It’s been a minute.
The past few months have been filled with students and classes and lessons and workshops and travel and a lot of growing. It feels like I blinked and June appeared. This time last year, I was Instagram stalking last year’s ETAs, watching them kayak in the Andaman Sea and hike mountains and go to international music festivals. Now, that’s my life — or at least, I understand that there’s so much more to this year than what Instagram shows. The beginning of this post is light, mostly because I don’t really remember as much detail now that it’s been so long (sorry, Mom).
In March, I finally started teaching classes. My school is large, so I don’t get to teach every student, but I have come to love the classes I do get to teach. The younger students are eager and still unafraid to be silly, and the older ones have all the angst of American teenagers, and tell me about their hopes and dreams and, of course, crushes. My favorite lesson so far has been one I taught for National Poetry Month around the theme of war (to match their curriculum). I realized that many of the students had never written a poem before — what a privilege to help them craft their first.
I held my first English Camp (a program held entirely in English). It was hot and sweaty and I ran around more than I actually got to see what my students were doing. But it happened and it is finished and there are a lot of selfies taken by Malaysian teenagers to prove it. And to think, only three more to go for the rest of the year!
March holiday crept up much faster than I thought it would. We went to Thailand — for the first few days, relaxing on a gorgeous island in the Andaman Sea and then exploring the cultural sites of Phuket. And, of course, getting a lot of Thai massages (transformational). I spent a few days in Hong Kong, where I ate my first bagel in months (I miss you, NYC) and walked around the city in awe of skyscrapers with all the wonder of childhood.
Then I headed back to Malaysia, where I have started to fall into a routine, though it didn’t come without its pains. The heat is still hot, and the language barrier is still frustrating. It’s difficult to learn Malay when you’re not supposed to speak the language in front of the people you interact with the most (my students). But their English acquisition, like any language acquisition, takes time. I just wish I were in a better position to meet them halfway.
After Water Break, a check-in conference with other ETAs, we headed to Singapore. It was beautiful. Like a modern utopia. I had some of the best hot pot in my life, and it was good to unwind after a week filled with work. The botanical gardens are beautiful, and the light show is worth the wait.
In May, after a few difficult but fulfilling weeks, I persuaded my students to finish their first newsletter, or bulletin, as it’s more commonly called here. It started with two students and me on a usually hot afternoon, staring at a whiteboard full of names of U.S. and Asian newspapers. The New York Times. The South China Morning Post. The Star. The Houston Chronicle. The Providence Journal. From the names on the board, they tried sounding out cobbled together names — The SEMEKAR Star. The Temerloh Post. Nothing was quite right. Then, finally — The Kuala Krau Chronicle. From there, I used Canva (sorry, InDesign) to place the articles (with input from my very vocal students) and then we proofread the newsletters together. And then came the rush of publication day! It’s slightly more muted when you’re not the one with articles in the newsletter, but watching my students’ eyes gleam when they saw their first bylines in print was more than enough for me. The rest of May was filled with program planning while my students took exams. It was a welcome break, but difficult to not get to interact as much with the kids.
Because it was exam season, we had more time to relax. All of the ETAs in my state headed to Tioman Island one weekend, off the coast of our state. It was nice to get away for a few days. I snorkeled for the first time and saw Nemo, which was one of the highlights of the trip. We hiked and found a beautiful water fall, and swam and played in the freshwater.
The weekend before the school break we went to the Cameron Highlands, a cool (!) part of Malaysia that holds tea plantations and food, like strawberries, that can’t survive Malaysia’s otherwise hot climate. The tea plantations are stunning (thanks colonialism) and I ate copious amounts of cheesecake and drank a lot of tea. We tried lavender ice cream, and the lavender flavor actually lingered in your mouth after it melted.
We had school on Tuesday, and then holidays on Wednesday and Thursday. One was planned, the other because the late sultan of Pahang passed away. And then, it was the holiday and we went off to the airport.
First stop, Cambodia. We flew into Phnom Penh and hit the ground running. We splurged on a bougie vegan brunch and then we walked around the city. I slept in while others were out (no regrets) and joined the group the next day to visit the site of The Killing Fields and then the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
It was a heavy day. Separately, the two sites are riddled with remnants of the tragedy and difficult enough to process. Placed side by side, they are unbearable. At The Killing Fields, I listened to the audio tour and walked around the lake that sits next to the mass graves in a daze, trying to come to terms with the genocide that had happened there, with the senseless torture. At the museum, I had to step outside of the school-turned-torture chamber several times. Seeing the illustrations and the photos triggered a visceral reaction unlike anything I can remember. My stomach churned. Confronted with the wall of black-and-white photos of the prisoners, with the paintings of the torture they endured , I desperately needed fresh air. Multiple times, I stepped outside into the rain and looked at the courtyard. At the end of the visit, we came across two survivors of the torture. They are both old men now, and they sat at plastic-wrapped tables on the site where they had once been tortured, selling memoirs that recalled the horrors they had endured. The proceeds, we were told, went directly to their families.
