Travel is not “Fun”

Vacation and travel are often mistaken for each other because they both involve having time off from everyday life and changing physical location. Though they have a few things in common, they’re distinctly different experiences.

You go on vacation so you can escape from your everyday life and relax. You treat yourself, indulge, and savor sweet nothingness. Vacation is basking and loafing and not wearing a watch. You feel good and think “Should I do something today? Maybe I’ll take a nap.”

Travel is the exact opposite. It is meant to shake you up, exhaust you, challenge you, stress you out, and put you out on a limb. It requires flexibility, precision, decision making, and street smarts. Travel is rain, long bumpy bus rides, language barriers, and early mornings. It is filled with moments of inspiration, and often, despair. It is a constant “what’s next? and “how did this possibly all work out.” It is a mixture of vigilance and gratitude.

You are not required to learn anything on vacation, but when you travel it is an ethical responsibility to learn about the history of a place and lives of the people there.

Despite these differences, travel and vacation are both ways of working on yourself. After a vacation you feel relaxed and refreshed—a new you. Vacation is like taking a shower; it’s a magical way to feel better in a short period of time. Travel, on the other hand, is like going on a long, uphill run. You return exhausted and proud, and feel aches in unexpected places long after. It makes you strong, even if in the short term it makes you weak.

Class Satu-D

Students at SMK Selising are divided by test scores, with the top scorers going to “A” classes, and lower scorers going to “B,” “C,” and “D” classes.  I teach the A, B, C, and D classes for forms 1 and 2, or the equivalent of 8th and 9th grade.

That means I teach the youngest and lowest scoring students in the school, the 1D class. Most of the students in “Satu-D” are not literate in their mother-tongue, Bahasa Melayu.

Most of their parents are truck drivers, soldiers, or sell food at the night market. This is their seventh year taking BM class, and at least their third or fourth year taking English, but they still cannot read or write proficiently in either language. The combination of poverty, an exceptionally hierarchical culture, and teacher shortages means that these students have had little to no resources and guidance throughout their education.

They sit in a dirty, bare, cement classroom with a couple of anemic fans. They wear ratty shoes and their notebooks are falling apart. Their lack of nutrition, health care, and education makes them come across as much younger than thirteen. They look about 9 or 10.

For the first few weeks it was nearly impossible to get them to speak at all. They couldn’t respond to “How are you?” or “What is your name?” They would cover their faces in their hands, turn away in embarrassment, laugh uncontrollably, or just stare like a statue. This is understandable because even if they knew some English, they would be too shy to use it with me because I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met.

How was I supposed to teach this class? I didn’t speak BM and they didn’t speak English, and even when I wrote on the board they couldn’t sound out the letters.

We started from the very beginning. I decided to focus on spoken English and useful basics, rather than try to teach them a topic from the Form 1 national curriculum that would be over their heads and irrelevant.

I have a small whiteboard eraser that I started tossing to students when it was their turn to talk. The physicality of throwing the “duster” and the silliness of missed throws and catches broke the ice. After a few weeks they could say “Hello, my name is___. I am from Malaysia. I live in Kampong____. I am thirteen-years-old.”

I realized that they did not know the days of the week or months of the year, so we worked on that next. I started every class having them tell me the day, date, and year.

Every class we worked on a simple sentence structure they could memorize, because they could not read the words I wrote on the whiteboard. Then they would use the vocabulary they had learned to practice in sentences like “My favorite____is_____” and “Do you have a___?” They learned colors, animals, fruits, vegetables, classroom objects, emotions, etc.

I have a policy that speaking English should never be used as a punishment because students will then associate it with punishment and won’t want to speak voluntarily. That’s why I give students a few chances to skip their turn until they are ready and have heard other students answer successfully. When the students realized they’d get more attention and reinforcement from volunteering, they started clamoring to raise their hands first.

At assembly every week I present an English word to the school. I give students imported Tootsie Rolls for being brave enough to come on stage to spell the words and use them in a sentence. Then I start every class by asking students how they feel that day, and they have to use one of the many words of the week they’ve accumulated. After a couple months, the 1D students could be heard saying “Miss Christy, today I feel phenomenal,” “morose,” “euphoric,” “zany,” “invincible” and “jubilant.”

