June 3, 2017

Selemat Hari Gawai!

It is 11:34pm, and I am laying on a mat on the floor of the living room in my students' grandparents' longhouse near Betong, Sarawak. My student's entire family is passed out on the floor around me. Grandparents, aunties, uncles, mom, dad, and brother are starfished in front of fans. A live rock band is playing just outside the door yet somehow, everyone besides me is asleep. 

It is the end of the second day of Gawai, the annual Iban harvest festival that is the largest celebration of the year in my region. Gawai, which is on June 1st, marks the end of the rice harvest season. Traditionally, families return to their longhouse for Gawai, which are communal dwellings that are quite literally long houses in which dozens of families reside. Rituals are done to thank the gods and to honor the harvest tools -- anything from machetes to chainsaws -- in hopes that the following year's harvest will be plentiful. 

My Gawai experience started out intensly. Yesterday, Patricia (another ETA) and I followed my mentor out to a longhouse a little bit out of town. Upon driving up to the longhouse no later than 10am, we witnessed the consecutive sacrifice of three chickens. A bit shocked, we got out of the car and followed the chicken slinging residents into to main hall of the longhouse. We were welcomed with shots of langkow and tuak, various forms of fermented rice drinks, i.e. Iban moonshine. I should mention we hadn't had coffee yet but we had just witnessed the death of multiple animals and were 4 shots deep before we could even mutter "Selemat Hari Gawai". The freshly dead chickens were placed on an alter of machetes and weedwackers, we were lead in a prayer, and then the party continued. The longhouse head insisted that Patricia and I take turns wearing his headdress adorned with endangered hornbill feathers and beak and follow him as he lead us through the steps of a traditional dance. 

Fast forward to noon: everyone except the children (and me and Patricia) is drunk. People are passed out in the front hall of the longhouse while others stumble their way through karaoke songs. Patricia and I find a quiet corner in one of the houses and take a much needed nap. 

We wake up and are lead to a river, where we bathe in our clothing. Then to another longhouse, where we unwillingly try pig intestines. Back to the original longhouse, where the chickens still remain on the harvest tool shrine and everyone is still drunk. We eat as much as we can to forget the taste of the pig intestines and eventually head home for bed. 

Patricia left this morning, so I drove alone to my student Valeiry's longhouse. Today was another long day of eating and avoiding drinking, but this longhouse is much more family friendly (or at least Anelise doesn't want to get drunk friendly) than yesterday's. After gorging myself with sticky rice and tapioca leaves, Valerie's dad took us to visit their property where they have rubber trees, pepper plants, and a palm oil plantation. I learned the process of all 3 products and got to taste some pepper straight from the tree! You better believe it was peppery! 

Later, we went to the Skrang River and bathed. From what I understand, lathering up in a river with your clothes on is a pretty typical way to bathe if you live in a kampung (village). Valeiry's dad told me that the Skrang is a very famous river on the banks of which many battles between different Iban headhunter tribes took place. He pointed out the different tree species and told me where I might spot an elusive hornbill in the wild. 

Upon returning to the longhouse, I had the great joy of seeing the skulls of 5 unfortunate souls who were victim to Valeiry's great grandfather who was a headhunter warrior before the British colonized Sarawak and "civilized" the Iban people. The heads were tied up in ropes and hung from the ceiling. A basket of food hung next to them, and a pile of ashes sat below them. The caretakers of the heads light a fire and offer the skulls food once per month to apease the spirits. 

As the night continued, I found myself learning to play a variety of Iban instruments that resembled gongs and drums and a gong-xylophone hybrid. Then, Valeiry's cousin taught us the choreography of a traditional Iban dance. Unfortunately, soon into our dance lesson the rock band began playing and drowned out the sound of the music a band of 12 year olds had been playing for us on the aforementioned instruments. And that leads us to now, 12:25am on a mat in a longhouse near Betong, Sarawak. The rock band has finally gone to bed, and now all I can hear is the sound of the rain of the roof and a grandfather snoring. Selemat Hari Gawai!

P.S. Watch Anthony Bourdain's episode on Borneo to see more of what Gawai is all about. The episode is available on Netflix and it is a pretty accurate representation of what goes down. The longhouse he went to is a couple hours by long boat up the Skrang River. 

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 31, 2017


I now have been in Malaysia for five months. That is longer than Donald Trump has been in the White House. I don’t mean to brag, but I think I’m doing a better job at whatever I’m supposed to be doing than he is.

I can’t believe I’m already halfway through my Fulbright grant. There were times in the last few months when I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Now, I am worried that my time here will not be enough to accomplish my goals and to make strong connections with my community.

Without realizing it, I have become more adapted to life in Malaysia than I had imagined. This surprising realization of my adaptation came when I arrived at the mid-year meetings that the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE, aka my Fulbright Malaysia bosses) put on for us last week in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking with other ETAs about our shared and completely different experiences made me realize how truly unique my placement is. My life is especially different when compared to the experiences of ETAs in Kelantan and Terengganu, far more conservative states on mainland Malaysia with nearly 100% Muslim communities. My school in Sri Aman, Sarawak is about 40% Iban (a group indigenous to Borneo), 20% Malay (Malaysian Muslim), 20% Chinese, and 10% other (other indigenous groups, Indian, Indonesian). I can show my elbows at school. I can drink beer in my house and even in my town, where other teachers and the parents of my students see me out and often insist on buying a round. Pork exists, but sadly, no bacon.

While I am thankful for my relatively diverse and liberal community, there are some things that I envy of the ETAs who live in Peninsular Malaysia. Many of them live within an hour of each other. My roommate and I live two and a half hours from the closest ETAs, and 4 hours from all the other placements. I am isolated, more so than I initially realized, but I mostly appreciate how that isolation has forced me into getting to know my community. Sometimes I laugh to myself about how if someone could live in two of the most remote parts of the world, I’ve already lived there. Kodiak Island, Alaska and Sri Aman, Sarawak on Borneo are pretty far out there. But I got this. I can handle the isolation. For now…

At the mid-year meetings, I found myself feeling homesick. Not for Alaska or Abu Dhabi or Oregon, though. I was homesick for my students in Sri Aman! Instead of being in an over air-conditioned conference room with 97 other Americans all I wanted was to be in one of my school’s hot, stuffy classrooms, playing a game with my students. Luckily, Sebastian is visiting Malaysia, so after those long days sitting in the conference room, he was able to distract me from missing my students by exploring new parts of Kuala Lumpur and watching Anthony Bourdain episodes about Borneo and Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is where we are going in a few days!

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 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.