Teach. Travel. Immerse. Indulge.

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Work Hard Play Hard

Interested in finding out what I’ve been up to at school? If yes, keep reading! I have made a list of some of the projects I’ve done at SMK Semerah Padi with my students this year.

Spoiler alert: Miley Cyrus may or may not make an appearance…

Project 1: The Drama Kings and Queens

I was looking for a way to get some of my shyest classes more comfortable around me while also allowing them to be active in class. I had 5 of my classes split into small groups, and gave each group a scenario. The scenarios went something like this:

1. You are swimming at the beach with your friends when you are swallowed by a Blue Whale! How do you escape?!

2. You are relaxing on your motorbike with friends when a car breaks down in front of you. Who is driving the car? Miley Cyrus! She needs your help to get to her concert tonight!

3. You are members of a famous K-Pop (Korean – Pop) band and are relaxing on the beach before a big concert. Suddenly, a coconut falls on your lead singer! They can’t remember who they are… what do you do??

4. Your friends dare you to go camping in the woods by yourself because you say you are not afraid of anything. In the night.. you meet a ghost! AHHH!!

5. You have just finished reading the Harry Potter books and want to practice your magic skills on your friends. But, something goes terribly wrong…

Over the course of a few weeks, my classes and I worked on scripts, practiced emotions, learned new vocabulary about drama and acting, and practiced how to have good stage presence. Here is the result!

It still makes me laugh every time I watch it!

Project 2: Friends Across the World

Of my 11 classes, 3 of them are considered “focus groups”. Truthfully, I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. They are regular classes that I see just as much as any of my other classes. But clearly, they are special for some reason, even though they were randomly chosen. Anyways, I decided to “focus” on one of these classes by arranging a special activity: writing pen-pal letters to students in the U.S. I got in contact with the ESL teacher at my alma mater, Governor Mifflin High School. As fate would have it, Mrs. Fox had the same number of students in her class as I did in mine. My students wrote the first letters, each one assigned to a specific student in Mrs. Fox’s class. They wrote about Malaysia, their favorite foods, their families, Islam, holidays, sports, you name it. I was so proud to see their pride for their country and for who they are. I wish I had a video of their faces when I told them these letters would actually be mailed to the U.S. and actually read by American students their own age.


Uzair and Afiq hard at work on their letters

This project turned out better than I ever could have hoped for. We have now written 2 letters and have received 1 response thus far from our pen-pals (this is great in and of itself, considering how slow the mail is here!). Because the students in Mrs. Fox’s class are ESL students, they come from all over, and have given my students a new perspective on what it means to be “American”. Most notably, my students were beyond shocked to discover that not 1, but 2 of their pen-pals are also Muslim and had written some of their letters in Arabic.

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First letters, to the mail!

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My proud ladies

Project 3: What’s Up, English?

As co-leader of the English Language Society, I was responsible for helping the club form ideas for innovative projects they were to complete throughout the year. A group of girls and I decided that we wanted a way to encourage students to practice their English outside of the classroom. Enter, stage left: What’s Up, English?


4B ladies looking fly

The “What’s Up, English?” board features recent pictures, updates, motivational words, and student artwork. Most importantly, the wall is home to our English challenge. In this challenge, each form (1-5) can complete an English language puzzle, riddle, word search, writing assignment, and other various games each week. The class from each form that has the most students participating throughout the year will win an ice cream party with me and my ladies. The ice cream party will be happening sometime next month! Truthfully, the English challenge hasn’t been as successful as I would have liked; not many classes have students that participate consistently. However, I do have several students who will ask me on a weekly basis: “Miss! When will the challenge change? We want ice cream!” Hey, if ice cream is what will motivate them to try harder, that’s fine by me 🙂


Selfies are a necessity when completing a project

Project 4: The Green Wall

And finally, my favorite project of them all: The Green Wall. I’m not going to lie, I am extremely proud of this wall and of the students who were involved in its creation from start to finish.


Munirah, Zam, and Aino showing off their hard work!

