Teach. Travel. Immerse. Indulge.

Leave a comment

Familiar Faces Across the World (Part Dua)

As promised, here is a recap of the second half of my mid-term break when my family traveled the world to spend it with me.

Phase 1: Ricky Ross arrives in Kuala Lumpur

Sadly, the Ruhl girls had to leave the paradise that is Langkawi Island. It wasn’t too hard to leave, however, considering I was about to see my Dad for the first time in 5 months! We arrived in the hotel lobby where my Dad already was, and I had to control myself not to run up to the first bald man I laid eyes on. After giving him a call, we were reunited in front of the elevators where I received one of the best hugs I’ve had (literally) all year. I wish I had taken a video to commemorate this moment! Now we were only missing 2 very important members of our family :)


Posing in Little India

The following day, I showed the gang my favorite spots around Kuala Lumpur. The main players were Little India and the Batu Caves. I was a little nervous about taking my family to both of these places for various reasons.

Reason #1: My family is Irish and German… So we don’t really “do” spicy foods. After living in Asia for the past year, my tolerance for spicy foods has definitely skyrocketed. However, my students still find it hilarious to watch me sweat through a plate of ikan (fish) with sambal (a chili-based sauce).  Anyways, I LOVE Indian food, and wanted to share that with my family, so it was a risk I was willing to take.

Reason #2: My mother hates caves. The mention of the word send shivers down her spine and implants images of her middle daughter getting lost in some random cave in Malaysia that she wandered into alone (I’m pretty sure she actually thinks I would do that). Again, I felt strongly that my family should see this religious site, so we went with little resistance from momma (ah, the perks of a parent who would do anything for their long-lost child).

Both visits turned out to be very enjoyable! We feasted on banana leaf vegetables, briyani rice, coconuts, and beer in Little India, and marveled at the vast expanse of the Batu Caves. Not to mention our run-in’s with the cave monkeys. They are all fun and games until they start throwing bottles at you.



Phase 2: Jean departs back to the Motherland; Rick and girls embrace Siem Reap

The next day, my Mom had to return home for work (who does that anymore?). We were all sad to see her go, but so excited for our next adventure: Siem Reap, Cambodia.


I have flown exactly 20 times this year, and counting!

After landing, we were transported to our guesthouse where we would be living for the next 3 days. The streets of Siem Reap were all dirt and crowded with cars, tuk-tuks, and countless motorbikes. There was a sort of coordinated chaos to the whole scene: nobody obeyed any sort of traffic laws, yet everyone seemed completely composed and knew exactly what to do. It was as if they had no fear of being run over by the giant tour bus that was turning (without a signal) right in front of a person riding a motorbike without a helmet and a baby sitting in front. Oy vey.


This tuk-tuk driver pretty much sums up Siem Reap

We stayed at a beautiful guesthouse with a groupcalled Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). JWOC is a non-profit organization that runs projects aimed to improve living conditions, provide educational opportunities, and advance the economic status of people in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. If you ever travel to one of these countries, WHICH YOU SHOULD, check them out! Lovely staff, incredible grass-roots initiatives, superb moral compasses, and cute dogs named Tuna.


Our time in Siem Reap was filled with lounging by the pool, taking tuk-tuk rides, eating Mexican food, and playing with Tuna. Oh, and we also saw some temples!



The back entrance of the Angkor Wat temple

Over 2 days, we visited 6 Angkor temples, the largest and most popular of which being Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and was constructed in the late 12th century to honor the Hindu God Vishnu. The sandstone architecture is absolutely amazing, and exhibits the engineering virtuosity of the age’s professionals.

Some professional fools, right here

Some professional fools, right here

We had a sweaty good time stomping around the courtyards, climbing the extremely narrow and treacherous stairs, and trying to get artsy photos of the visiting monks. Angkor Wat is no longer actively used as a place of worship, but many people still come to light incense and pray at the feet of Buddhas that still have heads. Yes, many of the heads of the Buddha statues were missing. Much of this vandalism occurred during the looting of the Angkor temples when the Khmer Rouge communist party came to power.

My favorite temple was definitely Lady Temple, named for its small stature and pink sandstone it was constructed from. While I don’t appreciate the reasoning behind the name, I thought this temple was so beautiful. Everything about it was miniature! Our guide said one reason for this was so that even citizens who did not agree with the King had to bow before him in respect as they came through the door, or else they would hit their head.


A beautiful day at Lady Temple

The highlight of the trip for me was our second visit to Angkor Wat, which occurred at approximately 5:30 AM the day we were to fly out. I was told that seeing sunrise over the temple was spectacular, and I was definitely not disappointed.


“Seeing a sunrise can never be a bad thing.”


Phase 3: Onward to the Land of the Dong

Our time in Cambodia was short, but well spent. Next up on the agenda: Hanoi, Vietnam.


Motorbikes are the most economical motor option for the Vietnamese…so they run rampant.

Truthfully, I wasn’t super keen on Hanoi. It was terribly crowded, kind of boring, and full of locals ready to bite into gullible tourists. Some of them didn’t even wait until they found someone gullible, they just provided a service without question or giving the tourist an option to say no. This is exactly what happened to me. Molly, Dad and I were walking to find some lunch when a man came up to me and started pointing at my foot. I was concerned that there was something on it, so I stopped for a second to investigate. The next thing I knew, this small man was on the ground with his hands on my leg, and began removing my shoe from my foot… leaving me standing on the gross sidewalk with 50% of my walking devices kidnapped. Before I could say anything, this man was gluing new soles onto the bottom of my shoe. He’s a tricky guy, because now he had to do my other shoe so that my legs would reach the ground in the same amount of distance. Luckily, ole Ricky Ross saw through this man’s tactics, and went into a nearby store to question how much would be an appropriate amount to pay this scammer. The women told my Dad to watch out for him, and to not give any more than 2 USD. When the man asked for 25 DOLLARS, my Dad wasn’t having that. We gave him $7 and then booked it away from him and his knife that cuts through rubber.