I keep the Tootsie Rolls in my office to lure the students in. To get candy (gula), they have to make a sentence using the word of the week. Groups of students come in all the time, speak some English, and are pleased to have tricked Miss Christy into giving them gula.

Now that I’ve arrived at the end of the year, I’ve noticed remarkable progress in this group of students, much more so than the higher-scoring classes I teach. The students who would not speak at the beginning of the year are now regulars at my office hours. They come whenever their teachers miss class. They pick up the English books I have sitting on my desk and read aloud every word they know.

Now when I start class they fluently blurt out “Today is Monday, twenty-four October, two-thousand-sixteen.” I can throw the duster around out-of-the-blue and ask “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What is your ambition?” “What is your favorite animal?” “What is your favorite fruit?” “What is __ color called?” “What is __ number called?” “Say the days of the week backwards.” They can give me directions to go right, left, ahead, behind, etc. I can name a person, object, time, or place and they can tell me if its best to use “Who,” “What,” “When,” or “Where.” They can use past, present, and future tense.

Now when a group of 1D students walks by, they confidently say “How are you today, Miss Christy?” When I ask them the same, they proclaim “I feel invincible today.”

New English

I’ve learned a lot of English in Malaysia. Even when a friend here speaks to me in English, they often have different ways of expressing themselves, managing a conversation, asking a question, or saying yes and no. It’s not a different dialect of English, it’s a distinctly different style.

This year my biggest communication barrier was not the difficulty of learning Bahasa Melayu, as I had expected, but the difficulty of learning the cultural context and nuanced meanings behind Malaysian English.


Politeness is done very differently in Malaysian English. I rarely hear “please,” “thank you” or “excuse me” here. Politeness is not a word you attach to a sentence. Instead, it’s expressed through indirectness. It’s impolite to say “I’m going home now.” I’ve learned that you must say “Teacher Christy wants to go back home now. Is it okay?”

It’s been hard for me to get used to this Rococo style. I’m a speaker of American English, a language in which Hemingway’s five word sentences are celebrated, and we’re constantly told to “get to the point.”


My American directness has gotten me into a lot of trouble in Malaysia. To me “maybe” means something may or may not happen, but here “maybe” is often used for politeness and indirectness, but doesn’t detract from the certainness of a statement. If someone says “Maybe you come to my house later?” I interpret that to mean I may or my not go to their house. But I’ve learned that the real message behind this is “Please come to my house, I’ve invited all the neighbors to meet you.” To further the confusion, if I said “Okay, maybe!” it would mean “I promise I’ll be there.” Because of this, there have been many situations in which I’ve accidentally given an American-No and a Malaysian-Yes.


Even though indirect politeness is used a lot, there are some surprising situations in which Malaysian English is much more direct than American English. It’s very common here to make forceful, imperative commands. In American English you would use the conditional and “please.” If I’m offering someone food, the polite way in American English would be “Please help yourself to some____” or “Have some_____” or “Would you like some_____?” It has taken me a long time to get used to the Malaysian way. “Christy, eat” or “Christy, come here, eat now.” I was insulted and taken aback by this for a long time. Even once I understood the cultural translation and was no longer offended, it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable about being ordered to sit and eat banana fritters.

Different Meanings

In Malaysia English sweet=cute, smart=good-looking, and clever=smart/intelligent.


“Okay” has a very different meaning. If you say someone’s work is “okay,” it means it’s severely mediocre. In Malaysian English “okay” means “good.” After I made a speech for the 500 assembled students and teachers my first week here, I sat down and asked a teacher “How was it?” and she said “Hmmm…. It was okay. Should have been longer.” I thought that meant I had bombed and that she was being charitable enough to call it “okay,” when it actually meant “Good job, but I would have liked to hear a little more.”

Ending Conversations

“Okay” is also used to end conversations. It is normal here to abruptly end a conversation by saying “Okay” and walking away. It is fine to let your conversation partner know that you don’t want to talk to them anymore. When showing additional rapport and consideration, people say “Okay, I go first” and walk away. This is clearly very different from American English. In American English conversational style, it’s impolite to end a conversation abruptly without giving an acceptable excuse, like “So sorry, I’m actually running late!”


