Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Taufiqil (TAOW-fi-keel) gets up at 4:30am. He is the only one of the eight that share a room to be awake and alert this early. He gets me up, gently pushing my shoulder and whispering with tangible urgency. I open my eyes, and meet his. Mine are tired, not used to beating the sun to meet the day but his are focused. His mind and his heart are into this. Taufiqil is waking up before even the first trace of sun hits the horizon in order to pray and eat a big meal. He has to, as he will not eat again until after sunset.

The reason? The Holy Month of Ramadan. Muslims take a month out of the year as a sacred time to fast and pray with extra vehemency. The rules are, basically, nothing passes your lips from sunup to sundown. Not food, drink, medicine, cigarettes, a kiss, or anything else. It is a serious fast.

I can tell the Taufiqil has mastered this routine through extensive practice. After he lays a colorful rug on the ground facing Mecca, he whispers verses of the Koran in three different positions. First, standing, then kneeling, then on his hands and knees with his forehead touching the ground. After he is done, we then stumble down from the fourth floor of a concrete dormitory to the cafeteria where great pots of food wait to be served on metal trays. As is Malay custom, we eat with our hands, deftly pushing small wads of rice and chicken in our mouths. Even though my eyes are awake, I don't think my tongue is, and I merely feel my morning meal. After eating as much as we can, we head back to the dorm to catch a few more hours of sleep before class.

When he again wakes me, its even harder to shake it off. I feel like a lazy schoolboy shrugging off his mother's wake up calls, except the person waking me up is a schoolboy. After taking a cold shower from a pipe in the bathroom wall, we get dressed and after another prayer we head to school. The walk is not far the prayer room for Qur'an recitation. Boys and girls enter from separate sides of the building, and everyone takes off their shoes and washes their hands, faces, and feet before entering. Once inside, groups of boys and girls on opposite sides of the room gather in small circles and take turns reading the Qur'an. As the ancient Arabic gently whispers from each boy's lips, their lowered eyes follow the beautiful script, right to left. I wonder how much they really understand, and whether or not they get much out of this sacred exercise, but the looks on their faces certainly make me feel like they do. After about an hour of this, we go back outside and head across the school campus to the computer lab.

Only about half of the computers actually work despite being brand new, so clusters of two or three gather around each computer taking turns surfing the net or listening to music. Access to certain material is strictly limited, and the proxy server that acts as a security blanket blocks out all sorts of material. Anything about pornography, related to games, deemed "tasteless," or (to my surprise) about "non-traditional religions and occult and folklore" is unaccessible. If you look carefully at the URL I was trying to access, you will see that I was trying to read something about Pisces. This is an example of the great care that is taken to isolate and protect young children from material that may be harmful, an admirable goal, but perhaps this particular situation is a bit on the cautious side. Like I've said before, the lines are just drawn in different places here. Oh, by the way the translation of the banner on that page reads "Quality Education for the Foundation of a Developed Generation."

Since Taufiqil's class is finished with his national exams and school holidays are rapidly approaching, we spend the rest of the day in the computer lab taking turns playing video games. Someone snuck in a copy of the original CounterStrike and we pass the time killing virtual terrorists and enjoying the computer lab's air conditioning. By the time school is over in the early afternoon, I am ready for a nap and head back to my apartment. When I wake up, I expect to be violently hungry, but instead am only lethargic and when six o'clock rolls around, I know that I have to hit the market before sundown or there will be no food for me. Lazily, I go down to my motorbike and head into town to a long row of tents set up in a road near the town square. All sorts of food and drink are being sold, and all of it made fresh right on the spot. It is a bit like the state fair without the rides or livestock shows, and people from all over town gather to grab their evening meal before heading home. I love this Ramadan Bazaar (Pasar Ramadan in Malay) since I am too tired and lazy to cook my own food, and the selection is impressive. Rice dishes of all kinds, omelettes, cakes, kebabs, freshly squeezed juices, and fireworks are for sale. I grabbed enough for three or four and head to an internet cafe where I met some friends. After nearly fourteen hours of fasting, it is safe to say that anything I ate would taste delicious, but breaking fast with good food makes things even better. When the time comes, my friends and I dig in, eating slowly so we won't overwhelm our stomachs. Not a bit of food is left when we are finished. Full and happy, we lean back and talked for a little while before parting ways.

