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Oct. 31st, 2009


Leaving on a Jet Plane

I started this journal with an entry by the same name...Leaving on a Jet Plane... It's only appropriate I do the same now.  Whereas I was once leaving on a jet plane for my first visit outside of the United States, I am now returning (again), 4 years the wiser.  I am leaving Terengganu.  It doesn't seem that I am.  This trip seems like so many others, that I will come back to my students in a few weeks, see their smiling, radiant faces, ready to battle once again with Terengganu.  But this is the end...the end of a 10 month sojourn into places I never imagined I would go.  I have made true and honest friends with people in Malaysia.  So this final entry is dedicated to them:

To Nazierah, my mosquito:  You will remain in my heart forever, O-right! I love your tears and kisses.
To Hazmi:  Keep laughing, thank your for your perseverance in all of my endeavors.
To Zarina, my non-mentor, mentor:  I love you and miss you, thank you for welcoming me into your family.
To Anuar: Your smile and good mornings kept my spirit alive
To Mat Didik: Your conversations and curiosity made me feel like I had purpose.  Your friendship raised the level on my personal sphygomomanometer.
To Kak Zue: For the short time I knew you, you gave me a real tour of Malaysia, 'behind the scenes'
To the male teachers at SMK Chalok: Raja, Effa, Dafi, Mustaffa, Zulkifli: You made me feel like a friend, not like a mat salleh, and for that I am forever grateful.

In the last four years I have traveled to 16 countries: Germany, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Hungary, Estonia, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Singapore, Cambodia, and Malaysia.  My travels have taken me on many adventures.  If you were to ask me which one was my favorite, there would be no reasonable answer, because they are all unique and equally memorable and exciting in their own special way.  Malaysia though, Malaysia will always hold a very special place in my heart and soul.  So, To Malaysia:  Thank you for showing me how to live, for giving my life purpose and direction.  You have helped me see that this life is:  La Bella Vita.

Oct. 22nd, 2009


(no subject)

Today I walked across the longest canopy bridge in the world, crashed a wedding, visited a native tribe’s people village, and drifted along a midnight black river watching thousands of fireflies surround me.

From the beginning: I began this trip excited as ever.  Three other Fulbrighters and I went to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s national park.  We went with Foziah, a Malay woman who is the mother of one of Erin’s students.  Like most Malaysians, Foziah is eager to speak English, but even more interested in teaching us Malay.  Today I learned the word for patience, sabar, because every hour or so, one of us would ask “Are we there YET?” I also learned the literal translation for bull s**t – the actual stinker, not slur.  Tahi-Lembu. I think I prefer buffalo chocolate.

We arrived in Taman Negara in a downpour.  We ran the ¼ km down the muddy stairs to the hostel, only to arrive fully drenched.  The next morning, we set off in our still wet clothes to hike through the dense forest.  It wasn’t much of a hike though – just stairs, lots and lots of stairs.  Once we arrive at the top, we came face to face with the world’s longest canopy bridge.  The bridge is narrow and can only hold 5 people at a time, spaced 10 meters apart.  It was lovely to look out and down into the forest and hear the chirping of birds and croaking of frogs.  That gag-a-maggot description lasted approximately 2 minutes and 36 seconds – then the school groups caught up.  Well, no more was the Bambi-esque version of this natural wonder, but it was nice to hear kids laughing and enjoying themselves in nature.  Every time I hear a child laugh I pause to remember the plot line from Children of Men – a world without children – without a child’s laughter.

Once we finished the canopy walk, we winded our way back towards the muddy river.  There, we met a river guide who took us out for a few minutes and then on towards the orang asli village.  While I am usually against these types of forays (exploitation anyone?) the other girls assured me everything would be okay.  It turned out alright, the village was definitely being exploited (*teeth grinding*) but we steered clear of the more offensive things.  We didn’t take any pictures, go in their house, or eat their food.  However, we DID get to shoot poisoned darts out of a mouth pipe. WHAT?! That’s right; I shot a dart out of a 2 meter long pole and brought down a wild buffalo! No, not true, I did shoot the dart towards a foam target and missed horribly though.