I often hear dramatic, elaborate, poetic ways of describing feelings here. A common phrase is “sweet, sweet memories.” This means “happy memories.” There are also many romantic ways of describing a partner or friend “He is my lover, we go to honeymoon somewhere very, very romantic. He is too handsome.” Or “She is my dear friend, she is so beautiful, like rainbow.

Chatting with a friend before we break fast one evening during Ramadan.

During my time in Malaysia I’ve adopted a few of these styles of speech. Realizing the nuanced meaning behind words, has done a lot to increase my cultural understanding, not to mention my interpersonal understanding. Every time I learn about an interesting use of an English word in Malaysia, it makes me really think about the hidden meanings and habits of the words I use.

Selamat Hari Merdeka!

Malaysia became independent from British colonial rule on August 31, 1957. In a similar tradition as the American 4th of July, Malaysians feel the boom of fireworks, sing patriotic songs, and eat grilled meats on Hari Merdeka.

One Malaysian Independence Day tradition that a lot of Americans are missing out on is the patriotic bike ride. Students decorate their bikes with Malaysian flags and their state flag, and ride down neighboring kampong roads declaring “Selamat Hari Merdeka!” to everyone they see.

On the day of my school’s Hari Merdeka celebration I arrived ready to ride and without a bicycle. In classic fashion, a teacher saw my predicament and last minute drove back to his house to fetch his kid’s bike. Another teacher quickly taped a Malaysian flag to the bike and I hopped on just as everyone started rolling.

Students went all-in on their bike decorations.
Excited pre-bikeride selfie. Around 20 girls and 90 boys participated.


Most teachers (not pictured) chose to complete the route on motorcycle.

We set off through the kampong by the school. Male students whose energy gets them in trouble in class were able to stretch their legs, do some wheelies, occasionally fall off their bikes, and put their skills on display. They brought selfie sticks and didn’t miss a chance to capture every moment of the ride.

We peddled under the stark 11am sun through neighborhoods that opened up into expansive paddy fields and distant blue hills. The cows and goats and chickens grazed and pecked as we went by. I couldn’t believe the sheer greenness of the rice plants in the sun, and the lush jungle creeping in wherever it could. We rode and rode and rode, falling into a pleasant rhythm between the kampong and the raw countryside.

After what seemed like a long time, we stopped to eat rambutan, a Dr. Seuss-inspired fruit. We took selfies and a government official even stopped by to take a group photo.

Rambutan. The white fruit is sweet and mild, like a pear, and the pit is poisonous and tastes like almond.

We claimed one lane of the state highway on the way back to school. I biked with my friend, the school accountant, a fit and entrepreneurial leader at school. We laughed and complained when students passed us, and eventually rolled right back to SMK Selising, sweaty, sunburnt, sore, and victorious.

Ready for the celebration to continue.

Everyone returned safely from the bike ride and then it was time to start the ceremony. There was a patriotic fashion show, singing, flag waving, and of course, food.


A participant in the fashion show.
A very dedicated mother.
They sewed these themselves.



A Teapot on Every Table

While a cow and goat sacrifice festival (Hari Raya Haji) went on in Kelantan, I took a trip to Myanmar/Burma for a few days with a fellow Fulbright friend.

Before I continue, let’s settle whether it’s “Myanmar” or “Burma.” Myanmar is the formal name used in written documents and Burma is the colloquial name. Burma was used during British colonial rule and is also the name of the ethnic majority, the Bamar. The military junta renamed the country “Myanmar” in an attempt to distinguish itself from its colonial past and to emphasize the supremacy of written over colloquial language. The name Myanmar has stuck with the international community because of its recent use, and is used  by the UN and President Obama. Though “Myanmar” is commonly accepted, the use of “Burma” typically shows disapproval of the country’s still unpopular and troublesome government. For that reason, I’ll use the name Burma. While there, I heard the country’s residents call it by both names.

Burma had its first free elections in November of 2015 after almost 50 years of military rule. There are still armed struggles between Buddhist and Muslim groups in northern Burma, but the southern areas are safe for visitors.

We flew into the largest city and former capital, Yangon, alternatively known as Rangoon. It is unclear how the city’s name became connected to the infamous, Chinese take-out treat—the crab Rangoon.

Yangon at night.

We got into a taxi and were surprised to see that cars are driven on the same side of the road as in the U.S., but the steering wheels are on the right side. Instead of always being closest to the median, the driver operates the car from the sidewalk side.

