January 30, 2011

from the city to the jungle

A few days ago I met my mentor for the year: Wan. She is a 29 year old teacher at Kuala Berang IMTIAZ who will be helping me adjust to the school, help me get anything I need for my apartment, and help me adjust to the school and answer any questions I might have. She’s an English teacher, and her class got the best scores on the state standardized English results last year in the whole state, so I know she’s good at what she does! Wan also just cracks me up. After discovering that we both like cooking, she told me that last month she made her first pizza from scratch – she was so excited to tell me about using real mozzarella and oregano! That really is impressive, considering there is NO CHEESE IN MALAYSIA. ANYWHERE. I’d really like to know where Wan got her hands on mozzarella…

Anyways, the day after I met Wan, she and her husband picked me up and took me on a grand tour around Terengganu to see places I hadn’t seen. Wan and her husband had to pray after lunch, so they took me to the floating mosque in Terengganu, then they drove me to another part of the beach I hadn’t seen, then to Marang, which is a fishing village about 20 minutes away, where 2 other ETAs will be living and teaching. We got Keropok Lekor and chrysanthemum tea from a roadside stall and ate it by the ocean. In general, I’m a huge fan of Malaysian food, but Keropok (the food for which Terengganu is MOST famous) is quite unfortunately FOUL. I mean seriously BEYOND GROSS. Wan and her husband love it though, and devoured a whole packet. I have a few pictures of Kerepok on Facebook… basically, it is fish sausage and rice flour or cornstarch, rolled into gray-colored hot dog looking rolls, and then deep fried. They are chewy and fishy and nasty, nasty, nasty. Even if you are a big fan of seafood like me, these things are hard to stomach. I ate a few to be polite but seriously: stay away.

I found out I’ll be teaching Form 1, which is basically the equivalent of our first year of high school (9th grade). IMTIAZ Kuala Berang is a secondary school. Schooling in Malaysia works like this:

In primary school, you enter in Standard 1, and leave after Standard 6. You enter Standard 1 at age 7 though, so by the time you graduate Standard 6, you are 12 years old. Then you enter Form 1, which is the first year of secondary school. You stay in secondary school through Form 5, which is kind of like our 12th grade. After Form 5, you take a HUGELY important exam which basically determines whether or not you go to college, and what you study there (with math/science being the “best” track to take). There’s also a big exam that students take after Form 3, which is important because it “streams” kids into a science/math track, business track, or arts/humanities track, or vocational track. But the biggest test is definitely after Form 5.

My school is an IMTIAZ school which means “Excellence” in Arabic, so the students at the school are extremely academic-oriented. Students in Forms 3 and 5 even attend classes on the weekend. All 315 students at the school live at the school, and are allowed to go home every other weekend. The weekends here in Terengganu are on Fridays and Saturdays (Friday is their holy day), and the school week starts on Sunday. This early weekend schedule, however, just applies in the state of Terengganu, which is strange… it would be like if Virginia suddenly changed their official workweek to Sunday-Thursday. To me, it seems like Terengganu having their own separate life schedule would cause some issues when it came to business, commerce, communication, etc, but apparently everyone here thinks it’s totally normal.

My accommodations here at the school are fine. I live next to the Surau, or prayer room (hence the large speakers outside my window which broadcast the almost hourly prayers, including a particularly delightful 45 minute prayer chant in Arabic at 5:30am… yay!). I essentially have a dorm room attached to a small room with some couches and a TV, a small nook for kitchen stuff, and a bathroom. Inside my bathroom (literally, right under the shower) is my washer and toilet. It appears that I'll be showering right on top of the toilet, potentially while standing in my washing machine. Should be a good time!

A side note about Malaysian bathrooms: going to the bathroom in Malaysia is kind of like going swimming… meaning, you should probably wear goggles, and when you are finished, you are dripping wet. Whenever I turn anything on in my bathroom, water sprays everywhere – from the faucet, from the showerhead, from the pipes, from the toilet, from the floor (somehow), and from this weird hose that kind of hangs out on the floor. To a Malaysian, a wet bathroom is a clean bathroom, so mine must be considered spotless. The bathroom floor is covered by an inch or more of water at all times, so I kind of wade my way to the sink using these bumpy flip flop-ish sandals that they gave me. All Malaysians wear these flip flops when they use the bathroom, but I think I might need rain boots…

The first night I was here I went down to the “Poom” (basically the equivalent of their weekend canteen) and bought a burger to support the Business Club (the function of which I have gathered is entrepreneurial in nature, though I can’t seem to get a straight answer as to what they do with the money (“we use money for business!”… I guess you can’t argue with that). My first burger in Malaysia was… chewy? Anyways, I was happy to support a student-led cause (the cause being making money), and it only set me back a ringgit and a half (the equivalent of about 50 cents). I was swarmed by students eager to meet me... this is how most of my first conversations with students goes:

“Miss Mere, Miss Mere, Hello! Are you married?”


