Sometimes, they run after you. They bare their teeth and hiss. Or they’ll jump as high as they can, climbing up a long skirt and reaching to grab the bag of juicy mangoes from your hand. Sure, several people who have lived in Malaysia longer than me have told me that I’ll eventually get sick of the monkeys.
But that day is not today.
Many locals regard the monkeys as pests, and it’s easy to see why: They steal food. They chase after people to steal more food (unassuming tourists are the most frequent targets).
I’m at regional orientation in Kuantan, Pahang, and our hotel is short drive away from the beach, where the monkeys sometimes gather (or don’t, especially when you’re searching for them). The baby monkeys hold on to the underside of their mothers, who tug on their tails if they happen to wander too far away. Here on the beach and at the Batu Caves, I’ve fallen in love with photographing the monkeys, who unintentionally ham it up for the camera. Someone in my cohort of ETAs dubbed them the “squirrels of Malaysia.” They’re not afraid to get up close and personal, even climbing up a skirt to rip fruit out of our hands. (For the record, I’ve also encountered more polite monkeys who will nicely reach out and grab sunflower seeds from our extended hands.)
As a girl who grew up in the Ocean State, it’s been a comfort to be by the beach for a week. The South China Sea is warm during the day, though only a few of us swam. After the busy days of regional orientation, coming to the beach has been the best way to unwind and process. There’s also usually off-key karaoke, sometimes fire dancers, and always a lot of good food.
The beach also led me to Fish (yes, with a capital F). One night, while in a Grab (aka Uber for Malaysia) back to the hotel, we starting chatting with our driver about Malaysian politics as we passed the sultan’s residence (so casual!). He asked us where we were from — we told him America — and if we were on vacation. No, we’re here to teach English for nine months, we told him, and we’re still in orientation for a few days. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “You’re the exchange teachers!” He went on to tell us he had studied in the U.S. for several months in high school, during which time he fell in love with his community in Columbus, Ohio. His host family hadn’t been able to pronounce his name, so he told them to call them Fish and then told us to call him by that name too. He offered to give us any advice we needed for living in a rural town in Malaysia, and promised to help us by giving us his own “orientation” on Malaysia. By that time, we were pulling up to the hotel lobby, and after exchanging WhatsApp numbers, he told us the ride was on him, as he wanted to serve “his fellow Americans.”
It’s moments like those that remind me why I wanted to do this. And Fish is just one example of Malaysian hospitality. He, like so many others, are so willing to go above and beyond in welcoming us to their country and sharing with us the nuances of their culture.
It’s the same when we visit schools to teach. While I taught as a TA in college and as a student instructor at conferences, nothing could have prepared me for the art of the Malaysian school assembly. Both of the schools I’ve taught at have rolled out the red carpet (one did so literally), making speeches, presenting us with thoughtful gifts, showcasing their students’ talents, and taking a LOT of selfies. Everyone — students and teachers alike — loves a good selfie. I’ve been instructed by high school students (who are clearly cooler than me) that when someone yells “freestyle,” there are plenty of gestures to make: Peace signs, “mini love” signs, dabbing, mini dabbing, and so on. It’s not uncommon for ETAs to find photos of themselves on random student Instagram accounts, often coupled with an inspirational quote. And when we left? Hundreds of students swarming out of the school doors toward our bus, waving, yelling, and throwing up hearts and mini loves.
Teaching is a joy. The students are smart, creative, kind, and silly. They love everything from K-Pop to Ariana Grande and Netflix to YouTube. They know more of a second language than I did in high school, and though many are shy and reluctant to speak in front of the class, they are eager to get to know us and learn more about America.
Finally, some placement news: I’ll be living in the Eastern state of Pahang in a small town in the center of Malaysia, where, I’ve been told, there is one main road and two traffic lights, a man-made pond by my school, and about a thousand students at my school. I haven’t been to the town yet, but Pahang is beautiful. Mountains, jungles, beaches, tea plantations. It’s an understatement to say I’m excited for photography opportunities. Plus, I’m relatively close to an elephant sanctuary.
To play catch-up (this deserved its own blog post): Orientation in KL was an exhausting, exhausting blast. We scavenger-hunted around KL (second place!), dined at the U.S. ambassador’s residence (I had an intense but informative conversation with a diplomat about the state of Malaysian politics), and did a lot of walking around the infamous malls of KL. That’s not to mention all of the sessions on history, politics, religion, race, and more as our coordinators and the embassy attempt to prep us as much as possible for the challenges we could face in our placements.
Good things: Pandan (a savory vanilla flavor used in everything from sticky rice to desserts), Malaysiakini (an independent online news publication), the baby elephants at the elephant sanctuary, and learning Bahasa Melayu.
The song stuck in my head: Rasa Sayang, a children’s nursery rhyme that we used to learn BM
Must-sees: Batu Caves, the South China Sea, Jalan Alor, Islamic Arts Museum, Petronas Towers, National Mosque, KL malls
As always, please send travel tips, teaching ideas, recommendations, and notes from the U.S. — I’m having the time of my life, but it’s nice to have snapshots of home. For any journo friends and/or news junkies: I’m having an existential crisis (aka feeling disconnected from U.S. news)! I’ve been keeping up with most major news, but I want to try to stay in touch with deeper conversations going on in America.