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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My Home Away From Home

I have finally gotten settled at my place in Kampung Gajah. It has some quirks for sure. I have an unexpected housemate: a gecko that I have named Giuseppe. He has pale skin, dark black eyes, and he constantly darts about like he is running from the cops (speaking of cops… stay tuned for my next post). He’s essentially the reptilian version of Robert Durst. I also was kept awake a few nights ago by some monkeys apparently filming a World Star Hip-Hop video outside my window. Still, for all its obstacles, I love my house. It amazes me every day how, even thousands of miles from the life I knew before, I feel incredibly comfortable and at peace in a place so foreign to me.

Here is a video tour of my crib. Thank you so much to Encik Ibrahim and Ibu Nor Rizah for welcoming us so warmly into their home for this year! Clay and I hope we can be “good neighbors” to you, just as you have promised to be for us.

Now, back to cleaning…

Nate

Gong Xi Fa Cai

After only one day working at our schools, the ETAs got a week off for Chinese New Year! Here is a video compilation I made of my four-day trip to Penang in celebration.

Password: cny

 

Ears still ringing,

Nate

Sayang, Sayang, Sayang, Sayang

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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.

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The view of Langkawi from my hotel in KP

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.

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Pulau Ketam, the “Crab Island” – Those hundreds of little dots in the sand are all crabs!

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.

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Lisa’s Polaroid shot from our adventure with the Mustaks

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

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Hotel Karaoke

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.

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San Andreas 2: Kuala Perlis Edition [Check out those locusts/dragonflies/WTFs in the air!]

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.

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REPTAR. Where’s Chuckie Chan when you need him?

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.

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My Malaysian Mom (Ros) and I

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.

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Clay and I with our mentors – I promise En. Poobalan usually smiles!

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.

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“To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.” -Yoda

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.

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My very own Rebel Alliance

Feeling empowered,

Nate

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.

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

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

Fasten Your Seatbelts…

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These are my people. Yes, I know, I am the most stunningly attractive one.

The day I graduated from college, my countdown to Malaysia began at a whopping 230 days. While my excitement for the trip was already brimming back then, my departure seemed so far away that there was almost no point in thinking about it. To avoid unnecessary anxiety, I knew I needed to continue living my life normally for the seven-and-a-half intermittent months, keeping myself busy and looking neither backward nor too far ahead.

I have accomplished way more in that time than I ever expected. I was fortunate enough to get cast in two local community theater productions, solidifying a community for myself in my new hometown of Belcamp, MD and making some unexpected but terrific friends along the way. I took two extended trips to New York City to visit my college friends, simultaneously discovering a potential path for my future in a previously intimidating urban jungle. I spent some long-awaited quality time with both halves of my family; although regrettably some of it came under tragic circumstances, it all was greatly appreciated.

Most notably, I was offered an incredible opportunity as a long-term substitute in a 4th grade Special Education classroom at an amazing school near my house called William Paca – Old Post Road. I had planned on serving as a daily substitute when I first got home, so when this extended position presented itself I was at once pleasantly surprised and intimidated by the responsibilities it entailed. I graciously accepted it after some consideration, and I went in with an open mind and a strong resolve to put my best foot forward. What I was unprepared for, however, was how quickly the people at the school would capture my heart.

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The Special Ed Team on “Superhero Day” at WPES; I was Captain Malaysia, naturally.

I had never worked (at least titularly) with special education students before, and it was a consistently challenging and eye-opening experience. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the children from the moment I stepped foot in their classroom. Additionally, I was blessed by inspirational mentors on all sides in the form of my coworkers. The months I spent there taught me the true meaning of being a professional educator, implementing tough love effectively and giving stability to children whose lives are otherwise constantly changing. The staff went unbelievably out of their way to make me feel welcome and appreciated in spite of the temporary nature of my position. By the time I walked my students out to the bus for the final time, I could not stop the tears from flowing. Even as I prepare to ship off, a piece of my heart remains at that school, and I gratefully am bringing a piece of their love along with me to share with my Malaysian students-to-be.

Now, here I sit in my Belcamp bedroom, seven-and-a-half months later with an oddly equally-whopping three days to go. I have been surprising myself with how I am handling the propinquity of my departure. As I sit just below the summit of the first drop of this momentous roller coaster, I feel neither fear and sadness at the prospect of leaving nor giddy anticipation to get started. Rather, I feel somewhat numb, likely the result of these two extreme emotions canceling each other out. It’s unfortunate because I know I should really be savoring every minute of my time left at home, but while I am spending my last days stateside with my family, my mind is zoned out. It’s as though my soul took an early flight over to Malaysia and is just waiting for my body to catch up to it.

On a meta level, I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily, especially considering how much pressure I put on myself to “savor” my time in college and how well that worked out for me. In a lot of ways, my last days here are more about my family than about me. This is not in a funereal sense; of course my family members are all elated that I have this opportunity. Instead, it’s because while I go off and make lifelong memories overseas, their lives will continue as usual, just with a little less of me in them. While I expect some degree of inevitable homesickness over the coming year, I have gathered that these last few days together are perhaps even more precious to my family (especially my younger cousins) than they are to me. The struggle for me this past week has thus been combatting my checked-out haze to give them all the attention and love they crave and deserve. This has been difficult on top of needing to pack my suitcases, tidy up my personal assets and try to stay healthy (as I have been feeling a tad phlegmy).

