A Travellerspoint blog

Old Friends in New Places

"Miss, are these your boyfriends?"

What do you think of when you recall places? For example, childhood, high school, or college, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a place, possibly your childhood home or maybe of a particular classroom in high school where you spent far more time than you would have liked (what up AP Physics room). For me, I remember the people. That AP Physics room? Can’t possibly think of it without thinking of Schnell, my wonderful physics teacher. Places and the people I knew while there are inextricably linked. Places are people in my mind.

Conversely, people are often tied to places in my mind as well. For instance, it always kind of felt like worlds were colliding when high school and college friends would meet. In my place = people view of the world, events like this made it feel like all of sudden I was in two places at once or one place had somehow morphed into two. As I’m typing I’m realizing I probably sound slightly insane or just super dramatic. Not my intent at all, just trying to explain that I am very much a person who believes things like home is all about the people who inhabit that concept, rather than the actual physical place.

Anyways . . .

Throughout the month of April I was lucky enough to get to see four familiar faces (I just accidently types places and maybe that’s a fitting way to describe them as well) from home and it was pretty much wonderful.

I had a one week school holiday in early-March and took advantage of the break to visit Landon in Tokyo. Landon was finishing up (I was there his second to last week) eight months working for Bunkyo University (one of CSB/SJU’s closest partner schools) in their International Student Programming Office. If he hadn’t been there I probably would have skipped Tokyo (it’s crazy expensive, especially when your Fulbright stipend value keeps shrinking as the ringgit does worse and worse against the dollar) and also way colder than what I have become accustomed to (anything below 60 and I now immediately start shivering), but it was one of those trips you take for the person waiting when you get off the plane rather than the place itself.

I had also flown through Narita International Airport (an airport I have an illogical hatred for and have been quite vocal about on many occasions) five times by that point but still never actually gotten a stamp for Japan so this was a great excuse for that as well. Although if you’re reading this Landon, don’t worry, you were a much bigger draw than just the passport stamp (which ironically sucks, much like their airport) :)

It was a really wonderful trip. Landon was a great host and did an amazing job of showing me around the city and giving me a sense of what his experience there had been like. Just three hours after arriving I was accompanying him to the wedding of one of his friends he had made there (who happened to be from Wisconsin and had a sister that lived in Richmond, MN right on Highway 23 – great rural Minnesota connection and conversation topic). I was then off to Bunkyo graduation and was lucky enough to get to see many of the girls in their traditional kimonos and meet more of the people who had become part of Landon’s place in Tokyo.

It was also nice that Landon had to work a few of the days I was there. It allowed me to explore the city on my own (Tokyo’s subway system is awesome – which I would kind of hope if I’m paying around $10-$15 a day to use it). I would leave each morning with a note from Landon about some places to check out and some of my own ideas of what I wanted to do and then just spend the day wandering the city and taking photographs. Some of my favorite moments include spending over an hour with a group of Japanese grandfathers as they played chess in Ueno Park, accidentally stumbling across the “Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” Memorial which still contains a flame that’s been burning since the bomb was launched on Hiroshima, getting the freshest sashimi of my life at the Tsukiji Fish Market, watching the sunset over Tokyo at the Tokyo Municipality Government Building, and eating my lunch (Japanese tourist pro-tip: most restaurants offer way cheaper lunch options than dinner options so eat a big meal there and then just pick up something small and cheap for dinner) eah day at Nezu Temple watching the adorable Japanese toddlers wander about.

I was also lucky enough to get to meet up with Kuni, another SJU friend, who is currently working in Tokyo. Kuni grew up in Okinawa, attended SJU, worked in DC for a while and is now back in Japan. I hadn’t seen him since I was in DC last year for Truman Summer Institute (gosh I can’t believe that was almost a year ago) and it was great to catch up. He spent the day showing me some of his favorite places in DC and then we met up with Landon and had one of the best meals of the whole trip in a small, basement restaurant that probably 9 out of 10 people would have walked right past without noticing. We also convinced Landon to go on his first rollercoaster ever (conveniently located right next to the metro stop – told you their metro system was bomb). Landon’s screams and his smile at the end of the ride will probably remain one of my favorite memories of him for years to come.

Overall, it was a great trip to Japan. It’s a beautiful country with amazing food, culture, history, and things to discover (other than their airport). But what really made it one to remember was getting to see a glimpse of what Landon’s experience had been like there and what the place had come to mean to him. From getting numerous meals with friends there to many a night of karaoke (still somewhat hate it), the people who became his sense of Tokyo were wonderful and I was so happy to see the sense of place he had created there.

I was also lucky enough to have some familiar faces come visit me in wonderful Bera at the end of March and beginning of April. Andy, John, and Patrick, three of my SJU classmates, made a six day stop in Malaysia to visit. John and Patrick had just finished their 8 months of service in the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at a monastery in Katibunga, Zambia and Andy (who was on the ETL team with me) was completing a six week trip around the world.

They originally were only supposed to be here for about three, but ran into some visa issues trying to enter India (what did we learn from this experience boys? Make sure to check Visa requirements before showing up at your departure gate) and ended up in Malaysia a bit earlier than planned. It worked out pretty perfectly though and by the end of their stay the boys admitted in that it was definitely a blessing that India hadn’t worked out.

