Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Orientation Almost Over

NOTE: pictures finally added!  Thanks for keeping in touch, everyone!  You're awesome :-)

It's weird; home is like a dream now, but so is being here.  In about three weeks of orientation, we've covered a lot of material, but what we're here to do still seems so unreal.  We're getting pretty seriously pampered right now - staying in nice hotels with free meals and internet, free trips to sights around the city, plenty of time to explore the beach and the markets, people coming in from all over to meet us and help prepare us.  With all the bonding that me and the other ETAs are doing, and all the talk about where to go and what to see on breaks, it's hard to believe that this isn't just some big vacation in which the teaching is a secondary detail.

However, the closer we get to going to our schools (only a day away now!) and the more we get to talk to specific people from our schools, the more real this job seems.  With a bit of effort, I can remember that in spite of how relaxed this whole program feels right now, we are actually here to do some pretty concrete work, starting very soon.  As a matter of fact, I can't wait to get down to business; all this relaxing is starting to take its toll on me.

Which isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed it.  We've been reasonably busy doing awesome things - visiting the science center to see a show in the planetarium, exploring the museum and its history of Terengganu, visiting the immense city library with its computer labs and children's centers, touring the mini model mosque park with the full-sized Crystal Mosque (in the picture here) that lights up in the evening.  We've even visited local primary and secondary schools - none that we'll be teaching at - to meet the students and see how the classes work (that's what fellow ETA Megan is doing in the picture just above).

We've had daily talks and classes on the Malaysian education system, the teaching of English as a second language, and an introduction to Bahasa Malaysia (the Malay language).  The language class actually just covered several key phrases and a lesson in haggling, which culminated in a field trip to the market for a scavenger hunt and some real-world practice.  (Actually, last time I tried bargaining with anyone here, they kept bursting into laughter, which was a pretty good psychological ploy I guess, because I was really losing confidence in my commitment to a certain price.)

A few days back, we had something like a sports day - we went bowling in the afternoon, then played "futsal" in the evening.  Futsal is basically mini indoor soccer: you have a small field that's less than half the size of a soccer field, enclosed in netting, and a small soccer ball, and six people on each team.  The rules are pretty much the same as in soccer.  It was ridiculously fun, and I surprised myself with how well I could keep up.

Speaking of sports, we've made friends with a group of surfers that hangs out down the beach from our hotel (They're in that very relaxing picture at the top of the blog).  Apparently the surf season here is in full swing, and we see them out in the waves almost every day.  Most of them are Malay, but there is one very well-traveled German named Jan.  He talks like a vocal chameleon - if he's speaking with an American, it would never enter your head that he wasn't American too.  But if you hear him talking to a Malay, the broken English he uses makes you wonder whether he's just a Malay without a tan.

We invited the surfers to our full moon beach bonfire a few nights ago, which was completely awesome.  We spent some time during the day gathering up random wood and dead palm fronds lying on the beach, then me and two other girls dug a small pit in the sand and successfully lit the fire using only a few matches.  By the time the guys got there with a carload of firewood, they were very impressed with how big it was already.

We did a little "Letting Go" ceremony that one of the girls knew, where you write things that you want to let go from your life on a piece of paper, then set the paper on fire, run to the water, and drop it in.  Mine burned me slightly, but was successfully destroyed.  We spent the rest of the night hanging out, getting to know the surfers, singing random songs, and talking to the random group of kids who came up all curious about us.

The surfers did this awesome thing with a ton of steel wool that they bought, where they stuffed it into a little wire basket on the end of a rope, dipped the steel wool in the fire, then when it caught, spun it around really fast, making a sizzling pinwheel of sparks.  It was incredible, and I got some pictures that don't even nearly do it justice.

Anyway, it's not all fun and games here, I did get to meet my mentor the other day, and we spent hours just talking about the school, the students, what I'll be doing, getting to know each other, etc.  I've been gathering ideas for class activities like a maniac; if anyone has anything that can help, I would love to hear about it.  Especially things like camp games and fun activities that get everyone up and talking.

Time to get working and packing - the handing over ceremony is tomorrow, then we go off to our schools!

I'll add pictures later.  Oh, here's a deal: I'll add one picture for each person that comments or emails me and tells me what they're up to these days.  Seriously, I want to keep up with you people, not just chuck paragraphs into the void occasionally.

So, here are some extra pictures I thought were cool:

Me in a baju kurung, the type of women's garment that I'll be wearing to teach class pretty much every day at the school.

Me playing around on the supports of a traditional house-on-stilts at the museum (there are still plenty of these in the countryside).

