"How's it going?"
Sitting on my desk (desk is a loose term, more like a very small slab of wood supported by two very wobbly legs that are slowly decaying or being eaten by some new type of bug – literally I sweep up chunks of them on a fairly regularly basis) in my room is an ever growing pile of postcards. I’ve slowly been collecting them since I arrived in KL. Each place I go I buy two or three and in my head I say I’ll send them to various people at home and fill them with stories of what I’ve been up to, what I’m thinking about, and a message that I miss them and hope all is well. I’ve even actually managed to fill out a few, almost exclusively to family members. Now I just need to find the Bera post office so I can actually send them (yes, I know I’ve lived here for 6+ weeks, but sometimes finding places is hard).
The vast majority of the postcards though continue to sit on my desk. Or in this morning’s case, lay scattered around my floor from when I freaked out trying to kill the cockroach that was scurrying across the desktop (it was a rough start to my Monday). I simply have no idea what to say in them or where to begin any kind of message to my friends back home. This seems to be fairly typical of many of my close Fulbright friends.
Talking with other Fulbrighters over the past week I think the honeymoon stage is wearing off for a lot of people. The reality that what we have been experiencing for the last 6ish weeks at our schools - all the joys but also all of the frustrations, cultural misunderstandings, and struggles – is now our real lives for the next 9 months is hitting people. The novelty of things has worn off and some of the frustrations people were able to gloss over in the beginning are now becoming too grating to continually ignore.
Personally, I still feel pretty good. Obviously I have my share of frustrations (gender expectations, streaming of classes, lack of resources for my students, no water for extended periods, etc.) and things that I’d rather not have to deal with for the next 9 months (looking at you bugs). However, at the end of each day when I go through my mental review, I’m still able to find more positives than negatives. I don’t know if it means that I’m still in the honeymoon stage or if I’m just adjusting and refusing to let myself be negative about things (other than on the journey to get soccer match tickets).
Regardless of if they’re still in the honeymoon stage or not, the common theme among my Fulbright friends is the struggle to find a balance between living in the moment and also keeping some connection to home. Most of us have found ourselves so engrossed and somewhat overwhelmed in the new lives we are building here that trying to keep connected with what’s going on at home or trying to answer the well-meaning but infuriating question of “How’s it going?” has been virtually impossible. For me, that’s certainly been the biggest struggle, hence the ever growing pile of blank postcards.
My contact with home is mixed at best. Without internet (other than what I prepay each month on my phone and the very limited internet usage we get from YTL on our Chromebooks), things like Skype or Google Hangout are non-options. Calling home through an apps such as Viber or something is also not doable without WiFi. However, with my phone I still have access to things like Viber texts, Facebook messenger, email (although responding is a major pain). So in theory, I should have enough mediums of contact that keeping in touch with home shouldn’t be that hard.
And in some cases that’s the case. For instance, my dad sends me an email every morning about what is happening at home, what he is working on, and what questions he has based on my last blog post. I love the emails, they always bring a smile to my face and they’re something I look forward to.
Adam (completing his BVC volunteer placement in Guatemala) and I Facebook message back and forth probably three or four times a week despite the insane time difference (I think we’re at 14 hours). It has been a godsend to have him as a sounding board and a familiar voice from home (kind of – Guatemala technically I guess) that understands some of the crazy aspects that come with moving to a new place, learning a new language, teaching, navigating challenging cultural situations, and understanding the feelings that come with being distant from the college friend group.
A small handful of others I message with sporadically over Viber and Facebook messages. Nathan and Kenz in particular have dealt with the brunt of my message about day to day life, whether it be the great moments (like my Form 5 Science boys performing Just the Way You Are to me, complete with flowers) or the really crappy ones (like waking up with a cockroach crawling up my leg or finding out we have no water for a week). But even then, most of them are very surface level comments about how things are going. Overall, I haven’t communicated much with my friends from home. I can probably count on two hands those that I’ve had any form of communication with.
