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. 

January 19, 2017

Welcome to Sarawak

After being in Kuala Lumpur (KL) for more than two weeks, I feel as though I've just now arrived in Malaysia. Orientation in KL was comprehensive and fun, and super American. There are 98 of us English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) here in Malaysia after all, so it would have been a true challenge to have a fully Malaysian orientation experience when surrounded by other English speaking, Chaco wearing, liberal minded, young Americans for two weeks straight. I don't say that as though it was a bad thing, though. It was nice to be around a bunch of people my age with similar goals, who are about to face similar challenges while living and teaching English in rural Malaysia.

Yesterday, along with fifteen other ETAs placed in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, I arrived in the state capital, Kuching. This is our first time in Malaysia without the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE, the people that help Fulbright ETAs thrive in Malaysia) to guide us through orientation. We didn't receive many details about our arrival in Borneo, but soon as we stepped out of the Kuching airport, we were greeted by about twenty smiling faces, our mentors for the year, who put a red, black and yellow beaded necklace around each of our necks; "Welcome to Sarawak. These beads represent your new home".

This morning, we were sent to various schools to observe the teaching styles and classroom management techniques of experienced teachers. Upon arriving at our assigned school, my peers and I were welcomed by a live performance by some musically talented students. The principal welcomed our group by serving us breakfast and coffee (despite having just eaten half an hour earlier) and then proceeded to take us around the school, introducing us to various teachers and students. I felt like a minor celebrity. Every class we walked by would wave to us and say, "Good morning!", followed by giggling and blushing. After the extensive school tour, we were brought back to the conference room, where we ate lunch and the principal gave us each two gift bags full of Sarawakian goodies. Leaving the school, we posed for photo upon photo. Three young men proclaimed their love to me. My roommate, Josephine, and I were asked to pose for a picture with the young physical education teacher, while his young students giggled and said "Awwww!", as if the three of us had just done something terribly romantic. Soon enough, we were whisked away, back to our hotel in Kuching where we had a safety briefing from a high ranking police officer who offered this advice: "wear whatever you want, just don't go out naked". Following the informative safety briefing, a representative from the office of tourism told us about all the incredible adventures that await us in Sarawak (COME VISIT ME!). Then, we did the Sarawakian version of the electric slide. Welcome to Malaysia.

Some of the students at the secondary school I visited today.

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. 

January 8, 2017

May the sun shine warm upon your face

At last, I am in Malaysia. I have loved traveling for the last few months, but I have come to a point in this journey at which I am very content knowing that I will soon be moving into my new home where I will live for a whole ten months. Still, I do not know exactly where this now home is. I have known since April that I would be moving to Malaysia this year, but it wasn't until two days ago when I found out which region of the country I'll be living in. My placement is in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. I am quite happy with this. I had requested to be on Borneo, as there is plenty of access to the outdoors and the populations I will be working with will be very racially and religiously diverse. I will find out on Tuesday my specific placement within Sarawak. For now, I'm in Kuala Lumpur learning how to navigate the upcoming ten months of cultural exchange as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). 

Moving around so much this year has had its challenges and rewards. For the last few months it was a rarity to know in which town and which hostel I would be sleeping the following night. I've met new friends every single day, and I've said goodbye to more people than I would have liked to. This uncertainty and spontaneity has forced me to break a bad habit of romanticizing the future too much. With such an absurd itinerary, I've gotten more comfortable with living in the present and trusting that the future will be okay without my constant attempts to shape it into something perfect that I will inevitably be disappointed with. As I settle into my knew life here in Malaysia, I know I will struggle to maintain a "live in the moment" mindset. I expect to miss people and home, wherever that may be, and living in a new culture will be exhausting at times. I have a goal to work through the hard days without removing myself from my present situation too much. I'm sure that's easier said than done...