Fellow ETA Ani eating a restaurant's take-away dessert, "ice cream sandwich."  Which was, quite literally, vanilla ice cream on lightly toasted brown bread.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kuala Terengganu

Yeah, so, I'm stopping addressing my blog to specific people - it doesn't seem to be making much of a difference in how often I post or how much people comment.  This one goes out to you, random internet ether.

Orientation has now progressed to the next level!  We are currently kickin' it in Terengganu, the very province we'll be teaching in.  The Terengganu state department are taking care of us, and we're doing about two weeks of detailed orientation and preparation before the actual ceremony where we get handed over to our schools.

I had no idea there'd be a ceremony, or a small paparazzi when we got to the KT airport.  There were about two dozen schoolkids there to greet us at the arrival hall, as well as five or six men and women with cameras, I couldn't tell if they were press or just other teachers from the schools.  Turns out, the schoolkids were from my school, Lembah Bidong, and were most likely there to greet us because their previous ETA was basically a rock star.

I actually got to meet their previous ETA a few days ago and ask some questions, and it's true, she is awesome.  It's going to be a tough act to follow!

Anyway, since I last posted, we've been having a lot of fun times.  Almost all the ETA's went out to this club in Kuala Lumpur, and it was huge - like four rooms with different music, lights and bars and smoke machines everywhere, even (clothed) go-go dancers on platforms in one room.  A night or two later, for a nice contrast, I went swing dancing.  The swing scene in KL is small, but really cool!  I got to meet and dance with some really good dancers, including a visiting couple of teachers from Sweden.  Hopefully I'll get to go back before too long.

We also went to a reception at the Ambassador's house, where a lot of YES! program students were being given a farewell party.  The YES! program is a six-month exchange program for Malaysian high schoolers, run by AFS, where they spend a semester in America with host families.  As a matter of fact, a Malaysian youth TV network runs a very popular show about these students, sending its host to visit several of them and report on their lives and experiences.  Look up Field Trip USA - the host, Qi, was actually emceeing the reception, and he called up all the students who would be on next season's show!

The rest of the reception was a lot of the ETA's and the YES students swapping stories and bits of culture, like strange language dialects, football alliegences, and even dances like the macarena and the chicken dance!  Four kids, including one of the guys who's going to be on the show, are going to Wisconsin, by the way.  La Crosse better treat him well!

We also visited a really pretty historic town called Melaka, where the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British had all at some point conquered.  I got lots of cool pictures, maybe I'll post them all later.

Here in KT, the buildings are shorter, but the beach is much, much closer.  We've been trying to get used to lots of meat, fish, and fried foods, so we were really happy to see the hotel buffet having fruit and salad available every night.  Today for lunch, they even served us a surprise four-course meal!  It was legit cuisine, too - the food was delicious and it was arranged to take up maybe 1/10th of the surface area of the plate.

So here's all those extra photos I thought you might enjoy!

 A woman missing an arm paints Chinese calligraphy in Melaka.

Awesome flip-flops for sale in Melaka.

An old woman prays before an altar in a Chinese temple in Melaka.

The signs in front of the elevator in our hotel - durian fruit and mangosteen are not allowed!  For real, guys.  Durian apparently stinks to high heaven and mangosteen stains badly.

Women making coconut pankcake-y things at the market in Kuala Terengganu.

Look out, baby rider!

Guess somebody thought she'd be happier sitting on her daddy's moto while daddy was busy at the market.


Funnily enough, a huge wave crashed over this whole area a split second after my friend took the picture.  My knees got soaked and the words were gone just like that.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Schools Assigned!

Dear Mom,

I don't know if you've managed to get your computer to display my blog yet, so I don't know if you're reading this.  But, I wanted to let you know - we finally got our school assignments!  Jim Coffman, the program director, was holding on to them until they were confirmed, but he just seemed to love holding back something we all wanted to know so badly.

There are six of us in the main city, Kuala Terengganu, and the rest are spread out mostly in pairs and mostly along the coast.  Two people have inland assignments; they're still not exactly sure where the schools they got assigned to are on the map.

The school I got is named SMK Lembah Bidong, and it's in the Setiu district of the province of Terengganu.  I'm actually the only person assigned to a district all by myself; it seems like pretty much everyone is living within shouting distance of at least one other person.  However, KT and Besut, where some others will be assigned, are apparently both within an hour of me, thank god.  Plus, this probably means I'll be even more deeply immersed in the language and the culture!

Well, aside from this exciting news, we've mostly been spending time learning the language (Bahasa Malaysia) and English teaching techniques, actually both from the same lady.  It turns out that our Bahasa teacher can speak English after all, she just wanted us to be in an immersive environment from the start.  So now she's both teaching us a language and teaching us how to teach a language, if that's not too confusing.

