May 12, 2017

Guitars for my students

Most of the time I fill my blog with personal stuff: happy feelings, stories, and sometimes grumbles. I don't ask much of you as a reader, but just this once I want to use this platform to share with you a project I am fundraising for. To sum it up (you can read the long version below), I am raising money to start a guitar loaning program at the secondary school I teach at in Malaysia. There is no music education here, and I really want to start a program at my school because my students are so passionate about music. Do with it what you will, but it would mean a lot to my students and I if you could help us out by donating or sharing the Go-Fund-Me page! Thanks for reading, I promise I won't make a habit of spamming my blog with fundraising requests!

As many of you know, this year I am working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malaysia. My placement is on the island of Borneo, in a rural town called Sri Aman. The secondary school I work at, SMK St. Luke, sits atop a hill and from the classrooms, you can see the surrounding rivers, jungle, palm plantations, and rice paddies. While Sri Aman is in a stunning location, it is very remote and is a four-hour drive to the nearest city, Kuching. 

All my students are amazing, but I have become particularly close to the 120 or so students who live at my school’s hostel. These students’ families either live in villages too far to drive them to or from school each day and/or they don’t have the financial means to feed and send their kids to school. The hostel students are almost always around so I get to spend a lot of time with them. The students are all genders and range in age from 12 to 18. They are smart, hilarious, and eager to engage. We eat dinner together at the dining hall and they teach me how to say funny things in Iban, their native language. Their absolute favorite is when I bring my guitar and we sit around and sing songs while we take turns playing the instrument.

The hostel students cannot leave the school grounds unless it is one of the 2 weekends per month that they can to go home. So, it is no surprise that these kids are super bored when they aren’t studying or in class, and they need something productive to do in their free time. They are always asking me to come to the hostel to teach them to play the guitar, and I do, but there is only one guitar and limited teaching resources.  I want to raise money to purchase 10-20 guitars to create a free and sustainable guitar loaning program for the students. If I can raise enough money to buy even a few guitars, students will be able to borrow a guitar for free and they will be able to practice the skills that I teach them, and after I leave, they will be able to continue practicing and they can also teach themselves to play.


I am also applying for grant funding through the US Embassy of Malaysia to create guitar guidebooks for and with the students. The guitar guidebooks will have information about how to care for and maintain a guitar, as well as chord diagrams, and the chords and lyrics to songs that the students enjoy singing and playing. The guitar guidebooks will be available to check out along with the guitars. After purchasing the guitars, I will begin holding guitar classes with the hostel students. The classes will teach them about the guitar loaning program and we will talk about how to care for a guitar. Then, they will get to learn the basics of playing the guitar! They must attend at least 1 class to be able to check out a guitar on their own, which will ensure the longevity of the program. Eventually, I will identify a few students who will be responsible for passing down the knowledge of guitar care and making sure the guitar loaning program continues even after my departure.


The school supports this idea because it means that the hostel students will be practicing their English more by learning guitar from me and by playing their favorite music, much of which happens to also be in English. The school wants to see the hostel students’ test scores go up; the students want to learn to play guitar; and I want to be able to leave SMK St. Luke knowing I have helped provide an opportunity for creativity and continued learning. It is a win for everyone!


I have worked with a music shop in Kuching to give me a 20% discount if I can purchase 5 or more guitars. This makes each guitar cost US$40. Please consider contributing a little bit, for every dollar counts and the more guitars I can purchase, the more students get to learn to play the guitar! 70% of the money raised (hopefully US$700) will go to purchase guitars, and the remaining  30% (hopefully US$300) will go towards strings, cases, tuners, picks, and capos that the students can use with the guitars.


Think of it like this: You probably spend $10 
to $40 every week on stuff like beer, happy hour, brunch, or dinner.  Would you be willing to give up one week of spending that money on you in order to donate to these kiddos who really, really want to learn to play the guitar? Please consider it!

In case you missed the link up top, here it is: https://www.gofundme.com/guitars-for-students-in-malaysia



Some of my hostel students and I take a break from singing
"All of Me" by John Legend. I love these kids with my whole heart!


















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. 

