A Travellerspoint blog

#OnlyBera

"You're going to Bera?. . .Oh"

  • *Disclaimer, this blog was written about a week ago. Finally got strong enough internet to post it today **

Selamat petang from the exciting (or current the really empty beach town – thanks monsoon season) city of Kuala Terangganu! While my last blog indicated that I probably wouldn’t get the chance to post again until I reached Bera, but we have a quick break between sessions so I figured I would try to get something off while I’m stealing WiFi from the overpriced frozen yogurt shop next door.

So for those of you that haven’t heard, I’ve finally gotten my placement for my year in Malaysia. Yay!! I will be teaching at SMK Mengarak in the district of Bera (pronounced bura, not bera. Bera means human feces so yeah, don’t want to pronounce that one wrong) in the state of Pahang. It’s a really awesome feeling to finally know where I am going to be after 9+ months of waiting. I cannot wait to get there and see what is in store.
However, I have to admit that up until about an hour and a half ago, I was pretty darn nervous for a year in Bera. It basically began with the day I found out that I will be going to Bera. Fresh with excitement about knowing where we would be placed, Amee (my roommate during the first 2 weeks of orientation) and I began to ask pretty much any Malaysian (from street food vendors to MACEE staff) we encountered about our prospective homes. Whenever Amee asked about Kedah and her city Alor Setar people would smile and nod their heads saying to would be a great place. However, when I said I was going to Bera the response was always the same. People would look at me and say, “You’re going to Bera? Oh . . . Oh” and then they would begin to laugh and shake their heads. Like legit, that was every single person’s response. Not the most comforting of feelings. At one point the other ETAs and I discussed making a movie called “Bera . . . Oh” because of how everyone responded to my statement that I was going to Bera. So I left KL and began state orientation in Terrangganu with a bit of reservation (our state orientation was combined with Terrangganu’s, not really sure why).

Two days ago the district head (JPN) of Bera joined us for orientation and I was finally able to get some answers about this mysterious place that Malaysians all laugh about and that I will be calling home for the next 10 months. Here’s a quick bullet list of what I know from her and my school mentor. Also, bear in mind that none of this I have actually confirmed by being there, so it could all turn out to be horribly incorrect upon arrival:

About my living situation:
• When telling me about my placement, the JPN began by telling me with a slight laugh “Bera, well it’s developing . . .” (great start)
• The whole district of Bera (think equivalent of US counties) has less than 7,500 people
• When we need to get gas for our car we need to go three towns over
• Until 2012, my town had no grocery store. It now has one, but I’m advised to drive the next district when I actually want to buy more than the basics
• I am also advised to drive to the next district when I need clothes for school (got to rock the baju look)
• We have one restaurant that is not fast food (possibly two, I heard mixed reports)
• We do have a McDonalds (clutch for those rare moments when I’ll be craving French fries) and a KFC (a staple in Asian fastfood)
• My house is down the street from my JPN’s office and the house is rented from her brother-in-law (this essentially means that I will always in some way be in the public eye/what I do will always be known to the district office)
• My landlord is Malay so no alcohol or pork products can enter the house or the area will no longer be halal (kind of like the Muslim variant of kosher and something that is taken very seriously here)

About my school:
• My school is a band 5 (Malaysia ranks schools on a level of 1-7 with 7 being the worst, although currently there are no schools ranked 7 in Malaysia and 6 is the worst)
• Many of the students and even staff are completely unable to communicate with me in English my mentor warned me (in their case, it’s not a speaking confidence issue, it’s simply they just do not know enough to put together a sentence)
• It has been devastated by the recent floods
• It is situated quite close to the water and when the river rose, the entire first floor of the school was submerged up to the ceilings
• All of the school’s computers and technological resources have been destroyed
• The majority of the school’s furniture (such as student’s desks) have been destroyed
• The living quarters for students (about a third of the student body (there are 900 students total) live on campus in dormitories) are severely damaged
• The school had to push back the start of the school year about 2 weeks until the water had receded enough for people to enter the school
• The school is still without electricity at the moment as they are afraid to turn the current back on in case there is still water in the system and everything will fry

I know there are a lot more things that I’ve learned about the school, but for the moment those are the things that stick out in my mind, plus I’m running low on time so I’ll leave it at those. So yeah, that probably didn’t paint the most rosy picture of the place that I’m about to live and work for the next 11 months, but I figured I’d just kind of put it all out there for people to know. Mom and Grandmas, don’t panic.

