I miss you. A lot has happened over here, and I’m sorry for the delay. This post will recap the adventure up until my parents and sister arrived at the end of May for our two week break. Hold on, this is a long one.
My last post left off in Melaka when we stayed at the DoubleTree Hilton for ‘water break’ which was very luxurious! There was buckwheat pillows, seaweed salads, and poached eggs…wow. After our programming ended my friends and I rented an Air Bnb and explored Melaka. Per usual, we dreamt up idea after idea of things we were going to do or state videos we were going to make that didn’t end up happening…this time it was a murder mystery. We created characters and everything e.g. Madam Moonlight, Victoria Moonlight, 25, air to the drinking straw fortune. Instead of carrying out our murder mystery, we went out dancing. At one point, I left with a friend and we got chased down the road accused of not paying for drinks by the manager, only to find out that that was the OTHER white people there. While they figured it out I fell asleep on a hammock in the bar. I have come to realize white people really do all look the same. In all reality, Melaka was amazing, full of mushroom burgers, kombucha, tapas, head massage spidery tools, beautiful art, and a crazy night market where we did Zumba in a Buddhist temple.
Back at school, student prefects and teachers were scrambling to prepare for Hari Gugu (Teachers Day). The theme was ‘Back to School.’ Us teachers (am I really considered a teacher…?) were organized into groups and told we had to create a performance for the whole school. Naturally, my group decided to perform “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, and have me sing it as a duet with the discipline teacher. We practiced after school with guitars and drums and it was a lot of fun. I didn’t realize how much I missed singing. Also, in preparation for Hari Guru, all the teachers (except for the English teachers, and the teachers I am closest to/that speak English) decided to compete in a bowling tournament.
I got to the tournament and felt extremely out of place. I was the only non-Malay in what felt like the whole mall and everyone was with their families. I was wearing my new “Speak English Lah” shirt from Melaka and as soon as I walked in I deeply regretted wearing that stupid shirt, that stupid short sleeved shirt. I also made the mistake of showing up on time. In Malaysia, most things…even classes run about 20 minutes late. I spent the time waiting for the tournament to begin by trying to talk to other teachers and their families, but when I walked up to them, I could tell they felt extremely uncomfortable, and would go silent because they had nothing to say to me except “Ahh Miss Clare, Salam, Bowling, Need Shoes? What team, no Gabrielle (my roommate)…you in fight?” It was painful. I was so alone and far away and everyone was with their families. I sat on my phone as the teachers tended to their children, or gossiped about each other, or me. People shouldn’t have to speak English with me. I should listen, and learn Bahasa Melayu. I felt like I was swallowing my brain. When the tournament started, I learned I was put on a team with the gym teacher who was crazy good at bowling. I tried the best I could and then fortunately students came and bowled for me after seeing the new Avengers movie next door.
Hari Guru was a whirlwind. I will break it up to make it easier for me to explain.
- Zumba. A few students demonstrated Zumba on stage for the teachers to follow on the blacktop below them, where students normally sit for assembly. The student body lined the blacktop and watched. There were drinks, snacks, and ice cream available for them to buy.
- Activities. Student prefects organized a series of activities for each group of teachers to do on rotation to acquire points. We did a continuous water balloon toss where we would throw a water balloon to the person standing behind us. Teachers got absolutely drenched. The students watched on, as they ate their ice cream.
- Outfit Change. Teachers returned to the Bilik Guru (Teachers Room) to change into our outfits for the theme reveal. The teachers dressed up as students, and the student prefects dressed up as teachers. Students lent me their uniform, and I wore it with a tudong because teachers asked me to wear it. We took a million pictures, joking around and pretending to be students, saying their everyday phrases before and after class “Good, Mor-ning Tea-cher”, and “thank YOU, teacher!” remind me to say it for you the next time we are together because I can’t make this stuff up. I walked outside and I am not joking…the teachers rented a freaking school bus just for the photo ops. Again, we took millions of pictures.
- Theme Reveal. I had no idea what to expect, but whatever I did expect was nothing like what happened. I have learned to try not to have expectations about anything or anyone – something way harder than it sounds. We entered from the back of the hall, where the student body was sitting. We were handed gift after gift. There was a floor to ceiling black curtain that divided us from the student body. Two by two, teachers passed through the curtain, onto a red carpet through the student body and toward the stage as students threw rice and cheered. It was absolutely wild. The stage was elaborately decorated. After we all walked the red carpet there was a complicated video-game esq high tech modern start to the program that involved the principal holding his hand out and a machine that scanned his fingerprints and confirmed it was the principal, allowing the celebration to commence. Many speeches and skits were performed. One that stood out to me involved the discipline teacher (dressed as a student) caning the other male teachers dressed as students. After each whack the whole room burst into laughter. I felt uncomfortable. After, prizes were given out. I was given a prize for being “The Most Childish Teacher”…thank you so much everyone what an honor.