After our visit to the village, we left Taman Negara to head back to Terengganu.  On our way, Foziah stopped in a random small town to see her sister.  So it was there that we found ourselves sitting in someone’s living room.  Then, we were swiftly whisked off to a neighborhood wedding. “My sister’s not here, but there is a wedding.  Come, let’s eat.” Foziah said. A few minutes later, 4 white girls and a Malay woman walk down a hill to the ogling faces of several neighbors.  We passed the DJ booth, who promptly called out, “Where you from?”  Someone told him for he then exclaimed, “USA?! Americans?! Welcome, welcome!” All smiles, we walked into the bride’s house (where they hold a bersanding ceremony, the official sitting together of bride and groom).  Several begin to speak Malay very quickly and soon enough, we are joined with the bride and groom.  After our introductions, we are pushed onto the bersanding platform. The bride and groom sit, elegantly dressed and composed, surrounding by 4 very confused and disheveled white girls. After the official wedding photographer gets our pictures, we are hustled over to the food tent to eat and be literally serenaded by the DJ performing karaoke about our beauty and the USA.

Finally, we left the wedding and piled back into Foziah’s car to finish our journey back home.  By nightfall, we had reached Kuantan and knew that we wouldn’t want to finish the drive back to Kuala Terengganu (3 hours more).  Instead, we decided to spend the night at Ruthie’s hostel in Kijal.  Once we arrived in Kijal, Foziah told us about a small place she knew where we could watch fireflies.  Always up for midnight adventures, we agreed. She then took us on a barely illuminated road and stopped at a bridge.  We followed her down the path and met a man who sits there at night, waiting to see if someone would like to see fireflies.  We piled into his boat in the pitch black, and glided through the water slowly, silently.  As we made our way through a thicket of trees, suddenly the river widened and we saw thousands of fireflies glowing from the bushes.  The captain edged over to the bank and suddenly they were flying around us, landing in the boat, on our fingertips. We stayed like that, gliding down the shoreline, dazzled by the simplicity of what our eyes were seeing.  All we could see was the silhouettes of the trees above us, backlit by a faint moon.  The stars never seemed so clear, the air never so fresh, the night never so black, nor the glow of thousands of fireflies so bright and mystical.


Try having that kind of day anywhere else. Oh, Malaysia.

Oct. 20th, 2009


Life and Death in Malaysia

One of my students died. Death is not something I expected to experience in Malaysia, but here it is, staring me in the face. He was a great kid. The really sad thing is that I was just starting to get to know him. He was one of the boys that I didn’t understand in the beginning. He was loud and mimicked me whenever I talked. This put me off from getting to know him. Then, a few months ago, I gave him the opportunity to go to English camp with me. When I opened up registration to several classes, he literally begged me to let him go. I told him that he had been a naughty boy who never listened and he promised to reform his ways. So, I took the chance, and I am glad I did.  From that point on, he behaved in every single class. He listened and even started to engage me in conversations I never expected he had the vocabulary for. Then, we went to English camp. He got along with his group peers, making them and I laugh. At the end, he promised that he would miss me when I left. I never expected I would be the one missing him when he left. After English camp, he started approaching me with questions and greetings, really taking advantage of our new relationship. Then, last Friday, our new relationship was washed away in a sudden, fatal current.  I am saddened that Alif and I had such little time together and I wish we had made that bridge to each other earlier. I am very thankful though for the time we did have and for the powers that be that brought us together. Rest in peace forever, Alif. Selamat tinggal dan saya akan selalu meningatkanmu.


