November 7, 2017

Phnom Penh

After my week of debrief in Kuala Lumpur, I flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to visit Yasmine, a friend from Willamette whom I wish I had known better before we both decided to move halfway around the world. Sometimes it takes moving to a different corner of a planet to really get to know someone from your home region. Seeing Yasmine after being quite isolated for 10 months was so needed. Together, we were able to reflect and make sense of cultural differences that we both have experienced living abroad. I am thankful for Yasmine's friendship for so many reasons, but especially because she was really excellent at keeping in touch with me this year. Plus, she's a great listener and gives thoughtful advice.

Phnom Penh is a crowded, dirty city. French style townhouses, modern skyscrapers, Buddhist temples, and makeshift slum housing make up the majority of the buildings. Threads of motorbikes, tuk tuks, rickshaws, cars, and pedestrians weave precariously in and out of traffic, through intersections without stop signs or traffic lights. The undirected traffic at first appears chaotic, but after a few attempts of crossing the road, one learns that most drivers are keenly aware of their surroundings and will gently tap the brakes to make room for a pedestrian joining the swirl of moving bodies and vehicles. At the edge of one intersection, I stopped to take it all in and I'll never forget seeing a beautiful juxtaposition of a mother and daughter on a motorbike. The mother assertively steered the pair through the intersection, while the daughter, only 3 or 4 years old, slept peacefully with her head rested against the handlebars. 

I spent one morning at the Tuol Sleng Museum. Tuol Sleng is an old high school, converted into a “security office” (S21), actually a torture center and prison, by the Khmer Rouge communist party from 1975-1979. The prison was eerily preserved with the original bed frames and leg irons in the same classrooms they were found in, with photos of the tortured and deceased victims that were found there. Room upon room was filled with mug-shots of the Khmer Rouge's victims. They stare out of the photos at you in expressions of pleading, anger, fear, and sorrow. 

Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population died during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was a human and cultural genocide that took the lives of almost 2 million innocent men, women, and children of all walks of life. I recommend the movie (based off the book by Loung Ung), “First They Killed my Father”, for some basic background of what happened in Cambodia so recently. When studying history, it can be challenging to connect with the experiences of past societies. Oftentimes, when we learn about the most horrific and shameful parts of history, such as the Holocaust or the genocide in Cambodia, it is impossible to imagine what it was actually like for the people involved. While the sheer magnitude of lives lost is challenging to grasp, the museum does an excellent job of telling the stories of individual victims and survivors based on the records that were left behind. A passage that stood out to me about the importance of an individual’s story in making history relevant and relatable to modern students of life is:

“. . . history is more than just studying past problems for present-day solutions. When we study history, we must remember that each detail and circumstance is the representation of an individual human being’s experience. This perspective carries implications not only for the individual person, but for the society at large. People who suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime deserve to be remembered and honored. By studying individual stories, we recognize the value of the individual human being, which is a fundamental ingredient to all human rights.” -Phoeurng Sackona, Minister, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts

From my understanding, Cambodia is doing well to educate the world about the atrocities that occurred there in the 70's. At the same time, it is attempting to develop as a nation that is defined by more than just the genocide. I had the privilege of meeting some of Yasmine's local Cambodian friends who helped me understand just this. Visiting Cambodia is an important reminder that a nation/culture/individual may be defined publicly by the challenges of their past. Yet, an equally important part of their identity is the way with which they choose to progress after hardships.

Tuol Sleng: the high school turned prison.

Me and Yasmine in downtown Phnom Penh.

November 2, 2017

Fulbright finished.

My Fulbright grant is officially over.

There's a lot to process. But I am so tired; emotionally and physically exhausted.

At debrief they told us it takes returning ETAs a minimum of 3 months to feel normal again upon finishing the grant period. For some people, it takes a year. For others, they never feel normal again. What does normal even mean now? Do I want to feel normal again?

I know I've changed a lot over the past year, but I'm not sure quite how yet. I am nervous (and also really excited) to re-enter life with friends and family from pre-Fulbright. I'm trying to figure out how to answer the inevitable unanswerable question: "So, how was Malaysia?". As if anyone can sum up a significant year of their life in a few simple sentences that honestly answer the question but don't drag the other party into a black hole of things they don't care about that make them wish they never tried to make small talk with you in the first place. So far I've got: It was good, bad, easy, hard, exciting, boring, rewarding, frustrating, hot, lonely, social, full of noodles and rice and ikon bills, and a year that was sprinkled with some of the most challenging days/weeks/months of my life but an experience that I will undoubtedly remember fondly. How's that for a clear, concise answer? Not great, I know. I'll work on it.