Now, it might sound crazy to fast for such a long time, even borderline foolish to many Americans back home. After all, if you don't eat well, you can't work as hard and you'll have a tough time staying on top of things. And not drinking water in the tropical heat, well that might sound just damn stupid. But then again, getting drunk at a party sounds just as foolish to Malay Muslims in my area, and for good reason. Drinking a little bit too much is, well, not good for you. A hangover is a sign of toxicity, and numbing your senses like that is known to kill brain cells. Plus, bad decisions are a lot easier to make when you're drunk. Just look at my friend Nuts. Yet both fasting and drinking are accepted social customs in different cultures. Why fast for so long, why put yourself through that hardship? As the end of the month neared, I began to understand. Think of all the people in the world who do not have the benefit of a regular source of food. Do they sometimes go without food for a day, sometimes days? What is it like to feel like they do? If we don't put ourselves through the same hardship, we will never know and we will never be able to connect with them on that fundamental level. Needless to say, going without is not exactly an essential part of the American lifestyle. But during Ramadan, everyone who is a Muslim fasts, rich and poor, men and women, adults and elders. And at the end of the day, the act of breaking fast together and sharing the wonderful feelings of eating such a well-deserved meal can bring people together quite closely. It is also a reminder that our bodies have limits and have a finite lifespan. We will not be around forever, and should definitely make the most of what time we do have.

When I pledged a fraternity, I was taught how enduring common hardship with a group of people binds you together. Indeed, some of the friends that I am closest with and have kept in touch with the most while in Malaysia are my fraternity brothers. I feel the need to stress that these hardships were in no way illegal, involuntary, or dangerous and I am proud of my membership. But take that same principle and apply it to an entire community. Not only do you become more appreciative of simple things like food and drink, but you also become closer with your friends and family. I know I feel closer to the boys that I stayed with in the school's dormitory for a night after fasting and spending a day with them. And the self-control and discipline that you learn by resisting the most primal of impulses, hunger, is character building to say the least.

And so at the end of Ramadan, or Hari Raya (Party Days), there is truly something to celebrate. Not only is it celebration of the end of hardship, but also a time to be proud that you made it through a difficult month. The closer you observed the right way of doing things, the more you earn the celebration and the more satisfying the end really is. That said, I am sorry to say that I did not follow those guidelines for the entire month. I made a compromise. Instead of eating before the sun rose, I instead ate when I woke up and didn't eat or drink again until sundown. I know that this is far from the correct way of observing this holiday, and that Ramadan is more than just skipping lunch, but I was very hungry by the end of the day and did enjoy the food and company much more than if I had done nothing close to fasting. Perhaps if I understood more about the spiritual component of the holiday I would have felt a greater sense of purpose and woken up everyday with the same urgency and energy as Taufiqil.

Anyway, after the fasting stops, the doors of everyone's house open wide and food and drink are plentiful. I think I visited nearly fifteen different houses over the course of the holiday from one end of the state to the other, and I was more than happy to share a meal with anyone who was willing. At some of these houses, I had no idea who the host was, but this in no way affected the level of hospitality. When I arrived to a house full of friends and family, everyone was usually spread out, talking and eating. But when word got around that a white man had come, the talk stopped and usually a small circle of people gathered around me, waiting and watching. When I started speaking the language, I could see their faces light up and relax a little bit. They seemed genuinely honored that a foreigner had taken the time to learn the local language, and even a few words of the local dialect. Some of these houses were beautiful and huge, while others were made from corrugated steel, plywood and tarps, but all of them were welcoming and insisted that I have something to eat and drink. I again was treated like part family, part celebrity. I even had the privilege of meeting the Chief Minister of Terengganu (like the state governor) at his mansion in the capital and shake his hand before eating his delicious food. As nice as his mansion was, however, I think the house I enjoyed the most was the that of my foster family, Roslina and Kamal. These were the people that took me into their home for three days when I first arrived in Malaysia, and after nearly a year here and several visits (as well as a roadtrip), I feel closer to them than some of my own aunts and uncles. They again took me in, fed me, and took me to visit all of their neighbors and family members as an honored guest. The whole affair is rather like Christmas in many respects, with the exception of having to buy a present for everyone. They just cut right to the point and give out little envelopes of money to all of the children. There is no set amount, and the envelopes have no one's name on them, so there isn't a lot of favoritism. All a child has to do is "salaam" the money holding adult by touching his or her forehead to the adult's backhand, and the money is given with a smile.

