What Am I Doing Here?

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My orientation hotel, the Dorsett Kuala Lumpur

It has officially been one week since I set off on what can only be qualified as the biggest adventure of my young adulthood. As I write this post gazing out the 18th floor window of my hotel room on the gritty, vibrant streets of Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, it’s almost a struggle to remember who I was just seven days ago. I have visited so many new places, met so many incredible people, eaten so many foods which were unusual to me; my eyes are slowly, comfortably adjusting to seeing the world in a brighter and more vivid light.

I have quickly come to realize how difficult it will be to put my experiences in Malaysia into words. Aside from the fact that my schedule is jam-packed from basically 6:30 AM to midnight every day, the sheer expanse of my adventures here is virtually impossible to chronicle in a sufficient level of detail. Thus, I think my blog moving forward will take on more of a fleeting quality as I try to recount the most enlightening moments of my journey rather than trying to tell a cohesive story. And anyway, that’s just how human memory works. I have often felt this week as though I was coming down from laughing gas as the world around me buzzes with color and life. Perhaps as the year progresses, I will have more time to reflect on these moments, but for the time being I am just soaking in every little detail.

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The mighty and impressive Petronas Towers

I also realized I haven’t yet written on this blog what my job here really entails, so here’s the basics of how my year is shaping up. I will be serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a rural public high school in Malaysia. I will be the only American teacher in my school, but I will be sharing living quarters with another. The exact nature of my work in the school will depend based on who my assigned mentor teacher is and how we compromise our shared expectations for co-teaching. [I will note that, at least in this moment, I would love to be in front of the classroom as often as I am allowed.] For my first two weeks, I am attending orientation in Kuala Lumpur with the 99 other ETAs, all Americans under 30. On 1/18/17, I will head off to my statewide orientation, and I will arrive at my school the following week. By February, my job will be in full swing.

On top of teaching, as an ETA, I am a public diplomat representing the United States and as such my job requires a significant component of cultural exchange. I will be living in the same community where I teach and engaging with the locals, both to learn about their way of life and to teach them about my own experiences as a young American. I will also be responsible for working to plan [at least] two English camps as opportunities for Malaysian students to practice and develop confidence in their English language skills. Keep in mind all of the above is only a very baseline description of what, I am coming to realize, is a very complex and important set of responsibilities now resting on my plate. I am sincerely looking forward to the challenge.

Now, onto the more fun stuff. In no particular order, here are some memories from my first week that I want to hold onto.

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I don’t read Chinese, but I still know what THAT says!

My plane trip had three legs: PHL to LAX, LAX to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Malaysia. I made the call to shell out a little extra moolah to get extra leg-room for the trip, as being 6’4″ on 22 hours of plane rides would be pretty miserable otherwise. It was a great decision, especially because I got to sit next to another Fulbrighter, an Oregonian named Esme, on the middle (longest) leg. She and I bonded over Haagen-Dasz and endless replays of Bridget Jones’ Baby in the row in front of us. She told me about learning to mold beeswax in high school using her armpit as a heat source, and I regaled her with the story of my family’s New Year’s Talent Show and my song parody about all the things that might kill me over the coming year.

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Sunrise over Hong Kong

We landed in Hong Kong around 7:30 AM their time and got to watch the sun rising over the beautiful mountains behind the city through the window of our gate. On the third leg, I sat in front of another ETA named Brendan and got to listen in as he bonded with the older Malaysian woman sitting next to him, a connection which he and I have fondly reminisced over ever since. Shortly before landing, the flight attendants warned the passengers to cover our eyes and mouths and ran through the aisles spraying a heavily-perfumed mist of unknown purpose. Esme looked over to me from across the row and mouthed “Was that in your song?”

