Eastward

Teach. Travel. Immerse. Indulge.


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MACEE Book

The Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) is one of the organizations that my English Teaching Assistant grant is facilitated by. Recently, the ETAs were informed that MACEE is interested in publishing a book about the ETA program. The book will basically be a mosaic of ETA experiences, struggles, and most memorable moments from our year teaching in Malaysia. I submitted a proposal for a chapter, and luckily was accepted! My chapter discusses the grandiose plans and goals I had for my year of teaching, and how those goals have been modified. I’ve found that it is really important for me to recognize the small successes I have inside and outside of the classroom everyday, even if my plans did not go accordingly. In a recent meeting with the new U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur Public Affairs Officer Frank Whitaker, he told me that the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program is one of best programs that our government uses funding for. I may be a little biased, but I couldn’t agree more!

The rest of this post will feature the chapter that I submitted for the MACEE book. Enjoy reading it while I work on my post about my travels through Indonesia!

 

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A new friend in Ubud, Indonesia

Picture this: It’s Monday morning, and you are prematurely awoken by your neighbor’s pack of roughly 11 dogs of various shapes, size, and bark pitches. You roll off your spring mattress and begin your day with a frigid, low-pressure shower (which, after sweating throughout the night, is more pleasant than it sounds). After slipping into a bedazzled baju kurung, which are basically fancy Malaysian pajamas, you get into your car hoping that the engine will decide you are worthy of driving it this morning. If all goes well, the car will start and you will be on your way to school, ready to educate young minds and engage in cross-cultural learning. Or will you?

In the life of an English Teaching Assistant (ETA), plans rarely go accordingly. Whether these plans revolve around a lesson, an English camp, a club, or even a working vehicle, my undertaking as an ETA has proved to be one that is always in flux. Can this variability and uncertainty be overwhelming and stressful? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel like if things don’t go according to plan that I’m not accomplishing my goals? Of course. These are feelings that I am sure the majority of ETA’s have encountered during their 10 months in Malaysia. But at the end of the day, it is vital to recognize the unexpected lessons, small changes, and planted seeds we have fostered in the minds of our students, teachers, and even ourselves.

The following are a few anecdotes from my time spent at SMK Semerah Padi in Kuching, Malaysia. These stories are just a few examples of how I know that my presence at this school has not only benefitted that community, but has also helped me to learn more about myself.

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Celebrating the end of Ramadan with coworkers and roommates

 

Eco-Camp Enthusiasts

One of my goals this year was to broaden my student’s horizons in the environmental studies field. Following this goal, I organized an Eco-Camp to be held at the famous Bako National Park for about 60 of my students. After months of planning, and with significant help from my school administration and state environmental groups, I was ecstatic that this camp was going to take place in one of the most diverse areas in Sarawak. I felt so lucky to be able to expose my students, many of which had never been to the park before, to this environment while having the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level.
In order to make this camp a huge success and to help my students get the most they could out of it, I did what I thought I had to do: I made an informational packet! “This packet will be the key to my success in educating my students about the importance of our delicate ecosystems and instilling in them a sense of curiosity and respect for the natural world around them!” I thought to myself. Well, it turns out that ensuring the completion of a 6 page packet is not ideal when you are jungle trekking with 60 teenagers. I believe approximately 7 students even made an attempt to learn something from my information. During and after the trek, I was visibly frustrated that my plan had not gone successfully. I was irritated that I had spent hours putting those packets together, used hundreds of sheets of paper in the process, and that my students didn’t follow my directions.

After the walk, our group decided to check out the nearby mangrove forest while we waited for lunch to be served. A student ran up to be with a juvenile shrimp in his hand and said, “Miss! Is this a lobster?” I explained to him what it was and that it lives among the mangrove roots for protection from predators. Walking through the mudflat around the trees, several students asked, “Miss, why is this mud so dark in color?” I explained that the sediment surrounding mangroves is rich in organic matter and undergoes anaerobic decomposition, giving the mud the very dark color and earthy smell. Students continued to ask me about this clam shell (“Is it alive?!”), or that hermit crab (“Was it born with that shell?”), or the perfect balls of sand piled around the hundreds of holes that punctured the coast (“How did these get here?”). I was thrilled by their perception and curiosity. It was clear to me that, just like myself, many of my students had to get their hands dirty in order to truly understand and learn about a topic. Packet or no packet, I was incredibly happy with how my eco-camp played out.

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Wellness of body is wellness of mind. Kuta, Lombok, Indonesia

 

The Kardashian Dilemma

I conducted a lesson for Women’s History Month for several of my older classes. In this lesson, students read short biographies about incredible women who helped shape our history and our mindsets. These women included Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, Rosa Parks, Sacagawea, Marie Curie, and Frida Kahlo. After reading about and discussing each one of these women, I asked my students to write a short paragraph about a woman that they admire and respect. Of course, many of my students wrote about their mothers. Others wrote about grandmothers, their best friends, and sisters.

One student, however, chose a much bolder choice: Kendall Jenner. For those of you who don’t know, Kendall Jenner is a member of the famous Kardashian clan, known for their reality TV shows and fashion lines. As a particularly ridiculous student known for being the “class clown”, I challenged his decision to write about Ms. Jenner. While I am sure she is a lovely girl, I was curious why he felt she was worthy of the title as “an amazing woman”. His response? “She is so beautiful!” Oh, silly me! Of course that makes her amazing! (Note my sarcasm) I tried discussing this matter with my student for a few more minutes. Maybe Kendall started a charity, or volunteers on the weekend, or donates a portion of her multi-million dollar fortune to worthy causes? My student also had no idea. His opinion and adoration for this woman was based solely on her physical appearance.

