May 24, 2011

raindrops on palm trees

Yesterday, I decided to drive to Sekayu Waterfalls on my scooter before dinner. I figured it should only be about a 20 minute drive (about 15 km away), so I set off around 5pm for a mini-adventure.

Thank you, mother nature, for making my outing particularly... wet. That's right - about 15 minutes into my drive, it started POURING and of course I was sans raincoat in a T-shirt and black leggings. For approximately 30 seconds I had the bold idea to "tough it out" and just drive through the rain, but when the drops started to feel like bullets and zooming over puddles started to feel like fording small rivers, I decided to wait it out under a covered carport on the side of the road.

I should have anticipated this, but the rain turned into a downpour and then thunder and lightening got involved... turns out I didn't need to drive all the way to Sekayu to experience a waterfall after all. Suddenly I was really wishing I had decided to curl up with a book back at school rather than venture out on my scooter.

That's the risk you take every day in Malaysia though - monsoon season is apparently supposed to end in January, but it has rained nearly every day since I've been here (even if the rain shower is only for a few minutes). My students naturally attribute this unusual weather to the earthquake in Japan (?), the ever-impending Doomsday, or "maybe" global warming... all I know is that rain here is generally a mixed bag: on one hand, it really does cool things down, but on the other, you can find yourself stranded with your scooter in the middle of a thunderstorm, the duration of which could be minutes or days.

Lessons learned:
a) never leave your raincoat at home
b) ...but life might be a little more fun if you do.

April 5, 2011

suddenly it's april

Sorry about the month-long (yikes!) absence of updates... things have certainly been busy around here! Among other things, I took a trip to Indonesia, went to a Malaysian wedding celebration, visited an elephant sanctuary, participated in the annual Imtiaz cross country race, and bought a scooter! Details to come...

For now, check out an article I wrote about eating my way through Bali!

March 7, 2011

a treasure from the kuala berang night market

After seeing these last week at the KB Tuesday night market (yea, I'm a regular), I hereby declare that all chicken nuggets should be heart-shaped. And they should come on happy little skewers like these.

Just wanted to share, because the last time chicken nuggets made me smile I think I was eight years old. After the past few years of transitioning from a non-discerning carnivore to ovolactopescetarian to careful omnivore to eater-of-all-things-but-especially-rice, things have come full circle and I can say with confidence that I will henceforth unquestionably eat anything in the shape of a heart - even if there are parts of a chicken in these things that I'm probably not even aware is edible... 

I'm not sure what Michael Pollan's stance on heartitarianism is (or will be... you know, once it catches on...) but if people can claim that an egg tastes better when it comes from a happy chicken, it's just as valid to point out that heart-shaped food is simply more delicious than food in any other shape.
To all the moms who use heart-shaped cookie cutters on their kid's PB&J in the morning, you should know: Malaysia's got your back.

March 2, 2011

the art of multitasking

Behold! My bathroom:

Did I write bathroom? Because it’s actually a walk-in dishwasher. And by walk-in dishwasher, I mean shower. Just kidding! It’s actually the laundry room. With a toilet.

Besides giving you a small glimpse into my daily surroundings, I’d like this picture to serve as a representation of the uncanny ability of Malaysians not only to multitask, but also to repurpose. These days, I know you can’t turn on NPR for two seconds (or maybe even exist for two seconds) without hearing somebody somewhere using trendy enviro-buzzwords like “sustainability”, “eco-chic”,  or “carbon footprint”. The first month or so that I was here in Malaysia, it made me angry to find out that no one here recycles, and that the use of plastic bags is - all jokes aside - OUT OF CONTROL. But my general frustration has alleviated upon slowly realizing that rather than throw things in a recycle bin, Malaysians would simply prefer to just find a new use for something when they’ve exhausted its original function. Likewise, they see the value in using things simultaneously for different purposes. 