During their visit they came to school with me each day (made lesson planning for the week super easy – we worked on our question words by playing meet the foreigners), got to meet many of my favorite students, meet and talk with my wonderful mentor Fira and the rest of the English panel, and get to actually experience what my day to day teacher life is like.
(Fira and the boys)

They also were great sports and despite their hesitation agreed to play soccer with the hostel boys after school. They ended up loving it and I’m not sure who had bigger smiles at the end of the match, my students or the guys.

I was also able to show them some of my favorite places in the Bera, the restaurants Erin and I frequent, and just overall give them a sense of what my life is like here. It was so nice to have visitors and both Erin and I agreed that the house felt sadly quiet after they were gone.
Can't come to Bera and not take a picture to prove it

I had not anticipated how much having the guys visit would mean. It was an amazing feeling to get to show them around the place that has become so special to me. It’s also just nice to have people at home who when they see an Instagram post or hear a story can actually recognize the student in the photo or be able to visualize the places I am talking about. Having someone from home understand a part of this experience, no matter how small, is a really cool thing.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop associating places with people and vice versa. But what I do know, is that I could not be more thankful that for just a short moment of time me worlds (my Fulbright and my CSB/SJU) got to combine. It was something I never expected, but something that I know I will cherish throughout the rest of my time here. It also made me even more excited for additional visitors to Bera. My parents will be here next month and my school is already talking about it with excitement (get ready Mom and Dad, they might have a welcoming ceremony for you like they did for me). So if anyone else is interested in a quick (or long, we like company) trip to Malaysia, I’ve got two spare bedrooms and running water at least a few times a week. You’re always welcome.

Posted by remullin 08:06 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Beginning to Belong

“Miss, want to hang out?”

  • Disclaimer, this post is about two and a half weeks late in getting posted*

This past week has had its fair share of frustrations. Our time table is changing so all of my classes are
changing as well. It means getting used to new classes, different times, learning new names, and attempting to gage the levels of three new classes of students. Planning for my English camp is also a chaotic nightmare. The camp is over a month away and I already can’t wait for it to be over (probs not a good sign).

Despite those two rather large hiccups in my Malaysia routine this week, this past week has probably been one of the best that I have had here. This was the week where I finally noticed that I’ve begun to fully feel like I belong in my community. I no longer feel like simply the novelty in the community. Instead it’s coming to feel like a home. Relationships are beginning to move past superficial levels and become real friendships.

I wish I could say there was some big moment this week that solidified the feeling, but really it was in lots of the little moments. The little moments that I demonstrated to me just how far things have come since my first day here over two months ago. This post could probably turn out to be a novel, but I’ll limit it to just a few of my favorites from the past week:
• Being able to walk into the kantin and feel comfortable to sit with any group of teachers (assuming they’re female teachers of course, I think the school might have a heart attack if I ever sat in the male teachers’ half of the kantin). I no longer feel like I have to follow around the other English teachers like a puppy and feel confident interacting with anyone at school on my own.
• Managing to find all of my classes without having to ask students once for directions (this will no doubt change with the new time table, but hey, it’s a small win). Figuring out the six school blocks and where each classroom is located was daunting in the beginning, but I’m now able to navigate it fairly easily (the location of the library is still a vague mystery though).
• Going for my evening run and recognizing the other runners. We certainly are far from friendship level, but it’s still nice to just be able to exchange a smile and a wave with the fellow runners as we put ourselves through the self-inflicted torture of running in 80+ degree heat and 90% humidity.
• Having the neighborhood children feel comfortable enough with us that they are now willing to come approach the house and come sprinting down the street to our gate when they see our car coming home at the end of the day.

The biggest way in which I have felt the change though is with my students (not particularly surprising considering that I spend the majority of my time in Malaysia with them). The success story that I think most exemplifies my transition is with Haikal, one half of my favorite twin duo.

When I first arrived at school he wouldn’t even smile at me, let alone approach me or try to talk with me. This seemed odd to me since all of his friends would, but he would just hang back, watch them talk with me for a bit and then walk away. I asked some of the other teachers about it and they said not to be insulted, that’s just the way he was. He was quiet, reserved, and as one teacher put it “not particularly friendly towards any teacher.”

However, over the past few weeks I’ve slowly been trying to win him over. It started with small things such as always smiling at him when I saw him, even if all I got back in response was a frown. Over the weeks of playing soccer with the boys, spending time with them at the district track meet, and talking with them during recess, I could see him begin to warm up to me.

By this week, you would never know he once avoided me like the plague. I now can’t walk through the school without being met with his smiling face (teachers have a tendency of not showing up to teach his class, 4 Kreatif, so most of the time the boys just kind of meander around the school). During breaks he’ll come up and try to say a few words to me (he’s in the lowest class in Form 4 so his English is a struggle, but he’s trying), if a teacher doesn't show up for his class he'll come sit in on whatever English class I am teaching at the time, and at the end of every day he and his friends make sure to stop by my desk and ask if I’m coming to the hostel to play soccer with them that night.