While I understand this is not uncommon for a 17 year old boy no matter what country you’re in, I couldn’t let this one go. I asked my student to do some research on Kendall that night, and to hand his paragraph into me the next day. Since these students are very rarely given homework, I wasn’t expecting much of anything when I went to my desk the next morning. But, lo’ and behold, a full page research paper was placed perfectly centered on my desk. My student had actually done research on Kendall Jenner, and had written a very convincing argument about why Kendall should be on my list of inspirational women. Did you know that she has volunteered with Meals on Wheels? And has a “heart of gold”? Who knew.

What was the learning lesson here? Kids will be kids, especially teenage boys. Perhaps I wasn’t able to encourage my student to read one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies or to learn about how Rachel Carson helped to advance the global environmental movement in the 1960’s. What I did accomplish, however, was encouraging him to research and learn more about his passions, to have facts to back up his arguments, and to see Kendall Jenner for more than just her outward appearance.

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My interview on Brunei National Television after meeting the Sultana at the royal palace

 

Environmental Club

Coming into the school year, I was thrilled to learn that I would be leading the Environmental Club. Before the first meeting, I had planned out an entire year’s worth of activities that my club would be able to participate in. I couldn’t wait to teach them about natural tie-dying, up-cycling, keeping a field guide, and other nerdy environmental hobbies of mine. The first meeting was dedicated to ice-breakers and discussing what we would do throughout the year; it went extremely smoothly! The next meeting…didn’t happen. I came to the classroom at the scheduled time for the club, only to find about 4 students scattered about the room looking very much “off-the-clock”. I asked where everybody was, with the only response being stares of utter confusion at my question. Turns out, the meeting was cancelled that day due to a scheduling conflict with students needing to train for a sport competition. When asking which students from the Environmental Club were participating in the sport competition, I was told none of them were. Now I was the one who was very confused.

It is still very unclear to me why certain classes and clubs are cancelled. Because of this, it has become very difficult for me to complete projects with an entire club of students who may not show up for weeks at a time. I decided to try a different approach to my club, which was to focus on the students who I felt really wanted to be there and to learn from me. As a result, three of my most dedicated students and I entered into a national environmental competition called Anugerah Hijau. We submitted a proposal to build a “Green Wall” at our school, composed of recycled water bottles that have been transformed into a vertical hanging garden. With little guidance, my students researched the topic of up-cycling, plastic production and energy consumption, recycling statistics, and environmental effects of plastic products on terrestrial and aquatic habitats.

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Impeccable service from a dedicated student. He really cares about my fair skin!

Before even knowing if we were finalists, my students were eager to begin building our wall. The process involved collecting over 200 plastic bottles, cutting an opening into each one, painting them, poking holes into the bottoms of the bottles, screwing hooks into the ceiling of the wall, and then individually fastening each bottle to fishing line attached to the hooks (not to mention that this was done in tropical heat during the month of July and while fasting for Ramadan). These students were blowing my mind. Shortly after we began, I learned that our team had been shortlisted as number 7 out of 72 submissions in the competition from all over Malaysia. We were finalists, and one of the only secondary schools to be accepted.

Our green wall is now finished, and looks absolutely beautiful in our school’s courtyard. Although we are still waiting to hear about the final decisions for the competition, I could not be any more proud of these three students. What was even better, though, was the response that our wall elicited from other members of the Environmental Club. As we began preparing the bottles and placing them on the wall, more and more members of the club began coming by to help plant a flower, or straighten a crooked bottle. Slowly, many of them decided to be a true member of the club. I couldn’t be happier with the result of the Green Wall. Not only does it beautify our school, it serves as an example to students that life can arise from the lifeless and what we consider “trash”. It also helped to bring together the members of our Environmental Club, and inspired at least a few students to think about the ways in which we can help our environment. Although it wasn’t what I was expecting out of this year, I can only think of the Environmental Club as a success.

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An almost-completed Green Wall!

Miscellaneous Encounters

The following are a few short examples of other small changes I have seen in my students throughout my time at SMK Semerah Padi.

Students have finally stopped saying, “I’m fine” when I ask them how they are doing. Now they say things like, “I’m great!”, “I’m awesome!”, or my personal favorite, “I’m saucy!”

I began working in my school store in the beginning of the year. Students used to purposely avoid my window so they wouldn’t have to speak to me in English. After creating “Koperasi Cards” with helpful phrases and translations of the items they can purchase in the store, I’ve noticed more and more students not seeming terrified when they see me in the store window.

It has become rare for a student to desperately hide their papers from me in class because they are embarrassed about their writing skills. Now, for the minority of students, there is only a short debate standing between me and their papers.


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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 :)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

http://www.journeyswithinourcommunity.org/about/

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!

 

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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Ready to board!

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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.

 

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Just a boy and his cow

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That’s exactly what you think it is

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Gandalf

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All green everything

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!


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“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.

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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?!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

February

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.

March

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.

April

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.

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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.

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Hookah, tropical beaches, and new friends

 


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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:

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 


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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…

False.

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.

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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


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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

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