- Performances. Teachers sang baby shark, traditional Malay songs, and performed traditional Malay dances. Our group was second to last and I was nervous I would forget the words, so we printed them out and I studied them like a crazy person while we waited. During our performance, the discipline teacher and I were the only ones with a microphone, so you couldn’t hear any of the other teachers sing which was ideal for them, because no one else wanted to sing. Here’s a link to a video of us singing on my teacher instagram.
- Gifts. Students gave me gifts. I felt wrong accepting them, but the students were so sweet and thoughtful it would be rude not to. Some of the gifts I received included picture frames, pencils, candy, buckets with pens and rulers, fake roses, a balloon, and a toiletry bag. The most special gift I received was a reusable plastic cup filled with handwritten notes thanking me for specific things.
- Makan (Eating). After it was all over the teachers gathered at the canteen and shared a big catered lunch. While eating, the principal pulled me aside and told me “Miss Clare, I like your voice.” He paused, and then said “you will prepare three songs to sing for me personally in my office.”
After the glory of Hari Guru, Gabs and I drove to Chenor for Olivia and Kortney’s English Camp. The night before the camp we had a big sleepover with many ETA’s we hadn’t seen in months. We sat on a large mat outside and ate satay while we watched a monsoon. The camp was a trying time for me. I was put at the rubber band catapult station and it wasn’t exactly my thing, but I ended up being a DJ, and letting the other ETA at the station with me teach the students who wanted to make catapults make catapults while I led a dance party with a different ETA. We got home to Olivia’s home absolutely exhausted. I laid down on her bed alone and cried for a while, listening to Sarah Blondin’s podcast “Live Awake” that has fundamentally changed my life. This podcast drops KNOWLEDGE. Go listen to it and then call me and we can talk about it. I listen to her meditations almost every day. After I cried for a bit Sarah and Alicia, my rocks here, came in and cried with me. A lot was going on – it was Floralia at Conn, my fifth-year high school reunion at George School where my favorite teacher Ralph Leili was being honored and had his retirement ceremony, and my parents were about to put our house on the market. I felt a million miles away from each event mentally, yet completely checked out from being who I have become in Malaysia.
The next morning all of the Pahang ETAs left for Tioman Island, an island in Pahang. A teacher at my school knew the chief of one of the villages and gave me his WhatsApp. “He has a boat!” the teacher said, should we get stranded. I had no idea what to think. We arrived at the ferry, and people were not happy after they realized Alicia had booked our accommodation at a sleepy Malay kampung (village), Mukut, but they had to get over it and we had to get on a boat. The ferry took two hours and we were about as remote as could be. There was no service, and no one could find me.
Ramadhan began, and Mukut was dreamy. We were the only ones on the beach, and the only tourists boat rides away. Two huge mountain peaks pierced through the sky just above the village, like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There was a wooden swing on the beach under a magnificent, lush tree. We swam on a beach of dead coral, and then bouldered to reach a small platform that turned out to be a bar? (Malays don’t drink). A man came out of nowhere and opened a few beers for us. He said “you pay later, or tomorrow. I go to Mosque. Take more beers if want.” We drank and then went to the only restuaurant open before Iftar (breaking fast) and ate nasi goreng. At night we sat and watched the stars. I felt tethered to the earth. That night we managed to fit four people in a queen size bed in our Chalet. It was not pleasant.
The next day we went on a boat trip that took us around the island. We swam, shopped, and then went snorkeling for a long while. The coral was out of this world. There is nothing I love more than swimming with fish. I was having the best time when I spotted a shark. I swam back to the boat as fast as I could. People told me, “Clare, I have never seen you move that fast.” I reached the boat and hesitated to climb up. What’s the point? I’m here, we’re here. There is no way in hell I am going to sit this one out. I let go of the boat and saw more sharks, but the sharks seemed smaller, and a great big turtle popped up next to me that completely distracted me from the sharks. I had a really hard time getting back into that boat. We were dropped off at the start of a hike to a waterfall near our village. We climbed up to the waterfall to meet up with the other ETA’s who did not come on the boat trip. The water was freezing, it felt amazing. I walked back to the beach to the sound of the call to prayer, and settled into building fairy houses out of dead coral. At dinner, people started talking about things I don’t want to talk about so I went back to our chalet and sobbed. I tried my mom and the call went through. I laid down for a while and when I got up to go to the bathroom, I fainted. I felt so sick, my body was so hot. Luckily, I didn’t hit my head. Friends took turns coming into the room and massaging my back with lotion. Only three of us slept in the bed that night. The next morning, we got ready and took the ferry home. I was badly sunburnt. Sitting was painful. I started developing welts/blisters. When we got back to Olivia’s village we went to our first Ramadhan market and drank mango juice and bought nasi ayam kokus to take home. I couldn’t eat. I felt so nauseous and sat under a tree, defeated. Gabrielle drove us home.