In the end, I was most impressed with the warmth with which I received. In my area, I think the stereotype of Americans is less than favorable, and to be accepted and welcomed anyway is a sign of an ability to distinguish individuals from stereotype, as well as genuine kindness and openness. I think I received more than ten invitations to come back to houses where I'd never been for another meal, and a couple of them even offered their extra beds to me whenever I was in the area for the night. Even after ten months, I still cannot believe that this type of attitude could actually exist; my time here has done a good deal to uplift my general faith in humanity.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Around Town

I live in a town called Chukai, in the district of Kemaman on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Right there in the red circle.

As you can imagine, it is quite different from life in America, and the town itself takes on a radically different shape than my hometown in Connecticut. I'm not saying its better or worse, and I can get pretty much everything I could want here. The local mall contains an arcade, all sorts of electronics shops, a department store, and even a clothing importer that specializes chiefly Levi's jeans. There are, however, a lot more small businesses and far fewer chain stores like in the U.S. These small businesses are usually simple and only provide a few services, and only one or two clerks are working at any given time. For example, my bicycle shop is owned by one man, Awi, and his helper (his brother?) and all they do is sell and repair bikes. There isn't really a retail section in the store, mostly because space is so limited and the sales floor is the same thing as the workshop, but I can buy anything I need there even if Awi has to fish it out from a pile of unsold goods in the back. Not in stock? He orders it for me. There is a supermarket here too, but to be quite honest, its actually cheaper to buy food at restaurants and food stalls than cook for myself. Whenever I want to make my own food, its actually more expensive for me to buy the pasta and sauce than it is for me to eat three full meals out (drinks included). For me, this is a good thing since I'm not much of a cook.

The town itself seems to be much more tightly packed together than anything back home, and even though a significant portion of people have cars, many others ride small motorscooters or walk and as a result the business district seems to be much more concentrated. Perhaps its just Connecticut, but it seems like it takes forever to drive from one place to another. Here, not so much. Cars just aren't a necessity like they are back home, partly because of the cost, and partly because of the weather. Bicycles or scooters work just fine in the tropical heat, and to be honest I kind of like weaving though a long line of stopped cars and trucks without a roof over my head or a windshield acting like a convection oven. I miss having a car when it rains, though.

There are also things that confuse me, and they probably always will.

Now, Throughout U.S. history, Americans have looked to the future with a certain raw optimism that I think has shaped our national identity. The Revolutionary War was fought (theoretically) on principles of independence and freedom, and through over half of America's existence, we have had a frontier to push to. In the back of our heads, Americans have always known there is a place for us to start over if we wished, to begin a new life as we see fit. I think as a result, it is uniquely American belief to think that we have both the right and ability to change ourselves if we desire and start afresh. Immigrants who came to the U.S. also had the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a new way if they wished, questioning and re-evaluating their own traditions and cultures and able to keep what they wished while leaving everything else behind.

That has not happened here, not in my state anyway. Instead, modernization has come through foreign channels, always from the outside. Malaysia has had a long history of being occupied and colonized by one power or another throughout history, and this has greatly affected the way that many people view modernization and might explain why some may fear, resent, or oppose a more modern way of life. Here, it seems, many are pulled in a great many different directions by their instincts to be true to their identity while at the same time learning how to choose beneficial elements of modernity. I see it in my students every day: they are so often torn between old and new ways of life.