Why not wash your dishes while you shower? And do laundry at the same time? And maybe even pee!  When one small room has the ability to offer so many services, the distinctly American need for a separate room in the house for every little thing seems excessive. I mean seriously: “mud room”? A room for mud then, or something? And “living room” – as if the rest of the house wasn’t suitable for living in? Some people still have a “sitting room” or “drawing room”… I don’t even know what that means. Or the “study”… Malaysians know better than anyone that studying can (AND SHOULD) be conducted anywhere and anytime (meaning all places all the time… gotta get those A’s!). And don’t even get me started on “breakfast nook”… The bottom line is, it is exactly this quintessential American excess that gives my students the idea that I have seven cars at home, am related to Selena Gomez, and have a personal Big Mac delivery service. If my house in America has a breakfast nook, surely I MUST live next door to Taylor Swift.

Other things Malaysians repurpose:

Rice – not just for dinner!

Actually, nasi (rice) isn’t just for lunch either. Actually, it’s not just for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… it’s for dessert too! Nasi is incredibly plentiful and affordable here, and it is part of EVERY meal. Even when I thought I was having a different kind of starch when I was eating kway teow, I later found out that the noodles are actually made with rice flour. Sometimes the nasi is pressed together and cut into cubes. This makes eating rice a slightly different chewing experience, but it fundamentally remains the same product. Sometimes the rice is blue, sometimes it’s yellow, and sometimes it’s just plain white. And those weird multicolored jelly desserts here? Yea, they’re made from rice. Those little glutinous coconut-filled balls? Nasi is the main ingredient. Any way you look at it, you’re going to eat rice approximately every 4 hours here. Period. 


Ok, so I have to give Malaysians some credit in the transportation department: they use public transportation a LOT, and not many people have cars (a basic sedan here costs around 100,000-150,000RM, equivalent to $30,000-$50,000 – yikes!). Instead, they have motorbikes.

I may have mentioned that I really (REALLY) want to buy a motorbike, but my request has been met with various forms of opposition and “maybe later”s, but I’m pretty confused as to why, because almost everyone here has one. By purchasing one of my own, I would simply be participating in the cultural exchange that Fulbright so frequently promotes. Anyways, motorbikes aren’t just for zipping on down to the 7-11. No… they are the Malaysian family vehicle. It is not unusual when I’m walking around Kuala Berang to see a motorbike with not one… not two… but in fact four people riding it: typically two adults, each holding onto an infant or small child. You heard it here first: motorbikes are the new baby strollers. Here in Malaysia, motorbikes are also:

-        An excuse to scream across the road whatever you please. Normally, if I’m within 50 yards of anything, it’s “Mat Salleh! HALLOOO DVD MOVIE JUSTIN BEIBER HOW ARE YOU” (translation: White foreigner! LET ME TELL YOU ALL THE ENGLISH WORDS I KNOW!). When in a car, Malaysians practice vocal restraint, but out in the open air, anything goes!
-        A place to nap
-        A form of exercise. Instead of going for a jog or a bike ride, from what I can tell, many Malaysians just prefer to take their moto out for a spin. Maybe it tones the wrists or something…

February 21, 2011

settling in

Life in Kuala Berang isn’t flashy, it isn’t cosmopolitan, and doesn’t really have a “scene” – but it’s home. The nightlife is pretty raging – between 9:15 and 11:30 I can always find a game of chess to join down by the academic building, or relax in the library with a book, or help students with homework and essay corrections either outside at a picnic table, in the library, or in the Rest Room. And if I get hungry, I can hop on down to the night café for a burger, or hold out til 11pm for a steamed dumpling, tomato sandwich, or roti canai in the dining hall.

I know I haven’t posted in a while, so here are some highlights of the past week (2 weeks? Who knows):

English movie night:

After much cajoling by the students (and after quite a few confusing English-to-Bahasa conversations with the office staff regarding projectors and speaker equipment), we had our first English movie night of the year on the eve of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. After deliberating among a very select group of DVDs (acquired through borrowing from other ETAs – thank you Blair and Andrea!), I decided on Matilda for the first viewing. The students really liked it, thanks to its perfect ratio of overweight villains falling on their faces to kids using magic in everyday life (2 staples of highly successful movies, in my opinion). The speakers I used ended up being pretty lousy, so thank goodness for English subtitles!