Ultimately, though, I’m mostly relieved that I am feeling so calm about this whole transition. Much like my Paca students, I faced a number of significant changes in my life during my formative years and I did not always handle them ideally. Preparing for this adventure has made me feel more mature, organized, self-aware and capable than perhaps I have ever felt before. I am ready for whatever this next chapter holds.

In preparation, I keep reminding myself of a few key things. I want to write them down here in case I forget them in the hullaballoo of my new lifestyle over there.

  • I will have a worst day in Malaysia, but I will also have a best day.
  • I will have to make sacrifices in Malaysia, but my experiences will reward me.
  • I have more to learn from the people I meet there than I have to teach.
  • As an American representative, my actions and words in Malaysia will carry more weight.
  • If I do not try something when it is offered to me, I may never have the chance again.
  • Once this experience is over, it is o-v-e-r and I will spend the rest of my life looking back at this period of time with fondness and longing.
  • This truly is just the beginning.

If I can remember all of that, I can face anything that comes my way.

Yes, even the “squatty potty”.

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Signing off one last time from the U.S. of A.,

-Nate

On Gratitude

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One of my favorite sitcoms growing up was Community on NBC, fronted by the ingenious Dan Harmon. The best episode of that show is widely considered to be S03E04: “Remedial Chaos Theory”, in which the characters gather for a pizza party. When the deliveryman knocks, they decide to roll a die to determine which of them will answer the door. The show then presents all of the iterations of how the situation could play out, to varying degrees of commotion. It ends on a solemn note as the plotline with the most negative consequences – referred to in meta fashion by the characters as the “darkest timeline” – is revealed to be the one that will be accepted into the show’s canon.

For much of my adolescence, I prescribed to the belief that I was perhaps in the “darkest timeline” of my own life. My path to success had some extremely trying roadblocks, particularly in my teenage years, and it often made it difficult to appreciate the many blessings concurrently afforded to me. The most critical blessing was inherent in my birthright; from the day I entered this world, I was surrounded on all sides by incredibly supportive, giving, caring people who lifted me up and over every hurdle that came my way. As such, when I graduated high school, I found it very difficult to accept the messages of congratulations and pride that people conveyed to me because deep down I firmly believed (and, to a degree, still do) that I would never have succeeded in surmounting those obstacles without the help of the very people praising me for overcoming them.

These beliefs sowed the seeds of self-loathing that plagued me throughout the first half of my college career. It was not until late in my junior year that I began to truly understand that I could take credit for my achievements without channeling false conceit. While this might seem self-evident to most people, I quite honestly had never come to terms with it. Recognizing this and allowing myself to feel pride in my work was an indescribably significant turning point for me in terms of my mental health, my personal work ethic and my general effectiveness as a member of this absurd species.

Today (or… well… yesterday, as I’m posting this after midnight), my family held a shindig for me to celebrate both my graduation from Penn and my preparation for Fulbright. In fact, it was literally the first time in over a decade that my entire immediate family was in the same room altogether. Yet, rather than being burdened by uncomfortable tensions, the party seemed somehow sacrosanct. Characters from many different chapters of my story intermixed and mingled with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. As I looked around that room, I felt increasingly fortunate with every face I saw. I was even more humbled to realize that for every person present, there were several more who could not make it but who were fully there in spirit.

While the party was held in my honor, to me it felt like a communal celebration. Although my achievements were the ones being observed, I felt truly privileged in knowing that I did not attain them entirely on my own. As the attendees congratulated me and wished me well, I made mental notes of how each of them had helped me get to where I am today. I allowed myself to reminisce on the challenges I conquered to reach this point in my life and saw how the negative circumstances of my past had enabled my friends and family to mold me into a better version of myself. Considering all of this, the only troubling thought I had was how much I wished there was some way to express the depth of my gratitude besides simply saying thanks. I have taken comfort in the fact that I can demonstrate my appreciation by putting 110% of my effort in everything I attempt.

To everyone who has helped me get to where I am today, I owe you so much more than I am capable of giving, but I hope you know that I will continue to take every opportunity I can to pay it forward. While many of you have commended me for choosing a path of service over one of material wealth, I want you to know that all of the compassion and love I hope to spread in my journeys is merely a reflection of that shown to me up until this point.

In truth, every timeline must have moments of darkness and others of light. With that in mind, I don’t know how the versions of me in other dimensions are doing, but right about now, I think my timeline is pretty darn bright.

