Tunnel Vision

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As I mentioned in my very first post on this blog, one of my main concerns in coming to Malaysia was allowing myself to go in with no expectations. This week, that goal was tested.

After eight months of waiting and wondering, I finally received my placement information. I will be teaching at SMK Sungai Ranggam in Perak and living about twenty minutes north in a town called Kampung Gajah, the “Elephant Village” (though sadly I have been told elephants have not been seen there in several hundred years). This is a fantastic placement as it is a rural community but is only 40 minutes outside of Kampar, a major college town, and a few minutes further from the state capital of Ipoh. There are five other ETAs in close driving distance from me. I also have an awesome roommate named Clay, a super-nerd like myself who is obsessed with movies, board games and going on adventures.

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Who is the bigger nerd? Trick question: together, we are one super-nerd.

While all of that is great news, it also means I now see the light at the end of the tunnel of anticipation I have been trudging through since April as I can now envision where I am headed much more clearly. I cannot help but feel this is dangerous because I am still over a week away from actually arriving in my town and I am hesitant to go in with preconceptions about the lifestyle or needs of the people living there. Consequently, this week has largely been an internal struggle fighting against the tunnel vision that this news imbued.

Still, in the midst of this jarring revelation, there have been even more memorable moments that need to be documented. Here goes…

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PC: the wonderful Claire Castellano

One of the biggest highlights from this week came on Wednesday when our cohort took a field trip to hike in a rainforest along the Gombak River. Fortunately, unlike some of my peers, I was able to avoid getting leeches thanks to my Speedo water shoes. More surprisingly, having drenched myself in DEET, I only got one mosquito bite the whole day. One of the highlights of the hike for me was walking through a 30-meter-long tube that carried the waters of the Gombak River out of the rainforest. In order to avoid getting soaked, our group had to walk single-file along the lip of the pipe, which was barely the width of one of my feet. The air inside the tunnel was cool but it was also dark inside and the sounds of the water rushing past were somewhat disorienting. Not so long ago, being in this claustrophobic environment would have caused me anxiety, but I handled it well, buoyed by the excitement of the moment and the encouragement of my new friends. As we approached the other end, the bright light of day dissolved into the exotic beauty of the forest foliage, a view which I will not soon forget.

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Sorry, TLC. I went chasing waterfalls anyway.

The hike only got more beautiful from there. The endpoint was an amazing waterfall that many of us swam under, an unexpectedly empowering experience for me personally. When we got back, there was a feast waiting for us. I had seafood pasta, chicken satay, yellow watermelon, teh tarik (“pulled tea” with condensed milk – my new favorite) and cendol (a dessert made with shaved ice, milk, brown sugar syrup and strands of green gelatin; yes, I ate two). It began to pour rain while we ate, which actually helped to cool us off and added a nice ambiance to the lush jungle setting.

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Fun side story: an important part of camps in Malaysia is giving certificates to students to signify their completion of the activity. In honor of this, co-ord AJ gave ETA Kendall a fake certificate for her birthday… the sign from the bathroom of the jungle lodge!

Once our stomachs were stuffed, we did state presentations: short skits and songs we wrote with the other people placed nearby us to explain why each state is awesome. Along with my friend Shaina, I spearheaded the writing of my state’s act, using my abnormal parody-writing abilities to rework Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” as “Per-ak”, complete with a slideshow featuring our lyrics and a picture of our mascot “Dwayne (Perak) Johnson”. It was a hit and we received numerous compliments on our creativity. More importantly, it was a great way to give us a sense of state pride and bring us all together before heading to state orientations next week. We followed this up by doing a faux-English camp planning exercise. My team chose my idea of doing a Space Camp and helped me come up with a mock budget and a set of unique activities around the theme to help students practice their English skills and still have fun. I am strongly considering doing this camp for real later this year, and this exercise provided an amazing foundation for me to build upon. This was also an adventurous week for me on a culinary level. Here is an abbreviated list of some of the foods and drinks I indulged in this week:

  • At Eleanor’s suggestion, I tried Jipangi, a Korean ice cream dessert served in a funky horn-shaped cone. It was delicious, though the cone-to-cream ratio was slightly off.
  • 100 Plus, an addicting carbonated Gatorade-type sports drink that reminds me vaguely of Fresca
  • Roti canai with egg and cheese, perhaps best described as a Malaysian Egg McMuffin
  • a Boost smoothie, in spite of my love-hate relationship with yogurt
  • Pina Coladas, shared with my Perak co-ord Becca and friends Sarah, Shaina and Emily. We also had great conversation on American politics and identity issues.
  • Pho, which I ate with Noah, Brendan, Janna, Sarah and Alex B. at a restaurant so fancy that they put their recipes in their menu. (Side note: It also had the strangest restroom we had ever seen, as indicated by the following sign hanging on the door and the large basket full of water placed in the center of the room.)
  • Water, straight from a coconut. (More on that in my next blog.)
  • A dish from a local market called “Maryland Chop Chicken”. Being from Maryland, naturally I had to try it. Turns out Malaysians think Maryland chicken is a thinly pounded fried chicken breast with a side of mayonnaise.

Most memorably, a group of us – Betsy, Noah, Sarah, Maggie H., Eleanor and myself – treated ourselves to a fancy dinner for our last Saturday night in KL. We shared eggplant and Brussels sprout appetizers, Noah brought us some nice wine and I had a Malaysian-Italian fusion pasta dish with duck which was divine. Afterward, we had cocktails at a trendy speakeasy next door disguised as a toy shop. We then tried to go back to our favorite bar, Rock Bottom, only to have our Uber driver bring us to a different bar that also happened to be called Rock Bottom. We still went in and had a great time. Highlight: because of language barrier issues, Eleanor almost ordered 17 shots by mistake. Worst case scenario, I’m sure we could have finished them.

Another funny thing that happened this week was a Fulbright Malaysia ETA Prom (a glorified happy hour, but still a blast). Your tax dollars are hard at work! I had two awkward interactions with a bathroom attendant that made me laugh. One worth noting: I was dancing in place while waiting for a drink at the bar, only to have the bathroom attendant leave his post, walk over and scold me for dancing somewhere other than the dance floor. I obliged, but still: Sir, if you’re reading, you should know that the dance floor is and will always be wherever I am. After Prom, Sarah, Joey K. and I went to a hookah bar nearby and shared which moments in our lives felt most cinematic to us, a conversation that I will continue to cherish in hindsight.

On a seriously peculiar note though, I have received an absurd number of compliments on my dancing abilities since arriving here. My cohort seems to genuinely think I am a good dancer and that blows my mind. I will admit I have been going hard on the dance floors here – I kind of owned a group of randos who tried to break into a dance circle of ETAs at Skybar – but it’s mostly a way of channeling my constant enthusiasm for being here in this wonderful new place. But hey, if they want to think I’m the next Derek Hough, I’ll take what I can get.

Our orientation classes this week have also been very eventful if at times a little redundant (see: Rachel and I playing the “Country Name Game” in order to stay awake). In our Bahasa Melayu classes, we are preparing presentations for a competition this Tuesday; I have decidedly little faith in my class’ ability to pull it together to be honest, but hey, we’re having fun trying. Cikgu (“Teacher” in BM) Kalis, bless her heart, is trying very hard to make things fun and engaging in spite of our occasional sass. When we learned how to count in BM the other day, my friend Tyler jokingly suggested we take up the rules of the drinking game “Cheers to the Governor!” by switching 7 and 11 when we counted up, and Cikgu played along with it even though she didn’t understand. She has also tried to teach us applicable skills, like how to say “please no spicy”, when to use “-lah” and even how to barter with a shopkeeper. She had us act this last one out. I got picked to play the shopkeeper for my team and I drove some hard bargains. I set a starting price for chocolate wafers at RM30 and, in spite of my customers’ complaints of “Mahal-lah!”, I made BANK – RM302 in ten minutes, to be exact. I think I could have a future in this if the education and public diplomacy things don’t work out.