For those of you I've had to part ways with this year, I'd like to share with you an Irish blessing my paternal grandma kept around the house:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back. 
May the sun shine warm upon your face; 
the rains fall soft upon your fields 
and until we meet again, 
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

January 6, 2017

I made a table

I wish I could say that I built a table with my own two hands out of a Douglas fir tree that I sustainably harvested, but I didn't. I don't have that skill set. Instead, I made a table with information and advice about most of the countries I visited this fall and winter. These places all deserve more than a few brief blurbs but heyyo this girl has not found the time to do that yet. Keep in mind this is purely based on my personal experiences of being in each country for a range of 1 to 3 weeks. Let me know if you want to hear more about a specific place or experience! Posts about Malaysia to come ASAP.

Other notes
Lots of rice, fish, chicken, fresh fruits and veggies. Super cheap and delicious!
Cheap (US$7-10/night), and overall beautiful hostels! My favorite was Casa Elemento above Minca.
The cities of Bogota and Medellin both have impressive public transportation systems. Between cities, I mostly took night buses, on which I did not sleep very well (or not at all).
Lots of unpleasant sexual harassment on the streets, particularly in Cartagena.
I learned to pay only for 1 night at a time at a hostel here. You don’t want to be stuck in a dorm that shares a wall with a noisy club with a bunch of cocaine snorting roommates for 2 nights when you have food poisoning  :(
An abundance of rice and fried chicken. Quality ketchup in American establishments.
Cheap ($4-10) hostels. It is a pleasant surprise if your dorm has outlets and an even better surprise if the bathrooms have hot water, lights, hand soap, and toilet paper!
Lots of super cheap comfy buses with plenty of legroom. By the time I arrived in Bolivia, I’d decided to avoid night buses at all costs. I listened to many political podcasts and watched the scenery pass by. I recommend this.
Besides being groped in La Paz, I felt pretty safe in Bolivia. Of course, as for most cities worldwide,  I would never walk alone at night and I kept my valuables close. Of course, always listen to the locals’ advice.
Bring your own toilet paper with you everywhere!!!!! My sleeping bag liner came in handy here, as cleanliness varied a lot between the super budget hostels.
CEVICHE! Yummy vegetarian restaurants in Lima and Cusco.
My lodging ranged from nice, warm hostel dorms ($8-15) to freezing cold sleeping bags and tents on treks. Bring your own gear!
Lots of long, uncomfortable bus and van rides to get places… However, the places those vehicles are taking you are amazing and upon arrival you will probably be hiking a long distance so it’s totally worth the drive.
Being a blonde woman travelling alone didn’t seem to attract as much attention in Peru as it did in other places. That was nice.
For most treks, you can go with our without a guide. Either way, I recommend bringing at least your own sleeping bag because the gear provided by guiding companies was oftentimes not sufficiently warm enough when sleeping at 4000m or so elevation.
So expensive (compared to South America)  that I ate milk and cereal and PB&Js the entire time.
The most affordable hostel I could find in Reykjavik was around $30/night.
RENT A CAR!! So much cheaper and flexible than bus tours.
Probably the safest place I’ve ever been in my entire life.
Iceland is such a naturally beautiful country! I hope to return in a time of year when there is more daylight and when I am not on such a tight budget.
United Kingdom
Delicious food carts where I ate my weight in gourmet mac & cheese. I had to, word is there’s not much cheese in Malaysia.
Lucky for me, I stayed with my good friend, Robyn, who was studying abroad in London.
Pretty solid public transportation, but there were tons of strikes while I was visiting, which caused some unfortunate delays on the metros and trains.
I never felt unsafe, but London but I was with friends who knew the area the entire time.
There are ways to get into cool things for free! For example, instead of paying for a tour of Westminster Abbey, Robyn took me to the free Evensong service which ended up being a my favorite part of my visit.
United Arab Emirates
Finally momma’s home cookin’! Best food EVER! Plus yummy Thai and Indian restaurants.
I stayed in my parents’ apartment. It was excellent. They let me stay there for free since I’m their favorite daughter.
Public transport is a little know and under utilized amenity in the UAE (at least in Dubai and Abu Dhabi). Taxis are also pretty cheap. Walking can be challenging because sidewalks only exist in some places.
I felt completely safe here.
As with travelling anywhere else, it is important to be mindful of the cultural norms of the place you are visiting. In the UAE, a Muslim country, that means dressing extra conservatively at all times when in public.