My burns made school difficult. You could see my welts balloon through my baju kurung. I couldn’t sit, or lay on my back. My clothes stuck to my burns, making it difficult to take them off. As soon as I reached home I bathed in aloe vera and castor oil. All the while, at school I was fasting with my students, meaning no food or drink, unless you are on your period. I couldn’t imagine not fasting during school, because all day students complained about it. However, I was burnt worse than I ever have been before, and felt like I was going down hill fast. I kept thinking about how amazing it would be if somehow we could capture the heat stored in my body to use somehow. That day I drove myself to the klinik.
The village doctor saw the burns and picked up her phone. She called many different doctors and I waited, standing before her. I felt worried that she didn’t know what to do. She decided that I should walk across the hall to the emergency room where she would drain my blisters. As she was draining my blisters, a group of women amassed around my cot, despite the swaying curtains surrounding it, attempting to give me some privacy as I lay down with my entire backside out. I could tell they were talking about me, and not in a good way. It was then that it hit me: I was a teacher, and the burns were on my butt. I was wearing a bathing suit that exposed my butt and my back for all to see. My bathing suit was a free people one-piece that would be considered conservative for U.S. standards, but I was a teacher in a rural Malaysia at a 100% Muslim Malay school where I only show my face, neck, and hands. My stomach sank and I stuffed my face into the cot to block the tears from pouring out. I wanted to be as far away as possible, but that would be home, and I was worlds away from being the girl that left home in January, I was scared to be home. I settled for imagining myself in lotus position, sitting in the middle of the earth. It would be hot, but my body was already on fire.
“Why are they here. I want them to leave.” I barked. They left and I tried to watch the doctor pop my blisters but she wouldn’t let me. She prescribed me aloe vera and antibiotics and told me I didn’t have to pay. On July 10, sitting on my couch writing this blog, I am relieved to say that my burns have completely healed. The human body is a god damn miracle.
The next few weeks were eerie, consisting of fasting, and heavy rains. I started getting used to teachers not showing up, and began to lesson plan. I taught students when to use i before e, or e before i. I played Jeopardy. I had them write essays and hand them in. I would correct their grammar and write down the common mistakes in my book. During class I went through the errors with them and had them work as a class to fix their mistakes. If you know me, or are reading this post, you know I suck at grammar so it is ironic I am teaching it. We watched “Up.” At assembly I had students practice public speaking and gave test taking tips I found online. I fasted most days at school but often ended up sneaking a sip of water or two when no one was looking because my body could not handle fasting in the Malaysian heat. Another key aspect of this time period was paranoia over bed bugs. It was either we had bed bugs, or we haven’t found the bed bugs yet (disclaimer, we never had bed bugs). The drama started when one ETA told us she had bites all over the back, and her doctor told her they were from bed bugs. She connected the dots and thought she got them from our cheap Chalet in Tioman. I went into a frenzy of laundry, checking for black dots, for bites, and showering non stop. I found two dead bugs, but I am still not sure what kind of bugs they were. I grew so desperate I soaked my freaking mattress in bleach. My biggest fear was that I would bring the bugs to school and give them to another teacher, or one of the 400 students at school. I went to teachers’ homes to break fast and sat on the edge of chairs. Before I went I would shower and wear freshly washed clothes. Then, exams started. It was still Ramadhan, but exams started. Fasting was getting easier for me and the students, but exams during fasting was a real feat. During this time I deeply missed the social aspect of eating with teachers and students and realized what an important role food plays in my life here.
That weekend, I left for Langkawi island with Gabs. We met Alicia and Sarah at the airport and they joked that they hit a pole and were missing our flight. It was not funny to me. Gabs and I were upgraded to first class, but that doesn’t mean much on Air Asia. We arrived and met up with five other ETAs and ate biryani and salad. Our Air Bnb was massive. Everyone went out drinking, but I stayed in to process everything going on back at school. The next morning, Sarah, Gabs, and I got up early to watch the sunrise and walked on a beautiful, empty beach for a while. It was beautiful, but littered with trash. We went back later with everyone else but I was all covered up, and tried to use a tiny umbrella to block the sun from my face. While on the beach, Alicia and I dreamt up a big breakfast for the next morning full of avocados, sweet potatoes, feta, tortillas…we had a great time dreaming it up. However, we walked to several different grocery stores, and they had less than the grocery store near my village, 30 minutes away. We ended up making French toast, fried eggs, and Sarah made us mango smoothies. The other five girls left that morning, so Sarah, Alicia, and I grabbed (~uber) to a cozy hostel where we stayed two more nights. We spent the day swimming and reading on an empty beach tucked away. That night we had the most delicious Korean food…sharing bibimbap, scallion pancakes, free appetizers, and free ice cream! After, we walked to the beach and swam with the sunset. We walked up to shore and found an incredible beachside bar/restaurant called Hidden where we were served free cocktails.
