A Year into My Decision to Come to Malaysia, Taking Stock of Where I Am

It’s 11 at night and, stomach overfull from mounds of rice, chicken, beef, lamb, and no vegetables, I am writing this journal in the dim light of my bedroom. My music, a loop of Oliver Tank’s Dreams album (specifically chosen because it has so few words) is turned up in a vain attempt to drown out the sound of fireworks all around me. They have been going off all month, first for families celebrating iftar, the nightly meal to break fast during Ramadan, now for families celebrating Hari Raya,[1] which marks the end of the Ramadan month.[2] There is no pattern to suggest any kind of coordination, just intermittent sounds of Boom! and Fizz! blasting through the night. Sometimes one of our neighbors’ fireworks won’t go off properly and careens into our tin roof, causing a loud Bang! above us. The fireworks sound uncomfortably like gunshots: each time one goes off my heart races just a bit and I have to stop what I am doing. The crashes and explosions are so loud that last night, when a cat crashed through the ceiling in my roommate’s bathroom, he assumed it was just a firework and didn’t discover until morning that there was a living, breathing cat behind his toilet. But that’s another story.

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My roommate, my teacher mentor, and me at a Hari Raya meal, in traditional Malay dress.

In the time I’ve been writing, the fireworks have subsided, but I know there will be stragglers going off until at least 2 a.m. In the spaces in between fireworks, crickets blare through my headphones, but at least they turn into a constant white noise. There’s a faint smell of smoke in the air that my wall fan is covering up, and my whole body is itchy, the product of hot weather, no air conditioning, and a washing machine that doesn’t quite get everything clean. I’m starting to get sleepy, but my wifi, which I get through a portable hotspot tied to my school account, has been working uncharacteristically well over the past couple weeks, so I’m sending messages with a few of my students over Whatsapp. We’ve been working on a recycling project for my school over the past three and a half months, though “working” is perhaps a generous term for what we’ve been doing. More accurate would be to say that we’ve been having meetings and talking about doing things that won’t actually get done. But my kids actually got together and worked on the project without me this week, so they’re on my good side. And they’re good kids. So, I’m telling them what I’ve been up to this week.

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My recycling project kids!

I talk about the first part of my week, when I took a road trip with three other Fulbright teachers to the east coast state of Terengganu, where we camped on an island for four days. I try to describe what it was like to go snorkeling and scuba diving there, separated from schools of fish, sting rays, and turtles by only a few feet of crystal-clear water. I’m conscious of the fact that, despite the relatively short five-hour drive, most of my students will never see the East Coast for the foreseeable future, so I compare it unfavorably to our West Coast tropical island, Langkawi, which is a bit easier to get to. Still, I talk about how fun it is to sleep in a tent and to swim and to kayak. I tell them to go to the beach in Langkawi.

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Sunset on the island of Langkawi, the tropical island off the west coast of Malaysia.

Then, I talk about my day back in Perlis, or rather, about my evening, when two students of one of the Fulbirght teachers took us to a Hari Raya open house, where I ate the aforementioned food. I talk about how I met a Member of Parliament there, and how I got RM 40 for duit raya.[3] My students marvel at my proximity to high society and my duit raya haul—they say they would have to go around to 20 kampung (village) houses to get RM 40. I ask them how their Hari Raya celebrations are going; a couple of them talk about going to open houses and eating a lot of food. There’s a non-Muslim student in my group, Zhi Wei, who hasn’t said anything—I wonder if her silence is due to general shyness or a religious marginalization I am all too familiar with. I pause for a second to consider how shitty it feels to be excluded from the so-called national holiday, and ponder whether I should’ve brought up the subject in the first place. But I’m just humoring myself. It’s Hari Raya break: I can’t not talk about Hari Raya. I continue the conversation for a bit longer, until there’s a natural break, and finally, I put down my phone.