Leaving the airport for the first time, the hot and humid Malaysian air smacked me dead in the face, but I adjusted more quickly than I expected. I sat next to Brendan on the bus to our hotel and we marveled over the many western amenities we passed driving into the city. (Note to future ETAs: Dunkin Donuts is still a thing over here.) Our hotel, the Dorsett KL, is exquisite. We are truly being spoiled rotten for these first few weeks, which is at once a nice way of helping us ease into the culture and a cruel facade before we get dropped into much less-favorable living conditions. My orientation roommate is a Duke alum named Jay who just finished up a stint as a White House intern under President Obama. Given the current political climate in that building, he has a number of fascinating stories from his experiences which I have enjoyed hearing.

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My KL hotel bedroom. Yes, it’s as nice as it looks.

My first evening in KL, after buying a Malaysian SIM card for my phone, I went with a group of ETAs to the mall down the street from our hotel called the Pavilion. It has a massive, modern food court with stalls from virtually every type of Asian food imaginable. After the shock of seeing an ice chest of dead sting rays available for purchase, I decided to ease myself into the cuisine by getting a very standard plate of orange chicken as my first meal in-country. We laughed as another ETA, Anthony, tried to learn how to thank one of the cafeteria workers. (Turns out “terima kasih” is not pronounced “tiramisu”.) After dinner, we exited the mall to find that a monsoon had struck while we were eating. In spite of the torrential downpour, we all decided to splash our way over to the 7/11 down the street to check out the unique snacks they had (sweet potato Pringles, anyone?) and get liters of water to stay hydrated. Back in our room, Jay and I scrolled through the Malaysian TV channels, of which we only have access to ten, half of which are in a language we cannot comprehend.

The next day was our first day of orientation. Because of jetlag, I woke up around 4 AM and could not fall back to sleep, so I went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet – a unique mix of western classics like waffles and scrambled eggs with Malaysian favorites such as nasi lemak and samosas. I tried to get a little of each. Our orientation conveniently takes place in the hotel ballroom. Upon stepping off the elevator, I was immediately greeted by name by Dr. James Coffman, the Executive Director of MACEE (the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange, responsible for the Fulbright program among several others).

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Our catered welcome luncheon. My plate runneth over.

I received a tote bag with all of the materials I needed for the coming weeks and sat at the table front-and-center, joined shortly after by my new friends Brendan and Joey (a member of the 7/11 crew). For eight hours, we were bombarded with a barrage of information, save for a lunch interlude deliciously catered by the hotel. The ETAs at my table took the opportunity to play an awesome five-finger icebreaker.

After we had finished for the day, one of our coordinators (five former ETAs who return to manage the nitty-gritty of the program… and still hang out with us!) named AJ offered to lead anyone who was interested to get dinner at a ring of food trucks next to the Petronas Towers. To his surprise, almost all 100 of us jumped at the chance. I ate across from a Vanderbilt alum named Rachel and we shared a fantastic conversation about cultural comparison and our hopes for the year to come. She shared a story about a program she started at Vandy in which American and Malaysian exchange college students would co-teach classes in Malaysian schools over Skype called MARVEL. One particularly inspiring anecdote to remember: they chose to allow their students to draw potential logos for the organization. img_6241The winning choice, which she sketched for me on the left, at first looked simple to her until the student explained it was meant to look like an aerial view of two people embracing. After that, we went to a bar called Rock Bottom where we tried a popular Asian beer called Tiger and jammed out to American pop hits. We got a little lost on the way home, but Joey impressively found the way back on a sketchy back path through a garage and the basement of a mall. My main takeaway from that day was that I am so incredibly fortunate to be able to learn from all of my fellow ETAs, an added bonus in an opportunity rife with blessings. I can already tell, in spite of the hotel’s amenities, that the hardest part of leaving KL will be having to say goodbye to most of them for several months.