Chukai shows some of these signs of strain and conflict. Here, there are supermarkets right next to shacks made from corrugated steel. Chinese businessmen sip tall bottles of beer just a couple blocks away from the local mosque where alcohol consumption of any kind is a serious sin. Modern businesses that serve both local and Western food stand with brightly painted signs a few miles from a fishing village that looks like it hasn't changed in a thousand years. Compared to a good deal of the area, this town is fairly developed and contains a lucrative oil field about five miles north of the town, as well as one of the deepest ports in Malaysia. All along the ocean's horizon I can see a line of oil tankers heading out to various parts of world, and the gas flares light up the northern sky with a strange orange light, which casts flickering shadows on that fishing village I mentioned. There are several local coffee shops that are quite popular, and all food served is Halal (kind of like Kosher, but for Muslims). Particularly at night, families come and eat anything from French fries to keropok lekor (a deep fried fish sausage which might sound disgusting, but is actually pretty good). I have this image of a young Muslim woman, completely covered with the exception of her face and hands, enjoying her food while booty-shaking dancers flanking Ludacris played on a projector TV in the background. Keep in mind that when Gwen Stefani played in Kuala Lumpur, she was not allowed to show her belly button. I guess that Ludacris video just slipped through the cracks. I'll also never understand why alcohol is avoided with such rigor, to the point where some locals will not eat at a restaurant that serves beer or wine, while cigarettes are enjoyed by nearly everyone. Except women. I have never seen a woman smoking in this state. Yes, I know that alcohol and pork are 'haram' or forbidden by Islam, but medically speaking cigarettes are far worse. Why avoid pork and alcohol with such zeal but freely use tobacco? It is confusing to me.

Another strange place where the old and new collide is the internet café. Here, I see almost exclusively young men surfing the net, ogling women in scanty clothes, chatting online and playing games that I personally enjoy, but seem to not belong here. All three versions of Grand Theft Auto III, criticized by conservative groups in the U.S. as being too violent and graphic, are available to anyone willing to pay fifty cents an hour. Terrorist Takedown to my awkward surprise, is also popular. To see young local boys cruising around in virtual humvees and taking out hundreds of little Arab looking men seems, well, very very out of place.

For me, as different as this place can be, there are pockets of familiarity that can be rather comforting. Yesterday, I got on my moto and drove to the next town, completely on a whim. I decided to see if a McDonaldd's cheeseburger in Malaysia tastes the same as a cheeseburger in Baltimore. It does. Exactly the same. There are a couple extra items on the menu, including rice dishes, and of course there is no bacon, but everything is pretty much the same. Except, of course, the women's uniforms. They wear a tudung that covers their hair according to local custom. Incidently, I don't see all of the girls in my area wearing their scarves all the time. Just today, a girl said "Hi Mr. Len!" from her motor bike, and I had no idea who she was since she had dropped the head scarf that's part of her required school uniform. I can't recognize women when they don't wear their tudung, its like they are completely different people. I wonder who else drifts in and out of the tradition when they think no one is looking...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A day in the life.

When I talk to some of my friends back home, they all seem to think that Malaysia is a third world country, or that I'm in the middle of nowhere living in a hut. I'm ashamed to say that some of my friends even thought that Malaysia was located somewhere off of the coast of Africa (its not, it's in Southeast Asia). I want to take some time and show you what my daily life is like, and what exactly I do here, as well as show through pictures and my descriptions that although Malaysia is a very different place, it is not by any means a third world country. I happen to be in one of the lesser developed states of Malaysia, but that does not mean that everyone lives in shacks and subsists on coconuts. There are families here, families with minivans, families that like to go to the movies, families that eat dinner together at the table. People here are basically just like people in America, and have the same wants, desires, pressures, and shortcomings. There are a few major differences here, and those differences make Malaysia a really interesting place to live. The dynamics between different races and religions can be quite heated are a subject for an entire textbook, so I'm afraid I will have to leave that one for later. They are quite interesting to follow, on the other hand.