Despite how bleak it might be looking though, I’m actually incredibly optimistic and excited to start my time in Bera and SMK Mengarak! I got to meet my mentor (each Fulbrighter is assigned a mentor teaching to basically be our guides to the school and pseudo parent during our time in Malaysia) today and she is incredible. Like seriously, I could not be luckier. Her name is Fira and she is 28 years old. She was assigned to Bera (here teaching assignments are kind of like FSO assignments, you don’t get a whole lot of say in where you end up) in 2012 and totally understands what it’s like to be an outsider trying to navigate the community. She also seems really liberal (she grew up outside of KL) and has a ton of ideas for how we can make the most of the year together. She is also incredibly welcoming and is already planning trips for me to meet her family, visits to places around Malaysia, and Malaysian foods she is going to teach me to cook. I’m so pumped. With a guide like her, I have no doubt that I have an amazing year ahead.

The current situation of the school also somewhat excites me. Not that in any way I want to make it sound like I’m glad that they were devastated, but just that it doesn’t scare me that much. I’m viewing it as an opportunity. The school is going to need so much assistance and I am lucky that I get the chance to help in whatever ways I can. I’ve already talked with my mentor and I’m going to make one of my co-curriculars focused on replanting the school gardens (Mom, I’m probs going to be in need of a lot of advice) and I’m going to work with another group of students to design new murals to paint around the school to replace those that were destroyed. I’m also talking with the MACEE staff and seeing what hoops I have to jump through to possibly lead a crowdfunding campaign for the school to try to raise funds to replace at least a few of the computers that were destroyed or talking with potential organizations that would be willing to donate some of their old computers. If anyone has any ideas on how to go about this or some ideas of people to contact, I’d love to hear them.

Together, SMK Mengarah and I have an intense year ahead. They’re rebuilding from the greatest disaster they’ve ever had and I’m beginning one of the most frightening/exciting adventures of my life. I think that it’s going to be filled with a lot of challenges and a lot of moments where I feel like I’m in over my head. But I’m incredibly excited to be at a school/community that has so much need and at such a critical time. I think the universe has some reason that I was the only ETA in Pahang placed at a school impacted by the floods and I’m excited to take on all the opportunities that come with that.

Side Story:
This story isn’t worth getting its own post but I thought I would share quick. Earlier this week some of you may have seen a photo I posted on Instagram of a meal I had had at a local hole in the wall restaurant. The backstory on the photo is that while hanging out at the beach our first afternoon here we had met a group of local surfers. We asked them for a recommendation on where to go for good food and they recommended their favorite place. Four of us took them up on their offer and met them for dinner and hung out for a while chatting and getting to know them. One in particular, Iddin, had very good English and we all hit it off with. He’s a documentary filmmaker so has done a lot of traveling and gave us some great tips for travel locations and contacts for people in various places.

Fast forward to today. Brendan, Trisha, and I run into Iddin while out buying gifts for our principals. We’re a bit confused because he had said at dinner that he was going to KL for the rest of the month to begin work on his next film project (a series of bio pieces on the last remaining artists of tradition Terangganu traditional arts). He said he had had to make an unplanned trip back because his great grandmother had died the night before and he was returning to town for the funeral tomorrow. Coincidentally, the Sultan of Terangganu’s mother had passed away the night before and her funeral was tomorrow as well. Almost jokingly we asked if there was some kind of connection. . . . Turns out there was. Iddin is actually the grandson of the Sultan and was back to be with the royal family during the mourning period. Crazy! I had met a random surfer on the beach and had dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant with him and his friends and he turned out to be a member of the royal family and we didn’t even know it.

He was super chill about it though (despite our baffled and stunned looks) and said he had a few free hours before the next call to prayer and offered to take Trisha, Brendan and I around to see some of his favorite places in KT. It was so cool to just walk around and hear about the history of the place and the various neighborhoods from someone so richly connected to the city. It was a great way to pass the afternoon and kind of cool to say that I got to take a private tour with the Sultan’s grandson haha. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be running into too many royals while in Bera this year.