This isn’t really unexpected. Since graduation in general, communication has gotten harder. We no longer have nightly group dinners at Gorecki or “study” (really social) sessions in Clemens to keep each other up to date on absolutely every minute of our lives. Staying close with each other has required much more of an effort on all our parts since graduation.
Rather than walking into the kitchen to tell each other about our currently life freakouts, it now requires a phone call or a visit (well at least when we were only a state apart rather than 13,000 miles). Rather than reminding someone you care by showing up with a coffee after they pulled an all nighter on thesis edits, it now comes in the form of a letter or the perfectly timed thinking of you today text. The support system and love is still there, just in new forms.
There’s also less to update each other on. We no longer have the latest gossip from the previous night’s shenanigans at the Middy or Sal’s to talk about. And let’s be honest, there’s really only so much you can do to make a text about going to work everyday from 8-5 or overnight shifts at the hospital that exciting. We’re also all branching out and making new friends and are social circles are no longer all the same. Naturally, as we’ve become less wrapped up in each other’s everyday lives, communication has changed.
Since I’ve been here, things have changed even more. I don’t really know what else to ask them about other than the super vague question of how things are going back home and I can’t imagine how challenging it is for them to ask me about my time here. We simply have a gap between us that neither side seems to really know how to bridge.
This doesn’t really frighten me that I’m losing friendships with these people. Maybe you’re thinking that’s naïve of me, but you don’t know my friends. The misfits are kind of bound for life (many of whom have matching tattoos to prove it – don’t panic parents, I don’t). I’m a firm believer that some friendships aren’t impacted by time apart. For example, I can go months and in some cases even years without talking or seeing my elementary or high school friends, and as soon as we are together again it is as if no time has passed. While not all can survive distance, the ones that matter most can. So instead of being scared we’ll grow distant, I view it instead that we’ll have more to fill each other in on next time our paths cross.
The other night I was flipping through the book that my college friends made me before I left. It’s a collection of photos of us throughout our years at CSB/SJU and on each page one or two of them left a message for me to read during my time away. It’s probably been one of the best gifts I’ve ever received and every time I open it I cannot not be smiling by the time I close it. The latest message that stuck out was Alex’s. (Side note, Alex should get an award for the best messages and the best timing. Seriously, he’s clutch. For instance, the last message I got before entering my Truman interview was from Alex. It was super sort, just “We all know you’ve got this Rachel, now you just need to show them.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at just the right moment, much like now). His message in the book is equally perfect:
“Rachel, we’re so proud of what you have done and all that you will do. Go experience the world and bring back stories to share. Be safe and we’ll see you soon.” – Alex
And I guess that’s exactly what I am doing.
I wish I could send them all postcards describing some of the things I’m getting to experience. I’d tell them about the way the afternoon light reflects through the rows of the palm oil trees, about my nightly runs around the park where I have to always look out for the goats, cows and occasional water buffalo that I share the track with, the way my school looks in the golden hour light just after sunrise when I start my classes every morning, or the neighborhood bunny that just casually hops around and hangs out with the cats without ever getting eaten.
Or I’d tell them about my feelings of pride as my students grow in confidence in their English to the point where they’re beginning to learn how to be sassy and it is literally the best thing ever. I’d write them about the moments that make this the best job in the world, the lessons that go well, the light bulb moments when students get it, and the moments when my students let me into their world and we actually become friends.
It’s all these little moments that I want to describe that no postcard could ever encompass or adequately describe. Instead all of these moments will have to wait to be shared. They’re the stories I’ll bring back with me. I’m already looking forward to having a drink (or a few) and sharing all the stories I’ve brought back and hearing all the stories of what they’ve been up to since I left.
So for the meantime, it seems as if I’ll have an ever growing pile of postcards taking over my room. At some point this year I’m sure I’ll eventually send a few (even if it’s just to make room for more), but the real stories of Malaysia and the real sentiments of what I want to share with those at home will have to wait until some unknown future date.