During TESL (Teaching English Second Language) classes, we mostly play language games and activities that she brings in, directed by a volunteer who acts as the teacher for that round.  That way, we get to experience the game itself, as well as how leading the game feels, and we can learn from how each other leads the class.

Today, we played a competitive telephone game, a sort of imaginative survival-adventure game, and a fill-in-the-blanks in the song lyrics activity (to the very infectious "My Love," by Westlife).  Yesterday, we did a "Speed Dating" icebreaker and something like "Guesstures," which got everyone up and acting crazy.  Prizes were cute little candies, including things sort of like tiny, non-alcoholic jello shots.

The food here has been so different - the main thing for me to get used to is that here in Malaysia, if I'm tired of eating out Asian food, I can't just go and choose Italian instead.  It's pretty much all Chinese, Thai, Indian, etc.  Which doesn't mean it's not tasty - I've had some incredibly good dinners here.

I've tried roti with sauces, very spicy fried rice, grilled fish on a banana leaf, some sort of spring roll type thing, grilled manta ray on a banana leaf (it was very soft and kind of mild), and a traditional Malay dish that they'll eat for breakfast or lunch - nasi lemak.  This consists of rice, a spicy sauce, peanuts, cucumber slices, hard-boiled egg, and little dried fish, if I'm not forgetting anything. That's what I'm eating off the banana leaf in the picture there.

I've been eating with pretty much everything - chopstick, fingers, forks, little plastic ladles.  I've also had some awesome fruits, like jackfruit, which looks kind of like a pepper but tastes more like a banana.  I also like guava, papaya, and dragon fruit, and my roommate Olivia just handed me a dried kiwi!

It's funny, but after I eat a meal here, it's like an automatic 180 in my mood.  I can practically feel my "happiness and endurance" lifebar refilling. 

Also, something funny I've noticed about walking on the street here: people not only drive on the left side of the road, they also walk on the left side of the sidewalk.  You know that little dance you do when you're trying to negotiate around someone walking toward you on the sidewalk?  You know how in America it's pretty automatic to just slide to the right?  Here, people just slide to the left, and then if I'm not paying attention, it gets awkward when we almost slap into each other.

Anyway, that's it for today, except that I really miss you and you should email me.  That goes for everyone else reading this too, not just my mom.  The schedule is still pretty irregular for the next two weeks, but I'm definitely up for breaking out the skype.

I love you, mom!
Over and out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Waaay Too Detailed Update

HEY... SO:  Kuala Lumpur is 14 hours ahead of Chicago time, 13 hours ahead of East Coast time.  This means that I will most likely be waking up the next morning while you're still cooking dinner.  As awesome as this is in theory, it means I'll probably be available during the most inconvenient times for communicating with you.  We will try anyway.   P.S. I have a phone now, and it might make relatively cheap international calls.

So, my first full day in Malaysia consisted largely of orientation.  By now, almost all of the other Fulbrighters have arrived, even the two who missed their overnight flight because of snow delays, and so far everyone seems really interesting and really nice.

We went to the MACEE office early in the morning (quick note: MACEE is the organization in Malaysia that partners with the Terengganu State Department to run the Fulbright program in this country).  We heard talks from MACEE's director and from a well-traveled political advisor, both attempting to prepare us for everything we could possibly face during the next ten months.  We ate cute little Southeast Asian snacks - "curry puffs", "layer cakes", and really pretty fruit tarts. 

We then had a language class from a sweet Malaysian lady who refused to speak English with us, throwing the whole group into enthusiastic confusion.  We had to work to figure out each word she said to us and what it could possibly mean.  The closest analogue I can think is one of those scenes in NCIS or House, where the team is in some analysis room pooling their mysterious data and shooting off rapid-fire suggestions and arguments at each other.

In the evening, a few of us went to the slightly less ritzy (but no less shiny) mall a little further away from the hotel.  It was crowded to bursting with stalls and merchandise and delicious-smelling pastry counters, and somewhere in there I managed to find a less decrepit purse to use here.  We then ate at a nearby Portuguese Botswanan restaurant, bought some notebooks for further Malay lessons, and went to bed.

Yeah, it was only 9:00.  Yeah, still jet lagged.  I woke up at 5:30 and couldn't get to sleep again.

Today was another series of orienting talks, some at the American Embassy and some at the MACEE office.  I don't know how many times I heard "I don't want to scare you, but…"  Except for the Foreign Medical Officer at the embassy - he was more honest: "My job is to scare you.  I have dengue fever."  A list of his painful and impressive symptoms followed.