Posted by remullin 06:35 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Harry Potter Comes to Malaysia

"Do you believe in magic?"

Hello world! I am currently sitting in the Kuala Lumpur airport waiting to catch my flight to Kuala Terengganu to begin a week long state orientation run by the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE). I’ve got about 30 minutes until my plane boards and an equal amount of battery power left in my laptop so this will probs be a pretty brief blog, but since it had been over a week I figured I should try to get something in.

Last Saturday we finally got to get out of the MACEE and Menara Worldwide conference room and their frigid air condition and actually interact with Malaysian students. It was very much needed. We had all reached the point where we were banging our heads against the wall as we sat in meeting after meeting with various presenters. The occasion for the break from the monotony of orientation was to run our very own English camps.

Back story, English camps are a major component of our ETA grants and our time in Malaysia. Each ETA is required to plan, organize and run two camps during the course of our grant periods and expected to help with other ETA’s camps about 2 weekends a month. The camps can be anywhere from a one day event to a three day overnight affair. Camp themes can also range pretty much anywhere (expect political or religious), some of last year’s focused on everything from Pokémon and 1990’s boybands to wildlife preservation and entrepreneurial camps. Attendance at the camps ranges from a minimum of about 50 students to over 120 if you’re feeling ambitious and/or your school makes you. The point of the camps is just to present English in a fun way to students and get them to engage on a level that could never be achieved in a classroom setting.

For our trial English camps in KL we were split up into groups of 9, given a budget of RM300 (about $100 USD) and told we had a camp for 100+ students in three days. So yeah, nothing like just being thrown into it to sink or swim. Our group spent about 25 minutes throwing our various ideas of what we should do such as physics camp, rock star camp, film camp, around the world camp and eventually settled on a Harry Potter camp. Because who doesn’t love the boy who lives? It was also helpful that a bunch of us were planning on doing HP camps for our schools so we figured we could do this as a kind of trial run.

At first we were super ambitious for what we wanted to do and came up with a whole plethora of HP inspired activities. Our most ambitious undertaking was that we were going to try to play Quidditch with all of them. However, after realizing that while our camp was scheduled from 8:30 to 2:30 we also had to account for an hour breakfast, an hour lunch, and a tea break we only had about 3 and a half hours of actual activity time so we might need to scale things back. We also had the fun realization that RM300 really doesn’t go that far so without some serious magic we weren’t going to pull off all of our great ideas.

Instead we decided to focus on just a few ideas. We decided we would sort the kids (not really kids, they were 13-17 year olds) into six houses, everyone would design their house name, mascot, and chant. We held a stone, cloak, wand tournament (a rock, paper scissors tournament), played a massive game of capture with snitch with snitches that ran around the field (think capture the flag with people dressed in yellow that could move as the flag),and taught everyone the song "Do You Believe in Magic. We also did a wand making session in which students wrote about themselves (hopes, dreams, passions, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, fears, etc.) and we then rolled up the essays and decorated them with tape and other fun things to make wands that had a “core” unique to each wand owner. We also planned on having ETAs assigned with the job of giving out house points throughout the day and were going to conclude with the house cup ceremony to seal off the day. Overall, in our heads it seemed like a pretty solid, magic filled day that incorporated lots of English with plenty of fun as well.

The day of our camp dawned bright and early but sadly we did not get off to a very great start. After all piling into our van and cruising down the busy highways of KL (seriously traffic here is insane, I’m so not pumped for driving) we began to smell a fairly awful acidy burning smell. Since Malaysia seems to be really into burning stuff (trash, trees, jungle, old cars, old houses, etc.) we didn’t think too much of it. However, the smell persisted and as we pulled onto an exit ramp, we realized the burning smell was actually our van and it was on fire. Luckily for us we had two vans for the day (way to be prepared MACEE) so after a quick evacuation of our burning car and squishing everyone into the other van we were back on our way. Not quite done with our transportation adventures though we quickly found out that our van driver had to actual idea where we going. So we got a nice tour of three other KL high schools before eventually arriving at the right one only about 30 minutes after our camp was supposed to have started. Oops.