With some of my state-mates representing our state of Sarawak
at the Fulbright ETA showcase in Kuala Lumpur. I'm wearing
a ngepan, the traditional Iban dress from my region of Sarawak.

October 24, 2017

My heart

I am overflowing with emotions this week. It is my final week serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in rural Malaysian Borneo. 

I have been counting down for the past 100 or so days. This year has been rough. I’ve been isolated, a 2 ½ hour drive from the closest ETAs and 4 hours from all the rest. My best friends are all 13-16 years old. Besides the isolation, this year has been challenging personally for more reasons than I ever imagined it would be. My heart is broken and it's entirely my fault. Plus it is too hot here for this Alaskan. There have been many days when I have questioned my will to stay in Malaysia. “If I’m not happy here, then why don’t I just leave?”, I’ve asked myself time and time again.

But then I go to school, and it makes sense. It isn’t the lesson plans or the school itself that has kept me here. It’s purely the students. How could I ever leave them before I have to? These kids are bursting with enthusiasm and love. Their attempts to get to know me and make me laugh have been incredible, even when the language barrier is real and we can barely understand one another. The way they greet me, “Good morning, teacher” and “How are you today, Miss?” puts a smile on my face. When my students share that they feel more confident and happy at school when I am there, I am delighted and given a sense of purpose. I have had the chance to provide my students with remarkable opportunities. I had the privilege of bringing one student for her first airplane ride. With the help of friends and family in the states, more than 100 underserved students now have access to guitars. A few weeks ago I brought 15 14-year old girls to a wildlife conservation center and their intelligence, senses of humor, and ambitious attitudes made me so incredibly proud to be their teacher.

My heart simultaneously becomes whole and breaks when my hostel girls hold my hands and walk me to the back gate after I visit them in the afternoons. I have to lock the gate between us when I go, yet they remain on their side of the gate, waving goodbye and calling out that they love me until I walk around the corner and they can’t see me anymore. I love them, too. They are my students, my teachers, my younger sisters, and the reason I stayed in Malaysia for the entire grant period. When I am low and in the times when I find that it is hard to love myself, I visit them and they fill me back up with joy.

This year has been worthwhile because I have learned about SE Asian cultures in a way I never could have otherwise. I am proud of myself for sticking through the personal and cultural challenges. I am proud of myself for consistently ordering meals in the local language and eating with chopsticks, despite being laughed at by surrounding customers. I am proud of choking down pig intestines in longhouses with a forced smile, because I know it is an honor to have food shared with you. Sharing food is the ultimate way of sharing one’s self and culture. I am proud that I mentored a team of capable young women to win 2nd place in a national competition. I am proud that I have remained patient through seemingly endless communication barriers. I am proud that I did most of it alone, even though I wish I didn’t have to.

My heart is being pulled in two. I am ready to go, I really need to leave Sri Aman, but I love my kids so, so very much and I am heartbroken to know that I may never see them again. Even if I do see them again, it won’t be for many years and I fear that their youthful rebelliousness, their innocence, their love for me and my love for them will be diluted with time and space. The temporary nature of this grant is my saving grace and the same reason I want to freeze time forever.

I have tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday left at school. On Saturday I will spend the morning cleaning and packing, and then I will spend the night at the hostel with my girls. I fly to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday for a few days of meetings with the other ETAs. Then I am done, onto a new unknown adventure. Jumpa lagi, kawan kawan. Terima kasih.

With the hostel students after giving them 10 guitars.

With some silly form 2 students after making bags out of
recycled t-shirts.

At the Microsoft office in Kuala Lumpur learning how to
code with my social entrepreneurship team.

Lepaking with Lenja in the hostel after running in the rain.

Wearing the traditional Iban ngepan
with Valeiry at her family's longhouse.

This blog, "Uprooted", is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. 

September 28, 2017

Boring Life Things

I recently expressed my appreciation for Michael Underwood to Michael Underwood. I'm about to do it here, too. If you know Michael, you know he's a great guy. An enthusiastic talker. An active listener. Very intelligent, but still humble and quite funny. I appreciated Michael's friendship for 4 years at Willamette, but have grown to appreciate it even more while living in Malaysia.