The change in him is truly remarkable. Even the teachers noticed. Multiple of them have come up to me and expressed how surprised they are that he is friendly towards me or that he is trying to use his English with me. I’m excited to see how he progresses over the year and I hope that the change for the better continues (although last week he and his twin spent the night in jail after getting caught as part of a planned fight between two groups of boys at the school. Ironically, most of the boys involved in the fighting were my favorite 4 INO students. We had a good long chat this week about fighting and how dumb they all to get involved with things like that. I doubt it made much of an impact on them, but I had to try
Some of my favorite Form 4 boys
Aqmal, Haikal (it's a really common name), Tuan, and Haikal (the one the story is about)

While I’ve also had similar breakthroughs with other students that became apparent this week. Haikal’s is certainly my favorite and I think a good representation of the progression I’ve had thus far at school. The students are beginning to open up to me. They’re willing to talk to me about their lives, ask questions about mine, and are finding more and more ways to let me into their inner circles.

Hopefully as the weeks continue, I’ll have more and more stories such as Haikal’s to share (fingers crossed I’ll have no more jail stories to share with all of you). For now though, it’s just nice to feel like I’ve found my place.

Posted by remullin 05:18 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Meet My Kids!

"Good morning, teacher!"

I realized as of late, that I’ve been pretty generically referring to my students as simply “my kids” in most of my blog posts. However, that seemed to completely short change the 900+ amazing students at SMK Mengkarak who never fail to make my day, fill my time with laughter, tolerate my attempts at trying to teaching them, and have made me a master at charades. So this blog is an introduction to each of my classes and the unique personalities they have. It’s also likely to be incredibly long, but since I’ve got a number of hours to kill in the KLIA2 airport waiting for my flight to Tokyo (so pumped!) I figured I should take advantage of it (along with the WiFi access #itsthelittlethinngs).

Before I begin, let me give some quick background on how Malaysian secondary school is structured and how classes are broken up. Unlike the US, who breaks up middle school and high school, they’re all in the same school in Malaysia. Secondary schools in Malaysia consist of Forms 1-5. Forms 1 and 2 are the equivalent of our seventh and eighth grade. Forms 3, 4, and 5 are their equivalents of what we think of as high school. Schooling ends with Form 5 when students are 17 years old (so basically they just don’t have senior year like we do in the States).

Another difference is the streaming of classes. Unlike US high school classes where students take classes with different students in each subject, in Malaysia the students are with the same group all day everyday (anywhere from 15-45, depending on the class and level). Instead of students moving classrooms throughout the day, teachers move for each class. The way it is determined which students are in each class is through a streaming process. Based on each year’s test results all the best students are put in one class, then the second best students, third, etc.

This form of streaming creates all kind of issues that I don’t think I’m quite ready to get into in a post (one will no doubt come at a later date). But the long story short is that students know who the good students are and who the bad ones are (the name of their class reinforces this as well). It’s also abundantly apparent which classes teachers care about educating and which ones they are more than willing to just let fall through the cracks.

But enough background, meet my classes:

2A: The wonderful gems I get to start my Mondays with every week. This class is pretty much amazing. They take anything and everything I throw at them and run with it. They also give me a lot of my ideas for what to try for classes. They’re basically like my guinea pig class, which they seem to be completely okay with. Together we’ve come up with some pretty bomb ideas for what to do throughout the year. This class in particular really loves music so we’re going to begin work on writing a song about their school (probably just parodying off of something already in existence) and recording it. It was their idea and I think it’s super ambitious, but if they’re willing to give it a shot, I’m totally in. They’re a pretty awesome class and I feel lucky to start every week with them.

4E: Malo malo kuching is a Malaysian idiom that translates directly to shy shy cat. It was one of the first phrases my students taught me and it applies to 4E perfectly. 4E stands for 4 Effective or the second best class of their year. In addition to the normal classes they take additional courses in finance, business, and accounting. Most of them are hoping to pursue futures in some kind of business ventures. However, they are also extremely shy. They’re not quite as confident in their language skills and are terrified of making mistakes so it creates the perfect combination for absolute silence from them. Seriously, the first class was beyond painful. However, we’re getting better. I’ve spent a lot of time intentionally being goofy, making a fool of myself and butchering my attempts at speaking BM (those ones were less intentional) as a way to show the students that it’s okay to loosen up and make mistakes. It seems to be working. They’re opening up a lot more and classes are going much better. During our latest class they were even willing to perform a song and let me record it. Small steps in the right direction.

3B: Precious. This class is full of some of the cutest children ever. My first day in the class, at least three different girls drew me pictures, two wrote me poems, and still others sent me notes about how excited they are for the year. It was too great. These students are also great. Their main teacher is Fira (my mentor) and we can co-teach together really well so I always look forward to classes with them. One of the reasons that this class is one that always makes me smile is because Azmadi is in it. Azmadi was the very first student at the school who was brave enough to strike up a conversation with me and we became fast friends. He is seriously the absolute best (Erin adores him too). He really wants to learn English and as a result is always up to talk with me. He also knows how much I want to learn BM so he is super patient with me and teaches me new words and phrases whenever we’re together (he was the one who taught me malo malo kuching). He is adorable and I love getting to spend time with him and his class.

2B: A really solid class. The girls are great and are sassy which always makes the class fun. The boys however, started out super shy, likely painfully so. Lately, it’s been getting better. I haven’t gotten to teach this class too many times. Their main teacher has a ton of things she wants to cover with them and always says that we’ll get to my activities at the end, we never really do so it’s mainly just a lot of time with me observing them. However, I have gotten to help them with their activities and I guess just experience teaching in a different way. As a result though, I haven’t formed a great bond with them yet. Fingers crossed that we’ll get to actually do some activities soon and get to know each other better.