Despite the rough start to the morning, the camp went wonderfully. We were placed at a predominantly Chinese school and the students were phenomenal. There English was amazing and they were super receptive to all things Harry Potter despite many of them having no idea who Harry Potter was or what Hogwarts was. Nevertheless they put 110 percent effort into everything. We all agreed that we were blown away by them. Ask a group of US high school students to give up their Saturday to spend the day with some weird new teachers playing made up games and you’re probably going to get a pretty lousy response. Instead the school actually had to cut kids from the camp because over 150 students asked to take part.

By the end of the day I was exhausted (probably partly due to being a snitch and running around in the sun for about an hour and a half) but our whole group agreed that we could not be more happy. We had finally gotten to begin to engage with students and get a better since of what the next 11 months had in store for us. It was also nice to see how English camps weren’t nearly as scary as we all anticipated. While we have all been warned that in our schools the students’ English is going to be about 1000 times worse than the English of the students we had in KL I still have no doubt that running and participating in English camps is going to be some of the highlights of being here.

Okay, plane boarding so I’m off. Not the best blog post to date, but it gives you a sense of what I’ve been up to and reassures everyone that I’m alive. Next time you here from me I will hopefully be writing from my new home in the middle of the Pahang jungle (fingers crossed I have internet). Until then, much love!

Posted by remullin 06:26 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Tourism 101 - I Might be Flunking

"What'd you do with your free day?"

So I realized I’m a really crappy tourist. I had kind of been becoming aware of this fact over my last few trips (both abroad and domestic), but it became painfully clear this past Sunday.

After six straight days of orientation and Malaysia culture 101 we finally got a much needed day off. As a result, everyone decided to spend the day exploring various famous aspects of Kuala Lumpur (everyone just calls it KL). There were a variety of options for people, but two major outings that we were encouraged to take part in. One could go to the world famous Batu Caves, one of the largest Hindu holy sites outside of India. Another option was to take in the cultural history of the region at the National Islamic Art Center which is apparently renowned for its vast and varied collection of pieces. Clearly both were very cool things and they kind of fit the traditional tourist thing to do. They are the stuff the guidebooks tell one to check out and the things that one can nicely compact and explain to others when talking about one’s trip and what one did. But obviously, since it would have made since to go on one of the prearranged scheduled “tourist” outings, I did not take those options. I’m also realizing that I am really anti large group travel. It’s just not my thing. I hate dealing with that many people and the scene that it inevitably causes.

Sunday morning where could I be found at the designated departure times? Sitting around the breakfast area with three others having just woken up and definitely not feeling like getting my life together in time to join the masses. Instead, I spent close to two hours sitting around the breakfast table sampling a plethora of Malaysian breakfast dishes and getting to know a handful of the ETAs (Rebecca, Kiko and Amee (my roommate)) better. The rest of the day took on a pretty similar lackadaisical, go with the flow approach.

After our prolonged breakfast, we decided that we should probably leave the hotel and at least try to be “tourists.” So we grabbed a city map from the concierge (fun fact, our hotel is way too fancy for a bunch of post-grad US kids about to be moving to the jungle), jumped on the free public bus, and took it until the line ended. The rest of the day we just kind of wandered around the city and stopped as we came across things of interest. We first found ourselves on Petaling Street, a famousish area of Chinatown known for all its knockoffs. We bought various foods on a stick (personal favorite was mango) and practiced our bargaining skills for a bit. Since none of us actually wanted anything (my suitcase cannot hold another ounce of weight), we were quite good.

We then got somewhat lost and ended up in an old residential neighborhood. We had been warned to avoid the area during orientation, but since it was during the day and there were 4 of us, we weren’t super concerned. We inadvertently ended up at the local Hindu shrine just in time for midday prayers. It was awesome to see and a kind man took it upon himself to take us in and explain to us the history of the site and its many ornate carvings.