:: looks of complete and utter HORROR ::

“But Miss Mere, WHY NOT?”

“Well, I- ”

“Don’t worry, Miss Mere, you will marry soon! You will!”

Well I’m glad that’s settled… after asking if I am married, the questions they ask tend to be about my family (let’s just say I fudge the truth a bit to make things easier to explain), my hobbies, and whether or not I like Malaysia. OH, and a BIG one is whether or not I know Justin Bieber. I swear, the two best ways to let a someone down around here is to tell them you’re not married and that you don’t personally know Justin Bieber. I suppose it isn’t too late to change my story yet… maybe I should tell them I’m married after all… to Justin Bieber...

This morning I gave a short speech to the school after the principal officially welcomed me, which was received with mostly blank stares and half glazed over eyes (who could blame the kids? They’d been up since 5:00am), which was probably good considering I tried to make a joke about having my first burger in Malaysia (the irony of having a burger in Malaysia was completely lost on them… joke FAIL). Then I sort of milled around the school for a bit, and started looking for pictures and information on the internet to put on my “English Corner” board – stuff about America, Virginia, my family and friends, etc… if you’d like to make an appearance on my English board (in the form of a postcard or photo), you should mail me something! Which brings me to my next point: MAIL ME STUFF!

My new address:


Well I think that's all for now... it's prayer time (of course) so I think I'm going to go plan a few lessons for the next week... I have a feeling Taboo could be highly entertaining...

PS #1: In other news, my Mentor Wan told me today she’s pregnant! She was SO excited… the conversation went something like this:

“Mere, Mere, I have exciting news for you!”

“Oh really? What is it?”

“I am going to have a baby!”

“That’s wonderful, Wan! Congratulations!”

“I’m pregnant!”

“Wow, that really is great news. I’m so happy for you.”

“I took a pregnancy test and it said positive!”

“Yea, that’s awesome…”

“I have a baby inside of me!”


I’ve never seen someone so excited to be pregnant. She told me she and her husband had been trying for several years now, so I’m really happy for them.

PS #2: In one of the larger grocery stores in Kuala Terengganu, I found this strawberry hazelnut granola for sale (or so it was labeled...), and was SO pumped to buy it because it actually looked European or maybe even American. But Alas! when I opened it, it was literally 75% raisins and 25% white funky looking cornflakes, and NO granola, NO hazelnuts, and NO strawberries to be found. Seriously Malaysia? Quit playing games with my heart.

first post: orientation and more...

Hello friends and family!

So after much hemming and hawing, internal conflict, and debate about whether or not I would succumb to pressure to join the the (mostly annoying) "check me out, I live abroad" blogosphere of post-grads fleeing US economic woes, I am hereby declaring that I'm nowhere near cool enough to declare myself too cool for a blog, and I'm way too lazy to figure out how (and to whom) to send mass emails. I have officially joined the I-Teach-English-In-Southeast-Asia-And-Blog-About-It universe, if for no other reason than so many people expect me to have some form of publicly-accessible electronic outlet to express how very different life is over here, and that so far I happen to have quite a bit of free time due to the RIDICULOUSLY immense portion of the day spent praying Malaysia, which I am kind of not allowed to participate in, or even watch. So why not write about my thoughts and experiences, and maybe someone will take a look!? So here goes nothing!

So even though I’ve been in Malaysia for nearly a month (well, more like 3 weeks…), I haven’t started teaching yet. I am part of a group of 17 Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) and for the first three weeks of January, we have been part of an orientation program, first conducted by the US Government, and then by the Malaysian Government. My first week here was spent in Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia) and the two weeks after that were spent in Kuala Terengganu (the capital of the Malaysian state of Terengganu). Now, as of a few days ago, I am living at my school in Kuala Berang, which is a very small town in the region of Hulu Terengganu, in the state of Terengganu. Confusing, I know, but the bottom line is that I basically live in the jungle now!