Two Boys Drown At Lata Payung Waterfall - BERNAMA

SETIU, Oct 17 (Bernama) -- A swim for 11 boys ended in tragedy when two of them were drowned at Lata Payung waterfall, Langkap, near here Friday.
Zulfikar Azam, 12, and Amirul Alif Musa, 13, were swept away by strong currents from a swollen river due to heavy rainfall upstream.
Setiu police chief DSP Shaik Othman Abdul Hamid said the duo were swimming at the waterfall when strong currents suddenly swept them away at 3.30pm.
"Two others swept away together with them were lucky to be alive. At that time, seven boys were sitting on rocks at the edge of the waterfall," he said.
On seeing that four of his friends had been swept away, one of them then went to seek help from nearby villagers.
Shaik Othman said two of the four boys were lucky to survive as the strong currents swept them to the river bank.
The bodies of Zulfikar and Amirul were found two hours later.

Oct. 14th, 2009


I Belong to the Farang

Another journal I found from Thailand:  June 2


There are some places you always hope to travel to.  Today, I stopped hoping and did it.  I am currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  It was certainly an adventure getting here though.  My departure from Phnom Penh went uneventfully.  I boarded the plane and two hours later, we arrived safely.  My friends and I had 3 hours before a train to Chiang Mai left from Bangkok.  As all great travelers do, we hadn’t yet bought tickets.  Over the next two hours we made our way from the airport to the train station.  As the minutes ticked by, our anxiety reached pinnacle heights.  Will we be able to get on the train?  What if we have to sit in the hard seats? Please…Please…Please…  Thankfully, we made it to the train station and luckily, they had sleeper cars available!  Woo-hoo, way for some luck!  That was my first train sleeper and I must admit I was like a kid in Willy Wonka’s fairyland.  Wow!  Look at the ladders!  Yow- do you see I barely can sit up here!  Cool! There are leather straps to keep me from falling out!  Neat-O! 

Before I could actually sleep though, my friends and I had to make the obligatory trip to the restroom.  I share this part, because no trip through SE Asia would be complete without a tale or two from the squat toilet.  Over my months in Malaysia, I have become an expert in using the squat (a glorified hole in the ground).  However, squats on a train in Thailand, took some getting used to.  The squat on the train was literally a hole in the bottom of the train’s floor.  I could actually watch the ties and rails move beneath me.  As I took my position, the train bumped and swerved, making the experience all the more difficult.  I will leave the rest to your imagination.  Eighteen hours later, we arrived in Chiang Mai.


Day Two in Chiang Mai.  Tonight I went to an authentic Muay Thai boxing match.  I was mortified when the first contenders cam up – it was a pair of 11 year olds.  Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to each other, but for most of the match, my eyes were averted and my stomach was churning.  After their bout, we watched four other, thankfully grown men, take their turn, striking, pounding, and thrashing each other to the ground.  In the headlining match, a Canadian and a Frenchman fought each other.  North America kicked butt.  I also loved that almost every contender smiled during the match.  It made it feel like more of a sport, where the contenders were more concerned with having a little fun and winning some cash, then simply participating in a sanctioned ring of violence.

After the match, the girls and I made our way to the bar area.  I am not much of a drinker, but apparently, you can’t go to Thailand without meeting some ladyboys – an accepted 3rd gender of male to female transvestites.  I must admit, these ladies know how to party.  While I can’t say I have spent much time around ladyboys, it is really interesting to get to know these women.  I don’t know enough about Thai culture to comment accurately, but I know that these women work incredibly hard.  It is depressing to know that they are treated solely as sexual objects by western tourists.  I know, I know, I am a western tourist doing this very same thing!  The white (farang) flock to Thailand to take pictures and solicit sex from the ‘oddity’ of the ladyboy.  Perhaps the most disturbing part was seeing one older man pay for a ladyboys company and feel her up.  Another boy, no more than 20, was playing pool in a bar and gave the barista money and leaned in for an awkward kiss.

We stayed a few hours with the girls, playing games and ordering drinks.  I think we may have been the only tourists there not looking for sex.

It is hard for me to wrap my head around those things, because I consider sex to be such a personal and intimate act.  How does anyone ever get to the point where you have to pay for sex and what does this say about our culture, one where you can mail order a bride in sixty seconds or pull up to your internet screen for an hour of mind-numbing pay per view porn?  It almost feels like we are so obsessed with the idea of sex, that we are taking the joy and spontaneity out of it.