Now, on to my life, my everyday life. I do not live in a village. I do not hunt for my food. I do not wear a loin clothe and track prey with a blowpipe. I live in an apartment building a little bit nicer than my senior apartment at UMBC. It does not have airconditioning or hot water, but then again I don't really need those things. It is hot here, don't get me wrong, but a good ceiling fan takes care of things quite comfortablely. And when the temperature is so high, who needs hot water anyway? So, at any rate, here is a sample of my daily routine. I awake at dawn, shower, shave, get dressed in a button-up shirt and slacks and head downstairs where my ancient 70cc motorbike waits. I drive about 2 miles to work, obeying the speed limit mostly because I can't go faster than 35 mph or so. The obstacles are a little different from American roads. Since I live in a rural area, I sometimes have to watch out for cows, goats, water buffalo, or even monkeys as well as the usual assortment of cars, trucks, and tractor trailers. Sometimes traffic gets backed up both ways as far as the eye can see because a large bull has decided the middle of the road is a great place to hang out. After negotiating through the traffic, I arrive at school, and enjoy a cup of coffee while I check my email from a wireless router set up above my classroom. After that, I usually head to the school teachers' café and enjoy some good Malay food. That's right, a public school that serves good food. There usually some cakes and doughnuts available, made fresh onsite, and my favourite is a mix of coconut milk, glutenous rice, and brown sugar. Breakfast is usually nasi lemak. It's made from rice soaked in coconut milk, cucumbers, dried and salted fish, a fried egg, a piece of chicken or tuna, and a spicy chili sauce. To properly enjoy it, you must use your hands, and take a little of each ingredient in every bite. Malay etiquette does not require the use of silverware, and to be quite honest, it makes things easier to manage. I hate eating fried chicken with a fork and knife anyway.

After breakfast, I head to my classroom, being sure to leave the door open. There are many times when the students have class and the teacher gets called away to a meeting somewhere, leaving them unattended. There is a schedule of replacement teachers, drawn from the pool of all the teachers with an opening in their schedule, but the placements are not followed with sincerity. The result is at least twenty bored students at any given time roaming the school grounds looking for something to do, so I leave my door open in case they want to come in and practice their English. I travel all over Malaysia, sometimes as part of my job and sometimes on my own, and they seem to love the pictures. Everyday, at least four or five wander through my doors looking for something interesting. Sometimes we play games, my personal favourite being chess, and sometimes we just make jokes about anything from my arm hair to English itself. Some of the students have started to call me "Cikgu Bulu," which means, Mr. Body Hair. I am after all, the only person in the area with hair on his chest, and to be quite honest, I think the name is kind of funny. It stuck.

I usually have two eighty-minute classes per day, but since everyone is usually late, they wind up being more like an hour. I see a total of roughly five hundred students on a two week rotating schedule. I think this is much different than almost every other teacher at the school, but the benefit is that I get some exposure with a large group of students. I don't know how much tangible teaching I do, but at least the students can look forward to my class as a certain break from their usual routine. Because I only see each class every two weeks, my lessons can have very little continuity, so I'm not really able to teach anything that takes more than one session to accomplish. I usually fill the time with various games and puzzles with candy as a reward. I try and pick activities that are group based so the strong and weak students can mix and help each other out if necessary. One of my particular favourites is a game I call "Draw the Teacher." After a basic review of the major parts of speech, I divide the students into two groups and give each team a piece of chalk. One person from each team comes up to the board and waits for instructions. I say, "Draw Mr. Len's....EARS!" and after they have drawn something, usually ridiculous, I make them use an adjective to describe whatever they've created. They can ask their team for help if they like, and no repeating adjectives. The students have a great time since they're encouraged to make fun of their teacher (a truly rare opportunity) and broaden their descriptive capabilities.

After class, I head back to the school canteen for a light lunch, almost always with rice. I eat with the students on occasion, but most of them are so shy they spend most of their lunch staring at their food and praying that I don't ask them a question. At most, I can get two words out of the shy ones, whereas the interested ask to borrow books. Indeed, I just lent my copy of The Hobbit to one of my better students. He loved it.

After school gets out, I head to my moto, hustle home, and hop on my bicycle. The hottest part of the day has passed, but I still load on the sunscreen before heading out and roaming the town or countryside for a few hours as fast as my legs will let me. Exercising is not exactly part of the local culture, so I am sure to get plenty of stares as I meander through narrow roads or weavie through busy streets. Often, I can keep up with cars and motorbikes, and the surprised looks I get from the drivers are priceless. The thought of being passed on the street by a sweaty white guy on a bicycle is the last thing that they expect. I try to take my iPod with my and listen to my downloaded news podcasts to stay in touch with affairs in the U.S. from a U.S. perspective. The local news outlets are a little too government influenced for my liking and my body is worked by the bike while my mind stays busy processing whatever National Public Radio has to say. Its not a bad combination.