Blair (the other ETA in Kuala Berang) and I are attempting to start a softball team here at Imtiaz. Ranjan, last year’s ETA, played informally with some of the Form 1 boys, using a baseball bat and tennis balls in the field behind the school. Luckily (for me!), Blair’s school has actual softball equipment that he is using with his students, but also has graciously offered up for the students at Imtiaz to use as well. SMK Tai has the equipment and Imtiaz has a slightly better field, so the arrangement is ideal for everyone. Plus we found a secret gate linking our two schools, so transporting the equipment or students back and forth won’t be as big of a problem as we had anticipated. Honestly, I couldn’t really dream of softball practice actually happening if it weren’t for Blair, because he actually knows a bit about the sport (although I’m fairly confident I could just make stuff up about the game and everything would be fine… but may as well get it right, I suppose). He’s been able to have a few practices already at his school, and we’re hoping to have the first practice here at Imtiaz next Monday. We talked to my principal last week about the idea, and he seemed pretty supportive. In fact, after confirming that holding weekly practice would be suitable, he suggested that the school might invite the media and newspapers to the softball game between the two schools to show how talented these students are – learning a western sport like softball! I put a signup sheet outside my door to gauge student interest in playing, and by now I have a fairly long list of names, so I’m excited! The only thing that makes me slightly concerned is that right after one of the students signed the Baseball Team Interest Form on my door, they walked up to me and asked, “Miss Mere, what’s baseball?”

Another very exciting development on the sports front is my discovery of the archery club! Every Wednesday after school, an archery instructor comes to Imtiaz to coach the students, and last week was the first meeting. Students learned about the parts of the bow, and about the basic movements, stance, arm position, etc. Some of the older students who participated last year also shot some, and I gave it a try as well. Back in the day during summer camp, I was OBSESSED with archery (I used to sign up for entire days of it… who needs crafts or swimming when you can mercilessly impale straw-stuffed targets?). Needless to say, the proudest accomplishment of my life was winning the Most Outstanding Archer award at Camp Merri-Mac at the tender age of 12. How serendipitous that I’ll be able to relive the summers of my childhood EVERY WEDNESDAY here at Imtiaz?! I can’t wait.

Free time:

This past weekend I went to Cherating, which is a sleepy little beach town about 3 hours south of Kuala Berang. The town is known for surfing – little did we know that our surfer friends from KT would be in Cherating the same weekend! Another beach bonfire commenced, complete with acoustic serenades of Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Cure... does it get any better? Having not had the opportunity to cook (although I have been QUITE experimental with my microwave), my curiosity/culinary withdrawl got the best of me and I attempted to roast several oranges over the open fire, with little success.

I also spent one afternoon in Cherating making my own batik! I LOVE MALAYSIAN BATIK FABRIC! I’ve already bought 6 or 8 cotton batiks here in Malaysia… they are perfect for wall coverings, using as sarongs, or curtains. Obviously, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make my own. I outlined my design on white fabric with pencil, and then drew over the outline with a thin pen that has a small well for hot wax in the top. The first step is to dip the pen in a bowl of hot wax, and slowly “paint” with the wax pen onto the fabric (you can check out pictures of the whole process on my facebook). After drawing the entire design with wax, you use water-based dyes to paint in your colors. I used my fingertips to blend colors together which ended up creating an amazing watercolor effect. I really, really enjoyed the whole thing. I had forgotten how therapeutic and mind-clearing art can be. This past year I took an abstract oil painting class with a few friends at school which was challenging (I am not an artist by nature or by practice), but also renewing and curative, in a sense. The afternoon spent batik-making in Cherating made me really miss taking a few hours each week to do art. Maybe I’ll pick up a sketchbook in town (do they exist in Malaysia?) and try to draw a few times a week. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get some of the kids to join me. Another project!

The other night, one of my favorite students in Form 2, Zuhdi, brought me a pot of delicious Bubur Lambuk that his mother had made. It was absolutely fantastic. I know rice porridge doesn’t sound particularly enticing, but if this stuff caught on the states, it’d be trendier than macaroons or taco trucks. Later that evening, I helped Zuhdi edit an English essay he wrote about the proper way to make Mee Goreng (fried noodles) – another of his mother’s recipes. Maybe I can somehow get Zuhdi’s mother to be my cooking guru…

Zuhdi also invited me to his uncle’s wedding in March! It actually isn’t particularly uncommon here to be invited to and subsequently attend wedding celebrations of people you barely know, or have never met. All I know is that I’m going to need to go Baju Kurung shopping!