Day Three in Chiang Mai.  Today, we went to a magnificent working Buddhist monastery.  Unlike so many of the other Buddhist meditation sites that cater to the farang, this monastery invites dedicated participants only, free of charge.  The monastery is set in the middle of a gorgeous forest.  Unlike so many of the other temples we have seen, covered in gold and intricate designs, this temple is a maze of brick tunnels with small statues of the Buddha in his various positions, left in random nooks.  It felt a lot like the inside of a Gothic church, stony gray, lit by the soft glow of candles.  


Indigo Tales

Sorry this post is so late.  I just found it in my written journal!  From Vietnam – Sept 23.


Sapa, it is like a surrealist painting.  Every piece of this corner of the Earth oozes spirit and unfeigned beauty.  Dad and I arrived yesterday, weary from our journey by train, but utterly mesmerized by the astounding majesty of Sapa.  At dawn, we crept our way up the winding mountain side, watching the sun rise and illuminate the ripening rice patties.  The temperature outside is chilly; perfectly reminding me of my distant homeland, when autumn relinquishes itself to winter.

Dad and I started our exploration of Sapa and its surroundings on a 6km hike, down into the Cat-Cat Hmong village.  Our guide, Cuih, is an amazing young woman, smart and funny, but most of all – genuine.  Too often in Asia have I seen the hill tribes people be exploited and forced to put on a show for ht thousands of giddy tourists that pass through their ancient homelands each year.  Cuih though learned English fluently and now gives tours of her hometown, making sure to respect local customs and show us how life really can be in this mountainous town.

We started our tour by making our way down into Cat-Cat valley.  Cat-Cat is more of a heritage site than an actual working village, dedicated to showing how the local culture has adapted over the years.

On our way down to the heritage site, Dad asked Cuih about a field of green leaves.  “What kind of plant is this?”  “Indigo,” Cuih said, blithely hopping into the field and picking off a few of the leaves.  “How do they get the blue color from Indigo?” Dad asked.  “It starts off green, but then it changes, here I will show you.”  She then asked for my hand and began to crush the leaves into my palm, leaving a green stain behind.  Soon, the stain began to turn turquoise and finally a deep blue.  Then, Dad tried and we began squealing with delight and comparing who had the darker shade.  As we continued our descent into Cat-Cat, Cuih showed us how the Hmong people used to grind corn with a hand pushed mill.  Dad and I pushed and pulled as fast as we could, pulverizing the corn into flour.

Finally, we made our way to the bottom of Cat-Cat.  A towering waterfall awaited our arrival, its water crashing down with a thunderous roar.  It really is incredible to see the power of nature.  Here the water can crush and mangle, but it also feeds the rivers that wind through the Sapa valleys, sustaining the life that congregates at its shores.

Like the waterfall, Cuih has feed my love for this local culture.  Because of our similarity in age, it is easy to talk to her.  In some of our musings, we dream idyllically about boys.  Cuih bravely announced that she in fact has no intention of marrying anytime soon.  She is determined that one day, if the right man were to come along, she would.  Cuih was surprised when Dad and I started to ask her about the local culture, “most tourists don’t ask these types of questions!” she said.  I asked her what the dating and marriage customs were like.  She told me that in Hmong life, they have a very famous love market.  All of the single Hmong girls and guys go to the market.  The boys peruse the crowd and when they find a suitable mate, they take her to his parent’s home.  The girl stays there for 3 days and nights, getting to know the boy and the family.  Then, she returns to her home and tells her parents whether or not she wants to marry him.  If the answer is no, she will present him with a bottle of rice wine and he will be on his way.  If the answer is yes, they will marry within a week’s time.  Imagine, finding love and a partner in less than 2 weeks time. 

