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.
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!
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.
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!
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.