May 8, 2017

Eating with my hands

Moving to Malaysia has forced me to confront many norms of eating. First off, there is little distinction between the types of food one might eat for different meals here. Breakfast is not milk and cereal nor is it French toast with bacon. Lunch is not a sandwich with soup. Dinner is not chicken enchiladas with roasted vegetables and its definitely not thin crust pizza topped with arugula and goat cheese. Breakfast here is noodles or rice. Lunch here is noodles or rice. Dinner here is noodles or rice. Of course, there are different variations of these dishes. Kolok mee is a ramen style noodle with pork often eaten at breakfast time, mee goreng is generic friend noodles, and mee goreng ayam is fried noodles with chicken. Then there’s nasi goreng, which is fried rice, nasi goreng ayam, which is fried rice with chicken, and nasi ayam is chicken rice. I could go on, but you get the theme: noodles or rice for all meals.

In addition to the altered variety of foods, modes of eating are different. If using utensils, one always has a spoon in their left hand (the type of spoon they serve with your miso soup at a Japanese restaurant), and in the right is either chopsticks or a fork. Whenever I am out with teachers, they always ask the server to bring me a fork because I am too slow (and embarrassing to be seen with) while eating with chopsticks. To me, the most interesting part of eating culture here is that it is extremely common to eat with your hands, especially when dining at home.

My mentor tells me that eating with her hands allows her to enjoy her food more than she does when eating with silverware. The textures are felt not only with her tongue, but with her fingers, too. She thinks that eating with her hands tricks her brain into thinking the food tastes better, since she is experiencing it with her touch, smell, sight, and of course, taste.

Initially, eating with my hands intimidated me and frankly, it grossed me out. I was raised in a Westernized world in which eating with one’s hands is considered “low class”. In the States, we think that eating with your hands makes you a slob, and it is definitely abnormal unless you are eating a designated “finger food”. I didn’t really realize until coming here that your mode of eating – whether with silverwear of chopsticks or only with your right hand or with both of your hands – says heaps about your percieved socioeconomic and cultural background.

I have been eating dinner with the boarding students about twice every week and since I am constantly forgetting to bring my own utensils from home, I have gotten to try my hand at (ha!) eating with my hands. My first time I was nervous: What if I do it wrong and all the students laugh at me? What if I drop all the food before it reaches my mouth and I look like a sloppy baby? But somehow the tin tray of (you guessed it) rice and chicken had to make it into my belly, so I pinched some rice between my fingers and nervously shoveled it into my mouth. I looked around, expecting the hostel students to be giggling at me like they always do, but no one paid any attention to the way I was eating. All the students sat there quietly eating their chicken and rice, some with spoons and some with their hands, but no one seemed to care that I had forgotten my spoon.

Then it occurred to me: eating with their hands is completely normal for these kids. Of course they didn’t make fun of me; touching one’s food with one’s fingers before putting in your mouth is not completely ruined by stigma here like it is in the States. The kids had no idea of my internal debate of whether or not I should eat with my hands because they had absolutely no clue that that norm in their culture is not a norm in my culture. They assumed that for me, an American, eating with my hands is identical to the act of Dayak (umbrella term for people indigenous to Borneo) Malaysians eating with their hands. And here’s the thing: whether you are American or Dayak or whatever, social stigma aside, eating with your hands is an identical act that is and should be a part of the human experience! It’s just that some us find so much wrong with it because we are so obsessed with defining our social class via the way we put our food in our mouths. So, here’s what I think you should do if you’ve never eaten with your hands: try it! Here’s how: 1) wash your hands 2) eat with your hands 3) wash your hands again. Enjoy! 

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. 

April 27, 2017

Post traumatic stress from bed bugs

I want to share with you a fun (super not fun) game I've been playing every night before bed for the last month or so. Did I already mention it's fun (super not fun)?! No, it's not a ~fun game~ to play with your lover before bed... unless of course, your lover is a bed bug. Or perhaps, a hundred bed bugs. Or hopefully, as you'd never imagined this is what you'd hope for in a lover, they are simply a speck or sand or a small critter that closely resembles a bed bug -- maybe a tiny dead ant -- but it is impossible to tell with the naked eye but it is DEFINITELY NOT (but maybe is?) a bed bug.

Here's how you play:

Get all ready for bed. Brush your teeth. Shower. Get into your sleeping clothes. Turn on the 2 fans that you use to make your room a refreshing (still hot as blazes) 75 degrees instead of 80. Then crawl into bed. Depending on the temperature of your room, you can drape your sheet over your body and imagine what it felt like, seemingly so long ago, when you wrapped yourself in warm flannel sheets and a down comforter while a soft blanket of snow covered the ground outside. The times when it was so cold that you had to wear something other than underwear and a baggy t-shirt to bed and when you didn't dare walk around without those stretchy cloth tubes around your feet. What are those things called again? Oh right, socks. A pool of sweat builds in the little luge that leads your nose to your upper lip, and you snap out of that image of you in your previous life.