Today, Cuih, Dad and I went on the longer trek to her home village of Lao Cai.  The 12km trek starts in Sapa town and winds its way down into the Lao Cai valley.  Along the way, we kept Cuih busy, asking her questions about Hmong traditions.  We passed a hospital and Dad asked about traditional medicine.  Cuih again laughed, musing that we were some of the most curious tourists she had ever met.  She told us how although modernization has brought medicine to the area, elders in the village still practiced traditional medicine.  She related a story about how when her father was younger, he had joined the army and broken his arm in several places.  He went to one of the new hospitals with modern medicine and they told him that they would have to cut off his arm.  His mother, Cuih’s grandmother, told the doctors no, and brought him home.  There she performed a healing ceremony and set and pasted his arm with traditional herbs.  He was healed a few months later.  Unfortunately, Cuih said, younger generations simply aren’t interested in learning the traditional methods of medicine and the practice is dying out. 

Perhaps the best part of our trek was getting to meet Cuih’s family.  Unlike the other, larger, tourist groups, Cuih took us to her sister’s house just outside of Lao Cai.  Her sister has no electricity, but keeps a modest wooden house in well working order.  She showed us where they sleep, a loft made from bamboo stalks, and how they cook, a Fanta can with oil and a wick.  We also met her nephew, a spunky boy who can’t say her name; instead he calls her Dah, her last name.  Next, we made our way up the hillside and through some muddy buffalo ruts.  The buffalo walk along this narrow trail and sink into the mud.  Their steps have left muddied stairs in their wake.  Soon, we arrived at Cuih’s mother’s house.  She, unlike her sister, has electricity (she is closer to the village).  She showed us where her mother kept a vat of indigo dye, stewing to deepen its color.  She dared me to stick my entire hand in, but I was too chicken to go back to Malaysia with a blue hand.  We met her sister-in-law and niece there.  Her niece was adorable, playing a game of peek-a-boo with their voracious pig.

Sadly, soon after, our adventure came to an end.  We traveled back to the Sapa Township and ate our final meal before getting back on the train to Hanoi.  I truly think I am in love with Sapa.

Oct. 11th, 2009


Please, Sit on My Marriage Bed

I went to my first Malay wedding yesterday and I must say I was very impressed.  My friend and colleague, Suziyana, looked exquisite. I couldn’t help from making comparisons to American weddings. In the US, everyone watches the ceremony, goes to the reception hall, eats a meal and dances the night away.  In Malaysia though, the weddings tend to be week long affairs.  On the first day, the bride and groom go to the local mosque with their families and say their vows.  Then approximately two days later, the entire village and all of the bride’s friends go to her parent’s house to take lunch together.  Later that afternoon, the groom arrives and they sit on a bench or a pair of thrones together.  The bride and her family then present the groom with 8-10 different gifts.  After taking thousands of photos, the crowd disperses. That night, the bride and groom consummate their marriage in her parent’s house.  Then a few days later, they repeat the whole affair at the groom’s parent’s house. Only, instead of him giving her presents, he gives her money – lots of money – the dowry! Finally, after a week of celebrations, the happy couple can go coupling on their honeymoon.

What surprised me most was that the entire village came together to throw Suziyana’s wedding.  The lunch was cooked by her neighbors and they continually refilled the trays as they emptied – no expensive caterers here!  Also, before the groom arrives, the bride can simply welcome guests inside the house and mingle with them. To make matters all the better- she was dressed in track pants and a t-shirt and headscarf-less! (Of course, only women were allowed to see her) Then once the groom gets close to arriving, she put on a breathtaking dress that made me seriously consider coming back to Malaysia to go wedding-dress shopping. Perhaps the best and funniest moment was when Suziyana and Zarina, a teacher and good friend who accompanied me to the wedding, insisted I sit on the marriage bed and take a picture there. I love how open the Malays tend to be about matters Americans would consider rude or impolite to talk about.

Sep. 30th, 2009


"Blue Eyes, Blonde Hair, Dress Sexy"

For the last month of my grant I have shifted the focus of my lessons from English games to learning about culture in America. I know the term ‘American culture’ is broad and my own disposition may influence what I teach about. However, I feel that something should be done because a main tenant of the Fulbright is to encourage greater learning and understanding. I also want to do it because so many Malaysians have one picture of America – a soft porn version of Rambo – in their minds. Granted, many Malaysians know that not all Americans are the same. However, for others, the image of young teenagers having sex, drinking, and taking copious amounts of illegal narcotics, has become a stereotypical reference for Americans and white persons in general. Take for instance the results of a stereotype activity I did with my students. I asked them to choose 2 adjectives from a list of 30 to describe four nationalities – Japanese, Malaysians, Americans, and Africans (they group all non-Arab peoples living in Africa not by their nationalities, but by their continental name). Here are some of the responses.