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Ambassador Kamala and the Perak-and-Roll Stars!

Another major highlight from this week came Friday night when we were all invited to a reception at the residence of the new US Ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir. We were supposed to head over on buses, but the rush hour traffic in KL was so severe that we ended up getting out halfway and running through the rain across a highway to get to our destination. It was worth it in the end. Aside from the amazing food, this was a special night as it really solidified the importance of our work here to the relations between our two countries. It also demonstrated that we still have a lot to learn, as shown when our Malaysian host began his speech with “Selamat datang!” (“Welcome!” in BM) and in unison all 98 ETAs repeated it straight back to him. I could almost swear I heard Cikgu Kalis sighing behind us. Later, I approached the Ambassador and asked if she had any advice having taught English abroad herself when she was our age. She emphasized taking care of our health first and foremost and remembering to stay in touch with our loved ones, both of which I took to heart.

To cap off this wonderful night, my friend Megan and I arranged a game night in the hall outside our hotel’s ballroom. It turned out to be a great success; many people came and we stayed there until almost 2:30 in the morning. My future roomie Clay introduced me to a surprisingly addicting new game called Secret Hitler (trust me, it’s more fun than it sounds). I played Bananagrams for the first time and did pretty well. A late-night round of Never Have I Ever quickly evolved into a philosophical discussion on the meaning of the word “worship” and the potential pitfalls we may face when we try to share our experiences with the ones we love back home. Overall, it was a terrific morale-boosting night.

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Saturday, I got up mad early to go with some friends to the Batu Caves for the Hindu Harvest Festival. I had been looking forward to visiting the caves for several months, and they did not disappoint. There were monkeys everywhere, and they were super adorable and friendly. Granted, I did not have any food to give them so they mostly just left me alone. At the advice of some other ETAs, Noah, Sarah and I opted to take the Dark Cave tour for RM35, which ended up being a great decision. Led by a fantastic guide named Izwan, we ventured deep into the caves, explored how the ecosystem is powered by guano (bat poop), saw different limestone formations that were tens of millions of years old, and even spent twenty seconds in complete pitch darkness, during which time I took the opportunity to try and scare Noah by pretending my hand was a spider crawling up his shoulder. It didn’t work, but he gave me a pity laugh nonetheless.

And those are the highlights of my second week in Malaysia. Believe it or not, it was busier than the first. For every memory written here, there are three I did not have room for, and my journey is still only just beginning.

As I prepare to finish my time in Kuala Lumpur and head to my state orientation, in spite of now knowing about my placement, I am coming to realize that I still have a long ways to go in my tunnel of anticipation. Things will only get more trying from here: being away from this community of friends of whom I have grown so fond, diving into the nitty-gritty of my job without the cushion of constant guidance and navigating the daily obstacles of rural Malaysian life. The answers will not come as easily as I may have hoped. All I can do is walk on the lip one foot at a time, focus on the light at the end until the forest comes into view, and – every now and then – stop for a moment and savor the disorienting sounds of the waters rushing past.

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With grit and gratitude,

Nate

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4 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision

  1. I’m so glad the water shoes were worth packing. Hope you’ll make us Maryland Chicken when you come home. It sounds…ummm…interesting. I’m super-excited to hear about your new roommate, too. You will do and learn many more great things in Perak, Nate. We love you!

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  2. Thank you so much for your insightful and detailed journals. I look forward to reading these now each week and feel as though we are all there with you. I know you are anxious and nervous as you head to your next adventure, but know that all of us back here have the full confidence that you will shine! Our love and prayers are with you during this amazing journey!

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  3. Wow, Nate, you surely can pack a lot into a day!! I have been fascinated by your observations and look forward to more insights from you. And I KNEW that you would make up songs about your experiences! I am sure you have been entertaining your new friends! Take care! Uncle Stu and I are thinking about you.

    Love, Aunt Carole

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