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

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One thought on “On Popularity and Potholes

  1. Wow! You’ve had quite a lot of adventures already! Glad you are safe, healthy, & happy. (And thanks for finally giving us an answer about why the chicken crossed the road. Haha)

    Like

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