Patiently waiting…


On our first full day, we trekked to Hạ Long Bay for lunch and a beautiful tour. Hạ Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that consists of hundreds of limestone karst formations, islands, and multiple limestone caves. Fun fact: Hạ Long means “descending dragon” in Sino-Vietnamese. Around 1,600 people live in floating houses in the bay, making money through fishing and aquaculture. Merchants will then boat to these floating houses to purchase their seafare to sell at local markets.


Ready to board!


I could definitely live on a floating house here


And now, onto the last bit of our alternative family vacation: Sa Pa, Vietnam.

I don’t even think I can begin to accurately or adequately describe how beautiful Sa Pa is, so I will just put a bunch of pictures here.



Just a boy and his cow


That’s exactly what you think it is




All green everything


The view from our hotel


Although getting to Sa Pa was a bit of a nuisance on the overnight train, it was worth every bump, hard mattress, and fellow train-goer playing the piccolo for far too long. Sa Pa is located in northwestern Vietnam, and is one of the greenest places I have ever seen. It reminded me of Eureka, Montana where my Uncle Bob lives! Our treks with Beng, a member of the Black Hmong tribe, taught us about the local textiles, past-times, and how rice padi is planted and harvested. Sa Pa is primarily known for the massive amount of rice padi terraces and fields. These terraces are split up among the families of the villages and are passed down to the sons of the families. It rained the entire time we were there, making everything green absolutely radiate with life. Our lunches consisted of hot pot soup with rice noodles, where we were accompanied by many overly-friendly felines. Beng was hilarious and so welcoming. She is only 29 years old and already has 4 children. Her marriage, like most in her culture, was arranged. However, she told us she couldn’t be happier! Beng has also never attended school and is illiterate; she learned all of the English she knows (which was a lot) from talking with tourists. Meeting people like Beng always helps to reassure me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and am doing good things for my students and Kuching community.


Molly, Beng, and I on a trek

After Sa Pa, our trip had to come to an end. It was not fun having to say goodbye to my family (again), but I am now over 50% completed with my grant period! Although I do not know the exact date yet, I will be coming home sometime shortly after November 1. While that day still seems far away on paper, I know it will be here before I’m ready for it.


P.S. The Vietnamese currency is the dong. I am 23, and I will never stop thinking that is funny.


Familiar Faces Across the World

My perception of time has been fluctuating between two extremes these past few months. In the grand scheme of things, 10 months is really not a long time to be away from home. But when you have just graduated college, have thrown yourself into a program that transplanted you across the world and away from every single person that you know, and are required to live and deal with car/ internet/ grocery/ cleaning/ bill matters with people who you have literally just met, 10 months seems a little daunting.


Meeting my principal and vice principal on the first day of school

And now? Now that it is June 18 and I have completed over 50% of my grant? Now I feel like November is going to here before I’m ready for it. I remember thinking back in April, “My family is coming in a month! Free vacation!” How on Earth did it become mid-June and my family has been here and gone for a few days already? It was pretty to hard see my family get on a plane that will take them home. Seeing them get on a plane to go anywhere without me wouldn’t be fun, but knowing that they were going home made me feel like I was being left behind. On the “glass half full” side, my family and I had incredible adventures together while they were here. We made so many memories that will hold me over until I am back in my brick house on the hill.


My fellow ETA’s and I visit the SMK Star secondary school during our orientation

Phase 1: The Waiting Period

The beginning of our vacation started with what could have been a major disaster. The day before I was to fly out to Kuala Lumpur to meet my family as they stepped off the plane, I received many frantic WhatsApp messages from my Mom. She had been having serious pain in her mouth, and needed to have emergency root canal surgery… on the day she was supposed to be flying out. Flights were cancelled, new ones hadn’t been searched for, and I was left worrying that the first half of my break would be spent alone. By some miracle, my Mom had her surgery, recovered immediately, and found flights for her and Molly that would be landing only 1.5 days after originally anticipated.

While I waited for them in Kuala Lumpur for a day, I went to the spa for the first time with my friend Pat. Before you get jealous, remember that I am in Asia. There were no robes, scented oils, or attractive men to rub my shoulders. Instead, I received “foot reflexology” from a Chinese woman who told me, through my translator, that I had man feet. For those of you who don’t know what reflexology is, the omniscient Wiki definition states:

“Reflexology, or zone therapy, is an alternative medicine or pseudoscience involving the physical act of applying pressure to the feet, hands, or ears with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques without the use of oil or lotion. It is based on what reflexologists claim to be a system of zones and reflex areas that they say reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands, with the premise that such work affects a physical change to the body.”


Well, they got the pressure part right. For an hour, I sat extremely tensed in my chair, trying to pretend like this woman wasn’t capable of ripping all of my toes off. I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of the physical response a massage is supposed to elicit. No matter how much I tried to hide my wincing, I knew she could tell I was in pain. Several times, I made some sort of side-comment about, “Wow, your fingers must really be getting sore.” Or, “You are probably really bad at kneading bread.” Translation: STOP TRYING TO BURROW A HOLE THROUGH MY SOLES. However, my sarcasm went undetected or misunderstood, probably both since she only spoke Mandarin. I must have done a better job at feigning my foot tolerance since she told me I was stronger than most of the men that come to her for this treatment. She redeemed herself a little bit with that one.