You see, time zones are a thing and people have schedules and need to sleep sometimes, so it can be a challenge to talk to friends as often as I would like to. That means when I get a chance to talk with friends, there always seems to be an unspoken expectation to speak of Dramatic Life Things. Death, moving cities, existential life crises, your most recent heartbreak, the 50 ways to leave your lover, the meaning of life, etc. While those topics are important and I am more than willing to discuss them (and I promise this post is not to complain about talking about such things with you. I enjoy talking about those things with you!), there is still the strange expectation to only have deep conversations after days of playing phone tag. It's as if we think we owe it to modern technology to have a life altering conversation every time we talk to someone on a different continent in a different time zone.

I explained this to Michael the other day, and I told him I appreciate that he ignores this expectation. Talking on the phone with Michael makes me feel normal which is something I usually wouldn't really want to feel but it's nice to feel while I'm an outsider in my current community. The opportunity to talk about Boring Life Things like the joys of eating an entire loaf of good bread, bowel movements, my internal rice vs. noodle debate, etc. is refreshing. To this, Michael paraphrased something someone famous once said (I don't know who, let me know if you do):

We have the tendency to brush aside the little, unimportant things in life. Yet, what makes life meaningful is the constellation of seemingly meaningless things that add up and define our relationships, homes, careers, hobbies, everything.

In our conversation about appreciating Boring Life Things, we reached a conclusion that I would categorize as a Dramatic Life Thing. And it's so true. Our best friendships are those that celebrate and ponder all things on the spectrum of Life Things. Our lives are consequences of the innumerable tiny choices, interactions, and other instances that add up and define us. I want to get better at celebrating those little things and I recognize it's probably all my fault that it feels like there is an expectation for long distance phone calls to consist of only Dramatic Life Things. Either way, I've been Lonely here with a capital L, so feel free to call or message me and tell me about your Boring Life Things. Dramatic Life Things are also welcome. Let's catch up about it all, friends. I miss you.

P.S. While this is an appreciation post written specifically about Michael, I also want to say thank you to all my friends from home who have gone out of their way to keep in touch or even just check in every once and a while. You know who you are and you seriously rock!

Shout out to Michael and all my other lovely friends
who are down to talk about Boring Life Things!

September 20, 2017

Don't try this at home

A few weeks ago, my parents hopped on a flight in Abu Dhabi and met me in Kuala Lumpur. We did city stuff (visited temples, ate tapas, went to rooftop bars, and slept in our friends' pristine air-conditioned ant-free condo) and then flew in a propeller plane to Gunung Mulu National Park in my state of Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. At Mulu, we saw millions of bats exit Deer Cave, one of the largest caves in the world, in seemingly choreographed spirals and lines. Then, we boarded a bamboo raft and motored through the jungle before hiking 9km to Camp 5, the base camp for Mulu's most famous hike, the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles hike is less than 5km round trip, but it is so insanely steep that it took us 8 hours to complete! We scrambled up and down ladders and used mangled vines and branches as handholds to pull ourselves up the steep rocks. My parents and I agree the hike was one of the most challenging hikes of our lives, and we ain't wimps. We were sore but happy. I am very glad to have parents who are up for adventures like that. 

After Mulu, my dad had to go back to work, but my mom got to come to my town to visit my school and share my bed bug free bed with me and some ants (you win some, you lose some... I'll take a few ants over bed bugs any day). My students adored her and still ask, "Miss, where is your mom?". It meant so much to have her visit and see my version of Malaysia, which is impossible to share with just photos and stories.

Their whole visit was a reminder of how much cooler my parents are than I am, so I compiled a list of the crazy/terrifying things they did as young parents that nowadays would warrant a call to the office of child protective services. I think some of these things really explain why I am the way I am. Whether or not you like the way I turned out, I do not recommend trying these at home (or in the wild). That said, I love my parents and I am super proud to be their daughter, and despite the somewhat questionable decisions they made, I think they did an alright job of raising me. But still, don't try these things with your own kids.

10 crazy things my parents did while raising me (kind of in order from infancy to now): 

1) Went backcountry skiing with me in a front pack starting when I was 14 days old. I repeat, 14 DAYS OLD. 