  • Japanese – punctual and well- dressed: because of their technology and fashion. Polite and out-going: Japanese don’t make fight and like to go to cinema.
  • Africans – lazy and quiet: Their country has no jobs and they don’t have any thoughts. Patriotic and Sociable: Because they love being African and they live in family villages.
  • Malaysians – Respectful and hospitable: because Islam commands us to respect and give to others. Patriotic and polite: We like to sing our national song and because we nice people.

Now for the American responses: 

  • Serious and Out-going: Americans are serious about war. They go out to always have war.
  • Tolerant and Romantic: They have many different people and like to have boyfriend.
  • Serious and Punctual: Ms. Maggie is always early for my class. She is serious too sometime.
  • Serious and Aggressive: Like to attack people. They are serious about politics.
  • Sociable and Romantic: The like to go to parties and look sweet. They have free-dress (meaning not modest).

In another exercise the students came up with a list of qualities that describe Malaysians and Americans. American were listed as lazy, patriotic, rich, care about job more than family, have free-sex, etc.   Then I asked them to write the 5 things that Malaysians/Americans think about most. Here they are: 

  • Malaysians – 1. God. 2. Family. 3. Job. 4. School. 5. Friends.
  • Americans – 1. War. 2. Money. 3. Sex. 4. Job. 5. Intellect. 

Do you see what their groupings contain? Malaysians are people-oriented whereas not a single American is focused on people or relationships (save perhaps, sex). It is clear that this is not the image that most Americans want painted abroad. How many would describe themselves in those terms? Not many, I hope. 

Perhaps the most exasperating thing about these exercises is that I have been here for 9 months now.  Do they still honestly believe, after all of our discussions that most Americans are like this?  If that is the case, the questions remain – how do I continue to chip away at this image? Is it something that I can realistically do? How do I also transfer their image of me to the image of a greater population? At the end of the exercise I asked students if all Americans were like this.  Some students would say quietly that I wasn’t like that.   Am I seen as an exception to the rule, or a greater hope that America is a diverse place of opinions and cultures? Hopefully my next few lessons can introduce them to this greater image.

Sep. 23rd, 2009


Good Morning Vietnam

Most of you have heard of the famous Robin Williams movie, Good Morning Vietnam.  As trite as it sounds, it is the first thing I though of as my Dad and I neared touchdown in Hanoi.  Our flight to the land of the Ascending Dragon began with a 5:30 a.m. flight.  Luckily, it afforded us the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the cloud bank and illuminate Vietnam as we touched down. 
"Good Morning Vietnam"
Our first stop in Hanoi was a great little guesthouse.  Of course, Dad's radiant smile (despite being on a plane for about 36 hours) was a big hit with the host and she upgraded us to the family suite, free of charge.  Before we collapsed into our very nice beds, we feasted on fresh baguettes - a great little leftover from the French colonialists.  Then after a tiny cat-nap of 6 hours, it was off to explore a little bit of Hanoi.  That first night was a trip.  Armed with a map and boyscout for a Dad we wandered out into the darkness in search of some good eats.  Fast forward to the next day and Dad and I did some more walking around the Old quarter in Hanoi.  We went to a very neat women's museum that gave some insight into the work culture of Vietnamese women.  If that is one thing I have noticed, it is that the Vietnamese are HARD workers.  From sun-up until sun-down they walk for miles on end trying to sell vegetables and fruit.  But to truly understand how amazing these women are, you have to understand that they carry 20-30 kilos of weight in two baskets dangling from one shoulder.  I just have to think that childbirth would be a piece of cake after years of shouldering those heavy loads. 
After the women's museum, Dad and I made our way to the traditional Vietnamese water puppet theatre.  As much as I shouldn't say it, it beats the pants off of traditional Malay wayang kulit (shadow puppets).  The puppeteers stand chest high in water being a screen to maneuver the huge puppets.  The tricks the puppets to are fantastic.  The puppets are controlled by a singular pole, extended perpendicularly to the puppet.  It would seem that the position of the pole would limit the mobility of the puppet, but no, these puppets can swim, do back flips, blow fire from their mouths, and take swords from unknowing Chinese emperors.
This legend is particularly important to the Vietnamese people.  Many centuries ago, the Chinese invaded Vietnam.  The emperor who ruled by the sword was canoeing through Hoan Kiem lake (Lake of the restored Sword) when a giant sea turtle took the sword from him and buried it at the bottom of the lake - returning power to the Vietnamese people.  Legend has it that the turtle continues to live and protect the sword from further conquerors.
Tomorrow I am off to the famous Halong Bay - more later.