After the reflexology, I had my first massage. Guess how that went? I wanted to die. I thought she was going to push all of my internal organs out through my mouth. I may have created permanent claw marks in the massage bed. Why was she doing this to me?! At one point, this woman was straddling my back, and using her entire forearm, pushed with all of her body weight and gravity into the area between my spine and shoulder blades. If I had to describe the massage in 3 words, “vengeful, vigorous, and vexing” would  be the top contenders.

Luckily for me, the spa day’s activities were three-fold. Once my lady felt my back muscles had been sufficiently tenderized, I was ready for cupping. Cupping therapy involves using suction on the skin to promote blood flow and healing. The blood definitely flows after cupping, right to the surface of your skin. The result of a cupping session looks something like…

Cute, right? I was more than ready to depart from the spa and sleep off the physical torture I had just endured. Upon leaving, my lady told me I should really be coming to her once a week because my back is full of knots. She also told, based on her analysis from the massage, that air-conditioning and cold water are not good for me. Perhaps if I was living in Siberia, that would be true. But as a temporary equatorial resident, you better believe taking a freezing cold shower is one of my favorite past-times.


Phase 2: Mom and Molly take KL

At last, it was time to depart for the airport to fetch my long lost family unit. Pat, being the opportunist that she is, found a spot right in front of the train station where they would be coming in. Because this spot was also designated for 15-minute parking, Pat decided to stay with the car in case she had to talk her way out of trouble with the authorities. I went in a little early with a trick up my sleeve to surprise Mom and Molly when they arrived. While I waited, I sucked down a McDonald’s milkshake, got lost, and bought a few 100 Plus isotonic drinks which Pat said would get the “travel heat” out of their bodies. Finally, their train pulled in. I found myself a fat pole, whipped out my GoPro, and patiently waited. I think my surprise was successful, but feel free to see for yourself!

The next day, the four of us shared a delicious meal of roti tisue (thin bread), roti canai (another type of bread..), chicken curry, teh tarik (pulled tea), and instant coffee to celebrate their arrival. I was pleasantly surprised that they both really liked the food! Molly’s logical question of, “You eat chicken for breakfast?”, reminded me of my orientation in January when I opted for handcrafted omelets over rice and noodles in the morning. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find something I haven’t eaten for breakfast.

That smile says it all

That smile says it all

Phase 3: Gawai Dayak

The next day we returned to my beloved city of Kuching on Borneo island. Although we were only here for about 2 days, our time was packed. Right after landing, we raced to the Semenggoh orangutan sanctuary to just make the feeding time. Not surprisingly, it started to rain right after we arrived. Luckily, we walked down at just the right time to see a momma and her baby making their way across the high ropes in the reserve. My mom and Molly stared in awe as these orange fluff-balls gracefully swung in the air, eventually jumping out of the trees onto the ground a mere 10 meters from us.


Mom and baby making their way across the ropes under a cloudy afternoon


Girl’s gotta eat

Finally, the main event was here. On June 1, the celebration of Gawai happened throughout indigenous villages in Borneo. Gawai is the annual rice harvest festival of the Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu people. During the day, the festival was very similar to my time celebrating the Chinese New Year. For hours and hours, families and friends  go around visiting each other’s homes, eating countless sweets and meats, and enjoying each other’s company. As expected, Mom, Molly, and I were the center of attention for most of the day. We went to the village of one of my teachers, who was very proud to show us off to her family. Throughout the day, I chatted with fellow teachers, helped my mom and sister figure out what people were trying to say to them, and met a 100 year old man who had fought in WWI. He proudly lifted his sleeve to show me how is right arm was no longer attached to his shoulder, and just hung at his side after being shot during the war.


Bob, Samson, Mom, Molly, and Trisha at a relative’s house

As per Gawai tradition, drinking was plentiful. A home-made rice wine, called tuak, is traditionally served during Gawai. Although I have had tuak at a bar in Kuching before, this was my first taste of real home-made tuak. I definitely approve. It has a sweet flavor, something similar to apples. My family was given two full bottles of tuak to take home with us. After briefly feeling excited at the thought of tuak waiting for me once I returned to the U.S., I realized that Asian moonshine probably wouldn’t make it through customs. My roommates were happy to hear that I had plenty of tuak to share with them.

We stayed at the Gawai celebration in my teacher’s village from noon until 9 PM. After it got dark, we participated in a procession around the kampung (village), walking to the beat of drums and following women and men in traditional outfits. The procession ended at the gathering hall, where we had to endure listening to an 8 year old screaming (singing?) into the microphone for an hour. She was cute, but not that cute. Later, the women and children performed traditional dances while the men played their instruments. It was amazing being able to be a part of yet another celebration that was once foreign to me.


Pour it up.


Phase 4:  Pulau Langkawi 

The day after Gawai, we departed for Langkawi Island located northwest of the Malaysian peninsula. This island had been on my Malaysia bucket list, and it definitely did not disappoint.

Canon camera 385

My favorite food group

A few days of lounging on a tropical beach drinking from a coconut never did any harm, right? We had a lovely time sipping our margaritas prepared by bartenders who remembered our names the first time we told them and gave us a private guitar performance. I was impressed.

The highlight of the trip for me was riding on the Langkawi Skycab. This gondola ride claims to be the steepest in the world, transporting visitors to the top of Machincang mountain (700m ASL). Although the day we went up was misty, the views were absolutely incredible. Waterfalls looked like tiny streams as the car moved closer to the peak of the mountain. My favorite part of the ride? Finally seeing the beautiful hornbill. Although it is known as the Land of the Hornbill, I have yet to see one in Sarawak! Approximately 8 were spotted in flight by my car-mates and I as we descended the limestone mountain.