2) They didn't want their newborn to get in the way of their climbing trips, so they tied my car seat to their climbing top rope system and belayed me up the rock face.
3) Bungee strapped my helmet to the back of the baby seat on the bicycle because I was too young to be able to hold my head up with the weight of the helmet.

4) Attached a leash to my car seat and towed me along frozen lakes as they ice skated. I assume they took the appropriate safety measures and bungeed my head down to prevent whiplash for this...

5) Bicycled around the perimeter of the Big Island of Hawaii with me and my brother in a Burley trailer when we were just 3 and 1.

6) Camped on a bear trail (the only flat part of the beach) on Shuyak Island and awoke to a Kodiak brown bear curiously pawing at the tent right above where my head was. I was about 4 when this happened.

7) Stuffed me and my brother in the center hatch of one of the kayaks my dad custom built for forced family fun. The center hatch is lower sitting than the other 2 hatches so when we were on the water in stormy weather, Danny and I would get swamped with cold sea water. I also remember being dive bombed by an eagle on one of these outings. As I type this, I am realizing that kayaking with toddlers and kayaking with toddlers in stormy weather could count as their own items on this list...

8) Moved to Guatemala for a year when I was 10 and my brother was 8 years old. In Guatemala we did all sorts of stupid things, like climb active volcanoes and go sailing in a potential drug smuggling region of the Caribbean, but one particularly memorable dangerous daily activity was commuting to school on the handle bars of my dad's bike while my brother and I took turns riding our other bicycle. Before we acquired the aforementioned bike, my dad would bring us to school with one of us on the handlebars and the other on the cross bar of the bike.
9) Went gill netting or on trips in our small skiff and routinely ended up drifting in the open ocean while my dad fixed a broken motor. Once, we were stranded on a the back side of Woody Island on April Fool's Day and it took a while to convince a friend to come rescue us because they thought my parents were pulling their leg! 

10) It is hard to pick a specific 10th item for the list, because there are so many viable options. So here is a list of possibilities: Backpacking through southern Utah with infant Anelise, white water rafting trips with toddlers, my dad's infamous "short"cuts, or generally raising me and my brother in Kodiak. 

With my parents at the Pinnacles at
Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia.
My aunt Teresa, uncle Rick, and my parents being risky parents

Wild Roads

It's been a while since I've posted. I'm working on some longer/more reflective pieces that I'll post soon, and I've been crazy busy wrapping up final projects for my Fulbright grant (only 40 days left). In the mean time, I thought I'd share some of the music that has been consistent in my life for a long while, but especially since living in Malaysia. Songs that empower me, remind me of loved ones, make me dance like a lunatic, calm me down, or take me to another place when times are rough. I never skip them when they come on. I just turn them up and reflect/sing/get emotional/dream. You can find these and more songs of a similar vein on my Spotify playlist titled, "Wild Roads". I find it kind of funny now that I've compiled a real playlist of these songs that most of the tunes are travel or home themed.

In no particular order, here are 14 (really tried to narrow it down to 10 but I couldn't. Not sorry.) songs I love:

I Know What I Know - Paul Simon
I'll Fly Away - Gillian Welch
Alaska - Maggie Rogers
Wide Open Spaces - Dixie Chicks
In Spite of Ourselves - John Prine
What I'm Doing Here - Lake Street Dive
America - First Aid Kit
Take Me Home - Free the Honey
Have You Ever - Brandi Carlile
Old Pine - Ben Howard
Never In My Wildest Dreams - Dan Auerbach
I'm on Fire - The Staves
Back O'er Oregon - The Weather Machine
Wild Roads - Ella Grace

The view from Mt. Rinjani in Indonesia
which I climbed a few weeks ago.

August 15, 2017


5:45am. My alarm buzzes, I hit snooze. 5:55am and the obnoxious chiming starts again, I hit snooze all over again. At 6:05am, I finally start my day with my terrible habit of scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, and my email inbox, to see what happened on the other side of the world while I slept. Not surprisingly, Trump said something offensive, global warming is still an unaddressed threat, but thankfully, Planned Parenthood is still fighting for access to affordable health care. I throw off my sheet and get off my mattress that sits on the floor with no bed frame and is still wrapped in the plastic I bought it in, results of the horrifying bedbug incident.