After that we continued our wanderings and ended up at the Central Market area. I had forgotten/consciously decided not to bring gifts for my placement with me when I was packing. I figured that I could have my parents send me what I needed and just bring it with them when they come this summer (thanks Mom and Dad). However, we quickly found out that in Malaysia gift giving is a continuous thing, not just something done at the end to say thank you for a great year. As such, I needed gifts and I needed them quickly. Fortunately for me, Amee and Rebecca were in the same boat. We had also learned during orientation that Malaysian’s love magnets and keychains. As luck would have it, we found a keychain artist who quickly whipped up wonderful, handmade, personalized keychains for each of us. The wonderful administration of SMK Mengkarak will be getting adorable wood keychains painted with “South Dakota Greetings” on the first day of classes. In addition to being super talented, the keychain artist also had excellent English we past about an hour chatting with him about his life, his education in Malaysia, his family, and his hopes for life beyond being a keychain artist serving tourists looking for a unique(ish) souvenir.

From there we headed to lunch at a local laksa stall our friendly keychain artist had recommended as where he usually gets lunch. It was super good and also SUPER spicy (which as many of you know, I rarely find a food that I consider truly spicy), I loved it. Side note, laksa is a traditional Malaysian dish that is made from a fish based broth and then tons of noodles, veggies, lemongrass, peppers, and various other herbs are added to. I hadn’t encountered it anywhere else in Asia, but it is quickly becoming one of my favorite foods. I’m in good company apparently because Anthony Bourdain (travel channel food guy) says that Malaysian laksa is among the top 10 best foods he has even eaten. So yeah, it’s pretty good. Come visit and I’ll take you for some.

After lunch we once again got lost as we tried to find the National Mosque. After a bit of a trek, a jaunt along the highway and eventually finding a rather dicey looking underground tunnel, we found our way to the mosque. Thankfully, we had all dressed in long dresses and brought long sleeve shirts with us to pull over so the mosque gave us each a tudong (Malay term for the hajab) and we were free to look around the grounds. It was quite pretty and ornate, but after the mosques of Istanbul, it didn’t quite compare.

Ever the wanderers, despite high heat and sweltering clothing choices, we decided to try to find the orchid garden and butterfly gardens after our visit to the mosque and then call it a day. I had to be back at the hotel by 5:00ish for a field trip with my BM class. According to our trusty map it was not supposed to be very far. Turns out, it was about a mile and a half uphill from where we were. Nevertheless, after quite the exertion we made it to the top of the hill (much to the entertainment of a group of Aussies who we had passed halfway up who had given up and were waiting for a taxi to take them the rest of the way). Orchids are by far my favorite flower so we past some time exploring the gardens, chatting with the Aussies and taking in some great views of the city.

We caught a taxi back to the hotel (thankfully we did not have to hike any more hills to find one) and I quickly met up with my BM instructors and 9 of us headed off with them. My BM teachers (Cikgu EE and Nivashia) our pretty much the best teachers ever. They wanted to show us their “KL” so they drove us about 45 minutes away from city center (where we’re staying) to a local night market near their homes. In Malaysia, night markets are kind of like little county fairs, but they happen pretty much all the time or at least once a week. Neighborhoods host night markets on alternating nights and they become a kind of farmers market, flea market, clothing shop, and food stall centers all rolled into one. I think they’re great and I can’t wait to see what kind of night markets Bera will have (where I’m living). The one we went to was super local. It was almost all families out doing their shopping and just enjoying time together. It was also in a very Chinese part of KL so I loved getting to try all kind of Chinese street food that I hadn’t had since my Beibei days years ago.

After about 2 hours at the market, most of the group had to head back. However, a small group of us went with Cikgu (BM for teacher) Nivashia and her younger sister to their favorite food stand/restaurant area. It is an area that their family goes to a lot and they were eager to show us. The food was AMAZING!! I was a little bit squeamish at first because I counted 3 rats running around the stalls as I was waiting to order, but I ordered beef clay pot and it was easily the best meal I had had yet in KL. It was also just fun to chat with Cikgu Nivashia and her sister about their lives in Malaysia, their futures. Hours quickly flew by and it wasn’t until after 10:00 that we were back to the hustle and bustle of city center.

Overall, it was a phenomenal day, yet I still don’t feel like I was a good “tourist.” I didn’t follow the guidebook or look to TripAdvisor for recommendations of where to go or what to eat. I didn’t go the caves, or the temples, or the museums that show up on all the postcards tourists send home. I don’t have the go to KL stories that I’m sure people back home will quickly refer to if I tell them I went to Malaysia. I don’t have photos to add to a Facebook album of historic sites, nor could I write a list of musts see places for those that ask me about coming to KL. I couldn’t even explain to people what I actually saw or did with my day to be honest.