As you lay still in bed, your multiple bug bites start to make their appearances known to you. Certainly, they are just mosquito bites (unless of course, they're bed bug bites), since they don't follow any if the usual bed bug bite symptoms which are a few little bits in a line. Breakfast, lunch, then dinner. But hey, you might as well check your bed (for the 27th night in a row) to see if any bed bugs survived the insane boiling water and bleaching and spraying rampage you and your roommate went on a month ago.

You turn on the flashlight app on your handphone (cell phone, but Malaysia style) and resume game position: you are crouched on your hands and knees on your mattress with your head only inches above the bed sheet. You inspect the entire surface area of the mattress by shining your light on any speck of dust or lint or sand or dead bug (or possibly live bed bug?!?!?) to determine its identity. Most of the suspects are little balls of lint or the wings of bugs that must have been squished by you in your sleep or suffered some other trauma that left one of their wings on your sheets. You are thankful for those bug wings and lint balls, for they are not bed bugs, and therefore their presence is almost welcomed into your bed. The other things, the little things that you really can't tell if they're just a speck of sand or if they're a bed bug are what really freak you out and as a precautionary measure, you crush the unknowns under your razer sharp (actually pretty dull) fingernails.

But alas, it is way past your bed time, so you decide to call it a night and simply conduct an experiment since you studied science at that's your specialty, obviously. You brush off all the little linties and wingies and the probably not (but maybe?) bed bugs and decide you'll go to sleep with zero specks of anything on your sheets and then when you wake up (assuming you ever fall asleep after traumatizing yourself) you will reassess the situation. You should congratulate yourself, for future graduate school advisors are lining up to offer you research assistantships at their highly ranked institutions because of this revolutionary bed bug experiment in which you have sacrificed yourself as a test subject (awful design, no one wants you to do this in grad school).

Now you allow yourself to think those terribly tempting thoughts about socks and snow on the windowsill and flannel sheets and being the slightest bit cold for once because you deserve to dream about something other than the paranoia of the return of the bed bugs. You are about to fall asleep, but suddenly you have to itch your head. Lice?!?!?!

(No, I don't actually have lice).

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. 

April 14, 2017

Surf's up

The last month was one of the hardest months of my life. A wave of negativity hit me as I experienced my first bout of cultural fatigue in Malaysia, which is more or less defined as “the physical and emotional exhaustion that almost invariably results from the infinite series of minute adjustments required for long-term survival in an alien culture". The daily choice between rice or noodles for almost every meal left me struggling to find foods that provide my body with the nutrition I need to stay healthy. I was continuously stared and pointed at, being one of the only orang putih to have ever resided in this town. The feeling of being constantly being watched while outside of my house bothered me more than I like to admit, since I know that everyone is just genuinely curious about the tall white blonde lady who just showed up. I also struggled to define, let go of, and maintain relationships – an emotional battle I was not ready for. To make everything a little bit more stressful, we discovered a large community of bedbugs that my roommate had been sharing her bed with. Thus ensued a life consuming two week battle against the bedbugs and a landlord who thought the pests were only a “small matter” that people tolerated in Malaysia.

While I write this in past tense, I still struggle with each of these issues. Being an outsider continuously tests me and I often times feel alone and stuck in a world where I don’t belong. Thank God that the bedbugs are gone, but every tiny black bug I see now freaks me out and I have had nightmares of them invading our house.

The tides are turning, though, and that wave of negativity is flowing into something much more positive. Post bedbugs, I finally have time to attend Zumba classes again. I am bonding with my students, and the boarding students have started to call me kakak, which means sister. And best of all: TODAY I GOT A BIKE!! Since my roommate and I share a car between the two of us, and she needs it to drive to school whereas I live within walking distance from my campus, I have often felt stuck at home despite our best efforts to make car sharing work. Having a bike is freeing, both physically and mentally. 

Tonight, I went on a bike ride through an old Malay (Malaysian Muslim) neighborhood. Five minutes into my ride, I had been greeted by dozens of families who were sitting on their porches enjoying the sunset. Then, I heard my name being yelled and turned to see a woman, “Aunty”, who works at my school on the janitorial team. She called me onto her porch and insisted I sit with her family while she brought me a cold drink. Finally, she allowed me to continue on my way, but only after inviting my family to her house for the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya, and giving me a bag full of snacks in case I got hungry on my ride.