After Pulau Langkawi, the 3 ladies made their way back to Kuala Lumpur to meet my Dad. Now it was his turn to have some fun! I am so thankful to have had this time with my Mom, and am grateful that she made it home safe and sound. I am a lucky girl to have such loving and supportive parents.

More to come later on the second half of my mid-term vacation!

P.S. A very happy birthday to my big sissy Jayne. You grow more beautiful every year. I love you!


“Driving” Me Crazy

“How on Earth is this acceptable?!” I thought to myself the other afternoon, becoming increasingly puzzled by my current situation. I’ve lost track of how many times this exact sentiment has come to the forefront of my brain since I’ve moved to Southeast Asia.


Coral Bay , Perhentian Kecil

Picture this: It is raining. And by raining, I mean I am struggling to keep my only pair of sandals from washing away in the heavy current that is flooding my ankles. Did I bring an umbrella? Sadly, stupidly, no. Did I bring a bag to hold my wallet, keys, phone, newly purchased envelopes, and McDonald’s McChicken sandwich and french fries? Nope! I guess my unusual level of productivity that day was counterbalanced by a state of blissful unawareness to the quickly darkening sky when I had begun my errands. It was obvious that the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime in the extremely near future, and I was already late to pick up my roommate from school. Shielding my possessions with as much of my body as I could, I waddled to my secret parking lot while eating my soggy chicken and spilling mayonnaise on my iPhone. Utterly drenched, I approached my miniature Kancil, feeling more than ready to pick up my roommate and change into some dry clothes. I had to hurry because she was expecting me and I didn’t have any credit on my phone to call if I would be late. But when I got to my car, something stopped me from leaving; it was a force of sorts, that told me to stay exactly where I was…


I was completely parked in. Absolutely blocked. No movement possible. Stuck.


My Kancil is far too low to the ground to have even attempted driving over the parking block in front of it, and would have done no good t-boning the idiot that parked me in. To further depict how absurd this was, I was parked legally in a numbered space. Also, the parking lot was NOT EVEN FULL. “How on Earth is this acceptable?!”


4C students after our campaign to “Save Fulbright!”

My roommates and I face struggles like this almost everyday. Seriously, dealing with issues that seem completely irrational and totally avoidable have become a part of my daily routine. At first, my tolerance for such asinine situations was severely fragile. I mean really, who does that? It’s taken much, sometimes unwanted, practice, but I can detect a notable difference in how I view scenarios such as this compared to my mindset from earlier in the year. In January, I probably would have just sat in my car, too irritated to eat what was left of my damp french fries and too baffled to come up with a logical solution to this problem.


Pretty princess Shelly and I at the Malaysia-China Friendship Park

But what good would that have done? I would have wasted a delicious treat, would have been late to pick up my roommate, and would have been in an irascible mood the rest of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I still sat in my car and had my bitch minute (emphasis on “minute”). But at 61 seconds, I finished eating my moist meal, put my necessities into a plastic bag, and went on a mission to find the owner of the car. After asking several people in the area, one man thought he might know where the culprit was. I followed him up the stairs of what I thought was an apartment building. As we ascended the stairs, I began to hear the rhythmic percussion of drums, and the clashing of symbols. The stairs were mostly open air, and offered a serene, aerial view of a stormy Kuching. When it rains here, everything green seems to absolutely radiate with life. At the top, the source of the banging and clashing became evident: this apartment was actually a Buddhist temple, and was filled with worshippers partaking in a celebration. The temple was beautiful, covered in red and gold ceiling lamps and exhibiting traditional Chinese architecture. The incense smoke danced around the men, women, and children praying before dissipating into the cool, tropical air. At the bottom of the stairs, a huge buffet had been put out, and buckets of ice cold Heineken abounded. To top it all off, after only 10 minutes, my efforts were successful and the driver of the car came immediately to free my Kancil. After moving his vehicle, he came back to walk me to mine under the protection of his umbrella. I was already soaked, but appreciated his gesture nonetheless.


A blanketed Santubong Mountain

Living in Malaysia has been predictably unpredictable. Plans rarely work out they way you think they will, probably because somebody has trapped your car in its space. What all of this has taught me is that life truly is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it. Taking this sticky situation and turning it into an adventure was the best thing that happened to me that day. I discovered a gorgeous temple, witnessed a celebration that I had never before, and marveled at the beauty of the city I get to live in from a new perspective. My life’s daily trials have increasingly transformed into windows of opportunity and little blessings.


Having a blast in English Language Society!


Here are a few chronicles of some of the more hilarious issues my roommates and I find ourselves trying to live with everyday:


The Car

We are renting two cars from a company called Kuching Car Rentals. Here are their struggles:


Car #1: Didn’t shift into first gear. This car was not drive-able.

Car #1 replacement: Didn’t have enough power to make it over a speed bump, let alone up our steep driveway. The car was not drive-able for our situation.


Car #2: Broke down on the way home from school. It had to be replaced.

Car #2 replacement: This car was way too nice for what we were paying, so they fixed the other one quickly and took this one away.

Car #1 (fixed): My roommate got into a fender-bender. It had to be replaced.

Car #2 (fixed): The rental company siphoned out all of our gas before giving it back.


Car #2 (fixed): Got a flat tire. We were able to fix that on our own, but then the passenger window fell out of alignment and down into the body of the car. It had to be replaced.

Car #2 (fixed-fixed): The window was replaced, but now you have to manually push it up to get it to close.

Car #1 and #2: The rental company is considering terminating one of our contracts. This could be a problem.