My tile floor is cold to the touch. I’ve finally given in and have begun to use air conditioning at nighttime. It turns out that I am a slightly happier person if I don’t wake up multiple times each night dripping in sweat. I wish I had realized this seven and a half months ago when I moved here, but I felt the need to prove something. Prove what? I don’t know, that I am tough enough to sleep through the night in 80-degree weather and 90% humidity? (I’m not, and it shouldn’t matter if I am). And prove it to whom? I don’t know… My LinkedIn connections? My future employers? Oh that’s right, literally no one cares that I slept in a self inflicted torture sauna for nearly eight months. That was dumb.

I put on a bright red baju kurung, a traditional Malaysian outfit which is a baggy floor length skirt topped with a long-sleeved top that goes down to my knees, and I tie my hair up in a bun, the only way I ever wear my hair here because of the heat. It is 6:20am now and I have class at 7:00am, so I’d better grab some food and walk to school. I hope that the neighborhood dogs are not out to harass me, because they are vicious and I despise them and there is a rabies outbreak in my town and I’d love to avoid that.

I go to open my door. My right hand grasps the knob and turns and pulls, the way my muscle memory is trained to open doors, but nothing happens. I am locked inside my own bedroom. I use a credit card and a bobby pin to try to open the door. It doesn’t work; I am still locked in. Maybe the door is only locked from the inside and my roommate can open it from the outside for me? I begin to pound on the wall and call for my roommate. “Josephine! Wake up! I’m locked inside of my room!” It is only 6:30am. If she doesn’t hate me already, she certainly will after this.

Josephine cannot open the door from her side either, and we try a few different ideas to open my door. None of them work, so I call our landlady for help. It is a shameful thing to have to call someone and say you are locked inside your room, even if it is not your fault at all. You can hear it in their voice as they question your intelligence. The landlady is busy but thankfully, she sends over her brother, who arrives in incredible speed on his motorbike, steering with one hand and carrying his toolbox in the other (or so I imagine, I couldn’t actually see since I was locked inside my room).

I also call the person I am supposed to co-teach with, to inform him that I am locked inside my room and probably will be late to class. He asks, “Are you turning your door knob correctly?” Of course I am! I have been opening doors since I was a toddler. If I have suddenly forgotten how to open a door, there is more going on here and I probably shouldn’t come teach your class. Ever again. But I don’t say that, I just say “Yes” because sometimes when you are locked inside your bedroom at 6:45am, you don’t feel like proving your ability to perform a mundane, everyday task. 

My landlord’s brother (sadly, I don’t know his name. I will refer to him as “my hero”) begins to remove my doorknob, but he needs my help from the other side of the door. Unfortunately, my hero does not speak English. He only speaks Mandarin. My roommate and I don’t speak Mandarin. Besides English and my Spanish, we only speak sikit-sikit Malay and ­mimit-mimit Iban. Not so helpful for verbal communication, but by now Josephine and I are damn good at communicating important things to people through the universal language of Charades. So Josephine and my hero, bless their hearts (as my grandma Leber would say), begin miming to one another the things I need to do from the other side of the door to ensure my freedom. Josephine yells instructions through the door, and I follow dutifully.

The whole exchange is hilarious. I can hear them laughing on the other side of the door and I imagine how silly they must look – a tall, middle aged Chinese-Malaysian gentleman and a small, blonde lady who is still in her pajamas doing exaggerated movements and nodding enthusiastically to one another when the communication is successful – and I laugh, too.

Everyone is laughing and banging on the doorknob and miming instructions to try to set me free. Josephine kindly delivers me coffee through my little bedroom window (which has metal bars over it so no, I couldn't have climbed out) and finally, at about 7:54am, my hero swings open the door of my bedroom. I say, “Thank you! Terima kasih! Xie Xie!” and run off to school to attend the last 20 minutes of class, where my students laugh like hyenas at my morning’s misadventure, and my co-teacher rolls his eyes and raises his eyebrows in disbelief.

Malaysia has thrown me some curveballs. Some of them infuriating, some of them heartbreaking, many of them in the form of surprise fish in something that I expected to taste sweet. Luckily, this curveball was just plain hilarious. For once, the curveball was definitely not my fault (turned out to be faulty doorknob mechanics, who knew!), it was easy to fix, and it was super funny example of practicing cross-cultural communication. I have two and a half months to catch more of Malaysia’s inevitable curveballs. If I’m lucky, they will stay easy and funny. Or maybe I’m just getting better at catching them…

This blog, "Uprooted", is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.