Orientation had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was highly entertaining. The “downs” just involved too much sitting in freezing cold conference rooms listening to repetitive information about the Malaysian education system, and the “ups” included some pretty fun field trips. Some highlights included visiting the state library of Terengganu in KT (I’m now an official member!), going to the Terengganu state museum (which was huge, and pretty cool… though they did have an exhibit on indigenous animals of Terengganu that involved very poorly executed taxidermy that might have been the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen). The museum had a traditional fabric section, art section, as well as an entire exhibition building basically worshipping petroleum, Petronas, and the oil industry (which I can’t really complain about considering the oil industry here is likely singlehandedly paying my salary and living expenses).

We visited the Islamic civilization park, the hilarity of which I can’t do justice… it is essentially an intentionally religion-based and unintentionally kitschy theme park which has replicas of every important mosque or Islamic building in the world (including the Taj Majal and Mecca). The replicas are reduced in scale from the originals to a perfectly awkward degree – doors just too small to go through and roofs just too tall that you can’t see the tops of the buildings. We watched videos about each structure in their “theatrettes” which had horrible English translations, and were taken around the park in a small children’s train like we were in Disney World. We also visited the Crystal Mosque, which is a newer mosque right on the water that has a really cool glass roof, and changes color at night (Malaysians LOVE when things change color, and they LOVE anything rainbow… all the streetlights are rainbow, mosques have tacky rainbow lights, all the weird jelly desserts are rainbow, and the dresses and headscarves for women are a compilation of psychedelically neon shades of pink, green, yellow, blue and orange). You should see the shirt I bought at the market the other day… I am a walking box of pastel crayons.

Orientation also included a game of night Futsol (similar to soccer, but played on a smaller field), bowling, and a visit to the KT Science Center. They opened up the Science Center in the evening especially for the ETAs, they served us a buffet dinner (after being given a buffet dinner at the hotel earlier that evening... just one example of the lack of communication between people in Malaysia… and perhaps an excellent example of their need to eat meals approximately every 15 minutes), we went to a planetarium show (my first ever!!), and then they showed us "science." This consisted of them blowing up balloons, rubbing them on their clothes, and showing how they pick up little particles of paper afterwards... static electricity! Then they made a “tornado” by putting dish soap and glitter in a plastic water bottle and swirling it around. Then we were presented with commemorative science center water bottles and left.

One morning we went out to visit actual schools in Terengganu to get a taste of what Malaysian schools look like (though they weren’t the actual schools we'd be teaching in). It was a ridiculous morning for several reasons:

1. The Terengganu education department decided to bus us to the school, except that it was literally TWO BUILDINGS down from our hotel. Like literally 150 feet away. Again, I’m not sure whether they do this just to be nice, or because they assume that Americans require or expect private automotive transportation to every location… regardless, it was absurd being on a bus for approximately 3 seconds.

2. That day, we were served a buffet breakfast at the hotel, a midmorning snack at our briefing at around 9:15am, brunch at the secondary school we visited at around 10:45am, an "early lunch" at the primary school we visited at 11:30am, and then a full sit-down lunch at the hotel at 12:30pm. By the time our fifth meal of the day had commenced, most of us couldn’t control our urges to vomit and/or laugh uncontrollably. Malaysia knocks the pants off college as the WORLD destination for UNLIMITED free food.

3. The secondary school we visited didn’t actually have classes for us to observe. It was an assembly day so there were no teachers anywhere and all the students were in a meeting hall all morning… which is fine, except that the whole point of us going there was to observe classes and talk to teachers. What makes it even funnier is that we were supposed to "debrief" all afternoon about what we learned from observing classes and talking to teachers... oh wait, except that the observing didn't actually happen...

One of my favorite nights in Kuala Terengganu involved building a bonfire on the beach. We were joined by some Malaysian friends, mostly surfers who we ran into every afternoon by the beach. One of them is sponsored by Billabong and is Malaysia's #1 surfer! Anyways, they helped us build a fire (Malaysian firewood = broken boat pieces and palm fronds), and then the 25 or so of us all hung out just talking and listening to music all night by the beach. To celebrate the full moon, we did this traditional full moon ceremony activity where you write down on a piece of paper all the bad things you want to rid yourself of for the year - all the negative things in your life weighing you down - and then roll the piece of paper up into a funnel, light the funnel on fire, and run to the ocean while it burns and throw it in the ocean. It was actually a really amazing, therapeutic experience, and it was cool because we all did it together.