Teach. Travel. Immerse. Indulge.

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!


2 thoughts on “Familiar Faces Across the World

  1. Hi Em! Enjoyed the update. Great pictures too! So happy your family got to visit you there and share your experiences. We miss you but know you are learning so much and sharing your gifts with so many people there. Take care and know how much we look forward to seeing you! Love and hugs…Muh!

  2. Thanks, Mah! I miss you all too and can’t wait to see you and the four-legged men soon! XOXO

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