Something Next to Normal

Real talk, y’all: I have been trying my best to write this blog post for the past four weeks. For twenty seven days now, I’ve attempted to put words on a page, to create something that reflects my life here so far in an interesting and appealing way. I sit down, either on my couch or at the wonderfully expensive restaurant just around the corner (which has free wifi and lattes), and I open my laptop. I pull up the blog, click the handy little “new post” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen, rest my fingers on the keys…and nothing happens. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll start a few sentences, maybe throw in a picture or two, and then almost immediately start doubting myself. Is this too boring? Do people really care? Okay, you’ve spiced it up a bit, but now it’s too much–who are you trying to impress? Just write! 

So I click the “Save Draft” button and close the tab. There are currently more saved drafts in storage than there are published posts.

When I step back and think about it, I realize that a lot of what I’ve been struggling with is the fact that life here in Malaysia is, despite all of my expectations, beginning to feel very…well, normal. Which I didn’t think was possible. At all. How can living thousands of miles away from home, in a country that is the opposite of my own in so many ways, possibly feel normal?

I honestly don’t know. And I’m not exactly sure when this return to normalcy began, either. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s been a gradual process. That, somewhere between wearing a bright green silk shirt to school on Thursdays and making up an on-the-spot cardio routine to Katy Perry’s “Firework” for a bunch of Malaysian teenagers, life just kind of became this normal, not-at-all-bizarre thing to me. I wake up, go to work, come home…and even though most of these every day steps are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, they have become my routine.

Which is why, I think, writing this blog post has been so difficult for me. For the past four months, I’ve approached updating this blog with a feeling of novelty, like everything I had to say was new and exciting and needed to be heard. And now, as I make my way into month five of this Fulbright journey, that sense of novelty is beginning to wear off just a little bit.

It’s not that my life is actually less exciting than it was before. I’m still figuring out how to be a minor celebrity, both at school and in town. I’m still learning to speak Bahasa Melayu (with a decent amount of success, I might add). I’m still traveling around Southeast Asia, seeing places I’ve always dreamed of seeing. My life is, in so many ways, far from normal–I guess I’m just much better at coping with it all than I was four months ago.

To be honest, if a herd of cows isn’t hanging out in the middle of the road on my way to school in the morning, it’s just not a normal day.

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to write this blog post, and that it’s not going to be the most exciting thing to ever hit the internet. We can’t all be Kim K’s rear end, am I right? (Is that reference even still a thing? I’m very much out of the loop over here, y’all.)

The point is, I’m making this post because I want to, and because my life here is still incredible in so many unpredictable ways despite the fact that it’s all becoming a bit routine to me. In the last month, I’ve taken to the streets of Thailand with only a bathing suit and a water gun to help ring in the new year. I’ve been white water rafting down a river in Ipoh (and I didn’t die). I’ve spent the day with my students exploring the Cameron Highlands and eating my weight in strawberries, all because they just wanted to have an adventure with me.

I’m still learning, still experiencing, still living this crazy, beautiful life. And I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

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Until next time,

Kyle

P.S. You get 10 bonus points if you caught that Ke$ha reference…and an additional 5 if you don’t hate me for it.

Building Community, One Rumor at a Time

If I’m learning anything about Malaysia and its culture, it’s this: people talk.

When I missed a day of work after eating a very normal meal of roti canai that didn’t quite agree with my stomach, I arrived at school the next day to growing rumors of the “food poisoning” that had knocked me out for a whole day. Some swore it was caused by a drastic intake of spicy foods, while others claimed that I surely must have eaten bad vegetables and probably had a parasite.

The truth: I ate a piece of very mild flatbread dipped in an even milder curry sauce. I probably just got some bad ice. I was fine.

When I skipped lunch at the school canteen because it was Friday and we leave at noon anyway (why not just eat a peanut butter sandwich at home?), I was met with many concerned questions on the following Monday. From my students: Sir, why did you forget to eat on Friday? It was chicken rice day–you need to eat chicken rice, sir. From my fellow teachers: You must still be feeling sick, right? Or maybe you’re on a diet? You do not need to lose weight–you need to eat. Do you not like the canteen food?

The truth: I forgot to eat. I had a busy schedule of classes and meetings that day, and the teacher giving me a ride home left before I could grab a meal. It was fine.

When I was mistakenly asked to help coach one of my school’s sports houses (think Hogwarts houses meet the Olympics), my students and colleagues quickly discovered that sports and I aren’t the best of friends. I attempted to “coach” volleyball, the disastrous results of which were filmed (unbeknownst to me) and quickly shared via group text message to every teacher at the school. I’m 99% sure my students did the same thing with their friends. The next day…you get the idea. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t mean spirited by any means, but it was certainly honest: Sir, you do not like sports much, do you?

The truth: No, kids. I sure don’t.

At first, I struggled with how quickly news seems to travel here. The Malaysian rumor mill (the questionably-affectionate nickname I’ve given this phenomenon) can be overwhelming at times, and I honestly felt myself getting defensive the first few times I encountered it. I’m feeling better now–can we all please just forget I ever got sick? Yes, I get it, I stink at sports…we don’t have to talk about it anymore, okay? I found myself getting worked up by the things that people were saying and the fact that they seemed to say almost anything to anyone.

And then I remembered some of the other “rumors” that have circulated throughout my school in the three weeks I’ve been here: You don’t have any furniture in your house? Where do you sit? How do you wash your clothes? I’ve heard the front yard is full of weeds…and are the windows really bare, without any curtains? 

After about a week of these little tidbits making their way through the rumor mill, we suddenly found ourselves with a sofa and appliances, the money for which was fronted by our teacher mentors. My principal sent someone to help us clear out the flowerbeds so that we wouldn’t have a breeding ground for snakes in our front yard. A teacher at my school made an entire set of curtains for nearly every window in the house, and a crew of teachers and children came over to help hang them. Our house was essentially given a mini-makeover in the span of just a week or so–all because people talked.

So I’m reminded of what a community can be, of how its qualities manifest in different ways. Here, I’m surrounded by a group of people who know little boundaries; no question or query is off limits, no gesture of kindness too big. Back home, I think I am quite used to a “me first” world, one in which my privacy and my thoughts and my needs are all just that: mine. Possession is vital. While I don’t think this is an inherently bad way to live, I’m beginning to see some of the ways in which it might be limiting.

Here, from what I’ve experienced, the desire to share (thoughts, secrets, possessions) seems to be a major driving force, and I’ve found that it opens me up to a whole new way of interacting with those around me. Since I can’t really hide anything, why not just practice being honest and open? When my students seem to fixate on my incredible lack of athleticism, why not share what I’m actually passionate about? There’s no shame in that. When everyone seems concerned about my eating habits, why not discuss my desire to lead a mostly-vegetarian lifestyle? Honesty and connection stem from these conversations.

And in light of the recent murder of three beautiful souls in what feels like my home state of North Carolina, I have to recognize the power that simply talking can have. When the community comes before the individual, sometimes you have no choice but to be vulnerable. Let’s talk about why I eat what I do, why I prefer books over volleyball nets, why I see the world through the different lenses I wear. And when I’m done talking, let me remember to listen. To embrace others’ honesty. To inquire about their lives when I hear that they’ve been sick or that their mother recently moved in with them. To ask them about their prayers and their beliefs and their dreams, all while basking in the comfort that we share a common understanding: that our words have power, as does our ability to listen. That what you say is yours and mine, that we are connected by our voices and our ears and our hearts. That, in the words of a dear friend, we are all “humans hurting for each other”. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

I’m not entirely sure, and I can’t pretend to have the answers. But I think it’s only fair that we give it a shot.