But what I can say is that I watched an adorable old woman roll out sheet after sheet after sheet of a Malay candy in a back alley that almost no tourist will ever find. I can describe to you the wood carvings of the neighborhood Hindu temple that no guidebook will ever mention. I can tell you the life story of the keychain artist who used to be a professional cricket player and wants so much to become a coach and give up keychain life. I can draw the layout of the Chinese night market that no concierge will ever suggest to the guests of his 5 star hotel. I can talk about the night food vendors and what memories Cikgu Nivashia and her family have made and commemorated with that food. For me, those are the things that I love about travel. I love the undiscovered places, the tucked away gems, the local favorites, and the places that almost seem to take pride in not being for tourists.

With time I’m sure I’ll make it to the Batu Caves or maybe check out the exhibits of the National Islamic Art Center. They’ll probably be cool and I’ll understand why all the guidebooks talk about them and why they monopolize the postcard industry. But for now, I really enjoy the life I’m leading of being a crappy tourist. At the end of the day, it definitely seems to have its fair share of winning moments.

Posted by remullin 01:13 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

So It Begins

"It just depends"

Selamat petang!! Good evening from Malaysia! I am writing this blog post from the heart of Kuala Lumpur looking out my windows at the iconic Petronas Towers. It’s pretty darn sweet. Sadly the only reason that I have a few spare moments to write this blog post is because I’m feeling pretty under the weather at the moment and skipped out on dinner and exploring in favor of some much needed sleep. As a result, this blog post will be pretty brief I expect as I just took some nighttime cough syrup and am expecting to pass out at pretty much any moment. Side note though before anyone (mainly you Mom) gets too concerned, I’m not sick with anything serious. No dengue fever or anything yet (knock on wood, probably a really bad joke to make). Just a bad cold and a fever. I think it’s my body’s way of taking revenge on me for 42+ hours of travel and 5 plane changes to get here (I had an unplanned stop and plane change in Tokyo, it was a real added joy to my already ridiculous trip itinerary).

Despite the insane quest to get here, I am finally in Malaysia and am thrilled! And also a bit terrified if I’m being completely honest with myself and all of you. We started orientation on Monday and it has been an epic blur ever since. Partly because that’s just how orientations usually are and also partly because our orientation was supposed to be 3 weeks but when we got here we found out it was cut to 2. So we’re pretty much trying to cram everything into a very short period of time. Good thing all Fulbrighters are probably a bit of overachievers.

Thus far orientation has covered a range of issues. We’ve spent a lot of time with the director of the Malaysian American Commission for Education Exchange (MACEE) learning about the history of the program, how it came to be, and how it has grown so much over the year. Turns out this is actually a situation where #thanksObama is appropriate. During a meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister, Obama discussed his mother’s experiences teaching in Indonesia and the PM became really focused on increasing Malaysia’s investment in bringing in Fulbright ETAs to help serve the rural areas. Kind of cool fact, Malaysia actually funds over half of the ETA program. So long story short, they seem to be really invested in having us here, or at least that’s what we’re told.

We’ve also spent a lot of time talking with the 10 returning Senior English Teaching Assistants (SETAs) about what to expect, their advice to us, successes and failures, cultural appropriateness, etc. Talking with them has been super helpful and also caused crazy amounts of anxiety amongst all of us ETAs. The programs the SETAs instituted in their schools, the camps they ran, the organizations they got to invest in their communities is unreal. We all feel like we have some mammoth shoes to fill with our year here.

Meetings with various US embassy officials have also taken up a large chunk of our time. We’ve met with various consular officers, security offices, political officers, cultural officers, economic officers, etc. The meetings have been a good way for us to get a better grip on Malaysia and kind of what makes it tick. We’ve dedicated a substantial amount of time to making sure we are as prepared as possible to navigate the many ethnic issues that will no doubt arise during our time here.