The next night, many of us decided to take an excursion to an Indian restaurant by the Temple of Fine Arts for dinner. I chose to take the hourlong walk there with my fellow Penn-grad-turned-Fulbrighter Sarah and another ETA nicknamed Opie. While stumbling
through the unfamiliar neighborhoods, we tried to process all the information we had been given that day and bonded over concerns about hiding aspects of our identities while we are here. At the Indian restaurant, we were served on a banana leaf placemat and our co-ord Vaishali taught us the proper technique for eating with your hand (which, as the photo above shows, I have yet to perfect.) To counteract the spicy curries, we ordered mango lassi, a sweet and creamy smoothie made with yogurt and mango nectar. After dodging an Indian jewelry salesman scammer outside the restaurant, we Uber’d back to the hotel. I sat in the front seat and had a great conversation with the driver, a Malaysian man named KD who had attended college in the United States. As we pulled into the hotel, he offered me his phone number and suggested that I call him should I ever find myself near his hometown in Kedah. For the first time, I found myself in awe of the hospitality that is evidently commonplace among the Malaysian people.

Our fourth day, we had lunch at a little food stall across the street from the hotel. I talked to a Dartmouth grad ETA named Alex about his documentary-film hobby and our shared interest in Alzheimers disease. We befriended a tiny stray puppy and watched nervously as the owner of the stall dragged him out to the street by his neck. Back at orientation, we received an introduction to Islam in Malaysia from a wonderful local Imam. I asked him what message if any we can bring back to the United States with us from this year, and he gave a beautiful and honest response about our flawed perspectives of each other and the need to avoid generalizations. As we all packed up to leave, Vaishali dropped a major truth-bomb by nonchalantly mentioning that our state placements were sitting outside the ballroom. Like a pack of wild monkeys, we pushed and clawed our way to the foam boards to find our faces.

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The exciting news: I will be spending the next ten months in Perak on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. This placement is really the best of all worlds for me; Perak has a long coastline of pristine beaches on one side and impressive mountains on the other, a great system of public transportation, and shares borders with five other Malaysian states and Thailand. It is also the state that three of our five coordinators were placed in last year, and it is home to the burgeoning city of Ipoh. In addition, my BTSF co-teacher, Matt Lim, is also in my state so I already have a good friend nearby! Having said on my own placement survey that I had no preference in where I was placed, I lucked out by getting such a central region with so many amazing resources and easy access to other regions for travel purposes. I cannot wait to arrive there. A few of us celebrated the news by getting beers from the hotel bar and relaxing by the pool.

 

That night, after cautiously navigating a night market full of knock-off Chanel handbags and “genuine leather” belts, we ate Hokkien mee in Chinatown. A small group of us – img_6267Clay, Jenny, Sarah, Jen, Morgan, Jay and I – then broke off with AJ to try and visit a nearby speakeasy. We were turned away at the door because Clay was wearing sandals, but the bouncer pointed us in the direction of another nearby bar which AJ had never visited before. After crossing the street through a bookstore and hiking up six flights of spiral stairs, we reached it: a chill, trendy little rooftop bar with fairly cheap drinks (RM30 for a whiskey sour) and a chandelier made out of birdcages. We geeked out over Star Wars, discussed electoral politics and enjoyed each others’ company.

Saturday morning, after FaceTiming with my mom and stepdad, I set off on an ETA scavenger hunt with a group of my new friends (Team Khaki! #khakattack). Having been instructed not to use our phones at all, we learned how to navigate the city using subways and public buses, visited the National Mosque, haggled for a flower necklace in the Chinese market (for just RM3!) and, in spite of getting lost frequently, had a great time. Morgan and I also decided to try durian (a popular fruit in SE Asia, known for its distinct smell) for the first time. We kind of chickened out by getting it in pastry form, but we were too eager to wait and find the real thing elsewhere. Having heard horror stories about it, I approached it skeptically. My face below should say everything. It smelled like an open dumpster, and it did not taste much different. I am definitely glad I tried it, but I have never been happier that a plant was not native to my own country.

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After racing back to the MACEE office, our team realized we had arrived fourth. We then performed a song parody I wrote with the help of Emily B. and Grace and presented the flower necklace to our coord Becca as a gift (a common Malaysian custom). When the results were announced, by some miracle, we came in FIRST PLACE! The coordinators told us they loved our song and that they gave us points for not having spent all of the money they gave us to use for the day’s activities. As our prize, we won smoothies from a popular stand in the Pavilion called Boost. Honestly, the scav hunt was pretty draining, especially due to the heat and the frustration of constantly getting lost, but it was still fun to win and it helped me connect with some new friends who I had not yet known.