Aug. 30th, 2009


A Home Away from Home Away from Home

It seems strange to think of Malaysia and Islamic culture as a kind of home now, but that is what it has become over the past 8 months.  I was in Xian a few days ago and Ruthie and I found the Muslim quarter there.  The quarter is hidden and submerged in a world of Buddhism and Terracotta Warriors, but it is vibrant and rich too.  We found ourselves going there every night during our stay in Xian because of how natural it felt to us.  Our first visit to the Muslim quarter was different from what I experience in Terengganu.  Terengganu has a rather homogenous expression of Islam with most of the women and men wearing the same clothes.  Also, there are different customs that guide their expression.  Xian was a true fusion of culture and religion.  Terengganu has adopted the Arabian style of Islam.  About 15 years ago, Terengganu was through and through Malaysian.  They participated in cultural dance and music, wore traditionally important clothing, and had behavior that was guided by Malaysian customs.  Then, Terengganu adopted a more conservative expression of Islam, imported from the Middle East.  In order to be more devout, dance and music became taboo, traditional clothing became too erotic, and behavior was modified to fit the customs that are practiced in the Middle East.  When I came to Malaysia I was expecting a fusion of their past culture (often influenced by Hinduism and folktales from Hinduism) with Islam.  That isn't the case.  In Xian though, the Muslims there are through and through Chinese.  Some have adopted the sparkling hijab's for women, but most women choose not to wear it.  Also, some women were even seen wearing the male version of the hijab, a small round white cap, called a kufi.  We visited the Great Mosque, a 1250 year old mosque first built some 100 years after the Prophet's death.  (Funnily enough, the Great Mosque is one of the mini mosques displayed at Taman Tamadun Islam)  The architecture is fully Chinese with Arabic script.  After living in Malaysia for 8 months, I have grown accustomed to hearing the call to prayer (azan) 5 times a day.  At times it is comforting to hear my students singing their praises and devotion to God.  Ruthie and I decided to stay for the azan.  We sat in front of the mosque for 30 minutes and watched as the men walked slowly up the mosque stairs.  One man that was particularly memorable was an older gentlemen, probably around 60 with large rounded black Mao glasses.  He sat, wrinkled and bent with age, but with the biggest grin spreading from ear to ear.  Another man was brave and asked us where we were from.  We told him that although we come from the US, we live in Malaysia.  "MALAYSIA!" he said.  "YES" we said.  "Apa Khabar?" he said. "Baik" we said.  "Terima Kasih, Jumpa Lagi, Cantik, Cantik, Cantik!" he rattled off.  
A Home away from Home away from Home.