1B: So much energy, such short attention spans. This class at least 75% boys and they constantly keep me on my toes. Two of them are also quite good at English which is wonderful, but at times frustrates me when they complete an activity in about 2 minutes while the rest of the class takes 20 to catch up. However, the last few weeks I’ve been getting a better handle on them. They love anything competitive and they also are far more likely to pay attention for longer, so this class is all about the learning games. We do so many word chains, sentence races, spelling bees and vocab challenges. Which seems to work relatively well and they’ve retained the information quite well. It’s also been fun to try more ambitious projects with them. For instance, we did a super hero lesson where the students had to create their own superheroes (no copying those that already existed), design a costume, discuss the problem that the super hero was needed to solve, assign powers, create a motto, and come up with weaknesses. It went remarkably well and the boys loved it (the girls were good sports about it as well).

1A: These kids are freaking brilliant. As 1A they are the top class in Form 1 and it is well deserved. About a third of the class is Tamil students and their English is amazing. This seems to be the norm with Tamil students at my school as well as Erin’s. The Malay and Orang Asli students also seem to be leaps and bounds beyond their fellow form mates in their understanding. In addition to a good English understanding, they also have an unwavering level of enthusiasm to do anything and everything I ask of them during classes. As a result, we’re able to make activities really fun. For instance, when we were reviewing types of poetry and rhyme schemes rather than just going through the basics, my kids had enough understanding of the language and concept that we were actually able to have a mini rap battle between each side of the classroom. It was AWESOME and one of the many little moments that continually astound me about this class’ ability.

1C: Probably my toughest class and the one that I feel like I accomplish the least in. 1C is the third class in Form 1 (think seventh grade) and their English level is pretty much abysmal. This isn’t something that I hold against the students, I can only imagine how awful I would be if I was trying to take a class in Bahasa Maleyu from someone who spoke no English. However, it is a major barrier to have a good or effective class. Lessons that go really well with 1A or 1B are often times epic fails with 1C. Another major frustration I have is that the main teacher for the class is basically useless to me. He doesn’t offer any guidance in what types of things the students should be learning, what activities they have done previously, or ideas of what his goals for the year with them are. As a result, most weeks with them feel like I’m grasping at straws in the dark. However, they are still really wonderful kids. They try super hard to understand me, carry out activities the best they can, and once they grasp concepts do a great job of applying them. Two of my favorite boys are also in the class. They are super sweet, always look for me during recess and are constantly following me around the school. Sometimes it can be a bit much, but most of the time it’s adorable and they’re a huge help when I get lost trying to find the right classroom.

2C: The class I spend the most classroom time with each week. They’ve got some pretty great characters and are all together a very solid class. Like 1C they’re pretty much the average kids in their year. However, for most of them their English comprehension and understanding is quite high. One of them, Frankie, is a real character. His family just recently moved to Bera from Sarawak (Borneo part of Malaysia) and his English is phenomenal. It helps having him in the class because he serves as my translator to the other students if they’re really just not understanding my instructions. Thankfully, we don’t reach that point too often though. On the whole the class is good, but they’re not quite as noteworthy as the others. They’re all well behaved, do what I ask, and are mostly willing to try new things. Basically a teacher’s dream. I’m excited to see what we can accomplish as a class this year since I have double the time with them then all the rest. Fingers crossed for some pretty bomb SPM results by the end.
2C class picture

4INO: The class that has my heart and completely knows it. 4INO was actually the very first class I got to teach when I arrived and thus far the only class that I’ve successfully mastered the names of students. INO stands for Innovative and they are the third class for their year (there are two classes above them and two below them). Each class in Forms 4 & 5 have a different focus and theirs is sports science. Basically, they’re the jocks of the school. They’re the kids on every sports team, they’re the captains of everything, and they’re the ones that I hang with the most at the hostel (almost all of them are hostel kids so that gives you a little insight into the backgrounds they are coming from) and play sports with. They are also major goofballs, hellions, and troublemakers. I don’t know if we’ve made it through a class yet without one of them getting pulled out to go see the disciplinary teachers for some reason or another. Despite their reputation as troublemakers, I think they’re all pretty fantastic kids. The English level of a lot of them is pretty low (others are quite good, but as they tell me “I’m lazy and don’t want to teachers to know that I know English as well as I do”). Nevertheless, they work really hard on any activity I assign them and up for pretty much any challenge. It might take them a bit longer than my other classes to understand, but they always get their eventually. They also just make classes fun (although they also require more energy than any of my other classes to keep on topic). We’re able to joke around, they tease me and I tease them, they help me with my Bahasa Maleyu (BM), and all around they’re the class that I’ve become the closest to.

