trekking and monkeys and selfies, oh my

The past two weeks have been the busiest of my life. My days are packed with speakers, workshops, meetings, dinners, walking, eating, dancing, and socializing. I keep channeling David Byrne and asking myself, “How did I get here?!”

While orientation follows a schedule, each day is full of surprises (often in the form of surprise fish). I’ll write about a few of those today.

Friday. Picture this: a tropical rain forest in the mountains. Drizzling rain. Mud, everywhere. Water buffalo and macaques on the side of the road. Cats, everywhere. Leeches. 100 Americans slathered with bug spray and sunscreen trekking slipping along in a single file line to find a waterfall. Sounds like an episode of what should be a reality show called “Fulbright Malaysia: Fresh off the plane.” I enjoyed every second of it. Humor and flexibility are key to survival (or at least peace) here.

DSC_0173 (2)
I didn’t want to risk bringing my camera on the hike, so here’s a pic of our home base for the day in Janda Baik.

Saturday. Our first English camps! We finally got to do what we’re here for–spend time with Malaysian students. The 100 ETAs were split into groups of ten and each sent to different schools in the Kuala Lumpur area for a single day English camp. I was nervous on the way to SMK Sungai Kertas, but I was surprised and moved by how enthusiastic, smart, giggly, and respectful the kids were. We bonded over hangman, Simon Says, making snowflakes, and relay races during our four hours together. Not only was I surprised by the kids, but also by myself. One of my insecurities about this year in Malaysia is my introverted nature. I worry about not being peppy or exciting enough to fill the role of an ETA sometimes. But somehow, the kids brought out my goofy, exuberant side. I felt completely at ease with dancing and shouting and chatting with everyone. The day restored my confidence.

An interesting bit of Malaysian culture is their love for SELFIES and photo opps. I was asked to take at least 50 pics that day with various kids and administrators, always one smiling followed by “Freestyle!” which just means throwing up peace signs and “tiny love.” Teacher-student relationships also have different standards in Malaysia. Here, it isn’t considered strange to exchange phone numbers with students and meet up outside of school. We made a WhatsApp group so students can practice their English with me over text, even though I probably won’t see any of these kids again.

“hash tag Malaysia”

One last thought before I go, and a preview of what I might write about in the future. During orientation last week, we had lots of discussions about identity (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and how our own identities could inform our experiences in Malaysia. To many Malaysians, particularly those living in more rural areas, to be American means to be white, blond, rich, and beautiful, which is unsurprising due to media representation. This was demonstrated in the closing ceremony of our English camp. As the principal thanked us profusely, she added, “We are so grateful for these beautiful, blue-eyed people.” Of course, not all of us had blue eyes. It will be interesting and challenging to navigate these sorts of perceptions, although my experience will be much more smooth than the many ETAs of color who do not fit this constructed viewpoint of “American.”

P.S. I’ll be living in the city of Sungai Petani with my new roommate Veronica and teaching in the town of Merbok, about 30 minutes away. I can’t wait to start this next part of my adventure in a couple of weeks!





24 thoughts on “trekking and monkeys and selfies, oh my”

  1. Hello, Safiya here again. If you don’t mind U’d like to ask you a few more questions. It is possible to hold the monkeys? Also, have you had any scary moments in your treck across Malaysia. Thanks again.

    Safiya Alsaedy


    1. Hi Safiya! I think you might be able to get a monkey to climb onto your lap if you tempted it with food, but I don’t think they’d want to be held otherwise. They’re kind of mean and might steal anything shiny you’re wearing. The scariest moment I had was when I almost got hit by a car as I crossed the street. Red lights are not taken very seriously here.


    1. Yes, lots! Because there are so many religions practiced here, there are also lots of holidays. Chinese New Year is coming up on February 16th. Hari Raya marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims, in mid-June. It is a huge celebration where families wear matching outfits and travel to each other’s houses to eat food all day. Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights, celebrated in November.


  2. Hi Elizabeth! I hope you are having fun in Malaysia! Also, is it hard with the time change and texting people who are in a whole different time zone than you?


    1. I reeeeeally like roti canai, which is a Malaysian Indian bread which is often served with curries. My favorite dinner was at a banana leaf restaurant, where I was given a pile of rice, a couple different sauces, some veggies, and papadam on a giant banana leaf. You eat the meal with your hand!


    1. It has a gate in front and connects to the houses on either side. It is two stories, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. The walls in the living room are bright green. I am very lucky! I will take some pictures soon and my mom can show you.


    1. Cross-dressing is prohibited by Sharia law, which applies to the Muslims in Malaysia. Therefore, individuals can be imprisoned or face discrimination and assault if they choose to express or identify with a gender that doesn’t align with their sex.


    1. Yes, definitely! Jerai is a mountain near my town, and I plan to hike Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain, eventually. In my free time I will travel to other cities and states to visit my American friends, hang out with teachers and students, go to markets, do Zumba class, explore temples, take pictures, and spend time outdoors.


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