Sunset on Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

The Water

Our landlords are wonderful people, but terrible plumbers.

Early February

Our water pressure was almost non-existent. It took about 5 minutes to fill up a pot of water to boil. Showering was not impossible, but I wouldn’t have called myself “clean” afterwards.

Late February

We have water pressure! But now two of our three toilets are leaking from the back of the tanks, producing a wet haven for our dear mosquito friends.

Early March

Our toilets were fixed when the maintenance men were here. They decided to leak again about an hour after they left. We had to turn off the water, and manually fill the back tank so it wouldn’t overflow. We stopped flushing the toilet for a while…but then decided this was a horrible idea.

Mid March

One toilet was fixed, one toilet was forgotten about. The laundry machine now leaked, and was pooling water underneath of it.

Late March

Both toilets were fixed. The laundry machine didn’t leak anymore, but was using brown water to wash our clothes.

Early April

All toilets, showers, and washing machines are now functioning how they should be!

Late April

Our water pressure is gone. We are afraid to call the maintenance crew for fear of repeating this whole cycle…


On The Road Encounters

1. It is totally normal for people to park their cars in a traffic lane if they cannot find a parking space.

2. Today I saw two men on a motorbike, not wearing helmets, and one of them was holding a television set.

3. For four days straight, a car that had broken down was left sitting in the middle of a lane. I’m not sure if towing companies exist here.

4. We almost ran over some construction workers the other night who decided to do work around a busy corner and put up absolutely no warning signs that they were there.

5. It appears to be an unconquerable feat for Malaysians to park within the lines of a parking space.

6. I’m a little apprehensive to start driving again in a country where the rules of the road actually matter, and you can actually get into trouble for not obeying them.


Hookah, tropical beaches, and new friends


1 Comment

A Tribute to Ridwan

My mentor, Umi, has been such a blessing in my life since coming to Sarawak. What Umi lacks in height, she makes up for with her vibrant and very accepting personality. She has been an English teacher at SMK Semerah Padi for years, is the head of the English Language Panel, organizes district-wide debates and English competitions for her students, brings me a delicious breakfast of deep-fried donuts and curry puffs every single morning, and raises eight children between the ages of 3 and 23. Yes, eight. It took me about two weeks to remember all of their names, and about four weeks to even realize that I hadn’t even met all of them yet. I thought I did… there were just too many new faces to keep track of. Long story short, Umi is amazing. She is steadfast in her Islamic beliefs, but doesn’t let that stop her from being liberal, accepting, spunky, and incredibly generous. She is the type of woman/teacher/mentor that is not afraid to completely sass her students for not following directions, always wants to be in the front of every picture that has ever been taken in her general vicinity, makes her students pay her money for speaking Bahasa Melayu in English class (don’t worry, these generous funds will be put towards a sweet surprise for them), and interrupts my classes just to give me a hug. Not surprising, her maternal gene is on point. Umi has raised beautiful children, several of which I have had the opportunity to become very close with. I love them all so much, but seem to have a deeper connection with one in particular….


Allow me to introduce Ridwan, a special child who needs no introduction:


Ah, Ridwan. Where to begin? At just 9 years old, Ridwan speaks better English than many of my 15 year old secondary school students. You may not be able to tell from the picture, but Ridwan is extremely intelligent, and he LOVES science. For the entire month of February   (before I had a car/knew how to drive manual/could trust myself to only drive on the left side of the road), I spent everyday after school traveling with Umi to pick up Ridwan and his sister from school, then back to their house for lunch. Ridwan and I talked every single day about what he learned in school, specifically in science class. He loves to talk about monkeys, dugongs, and the Aldabra Giant Tortoise. He asks me questions about soil, which for a while was the word he used when he was really talking about skin. In their backyard, we would go grasshopper hunting while he told me about his plans to travel to the United States one day so he could see a manatee. I think his plans might be on hold for the time being, however, because he is “afraid of getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle”. His curiosity never ceases to amaze me. As soon as he jumped in the car at school, he would show me pictures of what he learned about in class, and asked questions that continued our conversation from the day before.



Ridwan is a breath of fresh air for me. Sometimes, he is also a breath of seriously rank air when he doesn’t warn us about farting in the car with the windows up. I forgot to mention: Ridwan is hilarious and super weird.

Image Image

Once again, I’m feeling blessed and so fortunate to be where I am today. I love my school, I love my mentor, and I love the people I am able to surround myself with everyday.


I will leave you with this video, which I think is well worth more than 1,000 words.



A Few Little Things

I’m quickly discovering that being a teacher is no walk on the beach, especially if you are working under Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. My fellow teachers spend an absurd amount of time completing paperwork detailing all of their lesson plans, student demographic reports, project proposals, student evaluations, what they ate for lunch that day, and about 100 other things that will most likely be filed away and go unread. “It’s for the report” is the most common phrase that comes out of our mentors’ mouths. Although I don’t have as much of this silly paperwork stuff to do as some of the other teachers, I have been feeling overwhelmed with the other tasks for school that I have on my plate. Because the teachers have to dedicate so much time to malarkey that isn’t actually teaching, their lesson plans almost always come directly from the government-mandated curriculum. The curriculum and I don’t get along very well: it thinks the students should sit in their desks all period, listen to the teacher talk at them about a picture in their workbook, and then complete a tedious and unimaginative worksheet or read a passage that completely fails to engage them…


That is not how Miss Emily’s classroom works. Every night, I individually plan lessons based on the needs of the students in my classes. Considering that in one class, I might have a student who can tell me that “water is transparent, and the basis of life for all living things”, and another who cannot answer the question “How are you?”, my lesson-planning hasn’t come as easily as I had hoped it would. The stress of creating engaging and effective lessons, along with many other daily stresses I experience here that I would not if I was home, is enough to make me wonder sometimes why I signed up to move away from everyone I love, to a place where my being able to function is at the mercy of English-speaking locals, and where there is no Chipotle.