At my national orientation in Kuala Lumpur in January, a representative from a local NGO called EcoKnights came to speak to the ETA’s about Malaysia’s environmental status. He also told us about an opportunity for us and our students: Anugerah Hijau (The Green Competition). In this competition, groups of 3 or less can submit a proposal in one of the following categories: Green Film, Green Space, or Green Fashion. The basis of each proposal for 2014 had to revolve around the theme “Energy and Malaysia”. This was great since I had been looking for a way to get my Environmental Club students involved in some sort of competition like this to give them experience with proposal writing, research, project development, and team work.


Three of my students, Munirah, Ifitzam, and Aino, expressed interest in submitting an idea for the Green Film category (woo!). Here’s what they wanted to do: they noticed that at our school, recycling is very limited. Everyday, students who go to the canteen for lunch and snacks use styrofoam containers, plastic cups, and plastic water bottles. Because there are no recycling bins in or around the canteen (it’s been unbelievably hard to arrange for a bin to be placed here), every single one of these one-use items is thrown in the trash or on the ground. Obviously, our school is just a microcosm of this enormous environmental issue. However, my students wanted to bring attention to this problem at our school by making a Green Wall. The purpose of the Green Wall is to serve as an educational exhibit that will encourage the creativity of Malaysia’s youth and will promote an environmentally conscious mode of thinking and living. The wall also serves to beautify an unused wall in the school’s courtyard and to inspire my students to create their own up-cycled projects. Most importantly, the Green Wall is a symbol: one of second chances, one of trash into treasure, and one of life emerging from the lifeless.


The process

1. Measure the length and height of the wall. Determine how many bottles can fit in that space (242).

2. Collect over 242 bottles (all of our bottles came from our school.

3. Cut a hole in one side of each bottle.

4. Paint each bottle (we painted them to simulate the darkness of being underground to keep bacteria from growing inside).

5. Poke holes in each bottle to allow a string to hang through both ends, as well as to allow water drainage.


Busy bees

6. Screw hooks in the ceiling of the wall.

7. Tie fishing line to each hook, and begin placing individual bottle on the strings (the bottles are held in place by tying metal washers to each end).

8. Insert potting soil and flowers into each bottle.


The first of the bottles being placed on the wall

The final result? Absolute beauty.


Our finished bottle wall. I couldn’t have wanted anything better

I wish I could live in one of the bottles like Thumbelina. The completed wall is still very new at the school, so I haven’t had the chance to speak with many of my students about it yet. The next step will be to have Munirah, Zam, and Aino do a student outreach program to help explain to their classmates what up-cycling is and why they made the wall.

For the record, my students were shortlisted as number 7 out of 72 submissions for the Green Film competition! The submissions were from Malaysians aged 13-29, including university students. We were the only secondary school from my state of Sarawak to be finalists! We are currently working on editing our movie to be submitted in a few weeks. We will travel to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, on October 17 to exhibit our movie for the other finalists, and to find out the winner of the competition. Wish us luck!


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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!



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 🙂


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.


“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


“When in doubt, take your pants off”

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“Wait, I forget. You’re going to Mozambique? Mumbai? Oh no, it’s Montana!”

Close, friends. So close. I almost forgot where I was headed too after months and months of waiting. But thankfully, I have arrived safely in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where I will be living for the next 10 months. Well, not in Kuala Lumpur. I will actually be living on a completely separate chunk of land, but I’ll explain that in a bit.

For those who may not know, I’ll quickly explain why I moved (quite literally) to the other side of the world. Way back in September 2012, I started my senior year at Gettysburg College. Along came with it were the typical feelings of anxiety as I started to realize that I would soon be shuffled out of my college safety zone, where almost every human being that I needed to help fix my problems were a 3 second walk away (since I practically took up residence in the GIS lab). When I thought about my life after graduation, I couldn’t conjure up a clear picture of what I saw myself doing. Should I go to grad school? Should I get a job? Should I get a “real” job? Should I fail this year so I wouldn’t have to pick one of these options? No, let’s not do that last one. Instead, I took a step back and reflected on what I knew: I love to learn about and explore the environment, I love to travel, and I love (most of the time) to interact with kids. If only I could mash all three of these “loves” into one delicious adventure that would be rewarding for myself as well as have a positive impact on those around me…