We were introduced to pretty much the whole structure of the American embassy, and given a huge amount of information about US-Malaysia relations and the status of the country.  I obviously can't post pictures of the embassy - the security there was extremely tight, and nothing from cameras to nail clippers was allowed in.  (The conference room in the picture is in the MACEE office.)

They also gave each of us one big cardboard crate of ESL teaching materials.  I can't believe I was ever afraid of being under-prepared.

Lunch was Indian food at the MACEE office, and we had this awesome sweet drink that was basically the Indian or Malaysian version of root beer - it's called something like "sassi" because it's made of the sasafrass root.  I also ate shrimp with the shells still on - apparently it's a great source of calcium!

Language lessons today were much the same as yesterday, except we were able to form an even greater variety of broken sentences!  I love how excited everyone gets when they're trying to figure out what she's teaching us.

Dinner was negotiated in broken English at a very local cafe-type place.  We had roti, spicy fried rice, juice, and teh tarik (sort of like chai).

Now I'm sitting in this huge two-story McDonald's, using up their free internet!  Soon to bed though; mornings are early here.

So hey, I miss all of you!  Also, I was too tired to decide who this post should be addressed to, sorry.  Hey, people should start actually commenting on this blog, or I'm gonna think nobody's reading it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First Update Actually From Malaysia!


Dear Adam,

I decided to write my blog as a series of open letters, because it's more fun that way and it'll probably keep me more dedicated.  I hope you don't mind me addressing the first one to you, but there is a reason for this, I promise.

So anyway, here's a fun story.  I just traveled 10,000 miles in about 36 hours.

The flight to Hong Kong and the one from there to Kuala Lumpur were run by a certain Asian airline, and I guess they do things differently there, or at least their engineers do.

I mean, the plane for the overnight was obviously huge - about 60 rows with ten seats per row, or something like that.  But the seats themselves were tiny!  I honestly think they were even narrower and more thinly padded than any economy-class domestic flight seats I've ever seen!  Oh man, and some genius engineer probably got a huge bonus for the design of how the seat reclines.

Basically, when you press the button, the seat under your butt slides forward and takes the padding for your seat back with it.  This is what they call "reclining" in these parts - not some sissy seat back tilting backwards.  Adam, your mission as an engineer is now to make sure that nothing like this is ever conceived again.

But I really can't complain about the meals or the entertainment.  The food was quite decent, especially that interesting breakfast of chicken-and-mushroom-and-ginger-in-porridge.  With-yoghurt.  Which you must try to learn how to make.  Also, they literally had over a hundred movies and shows of all types available, recent and classic, and you could start them and pause them whenever you wanted!  Turns out it's okay if you can't really sleep because your seat won't recline.

Anyway, I met up with one other Fulbright girl, Anna, who was seated just one row ahead of me on this flight, and then we met up with another girl, Nou, at the Hong Kong airport, basically by Facebook commenting until we found each other.

When we got to Kuala Lumpur, the driver Jo was there to meet all of us and squeeze us into his van, then drive us at breakneck speed to the hotel.

We then went out to the fanciest, ritziest, most shiny and expensive mall I have ever seen.  I didn't buy anything more than a little gelato, but I gaped plenty.

And now I'm at the hotel in Kuala Lumpur, with over a dozen other Fulbrighters who all seem really cool and interesting, and now I have to decide whether sleep time or bonding time is more important.

Oh man guess what!  I found swing dancers here!  Their weekly dance is on Tuesdays, so I know what I'm doing tonight...

Anyway, I miss you tons.  Hope you're doing okay; let me know how the job's working out!


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Predeparture: T minus 1 hour

Currently I am sitting in the Little Rock airport before my first of four flights, and my goal is to get as much written as possible before boarding.

I managed to fit everything I needed into one large suitcase and a backpack!  Go me!  There's even extra space for bringing stuff home, so people should let me know what they want from Southeast Asia.  I'm warning you, if you don't tell me anything, you're getting chopsticks.

According to my calculations, I will be in transit for a little over 36 hours, from when this flight takes off to when I land in Kuala Lumpur.  I'll be stopping over in Dallas, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, and my longest flight will be a measly 14 hours.  Hopefully there will be air cuisine, and little tiny cans of ginger ale.

My other goal is to scour the airports for Malay phrasebooks and books on teaching ESL.  Apparently Asia is positively infested with young, adventurous English teachers, so there should be a pretty big market to tap into.

Well, I just read back over this and realized that I actually have nothing interesting to report right now except for hopes and expectations, so I'll quit being speculative and start learning some vocabulary.

Happy New Year, everyone!