I continued pedaling towards town, and upon reaching the riverfront I joined the crowds of people who waited riverside for the benak. The benak is the tidal bore that happens twice a day when the ocean tides change, resulting in a change in direction of the river flow. Depending on the magnitude of the tide, the benak wave can range in size from a few tiny ripples in the water to a substantial wave that locals surf on. Tonight happened to be fairly large wave, and I watched with amazement as it came barreling down the river and half a dozen surfers paddled like mad to catch it. As soon as the singular wave reached the bend in the river, it broke, creating more waves that rippled out and hit the shore, splashing the observers on the peer. Most of the locals left after the wave broke, but I stuck around to watch the surfers paddle to shore. I struck up a conversation with another woman who was also waiting around. After some conversation in broken Malay and broken English, I learned that she, too, is a surfer but had decided not to surf tonight. She and the other surfers invited me to join her tomorrow morning to surf the benak!

I can feel the tides changing. I'm getting out of this bummer of a slump and I'm ready to ride the cultural and literal waves. At this point I'm realizing that I'd better focus on the positives rather drown myself in the overwhelming challenges the come with living abroad. We'll see how that goes. Surf's up, dudes.

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. 



February 28, 2017

Fat squirmy worms

Little tan fatties with brown faces, the size of my second largest toe, wriggle in tubs.

“For eating?”

“Yes, of course!”

“Raw? Alive?”

“Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, goreng (fried).”

I can see a single muscle contracting in waves through their chubby, limbless bodies. I stand above the worms, eyes wide, jaw dropped. I gawk at the freaks. Why???

Meanwhile, the locals stare at me. What is this oran putih (white person) doing here? They examine me, eyes wide, jaws dropped. Some tap their friends’ shoulders to get their attention and point at me. They gawk at the freak. Why???

I laugh at the absurdity of consuming the worms, and also out of the discomfort of being stared at in a way that perfectly mirrors my own reaction to the odd little critters. Will I ever get used to being the fat squirmy worm spectacle of the morning market?

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. 

February 15, 2017

Malaysian Hospitality (alternatively named: "America, Take Note")

Last weekend, I visited Lundu, a beach town in Sarawak where two other ETAs live. I had a three day weekend, it was another ETAs birthday, the Prime Minister of Malaysia was going to be in town (Zoolander, anyone?), there were Chinese New Year celebrations, and the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia, was blooming which is super rare. It was a pretty dang good weekend to visit Lundu.

My favorite memory from the weekend is one that had nothing to do with the long list of activities above, though. After parking to watch the Chinese New Year parade, we ran into a teacher from SMK Lundu, where the ETA, Cikgu (teacher) Mathias, teaches. This teacher, who Mathias had apparently only had interacted with a few times, insisted on buying all twelve of us Sarawak style hamburgers at his cousin's burger stand. We accepted of course, because in Malaysia it is considered disrespectful to decline free food (both a blessing and a curse).

We waited on the sidewalk in front of the burger stand and played with the myriad of small children who were also hanging out in front of the stand. Giggles and high fives were exchanged -- both things I consider to be successful markers of cross-cultural communication.

It began to rain. We were invited to stand under the awning of the house behind the burger stand.

It began to rain even harder. We were invited to enter the living room of the house behind the burger stand.

All twelve of us removed our Chacos and flip flops at the door, and sat down amongst the many people who we now understood to be family members of the teacher that insisted on buying us the burgers. The aforementioned children sat with us, smiling and shy, responding only to high fives. The giggling continued, the exchange improved.

While we waited, our unexpecting hosts brought us warm Milo (basically chocolate milk, for all you uncultured Americans), and chips (crisps, for all you uncultured British). Our burgers were delivered and promptly devoured, but not without a few selfies with our hosts.

The parade was about to start, so we began to say our goodbyes. Goodbyes in Malaysia consist of selfies, exchanging of WeChat contact information, selfies, hugs, holding of children, selfies, thank yous, and then some more selfies. Then, the children came around the room and showed their respect to each of us with salaams, a gesture that is common in Muslim tradition in which they bowed slightly and held our right hands to their foreheads.