An added bonus of having them on my side has also been that they have a lot of sway with the other students since they are captains of all the sports teams and they’ve also become quite protective of me. Whenever I have to lead large group activities or need help, they’ve taken it upon themselves to be my helpers and behavior monitors. For instance, if some Form 1 or 2 boys are goofing off and not paying attention, the 4INO boys will quickly put them in their place. Or if we’re at events like the district track meet and students from other schools make comments in about me in BM that are inappropriate, they have no qualms about coming to my rescue and instantly calling out the other student and telling them that they will not let their cikgu be talked about like that. They’re wonderful and I love them. I can’t imagine my days at school without hanging out with them at recess or them filling me in on the latest gossip of who is dating who (some things are universal to 16 year olds everywhere). They are truly the reason that I look forward to coming to school every day and one of the things that make this the best job in the world.
My favorites

5SC: A close second for my favorite class. SC stands for science and this is the top class in the school. They’re stream is focused on added science and math classes (hence the name) in addition to all the mandatory subjects. Basically, they’re the brains/nerdy kids of the school and in some ways they remind me a lot of my friends and me during high school. They’re also a bit shy and my attempts to bond with them by talking about sports (which had worked so well for other classes, failed epically with them). Their English levels are some of the highest in the school (although that’s not saying a whole lot, based on past 5SC classes, many of them will still be kept out of universities because they won’t achieve the English scores necessary for admittance – fingers crossed that changes for this year’s class). The higher level of English understanding allows for more creative lessons and also allows them to make things their own. One of my favorite classes with them, we worked on listening skills by listening to songs and writing the lyrics (it was intended to serve as practice for their national exam which includes numerous listening components but also to show them that listening activities can be fun). One of the songs was Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are”. After class, the students asked if I would stay a few minutes late and the boys proceeded to perform the song for me, even complete with flowers. It was precious and pretty much exemplifies their class. They work hard and when given the chance want to have fun with activities, it just takes them awhile to realize that not everything is about a test grade and that learning can be fun.

3A: The class I never see. Literally, I’ve been teaching for 8 weeks and only been with this class twice. The reason I almost never see them is that I only have them for a single period (unlike double periods with all the rest) and the period I have them for is 7:55 to 8:35 every Friday morning. However, Friday mornings are also when there is a schoolwide prayer service for all of the Muslim students and it never ever finishes by 7:55 like it’s supposed to. Usually it’s done around 8:20 to 8:30ish, hence me never actually seeing the kids.

From my limited interaction with them though, I’ve been pretty impressed. They’re clearly very intelligent and their English is quite good. For example, last Friday I finally got to see them. However, we only had 9 minutes until the next period. I gave them a handful of options for activities and they surprised me by asking instead if they could do the listening activity I had done with other classes. I said sure, but didn’t think they would have time (it had taken other classes anywhere from 30-80 minutes each). Instead, they were able to fill in almost all of the lyrics after only two playings of the song. A pretty impressive feat for any class.

4SC: We’ve got a nice love-hate relationship going, most of the time love but there’s those occasional moments where it veers towards hate or probably more so annoyance. Like 5SC, 4SC stands for 4 Science and they are the top class of their year, as a result, they’ve also got a bit of an ego. At times I can use the ego to my advantage and challenge them to prove how good they are by beating what other classes have been able to do. Other times, their ego drives me insane because they feel like activities are below them and that if they cannot concretely see a way the activity will help them pass their SPM exams, they don’t get why they should do it. That’s when we sway to our hate part of the relationship. They can also be real sassy, particularly when they don’t want to do something, well really just one of them, Niam. The past few weeks though, we’ve been doing much better. It’s good that they challenge me to demonstrate how each activity can actively prepare them for exams because it forces me to do my best as an educator. I’m also making strides in getting them to loosen up and not take themselves so ridiculously seriously and they’re beginning to laugh and have fun during classes. I think a major help in forming my relationship with them has been bad mitten. Most of them are on the team and I’ve begun to attend practices, despite the fact that I epically struggle at the sport (hand eye coordination, not my thing). It’s allowed us to form bonds outside of the classroom and as a result have a better relationship is the classroom as well. Overall, I’m really beginning to like them (and vice versa as well) and I think it’ll be a good year

Posted by remullin 07:55 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Pile of Postcards

"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.

Posted by remullin 05:19 Comments (0)

The Soccer Match from Hell (Or so it Began)

“Yes, Elephant Army, where can we buy tickets? You don’t know . . . okay, thanks.”

Over the past two months (can’t believe how fast my time here is going, ahhh slow it down) there’s been a number of things in Malaysia that have made me scratch my head in confusion or raise my arms I exasperation. I try to chalk most of them u to culture shock and remind myself that there are about a hundred million things I still need to learn about this culture before I can begin to truly understand why and how they do things, much less make judgment calls on them.

However, yesterday I had one of those days where I was willing to make a judgment call and say Malaysia seriously tak boleh (directly translates to cannot but “#takboleh” has become our Fulbright cohorts saying when we simply cannot handle some element of Malaysia, be it cultural, food, ) on how to organize tickets for soccer matches. How can a country that prides itself on its love of soccer (football here) fail so hard at making it feasible for people to buy tickets to attend a match?

Allow me to backtrack a little to fill you in on all the steps that occurred before I reached my point of want to dub the struggle of getting match tickets to be right up there with Odysseus’ quest to make it home during the Odyssey.

Pahang (the state I’m living in for the year in case you haven’t caught on to that yet) is home to the professional soccer team the Elephant Army. The 2014 National champions and all around amazing team. They’re kind of like the Malaysian league Manchester United. Pretty much as soon as I learned that I would be living in Pahang and about the Elephant Army, I knew I had to attend a match.