We left and walked to a nearby coffee shop to decompress. We talked of everything but the contents of the museum. Our next stop. The rest of the trip. What we would eat for dinner. It was what we needed. But the day is something that I can’t shake and I don’t think I’ll forget it soon. Before I traveled to Cambodia, I had read several articles about what to do in the country. One article had said something along the lines of this, and it is true: Remember when you travel, Cambodia is a broken country, one that is still recovering from a horrific genocide.
We got massages, and then headed off to the night bus to Siem Reap. After a day of too much caffeine, I couldn’t fall asleep and suffered from some motion sickness (if I had fallen asleep, I think I would’ve been fine). I finally passed out at around 2 a.m. We arrived on time, and headed to our AirBnb to nap and then head out for the day. The motion sickness got me, though, and I ended up in and out of bed, trying to rally but ultimately needing sleep and rest. I’m not sure if it was all of the travel or something I ate, but after 24 hours of rest I felt better, just in time to visit the temples of Angkor. We woke up at 4 a.m. to make it to Angor Wat in time for the sunrise. Once we arrived, our tour guide informed us that there are only really two days every year that you can see the sunrise well — and that surprise, today was not one of those days. But walking throughout the temples was stunning, if not terrifying at times (there are a lot of steep stairs). We visited Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple as well, and learned a lot about the history of the Hindu, Buddhist, and sometimes both temples.
After Cambodia, I made a short stop in Hong Kong, where I went to the N3Conference to get a dose of some learning - a welcome change! I reunited with a few friends from AAJA’s national conference last year, dressed up in Western clothes for the first time in months, and was honored to accept a stipend from the conference. I wish I’d had more time to go around the city, but I got to write about it, which is just as good. I missed it — the city, the journalism — more than I had realized.
And then I hopped on a plane to Vietnam for the solo leg of my trip, where I ended up in a hostel with other ETAs in Saigon. The people were lovely. The war museum was so sad, and seeing the Vietnam War from Vietnam’s perspective (with a grain of salt) reminded me to look beyond my U.S. history classes when learning about the world. My other favorite parts were Book Street, a reader’s paradise that is a street of books and cafes, the historic post office, where I sent a few postcards (if you want a postcard, send me your address!), and a small restaurant I stumbled on where they served me what can only be described as delicious, green Rice Krispy-coated shrimp.
And then it was over and I headed back to Malaysia for Hari Raya, the celebrations for the end of Ramadan. I’ve spent the last few days eating a lot of food (rice and meats) and kuih raya (tiny delicious cookies) and visiting a lot of houses in the community. I also attended my first Malaysian wedding — all in a few days. It has been a privilege and a joy to get to celebrate and learn about Ramadan and Eid from my community. It’s really starting to feel like a second home here — but in strange and unexpected ways. Home is in being welcomed to play with people’s cats. Being recognized by the workers in the coffee shop that’s a 45-minute drive from my house but worth it for the WiFi and fresh salad. It’s every time I am offered more and more food by a student’s parent and in every time one of the female teachers clucks and re-adjusts my baju before I leave the staff room. And home is in every piece of cheesecake that I’ve eaten here that reminds me of my mom’s (nothing compares), and in the every hug that finally feels like more than a photo op with the ETA.
On Tuesday, I’m back to school and off to the second half of the year. Malaysia still feels like a dream — not in the sense that it’s perfect, but in the sense that it’s still hard to believe that I’m actually here. Another ETA’s parent put it best: Last year, when you were sitting in Rhode Island, did you really think you would be talking about meeting up with friends in Kuala Lumpur who you just saw in Hong Kong? The answer, of course, is no. It’s moments like those that remind me how lucky I am. Malaysia has given me the most incredible, but also one of the most difficult years of my life, for everything from culture shock and small misunderstandings to the unreasonable but unstoppable anxiety over the Plan for Next Year to larger stressors here and back home. I sleep more than I’d like to, but I’m learning that self-care means sleeping through the hottest parts of the day, and I’ve realized that a deadline-less Julia is a less effective one, and thus a sometimes languishing one. But it’s a year of growing, and growing must come with some pain.
Currently reading: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
P.S. I’m still thinking about the war and genocide museums, and about the tourism of countries post-war. It feels strange to pay money to see where people died. To learn about death and destruction in the place it happened is much different than reading it from a history book. In the Vietnam museum, an exhibit featured this quote from a photojournalist, Larry Burrows: “And so often I wonder whether it is my right to capitalize, as I feel, so often, on the grief of others. But then I justify, in my own particular thoughts, by feeling that I can contribute a little to the understanding of what others are going through; then there is a reason for doing it.”
Let me know how you’re doing, reader :) I’m sending my warm wishes to you for making it this far, wherever you are.