With unbounded gratitude,

Nate

Plan to Be Surprised

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As I begin typing my first post for this blog, it strikes me how difficult it is to find the words I want to put down. Every keystroke feels as jumbled as my brain at the moment, a buzzing cacophony of uncertainty, excitement and nerves. This is unusual for me. I mean, I’m used to a lack of mental clarity. My writing, on the other hand, is perhaps the skill upon which I have most consistently prided myself, so my directionlessness at the moment is a new sensation. The perfectionist in me hates it; I usually write with a clear endpoint in mind, allowing me to work systematically rather than just flopping my fingers around on the keyboard and seeing what comes out. But I am coming to realize that this new feeling – this complete and inevitable lack of assuredness – is good for me.

I have always claimed to enjoy surprises, but I never acted accordingly. I’m the guy that walks into a library and reads the last page of every book before deciding which one I want to rent. When I was little, I would figure out where my Christmas gifts were hidden and inspect every last one of them before they got wrapped. On a more morally questionable note, when my parents got divorced, my mom worked tirelessly to try and hide the details of what happened from me, but I always sleuthed them out. Point being, for most of my life up until this point, I have tried to limit myself from being open to surprises. The few times I have been surprised have been enjoyable and even moving- a song my family performed for me before I left for college comes to mind – so why do I always spoil things for myself?

I can think of two possible reasons. The first is, plain and simple, I don’t like feeling ignorant. This quality serves me well in general, and is largely why I am as intelligent and accomplished for my age as I am. Consequently, however, it means I can often sense when people are hiding things from me, which puts me on my toes. It also sometimes renders me defensive when a peer tries to question my beliefs in an area in which I feel well-read or experienced, usually to a fault.

The second (and perhaps the more telling) reason is that I like to keep my expectations low. In my adolescence, I was a dreamer and a romantic. I saw life cinematically, perceiving even the most benign moment with awe. As time went on, however, life threw more and more curveballs at me. While I always kept moving forward, my optimism rapidly eroded. My humor, creativity and happiness were my first lines of defense, so when storms blew through, they were the parts of me that got battered the hardest.

As human nature dictates, I adapted. I realized my idealism could only carry me so far. At some point, I made peace with the truth of my reality. I don’t want this to sound grim. I am very content with the life I am privileged enough to live, one which is full of more blessings than I can fathom. Nonetheless, whether a room smells like flowers or farts, you will become desensitized to the scent if you spend enough time there. Throughout my young adulthood, I tried to constantly remind myself of these blessings, but they were my baseline, and the world dragged me down enough times to leave me perpetually wary. I decided I would rather shield myself from curveballs ahead of time, both the good and the bad ones, in order to protect myself from being hurt by setting unrealistically high expectations or failing to anticipate obstacles.

On top of this, increasingly I put pressure on myself to savor every moment of my youth. My elders kept telling me that college would be the best four years of my life, but I allowed myself to be so stressed throughout it that it never quite felt that way. As graduation drew nearer, this began to manifest in negative ways. I would lash out when people ignored my invitations to hang out. On a few occasions when I was with a large group of friends, I would secretly turn on my phone’s voice recorder to try and capture that fleeting moment of togetherness as though I were already anticipating its dissolution.

Naturally, these habits were unsustainable. Toward the end of my time in college, as I reached the so-called “quarter-life crisis”, I began to yearn for the happier and more hopeful person I used to be, the one with the bright eyes, bushy tail and unforgiving acne. I realized a lot of the above behaviors and thought processes were symptoms of a broader problem I was having with anxiety. Instead of letting low self-esteem forcing me into submission, I realized I needed to fight this actively. The flame of my former self was still within me; the only person starving it of oxygen was me. In order to recover my diminished joie-de-vivre, I had to allow myself to be surprised again.

I see my upcoming year abroad as the perfect opportunity to do just that. While my eight months at home have largely been comprised of loneliness, stagnation and frustrating liminality, they have also served as a time of self-reflection, an opportunity to shuffle off my collegiate coil of anxious self-loathing and a chance to prepare myself fully for the road ahead. I am about to embark on a journey of proportions inconceivable to me. I will be traveling farther from home than I have ever been, living in an indeterminate location with total strangers for almost a full year. The last time I faced this many unknown variables was in my AP Calculus BC final (which, to be clear, I bombed).

With that in mind, you may think I’d be totally freaking out right now… but I’m not. Sure, I’m scared. Yes, I have a million questions. That said, I think fear is a natural reaction for anyone approaching a fulcrum of tremendous change, and I know in my heart the answers will come soon enough. More importantly, though, I’m thoroughly, genuinely excited. For the first time in years, I can think about the uncertainty of my future with a smile.

When she was the age I currently am, my mom started writing a series of journals she dubbed “baby books”, documenting my upbringing and her journey as my mother. She would go on to write them for 18 years, chronicling every conquest and curveball of our lives through my high school graduation. They sit on a shelf in my closet and I read them from time to time. On a few occasions, I have tried to imagine what she must have felt like opening that first blank page of that first journal for that very first time. As I write this blog post, on the cusp of the first major adventure of my adult life with an infinite array of possibilities ahead of me, I think I’ve discovered it.

Just over two months and counting, and then… well, I don’t know.

But it’s sure to be one hell of a surprise.

I can hardly wait.

-Nate