Last weekend in the Cameron Highlands the group all seemed really up for going to a game so we figured we would check it out and try to go to the next possible match. We should have known it wasn’t going to be quite that early when we went online to try to find the match schedule and found out that it isn’t available anywhere online (at least not that we can find). Strange, but not super atypical of Malaysia.

So during the school week both Erin and I asked around to try to find out more details. Sadly, my staff had really no idea. They were all super excited that I wanted to see a game, but had no idea when the next match was going to be. Thankfully, Erin had a bit more luck. One of her teachers said that Elephant Army had a match against Sembilan at the team’s home stadium in Kuantan on Saturday at 7:00. Okay, awesome! We now know when and where the game will be.

Erin asked where we can get tickets and was told that there are only two locations where tickets are available. Either the Temerloh stadium (the largest town near us and about an hour drive) or at the stadium in Kuantan (about 3 hours away). Tickets were not available online and it was not possible to find out if the match was already sold out unless you went to one of the locations. What? How for the entire state of Pahang (the largest in Peninsular Malaysia) could there only be two locations? What century were we in (and yes, I realize I found very first world problemish about this whole thing)? It gave me flashbacks to trying to buy train tickets to Chengdu during National Holiday in China and having to spend 8+ hours in the rain waiting to buy our train tickets at the only station in town.

Upon finding out this new development in the plans, enthusiasm from the Pahangsters to attend a game quickly depleted. Pretty soon it was just Erin, Sabrina, Hannah, and I that were still in, all with varying levels of apprehension about actually being able to get tickets. Erin and I were pretty dedicated though so after a kind of crazy week in Bera (life just seemed really busy this week, probably because work started this week on the rebuilding/renovation ko-ko I am helping lead at the school so we can repair much of what was lost or ruined during the flood and I have now begun attending bad mitten practices and that takes up an extra two nights a week), we headed to Temerloh in the afternoon to pick up tickets.

After the hour drive (added traffic as people headed to mosque for Friday prayers) we arrived to find the stadium completely locked. That’s not a good sign. We quickly googled prayer times to make sure we hadn’t arrived during one (we hadn’t) and then asked around the local shops. Once we eventually found someone who spoke English we found out tickets are not available on Fridays. Cool. We asked when they would be available. We were told that no one was sure, but that maybe the ticket counter is open half days on Saturday. But no one could verify what times the half day entailed, other than that it was sometime in the morning. Great. Not to make the trip a total loss we headed to a local coffee shop in Mentakab (one town over from Temerloh) and took advantage of their internet (still no internet for us in Bera) for a while to answer some emails and upload pictures. As we headed home we agreed to give it one more shot in the morning trying to get tickets. We called the other girls and they were waiting on us to figure out the ticket thing before deciding if they were coming or not.

Since we weren't entirely sure when “sometime in the morning” meant we decided to play it safe and left Bera around 10:00 am (a tad too early on a Saturday for either of our likings since it was our first free Saturday in weeks). However, after another hour drive we once again arrived to find all of the ticket counters closed. Sweet. We asked around some shop workers and were informed that since the match was happening that night, the only place to buy tickets now was in Kuantan, but there was no way to know if tickets would still be available. Fabulous.

At this point I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel and content to spend the day in Bera exploring some new trails around the feldas (palm oil and rubber plantations) and taking photographs. I was a bit crabby, still sleepy, and annoyed that the entirety of figuring out tickets was on Erin and I despite others having said they wanted to come. Making a three hour drive to Kuantan and simply crossing our fingers that tickets would be available didn't sound like a great time to me.

However, I said Erin could make the final call. She opted for us to give it a shot. While not entirely sold on it, I figured it would be an adventure at least and we could see a new part of Malaysia (plus Erin let me drive which always seems to make me happier in Malaysia, I love driving and exploring here). To Kuantan we go!

First though, we needed to get cash so we could buy tickets and elephant army shirts (they’re seriously the coolest and I’ve been so jealous of the ones my students have) You wouldn't have thought that this would be such a hard thing. However, like most things that morning it became a production. Whoever designed the streets of Temerloh most have studied a similar theory of thought for urban planning as the civil engineer of St. Cloud because the street layout is literally the worst. Everything is a one way. So while we could see an entire street of banks across from us, it took almost fifteen minutes of driving in circles before actually get to one. We’re off to a great start on this adventure.

Eventually though, we were on our way to Kuantan. However, I missed the exit for the express way to Kuantan and we were forced to take Route 2, a series of old village roads that are filled with plantation lorries (big trucks) and about a million pot holes. Great. Thankfully, it wasn’t too awful. A lot of it was two lane and we were able to pass most of the lorries without issues. As we approached Kuantan we got stuck in some major traffic though and it took almost 30 minutes to go about 15 kilometers.

We also realized that we had no idea where in Kuatan the stadium actually was. Fortunately, while being stuck at red lights that lasted between 4-8 minutes (no joke, I timed it) I was able to pull up an address to the stadium and after about three hours in the car, we arrived. Now fingers crossed tickets were available.