That’s pretty much all that’s been goin’ down ‘round here. Tomorrow I’m going to Kuala Terengganu with some students to participate in “Pony Club”. If I knew at all what this involved, I would tell you, but like so many things in this country, for now it is a mystery. For me, Pony Club will likely involve more watching than riding considering all of the horses I’ve seen in Malaysia so far have been approximately as tall as my belly button. Do you remember that sad moment in life when you realize that crossing the monkey bars on a jungle gym is MORE difficult now that your feet touch the ground than it was when you’re feet didn’t? I’ll keep you posted whether it’s the same when riding a miniature pony…

February 7, 2011


Last Tuesday night, we hopped on an overnight bus to one of my favorite places on earth: Penang. This island, off the west coast of Malaysia, is known for its rich colonial history, unique fusion of many cultures, religions, and ethnicities, and most importantly, its FOOD. We picked Penang for Chinese New Year specifically because there is a significant Chinese population on the island, whereas the Chinese population in Terengganu is approximately ZERO. We ate our first Penang breakfast at the famous “Nasi Kandar Line Clear” food stall at 5:30AM. The owner was wearing a red cowboy hat, blew an obnoxious whistle every few minutes, and insisted on taking a “thumbs up” photo with us after we’d finished our meal of curry chicken and ladies finger (aka okra). Oh, and we were joined at breakfast by a rat roughly the size of a terrier. We also found a Chinese market our first morning where we sampled all sorts of delicious delicacies: gooey sugar cakes (tee kuih), bean-filled fried dough balls (kuih bom), jackfruit, thin crispy pancakes (sweet apom), and fresh (REAL) coffee. Over the course of the weekend, we went to the Chinese chamber of commerce one morning for a free buffet, saw the snake temple (total letdown… basically a bunch of drugged up snakes hanging in trees), the Kek Lok Si temple lit up at night for Chinese New Year, visited the clan jetty fishing huts, and Fort Cornwallis… but let’s be real. The best part about this trip was the food, and the point was to just walk around enough to be vaguely hungry in another hour or so, so that we could try something new from another street stall. Thus, I'll let pictures speak for themselves...

Some yummy noodles being served at the early morning Chinese market... I would like to note that RM1 (one Ringgit) is equal to about 33 US cents. It has come to the point where if a meal is over 1 US dollar (RM3), I start to think: is this really worth it?

The fried sesame dough ball man caught me snapping a photo!

Action shot of the crispy pancake making lady.

Gado-Gado: a taste of Indonesia in Penang.

Ice Kachang

Mee Goreng... this dish is usually available at every Malaysian restaurant, but this version was one of my favorites. This exact dish from this exact stall was actually featured on Eating Asia, my favorite Malaysian food blog, on this post: check it out!

Delightful breakfast of carrot cake (otherwise known as Chai Tow Kway), and wanton mee.

A stall in Little India selling various fried delights, including the universe's best samosas.

A vendor preparing Teh Tarik.

So yea, Penang was... amazing. Good food, good friends, good times. It somehow seemed fitting to usher in the "new year" with the Chinese considering this is the beginning of a VERY new year for me, and being in Penang was the perfect way to celebrate. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

new life as a chikgu

Last week, I had my first unofficial days of teaching. I was the go-to substitute for when other teachers couldn’t be in the classroom (how does the school normally handle missing teachers? I should ask…). I’ve taught a Form 1 class, and two Form 2 classes. I kept things simple, and just had the students introduce themselves to me, and ask me any questions they might have about my life or America. Mostly I just got more questions about my (nonexistent) relationship with Justin Beiber, and about my sisters. They love to ask about siblings (or is that the only question they know how to ask in English?). We also played two truths and a lie, which was almost a big mistake because my mentor walked in the classroom right as I was revealing which fact about me on the board was a lie: that I knew how to ride a motorbike. Needless to say, Wan seemed surprised and confused, given that I’ve asked for her help to buy a motorbike here. She asked me after class if it was really true that I didn’t know how to ride one. I explained to her that OF COURSE I knew how to drive a motorbike, and that I was just joking with the kids! … just something to add to my slowly growing pile of little white Malaysian lies. Others include that I go to church at home (that’s a whole other story to tell…), and that really did LOVE the chewy unidentifiable meat served for dinner last night! It was my absolute favorite!