The entire group, the twelve ETAs and our new friends, stepped back to the sidewalk where this whole interaction had begun. We watched the parade together in the pouring rain, under what is possibly the largest umbrella ever invented.

This, my friends, is true hospitality. Accepting strangers with unabashed generosity, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are good people. Respecting them, despite varying religious and/or political differences. Making them feel welcome in a foreign country, where the language, food, and customs are different than in their home nations. Admirable, don't you think?

The group with our new friends in Lundu.

Waiting for the parade after eating Sarawak style burgers.

Me and my valentine, the rare Rafflesia flower.







































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. 

February 7, 2017

Finally, a place to call "home"

Long time, no wifi! Here's an update on my life in Malaysia:

On January 18th, my housemate, Josephine, and I moved into our new home. A simple but clean three bedroom, two bathroom (one western toilet, one squatty potty) house in a newly developed neighborhood on the outskirts of a town called Sri Aman. Sri Aman translates to “town of peace”, and it is in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The town is next to a large river, Batang Lupar, and is surrounded by jungle, palm plantations, and rice paddies. 

After unpacking our things and barely getting settled, we attended school the next day, then drove four hours back to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, to begin our five day Chinese New Year holiday. One day of “work” (more like meeting people and being fed delicious food all day) followed by a five-day vacation? Okay, I’ll take it.

I spent Chinese New Year in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, also on Malaysian Borneo. There, fellow ETAs and I relaxed on the beach and scuba dived. The entire time I couldn't help questioning why I was so lucky. 

Once back at school, I “observed” teaching styles (more like entertained students for 80 minute class periods with fun facts about myself and Alaska while the teacher sat in the back of the class and laughed whenever the male students awkwardly professed their love to me) ate more yummy food, and planned my weekly after school English programs.

This weekend, Josephine and I explored the surrounding area. We found a gorgeous, low-traffic road that has inspired us to find bicycles. To our great pleasure, we discovered the city sports complex, which has a track and an enormous swimming pool. My mentor, Jennifer, invited us to her home one night, where we nervously tried durian, an infamous gag-inducing Malaysian fruit that smells like a dirty diaper that has been sitting in the sun for hours. Jennifer’s husband brought out tuak, a type of rice wine from the local indigenous Iban culture. That evening, we ate a traditional Iban dish called pansuh, which is meat wrapped in leaves, stuffed in a large bamboo shoot, and cooked on a fire. It was yumai, which means "delicious" in Bahasa Iban, the indigenous language.

Another night, one of the teachers at Josephine’s school invited us to her home for some homemade tom yum soup. The family is Malay, which means they are Malaysian Muslims. The teacher, who requests that we call her “momma”, told us about past ETAs she had grown close to and how one ETA had nervously confided in her that she was Jewish, expecting that part of her identity not to be accepted. "Momma" laughed and said that her positive response shocked the former ETA; “No, lah, I do not care if you are Jewish! I do not care if you are Christian! Ido not care if you are Muslim! I do not care if you do not have any religion at all! We will accept you for who you are. We are very open minded here in Sarawak.” We then discussed how loving one’s neighbor is at the core of Islam, as it is in many other religions, such as Christianity. While we never explicitly discussed current events, I cursed America’s new president in my head during the entire conversation. Perhaps some folks in the USA should adopt this sweet hijab wearing, peace loving, and extremely welcoming mother’s philosophy on life.

Later in the evening, Josephine and I got to know the eldest daughter in the family, who is completing her Master’s thesis on English communication and gender. She told us that the subject of her undergraduate thesis was homosexuality in Malaysia, and her Master’s thesis explores transgender issues in Malaysia. She told us she picked the topic because one of her best friends is a transgender woman, and she wanted to be able to better understand and advocate for them. Being in the LGBTQ community in Malaysia is challenging, and those identities are not widely accepted, but people are curious about the issues, and many people attend her presentations, she said. This opportunity to hear the perspective of a young Malay woman on such a traditionally taboo subject was totally unexpected and thought provoking. 

This week, I officially started teaching. So far, the students are engaged and willing to try my crazy games. My theory is that having an animated teacher is so rare for them that they are mesmerized and thus, do whatever I ask them to do. More on hypnotizing my Malaysian students in a future post.

Our new home!

Chinese New Year celebrations last for 15 days here.

Just a 15 minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah!
Exploring outside of Sri Aman, we found where the road
e"road"ed into the river HAHA!

The public pool that costs a whopping RM 1 (23 cents) to use.



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.