After I am dehydrated enough so that I can't go much further, I head back to my apartment, shower, and go out to a café (warung) to eat dinner. Believe it or not, it is actually cheaper for me to eat out than cook for myself. And since I don't have air conditioning, firing up the stove is something that I save for only special occasions. When I have a craving for pasta or a real hamburger, sometimes I light it up, but not very often.

After dinner, I head out for some extracurricular fun. When I first arrived, I would go for lessons in Silat (Malaysian martial arts), but I have lately been going back to school to work with a group of students that have expressed a particular interest in working with me. I seriously feel like my most successful exchanges have been with these kids, and I think it is mostly because they are completely free of their usual classroom environment. WIth them, I act like myself, answer anything they ask (within reason of course, I don't think its my place to explain to them anything related to drugs, sex, or alcohol). And you know what, with me, they act like real high school age students as opposed to the quite, shy, and obedient façade they take up during the day. They laugh freely, make dirty jokes, talk openly about almost anything, and ask questions that they would never dare ask of teachers. Some of them have even had the courage to ask, "Mr. Len, what do you think of Islam?" I answer honestly, "I think it is taken very seriously here, and can be quite beautiful." More on that subject later.

So what exactly do we do together? Well, I have been doing stage theatre since the age of four. I am proud to say that I was in fact Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in my pre-school Christmas play. I've seen old VHS tape, it is very cute. I have played many different roles in many different types of plays, everything from a Broadway musical to Shakespeare, and some of my most precious memories are of being backstage, waiting for my entrance and listening to the audience find their seats on the other side of the closed curtain. I thought that I might be qualified to share this experience with some of the more outgoing students here and provide them with a much-needed way to express themselves. The kids spend so much time preparing for hugely important national standardized tests in tightly controlled classroom environments (when the teacher is present) that they rarely get a chance to really push themselves or explore any aspect of their personalities that falls outside the regimen of school activities. Don't get me wrong, there are art classes and sports teams, but the participants don't really get to do what they want to do or set their own agenda. If you ask me the combination of teaching chiefly to the national exams as well a culture that seems to value unity rather than individual expression leads to a gross lack of creativity. So, I wanted to give some of the most independent and outgoing students a chance to do something completely different.

I wrote a short skit about an American teacher coming to a Malaysian school (original, yes?) and held auditions. I made several announcements over the PA system, both in English and apparently hilarious Malay, and when I arrived at the appointed time and place, there were nearly 120 girls waiting for me. They all seemed lost and confused, so I explained once more what an audition was and why I asked them to come here. Some of the students with better English nodded their heads and explained it to the rest, after which nearly everyone got up and left. Almost no one really wanted to be in it. Of those that had come, there were roughly twenty girls left, and not a sign of the boys, who wound up strolling in late. As usual. Upon arrival, they started to disrupt and interrupt what we were doing. My first impulse was to tell them to get lost. If they couldn't come on time for auditions, could they handle coming to rehearsal? But I needed boys, I couldn't be left alone in a room with a group high school girls and not get come uncomfortable looks from teachers and administrators. And I don't think it was because I am an American, but instead because I am a young man. When it comes to sexual matters, people here are, at least officially, quite conservative. So I explained again what was going on and most of them left after yelling obnoxious things in Malay at me, I think mostly to compensate for their shyness and unwillingness to stay and speak. Most of the boys that stayed and auditioned got in.

At the end of the whole process, I had twelve talented and wonderful kids, all of whom could speak decent English, and all of them with vibrant personalities and only a few traces of shyness, which mostly disappeared after the first rehearsal. There were fourteen total: three boys and eleven girls. Unfortunately, two of them were banned by their father (they are sisters) from participating when he found out what we were doing and when we were meeting. I'm still not really sure why as I was not given the privilege of speaking with him, but I think that it was because he simply did not want his daughters to be out at night. To me this sounded ridiculous, and I believe it sounded ridiculous to their mother as well, but she was unable to argue with her husband, from what I gather, out of fear. I would like to think that this type of decision making is the exception rather than the rule, but it is not the first time I have heard parents "protecting" their daughters by forbidding them to go out in the evening. The whole concept, although I understand the logic, is still hard for me to swallow. It also not the first time I have heard of a dominating patriarch making rather extreme decisions.