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Wacky, tacky, khaki.

Afterward, while the ladies went to get their traditional baju kurung dresses, the guys went back to the hotel and had a pool party. Brendan, Noah, Janna and I discussed how much we were missing western food, so we decided to treat ourselves to Domino’s pizza for dinner. Little did we know, Domino’s was having a special promotion for half-price personal pizzas for only RM5.9! (That’s ~ $1.50 in the US). Needless to say, we were very excited. We then crashed the room of our friends Anthony and Chris N., where we ate, imbibed a little and played some games. Slowly, more and more ETAs showed up until pretty much 1/4 of the cohort was all in the same hotel room laughing, talking and having a great time. In that moment, I felt the “opposite of loneliness” for the first time since graduating college.

Afterward, most of us headed to a nearby club called Zouk where we danced for several hours until our eardrums could not handle it anymore. Interesting feature of the club: every half-hour or so, two futuristically-dressed Asian women would be hoisted on metal chairs on the ceiling and ride around spraying fire extinguishers into the crowd. I have truly never seen anything quite like it, but it was certainly something to behold. When we finished at the club, a bunch of us decided to Uber to a McDonald’s down the street from our hotel for a late-night snack. We think our Uber driver may have been under a certain influence as he was very giggly and at one point pulled into the median of the road to recalibrate his GPS. We entertained ourselves by singing “Down by the Bay”. At the restaurant, Joey, being gluten-intolerant, had to order a red bean McFlurry. We got a good laugh at how much it looked like Chobani. We then moseyed back to the hotel, ears ringing, eyes drooping and mouth smiling uncontrollably.

One more important memory from this week: while most of our orientation is lecture-based, we had one exercise in which we broke off into small groups and were presented with the question, “What am I doing here?” We quickly realized how many different ways it could be interpreted. What am I, Nate, doing here in such an esteemed program? What exactly am I doing as my job? What am I doing in this foreign country thousands of miles from everything I’ve ever known? What am I doing in a place where my legs are covered with mosquito bites, my mouth burns every time I eat something, I have nearly been hit by motorbikes ten times this week and I can hardly understand the language? In pondering this question, my mind jumped to a follow up: why do I feel so happy? While I am sure the latter will not always pertain this year, I want to keep that first question in mind moving forward as a tool for self-reflection, particularly for when the times here get tougher than they are right now.

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The nighttime fountain display outside the Petronas Towers

And that brings us to today. If you are overwhelmed by how much is written here, perhaps you can imagine how I feel experiencing all of this. I wish I could draw some sort of conclusions for you from it all, but it’s just too early. I have so much left to learn. When I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Much love,

Nate

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7 thoughts on “What Am I Doing Here?

  1. This was such a good read for me. Love seeing how you’re experiencing my home country and all the parallels I see with my first experiences in the US. Looking forward to reading more 🙂

    P.S. I will defend the durian’s glory til the day I die lol

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  2. I love you, and I love this post. “The opposite of loneliness”…That’s all I needed to read. I am proud of you, kiddo. And I’m so, so happy for you! Can’t wait for your next post!

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  3. Nate: I enjoyed reading about your week 1 activities and your thoughts about how those experiences are affecting you. That is how I felt when I was in SE Asia with the Navy in 1967-68. In that year and a half, I visited Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa, Malaysia-Kuala Lumpur, Sinagapore, and the Philippines. In addition to gaining an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, religions, and environments, some of the many friends you have already made and will be making this year, as well as those you met in high school and college, and perhaps even some of the Malaysian locals, may be in your circle for years to come. I am so proud of you and how you are trying new things (like the “dumpster” treat). I AM SO PROUD OF YOU! Can’t wait until your next update. / PopPop

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  4. Loving you is the happiest gift Pop Pop and I can give you and we are sending it directly to you! And like your mom reading your words “the opposite of loneliness”…I read those words over again and as I read them I felt so happy for you and so deeply proud of you. Will be following your upcoming posts with a smile!!

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