I think back to my Ramadan experience last summer, which was, well, pretty bare. I had been invited to a community suhoor (pre-fast morning meal) by a Turkish man I’d met in one of my forays to the State Department, but I’d been out of town.[4] And suddenly, it hits me: it was a year ago this week that I found out I’d get the chance to come to Malaysia. The decision hadn’t been an easy one. I had been an alternate for the grant for three months, so by the time I got a call from Fulbright I had already made plans to stay in DC for the next couple years. I was in New York for work the day that Fulbright called, so I spent the day traipsing around Manhattan trying to weigh my future in DC against my future in Malaysia: the known vs. the unknown. I imagined myself, as I stood on the deck of the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District, slaloming through beach and jungle, fighting through the twists and turns of rural Malaysian life, and finding some new friends to share a life-changing experience with. I didn’t have much more information than that, but the vague image was too much to turn down. So, one year ago tomorrow, I made the call that set everything in motion for where I am today.

Looking back on my past week, it seems like a microcosm of everything I wanted to get out of coming to Malaysia. I went to a beautiful tropical island with some new friends, I got to use my new skill—scuba diving—to explore the island, I got an interesting perspective on US-Malaysia relations from a Member of Parliament, and I’m sharing my experiences with some of my students. Not to mention that I’m still building my resiliency by fighting to concentrate over these firework explosions. If the Jonathan of 2015 could see my week this week, I can’t help but think he’d be happy with the decision he made.

But then, of course, I think back to the week before this one. That week, I didn’t go anywhere postcard-worthy. I took part in the Ramadan fast for half the week,[5] taking advantage of the A/C and decent Internet to follow NBA free agency, track the election, and play chess online. I didn’t have any amazing conversations with teachers, students, or Members of Parliament, and I didn’t do anything particularly fun or exciting. I taught some classes, played some basketball, and tried not to be too bored. And that was about it.

The essence of my time in Malaysia, more than the religious culture, or the rural geography, or even the heat, is in that oscillation, from the unbelievable to the incredibly mundane, excitement to boredom. In a way, it’s the hardest thing to deal with, the spot where my resiliency doesn’t feel so strong anymore. Concentration through distraction, navigating awkward cultural conversations, functioning in bureaucracy—they teach you all of those skills in school. What to do when you don’t really have anything to do all day and you’ve been staring at a computer screen for five hours; well, I didn’t come across that dilemma much in school. I was always busy. You don’t have time to deal with feelings of stagnation and boredom when you’re in the States working 60 hours a week or writing three essays a week.

Of course, there’s always more that I could do to keep myself busy. I could seek out more crazy celebrations, or devote more time to doing projects around school, or spend more time writing and reflecting. And I want to do all of those things. On the other hand, you can’t really understand rural Malaysian life without understanding boredom, the slow drip of day passing into mundane day, life punctuated only by a wedding, perhaps, or by a holiday, or by the arrival of someone new and different into your community (a foreigner, perhaps?). The oscillation I feel all the time here takes place because boredom begets celebration, and perhaps, the other way around, too. You can’t have one without the other, and in the midst of my super-busy, city slicker lifestyle, I never quite realized as much.

So, a year’s gone by since my decision to go to Malaysia, with four months to go before I return home, and I know, at least, what I should be working on. Giving more time to my school, of course, is top on the list, as well as spending more time with friends, and perhaps even learning not to resent my neighbors who have been setting off fireworks at 2 a.m. every night for a month. And I want to go to the jungle and the beach more. But, as I finish this blog, now well into the afternoon of a day spent mostly staring at my computer screen, I would do well to appreciate the many roles that boredom plays in my life and in communities around the world. At the very least, all that appreciation should help to pass the time.

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A selfie at the Hari Raya celebration at my school.

[1] Literally: “festival day”

[2] In America, we refer to Hari Raya by its Arabic name, Eid-al-Fitr. Malaysians will sometimes make use of this Arabic name: the official name of the holiday is Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

[3] It’s customary for people hosting open houses to give envelopes of money to guests.

[4] The suhoor was also at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so I’m not sure I would’ve attended anyway.

[5] In Malaysian schools, the teachers travel around to classrooms, instead of the other way around, so the teachers will have their permanent desks all together in a teacher’s room

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