The next day Alicia and I woke up early and read outside in hammocks. We then attempted to go shopping but food poisoning hit us hard. We decided to rally and hike to a waterfall. Our grab driver dropped us off as far away from the trailhead as she possibly could, so we had to walk on the highway (jungle highway) for a few km but I think it helped my stomach. Once we got there, we swam in the ice cold water and succumbed to the beautiful, gushing, lush waterfall. Other people were there but it didn’t matter. We swam and swam and swam. That night we went to the beach to watch the sunset, and then ate pizza and nachos at Hidden. The pizza was not bread covered with mayo, chili sauce, and hotdogs! We got back, and Sarah and Alicia read werewolf fiction on this fan fiction app that only lets you read a bit at a time.
Back in Pahang, our former Sultan passed away. As a sign of respect, every governmental employee (teachers included) had to wear black with a black or white tudong (hijab) for thirty days. Men had to wear black songkoks with a white ribbon around them. We had a day off to mourn the death of our late king so Gabs and I drove to Karak to meet Sarah and Alicia and retrieve my toiletry bag with all of my essentials I had misplaced. While waiting for Sarah and Alicia to arrive, Gabs and I met the sweetest woman named Thulasi who owned a clothing shop and talked to us for a while about how no ETAs were placed in Tamil high schools. She poured her heart out to us about the racism she experiences. I bought henna from her for my sister. We then met Alicia and Sarah at a small bao bun shop and met the wonderful shop owner/baker who took over the business and moved back home to take over the shop after his father died.
Later, I broke fast with the teachers at my school at a nearby restaurant and drove with the only other non-Malay staff member at the school, Miss Tan. We talked about Buddhism. She told me she switches off praying for her ancestors with her mom, and rarely goes to our local temple. We talked about TCM and the power of jade. We arrived late. The teachers and their families were all sitting, ready to eat. The food was prepared and in front of them, under netting to protect the food from flies. The anticipation was tangible. Just before the time came to break fast (the time is dependent on the sun), the teachers poured their drinks and plated their food. When the time came, everyone prayed and then began eating and drinking. We were served beef intestines, tom yam, calamari, chicken, vegetables, nasi, and watermelon juice. I hope to never eat beef or pork again in this lifetime, so I avoided the intestine, but I respect it. Miss Tan and I sat with another teacher whose family was sick. He works in the library and has become my friend. We got to talking and he told me he drives 180 km/hour when he is alone on his motorbike. On the drive home, Miss Tan and I talked about plural marriage in Malay culture, and we talked more about TCM. She told me I should avoid drinking cold water and avoid washing my hair during my period. I asked her if I could get a consultation and she suggested we do a cupping, spooning, and fire treatment that we have booked for August, all done by an 80 year old man who comes with his family. She told me that after the treatments, he would write down a recipe that I should take to one of the two TCM shops in my town, and talk to an experienced shop owner who prepares the herbs. After, we go home and brew a tea. The concept of food as therapy, and medicine fascinates me. “Why do your Western medications have side effects?” Miss Tan asked me. I thought about it for a while but could not come up with a logical answer. It didn’t make sense to me either. She then quickly pulled over and treated me to red bean soup and barley soup at a local shop. “The soups are good for your period” she said, knowing it was that time for me.
The next day was teacher Wani’s last day (the replacement teacher for my mentor during her maternity leave.) She has become a real friend to me, suffering, and laughing with me each day in the classroom. She studied to be a teacher but told me she never wanted to teach again after this experience. She was 21 and I was 22 teaching high school students English. I would read the text and the students would repeat my words to practice pronunciation, and then she would try and translate. It was not always pretty, but we got through a great deal of material! That day we had a Raya assembly where students read Al Quran and then us teachers lined up and the students walked through and ‘salaamed’ us and apologized for their wrongdoings. After, Gabrielle drove me to the bus and we got bubble tea. By that point, my parents had reached Kuala Lumpur…which was surreal. My friend Lee Ting happened to be on the same bus as me and we sat together and she taught me mandarin. That night I met up with my parents! More on that later! As my students write in their essays “that all from me. Bye now. Pen off.”
Whew. Thank you for reading. I know that was an extremely long one. Also, thank you to everyone who has written me a letter. I check my mailbox every day and get extremely emotional with each letter. I have so much love for you.