We wandered around the stadium and after a bit a kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the ticket counter. There were tickets left! This hadn’t all been a waste! Yes!! We bought four tickets for the grandstand section and happily called Sabrina and Hannah to them that we had tickets. As we got back in the car, I asked Erin to check the tickets to see what time the gates opened for the game that evening. That’s when we realized that rather than starting at 7:00 (like we were told) the game didn’t start until 8:45. It was around 2:00 in the afternoon and we realized we have over six hours to kill and no clue what to do in Kuantan. We checked out the Lonely Planet book and the only advice it had for us was to avoid the city and just spend time trekking in the nature parks around it. Yeah, we’ll get right on that Lonely Planet, thanks.

We also realized that we weren’t going to be getting on the road to go home much before midnight. Since we had thought the game was going to be at 7:00 we figured we’d be out of there by 9 or 9:30 and home with no issues. Ha, funny joke. Now it wasn’t going to be much before 3:00 am that we’d be back in Bera. At this point though, we didn’t care. That was later Erin and Rach’s problems.

Since we had so many hours to kill, we decided to head to Kuantan’s Giant grocery store (that’s not describing its size, that’s actually its name). Giants in Malaysia usually have a much wider selection of food and we can find some of the Western things we’re missing there (like Tobasco and balsamic vinegar in my case). However, as were driving away I noticed a light on our dashboard begin frantically flashing. Shoot. In the awful traffic we had used a ton of gas and were now dangerously close to empty. Making this an even bigger problem was that all of the petrol stations that we knew of were outside of the city and we had a bunch of stop and go traffic between us and them.

After a stressful 15ish minutes we finally pulled into a station. After first pulling up to the wrong side of the pump we succeeded on our second try and asked the attendants for RM70 in gas. However, as we went to fill the tank, we realized the gas nozzle didn’t fit our car correctly. So rather than simply inserting the nozzle and letting it fill, we had to insert RM70 of gas at intervals of about 30 sen a time and constantly watch out for the slashes it created. Needless to say, by the end of this process. Neither of us were happy. It seemed as if this soccer match adventure was cursed and I decided to call it the soccer match from hell.

Following the gas fiasco, we headed to Giant. Since we had about 6 hours until the game (3ish until the other girls arrived) and nothing else to do in the city we decided to just kind of camp out for the afternoon. After doing some shopping and stocking up on things like granola bars, balsamic, hot sauce and cans of garbanzo beans so I can make hummus I joined Erin at a table in the foodcourt and we just kind of hung out for the afternoon. Erin read and I took a nap (which I’m definitely adding to the list of one of the weirdest places I’ve ever slept while traveling, it’s right up there with some of the sketchy Eastern European train platforms).

Around 6:00 we got a call from the other girls saying they were close and we headed back to the stadium to meet them. As we got in the car, Erin and I agreed that the worst of the day had to be behind us. From that point onwards, everything was going to go well. And we could not have been more correct. The level of awesomeness of the night seemed to be directly proportional to how much the morning had utterly sucked. It was one of those nights where you have to constantly ask yourself, “Is this real life?”
We met the girls at the stadium and decided to get some Elephant Army shirts so we could blend in more with the countless fans that were already gathering around the stadium. The choices were pretty much endless. I ended up picking out two T-shirts and on a whim bought a team jersey for on RM 12 or about $4 (it was last season’s style, hence why it was so cheap, but I was still pumped about it). I’m already excited to wear them at school and show my kids.

After a cheap dinner of Nasi Lemak (a Malaysian staple consisting of rice, dried anchovies, sambal - a kind of spicy sauce that I’m obsessed with and put on everything, even the teachers in my kantin laugh at the amount of spice I put on my food, it surpasses many of them - peanuts and sometimes an over easy egg on top) at a hole in the wall restaurant, we were ready for the game. As were walking up to the stadium we had a momentary panic as we were passing the police post (there was an unreal number of police at the game – at least 100) and the called after us to stop and come over. Under national law all foreigners are required to carry their passport with them at all times. None of us had brought them because we were nervous about the potential of pickpockets at the game and instead just had photocopies with us. Rather than wanting to check our passports though, the police brigade (about 10 officers) just wanted to take their pictures with us. After some pictures and a big sigh of relief and some laughs we headed into the stadium.

The seats we had purchased were about 6 rows up from the field and about halfway between the 18 yard box and midfield. Pretty much perfect. It felt so nice to be watching soccer again. Not quite as good as playing would have been, but I’ll take it. Maybe I can convince my hostel boys to take a study break from exams (it’s finals weeks for the first trimester this week and they’re all freaking out) and play with me. The first half wasn’t too exciting, and the teams seemed a bit slow, probably the result of having played a match on Wednesday as well. But Pahang did put away a nice goal with about 7 minutes left in the half to keep the crowd engaged.

Throughout the half though our eyes were continually drawn across the stadium to one of the fan sections. It was an entire sea of black t shirts, Elephant Army scarves, an entire drum section, and six massive flags. What was more striking than their appearance was their energy level. For the entire 45 minutes (well 48 with stoppage time – Sembilan players were really into swan diving) they did not stop moving, cheering, and just generally celebrating their team (I should probably add that they were completely sober the whole time, no alcohol is sold in the stadium and the venue seems to be kept halal). We decided we wanted to get over to that section for the second half and see what it was like close up.
We quickly realized however that standing between us and that section was over half a stadium of seats and some large locked gates. Always up for an adventure, I decided to just start walking and see what happened. The other girls followed and once we reached the pitch level we were approached by a number of media photographers from various newspapers and asked for photos. After posing for a few, we asked one of them if it was possible to get to the Elephant Army fan section. He laughed and said, “Just ask.” So we approached the guard at the first gate and pointed across the stadium. He smiled, unlocked the gate for us, and waved us through.