Aaaaand MASH. I was quickly introduced to the Fulbright Program’s English Teaching Assistantship grant, and thanks to some wonderful people at my school, I am now in Malaysia fulfilling my grant. The Fulbright Program is an incredible organization packed to the max with people from all different backgrounds and adventure stories. It was started by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 to avoid wars and foster mutual understanding and respect between people of different nations. There are several sectors to the Fulbright program, such as yours truly’s English Teaching Assistantship. Here’s how it works: the U.S. Department of State and the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) provide funds and work with the Institute of International Education to select candidates and organize the program. Although it is already a world-renowned program, the spotlight on the Malaysia ETA sector in particular has become more intense as it rapidly expands. Just two years ago, 50 ETA’s were awarded grants in Malaysia. My cohort has 100 (!!!) people, many of which I have yet to meet.


Now that we’re all up to speed, I can tell you about the fun stuff! For the next 2 weeks, I will be staying in Kuala Lumpur for the group’s orientation. Orientation is basically a never-ending string of speeches from members of the U.S. Embassy, police authorities, religious figures, our program coordinators, and even a local celebrity. It has been a massive amount of information in a very concentrated amount of time. One of the more helpful pieces of advice came from one of the coordinators, David Peterson, on our second day. A question was asked about eating meals with our hands, as this is a prevalent practice in many southeast Asian countries, especially Islamic ones. It is extremely offense to eat with one’s left hand, as this is the hand that is used to, er, “cleanse” oneself after using the bathroom (toilet paper is for nerds, anyhow). In order to do this, there is a hose located in the bathroom stall so you can really sanitize your stuff effectively, or maybe not so much. Anyhow, David was explaining how spraying yourself can get wet and messy, so “when in doubt, take your pants off”… I think I’ll splurge and bring my own TP to school.

Other than needing to undress myself to use the restroom, the prevailing theme I am taking away from it all is that no matter what advice we are given right now, everything depends on your placement within the country. When I say everything, I actually mean everything. Issues like how I will be perceived by my students and the community, if I have to wear skirts down to my feet and sleeves down to my wrist, or if I will be able to drink alcohol will all depend on my placement.

AND I FINALLY KNOW MY PLACEMENT. I’m not yelling, it’s just an incredibly exciting thing for me and probably every other ETA. Our placements were revealed to us only two days ago, approximately 9 months after we had found out we were even going to be ETA’s. That is a long time to have to stew over the aforementioned questions running through my mind. Thankfully, the wait is over. I will be teaching at a secondary school called Semerah Padi near the city of Kuching on the island of Borneo. I am ridiculously excited to live and teach in Borneo. This is the first year in the history of the Malaysia ETA program that people are being placed on the island. I, along with 19 other ETA’s in my cohort, are being given the opportunity to blaze a path for ETA’s in the future and make an enormous impression on the students in Borneo. My feelings of pride and gratefulness grow more everyday as our departure date draws near. I am already plotting ideas for lessons and co-curricular camps I could lead (most likely nature-related, of course).

For now, I don’t have too much else to say about Sarawak or what life will be like for me over the next 9 and a half months. I can say that since I have stepped off the plane into this beautiful country, I knew I made the right choice. I look forward to learning as much as I can about this diverse culture, and how this diversity translates into everyday life. My students don’t know it yet, but they’re going to have a rocking ETA.

Also the food is pandai – “brilliant” or “excellent” in Bahasa Melayu

A curious George spotted at the Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur

A curious George spotted at the Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur

The view from the penthouse balcony of my temporary residence, The Royale Chulan

The view from the penthouse balcony of my temporary residence, The Royale Chulan

My first taste of chipati since returning from Zanzibar! Loving Little India's cuisine

My first taste of chapati since returning from Zanzibar! Loving Little India’s cuisine