which has become something of a running joke now. On the way out of the studio, my co-ord
Vaishali thanked me for not starting an international incident. That evening, a large group of ETAs went to a karaoke bar, but to save both our energy and ringgit, a few of us opted to run our own karaoke session out of my hotel room. Joey and I played my newly-purchased guitar and we all sang songs together into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day was our final day of orientation. We began by presenting the acts we had been working on in our Bahasa Melayu classes. My group did a dance called “Joget Lodeh” and then sang “Rasa Sayang” along with this creepy video of a cartoon wolf trying unsuccessfully to seduce his lady friend. Fun stuff. We placed fourth out of six groups, which seems fair, but in true millennial fashion we all got little Kuala Lumpur keychains as participation trophies.
Later in the day, the 98 ETAs surprised our coordinators with a song parody I wrote to the tune of “Hey There, Delilah”. The lyrics can be found on my friend Brendan’s blog here. People were very complimentary about my thoughtfulness in organizing it, but I felt weird accepting any thanks because it was supposed to be about the co-ords. Ultimately, though, I think they really appreciated it. I even made one of them cry!
Saying goodbye to my fellow ETAs heading to different states was such a rushed process that I didn’t have time to feel emotional about it. Before I knew it, I was on a train to Kuala Perlis with the other ETAs from Perak, Kedah and Perlis, sipping on a box of Milo (Malaysian YooHoo) and sharing an adult baby blanket with Ashira. Upon arriving in KP, we immediately felt the difference from the pampered lifestyle we were treated to in KL. Our rooms were sweltering hot, geckos crawled around the walls and the air all around the hotel grounds was swarming with dragonflies and mosquitoes.A group of the Perak-and-Rollers opted to go for a stroll along the waterfront to cool off and stretch our legs after the five-hour train ride. We made a new state tradition of taking America’s Next Top Model photos in which we tried to out-smize each other in the many quirky places we uncovered on our walk. At one point, we heard Matt and Jonathan shriek only to see a GIANT monitor lizard (legit, must have been 4-5 feet long) cutting across the path directly in front of us. A few minutes later, a dead palm tree branch crashed inches in front of Jonathan and I. It was at that point we realized Kuala Perlis was trying to kill us. And this was only Day 1 of 6.
I kid, of course. Our time in KP ended up being fantastic, largely due to the bonding time it afforded to the ETAs placed in the states on the west coast of the peninsula. We made plans to visit Penang for Chinese New Year next week. At night, we snuck into the hotel’s conference room to play rounds of Codenames and Secret Hitler, two of Clay’s favorite games. I even played my very first game of Dungeons and Dragons, during which Clay and I geeked out upon learning the title of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. We visited a local school where a group of students performed a rendition of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” for us. We took a day trip to a beach on Langkawi, where we rode a banana boat and got stung by hundreds of jellyfish (but survived).
The biggest task we accomplished this week was collaboratively planning an English camp for a group of 305 local students, ages 8-13. We selected a “superhero” theme for it. Along with another ETA, Julia, I led a quilt-making activity in which each student drew their own superhero logo on a square of paper and then hung it at a different spot around the hotel ballroom, in the process creating an awesome collage of colorful ideas. The camp was at once a huge success and a harrowing moment of realization about the challenges we will face at our own schools working with ESL students. On a positive note, however, the students loved it and we all spent a good half-hour after the camp ended taking selfies and exchanging WeChat accounts with the students.
Another highlight of our time in KP was finally meeting our mentor teachers! Mine is named Ros. She is a middle-aged mother of four with a heart of gold and a sense of humor to boot. She loves music and was thrilled to hear I know how to play guitar and sing. She also is very excited by the prospect of her students participating in a drama performance this year with me at the helm. In spite of all the uncertainty and anxiety that is still swirling around in my brain, I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief upon getting to know Cikgu Ros; if nothing else, I have a great mentor to fall back on when times get tough.
I also learned that I have a second mentor at my school named Haziq, who my principal appointed so that I have someone of the same gender to talk to in case I am more comfortable with him. Additionally, I have bonded a lot with Clay’s mentor, Poobalan. He is a hilarious and charismatic gentleman, and he has taken both Clay and I under his wing to ensure we get to know our community and have everything we need to succeed over the coming year. One day after orientation, he even took us out to the nearby town of Kangar to look at Batik shirts and bought us pizza for dinner. Again, the Malaysian sense of hospitality never ceases to amaze me.
My personal favorite memory of the week came from an impromptu nighttime walk I took with Clay, Emily B., Ashira and Sophia. Just down the street from our hotel was a small amusement park with some food stalls and creaky-looking rides. Feeling adventurous, we opted to try out the Ferris Wheel, which moved three times as fast as any Ferris Wheel should and felt like it was built out of shipwreck scraps. Clay and I spent most of the ride talking through the odds we would survive should the ride break at any moment. After the ride, I went to a nearby stall and bought a keychain for my mentor, which the woman running the stall personalized to say “Terima Kasih, Cikgu Ros!” Clay and I got ice cream and played darts. At the end of the walk, we approached a group of men setting up microphones on a small stage and asked if we could hijack it to sing karaoke. Amused and entertained by our American silliness, the men obliged. We performed “Closer” by the Chainsmokers to a crowd consisting of the aforementioned men and one curious but cautious little boy who was drawn over by the ruckus of our guffawing. In commemoration, we took a band photo by another ride called “Rota Wave” which we realized was operating continuously throughout the night without any employee to man it. This small set of shared experiences brought us closer together (no pun intended) and helped me realize that, in spite of my rural placement, I would never actually be alone this year.
On a final note: I would be remiss not to mention the inauguration of Donald Trump in this post. Many of us ETAs stayed up until 2 AM Saturday morning to watch the inauguration and hear his speech. Being an American in a majority-Muslim country, I feel a particularly strong sense of responsibility to work to counteract the prevailing rhetoric of racism and xenophobia in my country. At the same time, being on the opposite side of the world, I feel terribly removed from American current events. However, being able to take an outside perspective on the Trump administration this year is sort of a blessing. The inauguration was a bitter pill to swallow, but I found a “spoonful of sugar” by looking around the ballroom and seeing the equally-disturbed faces of my ETA colleagues. Even if those in control do not represent our values, we have the power to fight back on the ground level – “eye to eye, hand to hand, heart to heart,” as David Brooks wisely said.
As emotional as that night was for all of us, we still got a good laugh when Clay played the Imperial March from Star Wars as Trump processed in. America is not an Empire, but we are Jedi, and we are far from the last.
P.S.: congrats to my brothers in Mask and Wig on the opening of their Spring Show this weekend! I cannot wait to see the video.