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. 

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 except for 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 of Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo. Gawai, which is on June 1st, marks the end of the rice harvest season. Traditionally, families return to their longhouse for Gawai. Longhouses 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 intensely. 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 the 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 altar 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 demonstrated 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, Valeiry’'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 appease 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!

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:

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.