Learning names here has been the most stressful part of this whole adjustment. I’ve had the same kids tell me their names over and over (seriously, like 12 times, or maybe 35 times) and I STILL can’t remember them. In my defense, there are several obstacles to successful name learning here:

  1. All of the girls wear headscarves and the same uniform to school, so the only thing to distinguish them from each other is their face and sometimes skin tone. All the boys wear the same uniform and the same hat to school too, and they all (obviously) have the same hair color, so telling them apart is difficult too (though not as much as the girls).
  2. Their names are words I have never heard or spoken in my life – how am I supposed to remember names like (I’m using phonetic spelling here) Wanny and Wetty and Shofo and Dini? I almost hugged a girl with joy when she told me her name was Sarah.
  3. My best guess is that about 75% of people’s names here start with A. One of the first name games I played with a class involved them picking an English adjective starting with the same letter as the first letter of their name, and pairing the word with their name when they introduced themselves (example: Marvelous Meredyth). Little did I know this game probably seemed supremely stupid to them considering we weren’t even halfway around the classroom, and we’d had 12 students whose names started with A (Ahmir, Ahmed, Aisha, Amira, Atika…). By the end of the game I let words sly that weren’t really even adjectives at all… I have to say I was relieved the game was over when Astrologist Akmad rounded out the class of 30.

The worst part about not being able to remember students’ names is that they are truly heartbroken when they ask me “Miss Mere, Miss Mere, What’s MY name?” and I shamefully have to ask for a hint, and usually even after the hint I get it wrong anyway. I’ll keep you posted on my progress on the name learning front, but I have to say the outlook isn’t good.

“When is movie night? When is movie night?” is all I hear from students these days, so I posted a signup sheet outside my door where they can write suggestions. I don’t even really know what genre they like, or what rating is appropriate to show, so I thought I’d get some ideas from the students. I think last year they watched The Sandlot and Toy Story 3, among others, so I wanted to get some new ideas… So far though, I’m not sure what insight I can gain from the suggestions, given that “Silent Hill” and “Another Cinderella Story” are listed side by side. I’m thinking Double Feature? Another personal favorite that made the list: “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer”. I got a good chuckle out of this, thinking the student was just confused about the REAL title, until I realized that “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer” is in fact the 2006 sequel to “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” which is the 1998 sequel to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” There’s nothing like a straight-to-DVD sequel to a sequel made 8 years later starring a D-list celebrity blonde whose career highlight was likely her single episode appearance on a 1999 episode of “Are You Afraid of The Dark?” Yes, I looked this up. Don’t judge.

Last week Imtiaz had a special ceremony celebrating last year’s Form 3 PMR scores. Imtiaz KB students received the best scores in the state! In the PMR test, students are tested in nine subjects, and receive grades in each subject (A, B, C, etc). Of the 41 Form 3 students, 36 of them got A’s in ALL NINE SUBJECTS last year. Can I just say these kids are BALLER?! All the parents came, and there were representatives from the state education department, and the Form 3 teachers were recognized and given gifts (a pen! woohoo!). It was a little bit hard to sit through a three hour ceremony conducted entirely in Bahasa, but I could more or less determine what was going on. I have to say though that the best part was being asked to sit at the “VVIP” table for lunch (a dream fulfilled!). At any event in Malaysia, there is almost always a VIP section and VVIP section… it’s pretty nifty if you’re VIP, but VVIP is the swankiest of the swank, the cream of the crop, the crème de la crème, the - you get the drift. Never mind that the food served was the exact same, the chairs and tables were the same, and the tent was the same as everything else that wasn’t VVIP… everyone knows it’s all about the title.