The next two minutes were probably two of the strangest of my life. The entire stadium turned to watch us walk and all started cheering. They seemed so excited to see four Westerners sporting Elephant Army jerseys (even if they were last season) and attending the game. The people we passed all cheered, people held out their hands for us to clap as we passed by and did everything they could to get our attention. If I thought I had experienced celebrity status before in Bera, this was like nothing I’ve experienced in my life. Once we finally made it through the cheering crowd and across the stadium. I walked up to the rope surrounding the Elephant Army fan section and gestured inside. Instantly the section cheered and welcomed us in, placing us in the very front and center of the section.

We spent the entire second half cheering with the Elephant army section (there were only two other women in the section and they took us under their wings and showed us the ropes) and having a blast. It was unreal. I’ve never experienced a fan section with that much enthusiasm before. I had been told that the Elephant Army fans were world famous for their dedication, but until I experienced, I never fully understood.

Once the game ended (Pahang won 2-0, the second goal was a beautiful shot from right at the top of the 18 that hit the perfect upper 90 corner, nothing the goalie could have done), we posed for about 30 minutes with various fans as they took about a million selfies (Malaysians seriously love their selfies) and promised that we would attend more games when we could. Once they started turning off the stadium lights, we took that as our cue to leave.

As we were heading out past the main entrance, a man wearing a simple black Pahang jersey, a pair of jogging pants and TOMS (first Malaysian I have seen in TOMS which is why is stood out to me) stopped us and thanked us for coming to the game and asked where we were from. We explained that we were Americans that we were all living in Pahang for the year and teaching English. He then proceeded to say that he was the CEO of the team and was wondering if we could take a picture together. Laughing, Sabrina somewhat facetiously said, “I don’t believe you”. He responded by pulling out his phone, opening up his Linkedin account (I think) and showing us. Turns out he wasn’t lying, we were actually causally chatting with the CEO. Kind of cool.

After posing for a picture he asked us if we wanted to meet the players. Is that even a question? Hell yes we do. He escorted us back into the stadium hall and said the players would be out shortly. While standing there, we were approached by the director of the fan pages for the team and asked to film quick promo video for the Pahang. Um, what? So after about 10 seconds of prep we each were filmed giving a little spiel about what school we were teaching at, where we were from, and why we loved Pahang. They posted the video last night and so far it’s already gotten over 1.5 thousand views. Lol what is this life? The social media director for the team also asked for our photo and put it up on the team’s Instagram account. As of this morning that photo had over 2,000 likes and I woke up to an insane number of new Instagram follower requests (all of which I denied, the last thing I need is random Malaysian Instagram followers, although it would definitely make my following to followers ratio look sweet).

Eventually the players came out. While most of them were too nervous to talk with us, we got pictures with a few to show our students. There is one player from Bera I was hoping to get a photo with, but he apparently left before we got a chance to see him (sad face). Hopefully at one of the future games I’ll be able to meet him. I’d really love to see if there is some way I can get the team, or even just a few members, to do some kind of clinic or visit to my school. I’m currently brainstorming ways to make it happen.

Finally, as if the night could not get more surreal, the last player emerged from the locker room and was kind enough to take a photo with us and then actually stayed to talk with us for a while. Throughout the course of the conversation he asked us if we had paid for our tickets. We responded with yes of course. He said that shouldn’t be the case. He took down our contact information and is looking into getting us free season tickets to the game. Uh, that would be amazing!

Over an hour and half after the game ended we finally made it to our cars and headed home. The night could not have been more surreal. What went from the soccer match from hell became one of the best memories in Malaysia so far. I could not have dreamed of a better first experience at an Elephant Army game and I am so excited to attend games in the future. I know I’ve become a lifelong fan of Pahang FA and can’t wait to follow their success for years to come.

The ride home was long, but pretty noneventful. What was eventful though was waking up this morning to find my phone blowing up with messages from my mentor and the other teachers at my school asking if I had seen the paper? I said no, since all of the papers are in Bahasa Maleyu. Well it turns out our picture was front and center of the sports section and we "were famous". As one of my teachers put it, "All of Pahang now knows who you are." Talk about a strange way to wake up.

For how amazing the night was, it also caused me to take some time to reflect on the privilege that I’m experiencing here. Privilege is something that’s been on my mind almost every day that I’ve been here and once I form some actually articulate thoughts on it, I’m sure I’ll do a post on it. But the game was just a small microcosm of it. I have no doubt that we received the treatment we did because we were four young, attractive, white western women. If I or the ETAs I had gone with had been some of the ETAs of color, I expect our experience would have been much different. We might have been asked for a handful of pictures and maybe some doors would have been opened to us. But I suspect we wouldn't have received a celebrity reception like we did or been plastered all over every social media account. It was an interesting lesson on what is available to me because of my appearance and background wrapped up in a pretty amazing night.

Posted by remullin 06:49 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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