Anyway, now down to twelve, we had a few rehearsals, and then performed for an audience of school children gathered from around the state. Each of the seven remaining Fulbright English Teacher Assistants hosted some type of performance, everything from choral speaking, to a short skits, to small vocal ensembles. We performed, and we rocked. I'll try and see if I can get ahold of the video footage, but I think we stood out from many of the other performances because, well, I think the audience thought we were hilarious and the group of kids that performed did so at the very best of their abilities. And so, I would like to publicly and electronically congratulate the students involved: Sharul, Zam, Fazrin, Aim, Iran, Wawa, Umi, Arin, Neesa, Waheeda, Eda, and Fatin. I would also like to thank Puan Nor Azahan and Puan Aminah for coming to rehearsals after their evening prayers and helping me in any way they could, as well as Puan Tan for driving us to Kuala Terengganu. I would not have been able to get things done without their help and coordination. I had the privilege of being in the show with the students, as a schoolboy, and from what I gather, students, teachers, several American visitors, as well as many government officials sincerely enjoyed what we did. Thank you everyone!

The students and I celebrated afterward with a traditional pizza party, which believe it or not is insanely expensive here. I think they have to import the cheese from halfway across the world or something. You know, I thought that getting close to students might not have been the best idea, simply because when I leave saying goodbye to them is going to be extremely hard. I was right, it is a bad idea. I don't know if I'm ever going to see any of these kids again, but if they are reading this, I want them to know that my best experiences teaching in Malaysia were with them. I'll miss them dearly.

NOTE: Before I end this post, I would like to invite all of those who read this blog to freely comment on my entries. Please, be open and honest. I want this to not only be a way for me to update everyone at home on what I'm doing, but also to create an open environment where any issue can be discussed, as well as provide a way for people in both Malaysia and America to open up a sincere dialogue about ideas generated by the content of my articles. I will gladly post responses under the name "leninmalaysia" every few days if a response does in fact result . If, however, your comment is rude or disrespectful in any way to Americans or Malaysians AS PEOPLE I will delete your comment. Examples of comments that will get deleted: (1) Why are all Americans so fat? (2) Why are Malay girls so hot? (3) anything insulting religion or culture. I do, however, welcome criticism of government policy, on either side, as long as things are kept fairly civil. I know that I do not wholeheartedly agree with every policy from either country.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Let’s talk about Borneo. Sounds exotic, right? Like maybe somewhere Indiana Jones would visit to steal a golden monkey or something?
Borneo is a giant island in between in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, split up in ownership between Indonesia, Malaysia, and a little country called Brunei, the last being the remnants of a now crumbled pre-colonial kingdom. The jungles of Borneo are still wild, native cultures are still present, some of them largely untouched by the hand of modernisation. Well, I didn’t find any golden monkeys or anything, but a few weeks ago I touched down on the island of Borneo in a city called Kuching (which literally means “cat”). Yes, in the city of Cat I got to see a completely different side of Malaysia. In this place, there is quite a bit more development, complete with malls, highways, traffic jams, and fast food as well as a much greater degree of racial diversity. The average level of English proficiency is quite good, and the people there feel distinctly modern in their attitudes and opinions. In short, it is rather like going from the rural heart of the Deep South to San Francisco.
I flew into the gorgeous airport with my good friend Sandhya, another English teacher from my program, to attend the Rainforest World Music Festival. There were groups from almost every corner of the planet playing amazing music for three days. The festival was near a beach and rainforest resort north of the city and hosted thousands of people from around the world who had come to enjoy and celebrate all kinds of different cultures. The journey took almost on hour, and although the roads were straight and smooth, as we got farther and farther away, irregularly shaped mountains started to march closer from the horizon and jungle on the sides of the road grew thicker. The housing developments disappeared, and then the road started to wildly curve and narrow.
When the bus finally stopped, we were at the bottom of a green tooth-shaped mountain standing in the back of a huge crowd of people waiting in messy lines to get in. The crowd, however, did not feel Malaysian. Almost every major race was present. Guys wore jeans and t-shirts, and almost none of the women were covering their heads. In fact most covered very little, which took a little getting used to. Security felt like an airport, and once inside, people chatted in more languages than I have ever heard together in my life. Among the traditional wooden buildings used by the locals, there were hundreds of plastic white tents set up on clusters and rows through a series of clearings. Right next to an Iban longhouse, which used to provide shelter for an entire community, a giant inflatable Heinenken bottle subtly suggested an activity to help everyone get along.
In one of the clearings, two very tall trees, both equally tall and thick, stood on one edge as it began to slope up the mountain. In between hung a roof packed with stage lights, and below, a small stage was lit in bright green. Down the hill and to its left, a stage that looked like it had been air-lifted from the Super Bowl halftime show was swarming with techies. This was where the action happened.
Here, bands from almost every corner of the world gathered and music from Iran, America, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Madagascar, Borneo, Zimbabwe, Russia, Poland, Afghanistan, Peru, Chile, Australia, Canada, Scotland, and Italy entertained nearly ten thousand travemomentslers from around the globe. I was privileged to be one of them. The music was amazing, with instruments that I had never seen before in my life, some of which I will probably never see again.
A few worthy-to-remember moments:

-After the bands performed, they would often mix with the crowd at the food stalls and were both approachable and friendly. If you wanted to just thank them for coming, or even have an extended conversation, they were usually open and available. No bodyguards. No adolescent swarm. They were like regular people, with the exception of course that they had just entertained a crowd almost the size of my hometown.

-As I was getting some food one night, a new band starting playing from Washington state. They called themselves the Foghorn Stringband, and consisted of a bunch of middle-aged men playing a stand up bass, a banjo, a guitar and a mandolin. Now, my own father plays in a band with those same characteristics, and I started listening with my family to Bluegrass music while I was still in the womb. To come across the planet, to Malaysian Borneo, and hear the exact same music you grew up with is strange and at the same time comforting. Maybe the world isn’t so big after all.

-As the bluegrass band was playing, a flying squirrel glided a from one side of the audience to the other, finally landing on a tree on the outer edge of the clearing. You know you are in the rainforest when...

-Even though there were bands from around the world, some of them from countries that do not get along, no political statements were made and I saw no signs of conflict whatsoever, not even as the night went on and a few perhaps drank more than their share.

-Smaller afternoon sessions were held in a few buildings during the day. These workshops gave the audience a chance to learn more about each musical genre, and sometimes even participate in a drum circle or a jam session. You simply can’t do that with famous commercial band, and the music was arguably better.

-The food was absolutely amazing although expensive. There was cuisine from almost every Asian nation, as well as a few authentic burger stands and even a sub shop. There it would be perfectly feasible to take a tour of the immediate world without travelling more than a few meters, but you might have a put on more than a few pounds. Apparently, most of the world is united in tasty deep-fried food.

-Out of a crowd of ten thousand, I met one American. Only one. Either we are all pretending to be Canadian these days, or we just aren’t traveling very much.
Now, if you ask me, it would be better for all Americans to travel at a time when our minds are still open and we don’t have the responsibilities of a family or specialised career as of yet. I have met a few British students in my time here that are doing something called a “gap year.” In between high school and university, these students take a year or so to travel and see another part of the world before they really decide what they want to do. I wish now that I had done something similar before choosing my major. Perhaps my career opportunities would look dramatically different and I would have had the time to reflect on what I really want. I loved what I studied, and I will most likely have a future in the sciences, but then again I loved almost all of my classes. I wonder if I would have concentrated on something else had a been given a chance to see what I am seeing right now.
At any rate, I think that the American public in general would be less likely to make political and ethical decisions with a narrow view of the world and its people, as well as better understand our role in that world. For example, if the majority of high school age students travelled to a less developed part of the world, not only would they be less likely to take the many privileges we have at our disposal for granted, but they would probably understand a little but more about what the face of the rest of the world looks like. It might help to see people living happily on a small fraction of the average American income, or a comfortable and convenient life without a car. More importantly, I think it would help everyone to see that there are other ways of living life where people are just as happy, sometimes even more so. I have said this before, and I will say it again: the U.S. is a great country, and we should be proud of what and who we are, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn and benefit from other ways of doing things. We simply have to go out there and see some of these things for ourselves. For those of you who read this in hopes of travelling abroad one day, or if perhaps you are in college right now and are unsure about the next step of your life and career: travel! There are a million places to go, and a million ways to do it. It will seriously be one of the best things you will ever do with your life.

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