In addition, we started our Bahasa Malaysia classes today (aka our language classes). I’m pumped. It seems like a really cool language and the fact that it doesn’t have tones pretty much makes me want to jump up and down. A major goal of my time here is language acquisition so I hope to really take advantage of these classes (downside of shortening orientation is that our language training got halved in the amount of time we get to spend with our teachers) and find some way to continue my education in it at whatever placement I receive. Side note, we found out yesterday what state we will be in, but not what school yet. As of right now, all I know is that I will be in the state of Pahang. It sounds amazing!! We get the best of both worlds with amazing jungles and also stunning beaches. In addition, it apparently has a great soccer team so I definitely want to try to fall them and hopefully make friends with some other fans in my community (yay intercultural understanding through sports).

So thus far orientation is going pretty well. I think the biggest annoyance we’re all feeling collectively right now is that we keep being told “it just depends”, “it varies too much to know”, “everything is so different”. Those seem to be the most typical responses we get to any questions we ask. Whether we’re asking about what to expect in a typical school day, what resources we’ll have available, what dangerous situations we need to be aware of, etc. We all get that those are fair responses, but still, when you keep a tally of the number of times “it depends” is said in an hour long Q&A and your tally is over 20, it’s a bit annoying. Thankfully, I’m just approaching this year with as much flexibility as possible and am hoping I’ll find a way to thrive in whatever situation I end up in.

For me personally, the biggest frustration I’m experiencing is how much we will be censored over the course of this year and what we are and are not going to be allowed to say. We’re told that while we’re allowed to blog about our experiences and encourage too (everyone loves free publicity), they will be monitored, most likely by both US and Malaysian governmental institutions. Which I totally get. Both governments invest millions of dollars into these programs and don’t want to see one scathing blog post ruining years of cross-cultural understanding. As they said it’s really pretty simple, don’t critique Malaysia, the government, etc. and don’t talk about politics. But for those of you who have read my blogs in the past, you know I enjoy branching into political issues and particularly ethnic issues. It’s what my brain naturally is drawn to and something that I’m constantly trying to be aware of. Let’s be real, I’ve spent the last 3+ years focusing on the topic in numerous capacities. Malaysia has a very interesting/unique situation with minority rights in the country and I know it’s going to be something that I focus on in how I teach, the camps I lead, and some of my ideas for the community. The fact that I won’t be able to express some of the frustrations, successes, insights, revelations, etc. that result from that really annoys me. Just from meetings with the embassy staff I’m already thinking about the uncanny similarities between the Malaysia of today and Bosnia of 1989-1992. Seriously, it’s creepy. I would love to do a post about it, but I know I can’t without making comments on the governmental forces at play. So we will see what happens with this blog. If eventually I reach a point where I feel like I can’t honestly express and sift through the experiences and insights I’m gaining here, I might have to find something new, maybe make a new blog that is only available via password and email confirmation or stop blogging entirely. That seems really sad though so fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that. It’s also probably excellent preparation for a future career as a diplomat so maybe I should just start getting used to it now.

As I’ve been typing this my face has been sagging closer and closer to my keyboard, so I think that’s a sign that the cough syrup is about to win. Blame any typos or poor grammar on that. I’m off to bed. Got to be up early for Bahasa classes tomorrow and then meeting with the Malaysian Ministry of Education. Hopefully post again soon (trying to get my laptop to connect to the internet is a major struggle)! Love you all!

Posted by remullin 02:23 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Starting with the Goodbyes

"I only have above average friends"

It’s probably more kosher to start blog posts after the actual adventure has begun. However, as I’m sitting in my favorite local coffee shop sipping on a chai tea after having just said yet another goodbye to a close college friend it struck me that this adventure is going to be a bit different than the others.

Side note before I go any further. I am required by the US Department of State to clearly state (get it? pun haha) that the views expressed in this blog, the stories I share, and the insights I offer are in no way a reflection of the United States government, the State Department or any other US institution nor do they provide any insight nor have any bearing on US-Malaysian relations. They are purely mine and mine alone. So enjoy everyone, you get unfiltered me for the next 11ish months. If you’re hoping for insights into the State Department relations, I’m not the blog for you. If you want to hear about the weird, challenging, exciting (fingers crossed), and random experiences of a 22 (23 when I get there) year old moving to Malaysia and beginning her postgrad life, you’re in the right place (forewarning it will be filled with ramblings and stream of consciousness babble that makes almost no sense at times). Anyways, back to the actual topic. . .