But then, something happens. Little things happen to me every single day that stop me in my tracks and completely restore my wavering faith in myself. They crash into me like a wave, and keep me floating through the periods when I feel like I’m being sucked out to sea. Here is just a taste of the positivity and happiness that has graced my life on a daily basis in Sarawak.

Chocolate and consideration: The way to a woman’s heart

I began teaching on February 2, four days after my twenty-third birthday had passed. On my first day, hoards of students surrounded me the second I stepped into any public area, bombarding me with questions about the U.S., how I find Malaysia, and if I know what K-Pop is. One of my classes asked when my birthday was, and upon hearing that it was just a few days ago, two of my students told me they would bring me a cake the next day. What I thought was merely a sweet (PUN!) but empty promise turned out to be two mini chocolate cakes sitting on my desk the next morning.


The past few weeks, I have been assisting with petanque practice after school, which is basically Malaysian bocce ball that is played on gravel instead of at the beach. The students that play petanque are from one of my older, very out-going classes on Thursday. We have a blast in class, and usually end up chatting about completely random topics. As part of a conversation that I don’t entirely remember, I remember telling this class that I love chocolate more than life, and if they bring me chocolate I would love them forever. Little did they know, I will love them forever anyways, but I had to give them a little incentive, right? Of course, I thought nothing of this comment, and was sure none of the students really did either. Wrong again. That same afternoon at petanque practice, one of my favorite students, who goes by the name of E-one, walked in my direction. E-one is one of the school photographers, and is rarely seen without his camera in hand. E-one paced his tripod directly in front of me, clearly filming me feeling slightly awkward about looking like a disgusting sweat ball on camera. Before I could tell him he’s not allowed to film me looking like I had just given birth, he pulled out a Kit Kat bar and gave it to me. His goal was to capture the mixture of surprise and delight that instantly washed over my face at that moment. The generosity of my students absolutely blows me away. I don’t think my students have any idea how uplifted and appreciative I am of them. The next week I returned the favor and brought E-one a candy bar, to which he happily asked, “Miss, is this special? Just for me?” You got it, buddy.

E-one, donning his camera, front and center

E-one, donning his camera, front and center

A beautiful friendship

Last week, I conducted a lesson on friendship for a few of my classes. Classes were held outside, where the students sat in a circle, discussed what they liked about their friends, participated in “Fast Friends” aka speed dating, and made a card or origami for a new friend they made (a surprising amount of my students are really good at origami, and most of them gave their creations to me! Thanks for the free desk decorations, kiddos). During their discussion on what they liked about their friends, I had the students pair up and talk one-on-one. Two sweet girls blew me away with what they said to each other. While holding hands and with smiles from ear to ear, their conversation went something like this: “You are my friend because you are so kind and beautiful, and you help me when I have problems. I want you to know today that I love you and that I want our friendship to continue forever.” MY HEART BLEW UP. I regret more than anything not having my camera to take a picture of these two beautiful girls, but I know I will never forget the look in their eyes when they spoke to each other. The held nothing back, and meant every single word they said to each other. The genuineness of their friendship continues to brighten my spirits.

“It’s always ourself we find in the sea”

Thanks to some new British friends here in Sarawak, my roommate Alex and I were able to hitch a ride to a party on the incredibly deserted Stoh beach. Peter said there would be several older expats in attendance, and given that the weather was looking particularly volatile, I wasn’t sure what to make of this party. But who am I to pass up an entire day of grilling on the beach and enjoying a personal bottle of cheap Chardonnay? The drive alone was completely stimulating, and enough to make me feel like I was in the Jungle Book, which I pretty much am. After a short ferry ride across a river lined with beautifully healthy mangrove trees, we rode onto the packed sand of Stoh beach. The tide was out, and the beach was completely deserted save for our misfit group of about 12 people.


Adhib and I running to the sea

Adhib and I running to the sea

Side note: A chicken and a scorpion are two animals that I never thought I would see on a beach.

Peter was right: there were several party-goers whose age was at least double mine, maybe even close to triple. I’m not even sure if everyone, besides Alex and I, knew each other. No matter though, we all had a full day of BBQ, story-swapping, wine, and playing with drones that had a bad habit of getting stuck in the surrounding trees. Our group was from all over: U.S., U.K., South Africa, Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), and of course Malaysia. Two of my favorites guests were Adhib and Adam, a couple of young Malaysian brothers.

Adhib is a non-verbal, autistic nine year old boy. After greeting everyone, I immediately made my way to the South China Sea. I hadn’t seen the water in a few weeks, which for me is far too long. The sea is therapeutic, and makes me feel completely safe and confident. It’s what I know, and where I want to be for the rest of my life. This day, I made a friend whose waves were completely vibing with mine. I turned around to see Adhib running after me, which I took as a challenge to race to the water! I let Adhib win, and watched him run right into the warm current clad in all of his clothing. Ah, to be young and carefree. I joined Adhib in the water, talking to him even though I knew he could not answer. Adhib didn’t need words to make me understand what he was thinking, I could tell the instant I looked at his smiling face: Adhib LOVED the ocean. Between intermittent BBQ skewer and cheese-stuffed sausage breaks, Adhib would grab my hand and pull me back to the water with him, if only to watch him soak up the salty water. Adhib’s elation for spending time in the ocean is a feeling I am incredibly familiar with. Despite whatever mental or cultural barriers there were between me and Adhib, all we needed was the language of the sea.