Aug. 3rd, 2009


The Month in a Nutshell

These last few weeks have been the busiest since my collegiate years.  In the last month, I have attended a world renowned music festival in Malaysia Borneo, established a literacy project to donate books to my school in Malaysia, successfully executed an inter-ETA English camp for 70 people, made the 14 hour round-trip bus ride to Kuala Lumpur to get a Chinese visa, and said goodbye to 12 of the ETAs as they finished their grants and returned to the United States.  It is in these weeks that I have simply have pushed chronicling my adventures to the backburner.  So here are some of the highlights:

It has been three weeks since I left Malaysia Borneo and I am still in love with the Rainforest World Music Festival.  Never before, except for the random Putumayo CD, had I heard music that spanned so many genres and continents in one place.  The Rainforest World Music Festival is an annual 3-day festival that celebrates life, music, and culture around the world.  It seems to have been a really appropriate place to be during the Fulbright.  Featured at RWMF was 17 bands from 12 countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Morocco, Portugal, France, Hungary, Chile, China, New Zealand, USA, and South Korea.  Bands performed tribal, popular, classical, and traditional music.  The Tanzanian group stole the show with their handmade instruments and thundering drums.  See Facebook for some pictures.

LAUNCH English Camp
What an adventure this camp had been.  Beginning in March, the ETAs brought up the idea of doing a state-wide English writing competition.  Modeled after a similar Indonesian Fulbright program, the ETAs embarked on this adventure, full-speed ahead.  Soon, we had settled on a name and theme:  LAUNCH:  Learning and Unveiling New Creative Horizons in English and "If you could change anything in the world, what would it be and why?"  The question even got me thinking.  Soon though, we discovered the difficulties of implementing and funding a program in a country we didn’t fully understand.  At my school, getting students involved and excited wasn’t difficult.  In total I received 40-some entries.  The winner, a girl in Form 1 (7 Grade) wrote a great poem about developing magical abilities to clean the environment and stop human rights abuses.  The ETAs decided to give the winner in each school a reward weekend with all of the ETAs.  In our grandiose planning, we imagined taking students to a fancy hotel, stuffing them at a beach BBQ, taking them bowling and doing other activities that incorporated English learning.   By June however, we still didn’t know if our program would be funded and 2 weeks before the reward weekend, our location fell through.  Scrambling at the last minute, I secured permission to use my school as the host, and we cut the program in half, eliminating one day off of the schedule and a number of our activities.  Nevertheless, the ETAs pulled everything off beautifully.  ETAs paired up and offered English workshops in drama, poetry, handicrafts, and public speaking.  There was a real sense of pride, getting to hear students read excerpts from Wayside School is Falling Down (a treasured children’s book from our youth), make dream catchers and writing down their most intimate desires, speaking confidently in front of their peers, and writing whimsical poetry, expressing their creativity and zeal in every endeavor.

The camp was bittersweet though.  It marked the last weekend in the 7-month Fulbright grant for 12 of our ETAs.  The closing ceremony was tinged with laughter and a few tears as we said goodbye to the friends we had come to know during this incredibly journey.  (Fortunately for me, I am a 10-month Fulbrighter, so you get another 3 full months of this blog!)  To Becky, James, Jill, Matt, Eegs, Khadijeh, Afua, Betsy, Amy, Clare, Eva, and Naush, best wishes as you return stateside.

Finally, the Chalok Literacy Project.  The project was inspired by seeing some of my students carrying books in the first month of my Fulbright.  They were small and tattered English books, but they were reading.  A few months later, I saw a girl reading again, although it was the same book.  I then started asking my students if they read, what the liked to read and where they got the books from.  They told me that the library had them, but that there were not many.  I studied the library and decided to hold a book drive for the school.  Starting from a simple email sent to a few friends, it has spread to four states and several churches, offices, and even a bookstore putting out donation boxes.  A month in to the project and I can already see that this can really change literacy in this school.  So many of my students are convinced that they will only become rubber-tappers (people who get rubber from the rubber trees), even though they have the lofty dream of attending college.  Others, are scared of how they will score on the college-entrance examination score because they know reading comprehension is their worst subject.

If you are interested in helping the project, send an email to chalokliteracyproject@gmail.com or visit Amazon.com and buy a book from the Chalok wish list.  Simply go to the wish list button in the corner, type Chalok Literacy Project, buy a few books and they will be sent to the CLP transit address.  No going to a bookstore or the post office.  Helping children read really is that easy.

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