On past forays abroad, China, India, Bosnia, Thailand, I always had some sense of what I was coming back to. I was always coming back to my life as a student at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint Johns University and the thriving metropolis of St. Joe and Collegeville. By extension, that also meant I was always going to return to the amazing community of Bennies and Johnnies that had come to be my family over the four years there. It also meant I was returning to the wonderful life of a college calendar which meant scheduled breaks home where I knew all of my wonderful high school friends would once again converge on Sioux Falls and we’d complain about how there was nothing to do. Long story short, I always knew that rather than a goodbye, I was simply saying a see you later because I knew when and where we would be together again.

This time that is not the case. Since that fateful May 17th when CSB/SJU handed us all a $200,000 piece of paper and a less than friendly email that check out was in 24 hours (or 32 if you were our room and missed your checkout time by about 8 hours, oops), the previous guarantee of being able to return to a place and a group of people ceased to exist.

In some ways I feel like the time since college has been one constant stream of goodbyes. Graduation night it was saying goodbye to countless classmates and close friends such as Gretch, Adam, Cody, and Dube who were starting their various service program around the globe (shout out to all of you, so proud of what you are doing and accomplishing). Then it was off to Nathan’s cabin and more goodbyes/see you laters as we capped off our college days and together came to the final realization that we were no longer students anymore. In a way it was our goodbye to the idea of being kids. Everyone was off to their “big kid jobs” (legitly how we continue to refer to real life employment) and the “real world” as we left behind the campus that had been our home for so long. From there I was off to DC for the Truman Summer Institute - nine phenomenal weeks living in the best city in the world with 52 of the brightest, most inspiring, most driven people in the nation. Which of course ended with a whole additional set of goodbyes as we all dispersed around the world (literally, we had Trumans heading off to every continent but Antarctica as summer ended).

I’ve realized though that all of those goodbyes though were kind of just the warmup game. In the past two weeks I’ve said some of my hardest “see you laters” (I think this term is happier one than goodbyes). I was fortunate enough to spend a week I Minnesota with my incredible CSB/SJU family and this past week I’ve gotten to spend time with my amazing high school friends who are all home for the holidays. It has led to a lot of mixed emotions.

I am so incredibly excited to start my Fulbright adventure in Malaysia and I know I have a once in a lifetime experience ahead of me. I could not be more excited. But right now I am also thinking of all the things I’m not going to be around for. I’m going to miss the big things, like the weddings (Joe and Katie all my thoughts and love will be going to you on Oct. 17th), the engagements (shout out to Steph and Sean for allowing me to be part of their beautiful engagement before I left), the med school and grad school acceptances, the promotions, the new jobs, the beginnings of new things. I’m also going to miss the small things, the movie nights, the happy hours at Sporty’s, the spontaneous miscellaneous adventures, and the little moments that make me love these people so much. And I can’t help but be a bit sad about it. I think that’s only natural. After all, it’s never easy to say good bye to phenomenal people.

Junior year I got a lot of crap for once saying, “I only have above average friends.” Those that heard it joked (all good naturedly) that I was an elitist with my friend choices and that potential friends had to pass some sort of vetting process. The joke amongst them became that they were pretty darn average and maybe I needed to look for some different people. However, they got it wrong. Every single one of them regularly astounds me in how far above average they truly are. Yet also perplex me in how often they fail to see it. They are the most kind, caring, brilliant, charismatic, generous, loyal, driven, and supportive people in the world. That without a doubt puts them a million points above average.

So this inaugural post is for all of them, or more accurately, all of you - to my many above average friends, wherever in the world you are. Saying see you laters to all of you has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. But thank you for giving me the strength to go, for making me brave, and for reminding me I always have a “home” to come back to. While I don’t know when and where we’ll see each other again, I have no doubt that our friendships will continue and I can’t wait to see how our paths cross again. Until then, know that I’m cheering for you as you take on the craziness of life, that I’m sending all my love, and that you are all well above average.

Posted by remullin 19:45 Comments (0)

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