Life doesn't get much better than this

Life doesn’t get much better than this


How much more lucky can I get to be here? Stress or no stress, Malaysia has proved to be a place full of simple surprises and pleasures, which I do not take for granted. Everyday is an opportunity to connect with people and to experience something that will make you reflect on how beautiful people can truly be.

Trekking back to the cars when the tide chased us away

Trekking back to the cars when the tide chased us away

Leave a comment

Welcome to Sarawak: Land of the Hornbill

At last, I have arrived in the state of Sarawak on Borneo Island. The capital city of Kuching, located a mere 40 minute drive from the South China Sea coast, is what I will call home for the remainder of my time in Malaysia. What does Kuching translate to, you might wonder? Cat. I am a temporary resident of “cat city”, a position of which I am sure many cat enthusiasts are tickled by. With multiple over-sized statues of cats and kittens located throughout the city center, hundreds of feral felines roaming about, and southeast Asia’s first and only cat museum, the city more than lives up to its name.

The cats looked purrfect for the holidays!

The cats looked purrfect for the holidays!

Living riverside in Kuching

Living riverside in Kuching

State-level orientation was held during our first week in Cat City for the 10 ETA’s who will be teaching in Sarawak. This time was spent with higher-up’s from the Ministry of Education, our district language officers, and our mentors. My mentor, Umi, is a sweet mother of 8, who has already established her position as my Malaysian mother while I am away from my dear Jean. A mere 48 hours after Umi and I met, she already had a present and card for my twenty-third birthday (not to mention the cheesecake and presents from my fellow ETA’s!) Umi’s family is lovely and has already made me feel right at home. I love spending time with her adorable little ones, and even have one of her older daughters, Aziera (“Abby”) in one of my classes. Abby tells me how jealous her classmates are that she gets to see me so often!

Umi and I outside of my new school, SMK Semerah Padi

Umi and I outside of my new school, SMK Semerah Padi

Before we got bogged down with preparing our lessons and completing Fulbright paperwork, the other ETA’s and I were able to explore our new state and partake in some festivities that were completely new to me. For me, the most exciting was celebrating Chinese New Year. Lasting about 15 days, Chinese New Year is a time to spend with family, visit friends during open houses, eat enough sweet food to turn your teeth into sugar cubes, and avoid being blown up by the fireworks set off from nearly every Chinese home. I was lucky enough to spend Chinese New Year Eve, one of the most celebrated days of the holiday, with a new friend, Jocelyn, and her family. Jocelyn was a Malaysian exchange student to the U.S., where she went to school with one of the ETA’s in my program. My new roommates and I spent time at Jocelyn’s home, were treated to an elaborate Chinese meal, and witnessed the loudest and most plentiful firework display show I have ever heard and seen in my life. Seriously, the U.S. needs to step it up come Fourth of July. Chinese New Year has some other fun traditions, such as tossing a salad of fresh veggies in a citrus marinade with chopsticks while shouting out your wishes for the New Year. The higher you toss, the more likely your wish will come true. Not only is this tradition amusing, it is delicious! Another custom is the giving and receiving of angpow, a red envelope containing some amount of money which married Chinese will bestow upon single Chinese (as well as nice, foreign girls who appear to be confused and don’t speak Cantonese). The communal customs and atmosphere of Chinese New Year were refreshing, and I feel so lucky to know people like Jocelyn and her family.

Jocelyn and I enjoying the Chinese New Year fireworks

Jocelyn and I enjoying the Chinese New Year fireworks

Sarawak is home to several food delicacies that cannot be found anywhere else in Malaysia. Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a delicacy (or food for that matter), one of these unique edibles is the sago worm. The sago worm is a bright orange/yellow colored plump grub with a very dark head. The worm eats only the palm of the sago tree, making it an acceptable food source if you are ever lost in the jungles of Sarawak. Or, if you’re like me and my fellow steel-stomached friends, you can just buy them from a dirt bucket at the Kuching Market to eat alive. Because the heads of the worms have pinchers that would probably chop off your taste buds, the technique for eating the worm is as follows:
Step 1: Choose the juiciest worm friend you can find.
Step 2: Grip the worm with your index finger and thumb firmly at the base of the head.
Step 3: When the crowd counts down, put the fleshy body in your mouth up to your fingers, then bite down.
Step 4: As you bite down, rip the head away from your mouth, then step on it because it is probably still moving.
When in Sarawak? At least, that’s what we thought. As it turns out, most of the locals we know were disturbed that we actually ate the worms, and claim they never would themselves. A fair and early warning to all those even considering coming to visit, if you would like to stay for free in my air-conditioned, 3 story, 4 balcony apartment, eating a sago worm is your golden ticket in. Prepare yourselves!

Mmm, delicious!

Mmm, delicious!

A few other entertaining activities I have experienced have been learning traditional Iban and Malay dances, spending a day at scenic Damai beach, attending two weddings in two days and being asked to bless the bride and groom with rosewater, bowling a 56 (I don’t think I’ve ever played without bumpers before…can you tell I was a summer camp counselor for 4 years?), singing karaoke with some locals, and trying tuak, a local rice wine, at an Iban bar that was decorated with giant penis ornaments.
Sarawak has had so much in store for me thus far, and the good times are only going to keep rolling as I become established in my school. I will leave my experiences at SMK Semerah Padi until next time, as it deserves its own post. Until then, thank you to everyone for the birthday wishes, and for thinking of me while I am far from home.

Bowling squad

Bowling squad


Celebrations and Explorations

Whirlwind. That single word is how I can best describe my life these past 3 weeks. So many fascinating, delicious, and even anxiety-producing events have occurred since I was able to last post, I’m not sure where to start. Not only that, I’m actually having difficulty recalling all that I’ve seen and participated in as an ETA in training. Sitting here in my temporary hotel bedroom, I realize that this moment is one of the first where I have had time to reflect on the craziness of my time in Malaysia thus far. So, with my journal spread out in front of me, pictures of Tucker, my family, and sentimental notes sprawling out from the cover, I’m going to do my best to paint a picture of what Malaysia has had in store for me so far.

The majority of my time has been spent in the Royale Chulan hotel for orientation presentations, activities, and planning events. A multitude of speakers from the U.S. Embassy, Malaysian government, former Peace Corps volunteers, Teach for Malaysia members, and a local celebrity have taken time to give us their insight on every aspect of Malaysia imaginable. I have absorbed information about Malaysia’s religious diversity, road safety, education policies, environmental and health issues, the Fulbright program’s history in the country, government policies, and even how many of its residents are using Facebook and Twitter (which is a shocking 50%). Although all of the information was useful and relevant, I found a few things to be notable:

  1.  The ETA program in Malaysia is the 4th largest in the world.
  2. Malaysia is primarily comprised of ethnically Malay, Indian, and Chinese residents. However, the definition (by law) of a Malay is a person who speaks Bahasa Malaysia, is muslim, and practices the Malaysian culture. Many tensions have risen between Malaysian residents because religion is so politicized.
  3. All Malaysian schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. The MOE strictly enforces curriculum based teaching, and therefore standardized testing, to literally determine the future of Malaysian youths by placing them in specific subject tracks based on their grades.
  4. Before the major exams are taken (during grades 9 and 11), students will pass onto the next grade even if they do not understand the material and have technically failed that grade.

I had not known much of this before coming to Malaysia to start my grant. I definitely do not agree with many aspects of the Malaysian school system thus far. However, I understand now how beneficial the Fulbright program could be for these students.  I have such a unique opportunity to help my students improve their english by stepping away from the curriculum, and focus on helping them learn in ways that they know how. I’m not even talking about lesson plans here. I will be leading clubs, sports teams, and whatever else it takes to just get my students talking in english. By interacting with them outside of the classroom, I believe my students will see that english isn’t scary, and not something that needs to be absorbed solely within the confines of their desk and classroom walls. I am SO looking forward to meeting my students and getting to work.

Thankfully I have been able to do so much more outside of sitting in the freezing (yes, freezing) Penthouse of my previous hotel. I was able to visit the National Mosque, explore Little India, be sprayed by the Kuala Lumpur City Center fountain lights show, and trek through the jungle to the Gombak Jungle Lodge. The National Mosque (Masjid Negara) was built in 1965. The tour guide informed me that every Friday, the mosque overflows with around 3,000 Muslim worshipers. We were able to explore the prayer room upstairs, which is where women are allowed to pray if they choose.


Visitors clad in purple robes, ascending the mosque stairs

Visitors clad in purple robes, ascending the mosque stairs

Little India, a.k.a. Brickfields, is a vibrant and bustling section of KL. It’s my favorite place to go for chapati wraps and teh tarik, or pulled tea. Watching them pull the tea is so entertaining! It’s amazing that not a single drop of the sweet beverage is spilled. We came across a Hindu shrine in the middle of a back alley that was covered in offerings of limes and oranges.


The KLCC fountain lights show was spectacular! Onlookers lined all around the shallow fountain, mystified by the flashing lights and spraying water. I was particularly intrigued by one little boy who was having his own little party during the show. As I was watching the boy, I was apparently also being watched. A European tourist tapped me on the shoulder to show me a picture he had taken of my silhouette against the bright lights.

The Petronas Twin towers at the heart of KLCC

The Petronas Twin towers at the heart of KLCC

Pure joy.

Pure joy.

The Gombak Jungle Lodge trip was absolutely my favorite day of orientation. I arose bright and early to travel far from the bustle of KL into the beginning of the rainforest. We trekked from the lodge to an incredible double waterfall, where I was able to climb to the top with a few other brave ETA’s. Some of my peers were nervous about the various species of leeches that could burrow into your stomach and eventually eat away your brain. How does one keep the leeches from eating you alive? Salt and fire: two items that have now been added to my hiking bag.


ETA's dispersed around this natural wonder

ETA’s dispersed around this natural wonder

The final thing I’ll tell you all about was my experience at Thaipusam. Thaipusam is in annual pilgrimage of Hindu devotees starting from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown to the Batu Caves just outside of KL. The celebration revolves around Lord Murugan. Those who observe Thaipusam repent for their sins and demonstrate their devotion by carrying jugs of milk in Kavadi and pouring them on a statue of Murugan in the Sri Subramaniar  Swamy Temple inside the caves. Others participate in self-mutilation by piercing or hooking their faces and backs, thereby allowing items to be hung from their bodies. Others carry enormous mobile shrines to the temple, with several friends following close behind to provide a stool and support when the shrines because too burdensome. Did I mention that all of these rituals occur while walking up 272 narrow, concrete steps into the caves? The celebration I went to is the largest gathering of Thaipusam devotees in the world. Last year, over 2 millions Hindus and observers came together for this festival. After my own experience, I definitely believe that many people had passed through the temple caves as I had. The experience was bizarre and foreign to say the least, and I feel incredibly lucky I was here in time to experience it.

Devotees and visitors trekking up the temple stairs under the watch of Lord Murugan

Devotees and visitors trekking up the temple stairs under the watch of Lord Murugan


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.