The busy streets of Yangon were lined by evening food carts and restaurants with little plastic stools set up around tables, each one with a shiny silver teapot. There were few other westerners around. I was delighted that no one tried to sell me anything. Rather, locals smiled easily as I walked past.

The next day we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda. According to legend, it has been a sacred site for 2600 years. But over the last 1000 years the pagoda has become what it is today.

One of four entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda complex.
The Shwedagon Pagoda.
One of the many smaller, more intimate shrines within the complex.



The pagoda complex was alive with worshippers. Groups of men and women in simple grey shirts and pants prayed near the towering golden dome. They swept a patch of the tiled ground, stood with their hands above their heads, then bent their bodies in half and kneeled, placing their foreheads on the ground. Some people wore garden-type gloves and continued their motion of worship by sliding their whole body onto the ground until they lay completely facedown.

Burma is famous for its textiles, and it shows. Set against the simple grey clothing of the worshippers, young couples promenaded around the complex. They dressed colorfully and meticulously, with perfectly tailored ensembles of hot pink, deep blue, and forest green highlighted in the hot sun by abundant gold and silver. Each couple held a bouquet of fresh flowers.

A lack of infrastructure makes getting around Burma difficult, but luckily there are a lot of bus companies. I took a night bus north to a mountain town, Kalaw. We stopped at a rest stop in the middle of the night. A young waiter helped me understand the menu and brought me one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. Named after the ethnic group, Shan, shan noodles are an exquisite mixture of saucy meat, ground peanuts, fresh beansprouts and cilantro and lime, and a hearty serving of chili. It may seem similar to (the also delicious) Pad Thai, but only in form. The flavor is unique and wholly divine.

The same superb Shan noodles on a different occasion.

We arrived in the chilly mountain air at Kalaw. After the sun came up, we took a trek with a local guide through green tea and ginger fields growing on impossibly steep hillsides. We trudged through the Colorado-red paths on the high jungle walks, stopping to take pictures a little too often at each overflowing, verdant vista.



Our guide was a young woman who grew up in a village a few hours drive from Kalaw. She was very open to answering our questions. I asked her how her everyday life has changed since the end of the military dictatorship and rise of the new government in 2011. She said that she and many others have been thankful for the exponentially higher living wage. She was also happy to be able to speak about the government openly. People used to disappear or go to prison for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. She said she’s never been to still-warring northern Burma, but occasionally meets people who flee to the south to find better work.

We hiked up and down several small mountains and through a few isolated tea-growing villages. A man and woman were drying their freshly picked tea leaves on tarps in the sun. I bought some and stowed the little plastic bag of leaves in my pack.



After the tea leaves are harvested and roasted, they dry in the sun for several days. The tea farmer in this picture was busy flipping and mixing the leaves so they dried evenly.

On the way down from the last peak, we got into a conversation about dating and marriage in Burma. Burma recently gained access to western media when it was freed from military rule. Our guide told us that, eager to be involved in the outside world, a lot of young people in Burma started to practice western-style dating and living together before marriage. Though there’s more access to the media, there is still apparently very little sex-education in Burma. The change to western dating and the lack of information about birth control has caused a lot of unwanted pregnancies, and recently there has been an outbreak of young women killing themselves from shame.

Our guide was recently married and explained to us in great detail about traditional Burmese weddings, which sounded to me like playful occasions. The wedding is carried out by the unmarried men and women in the village. The men stay up all night doing the cooking and the women decorate. The wedding is officiated by the head single man in the group. After the official ceremonies are done, the gags and pranks ensue. One involves the bride and groom pretending to buy overpriced mangoes from their friends. In another, the groom holds up the blindfolded bride as she tries to eat an orange hanging from the ceiling. In a particularly scandalous prank, a paperclip is pinned somewhere on the bride’s clothing and the blindfolded groom must find it with his hands. Finally, the bride and groom must bite into a small treat at the same time.

I hope the political situation in Burma improves and that the treasures within this country can be known to the rest of the world. Maybe within the next few decades the name Burma won’t evoke images of war and human rights’ violations, but of golden pagodas, flavorful noodles, rolling hills, and jolly pranks among friends.


Ciao, Malaysia!

Pizza and spaghetti have infiltrated this part of Malaysia in the form of Pizza Hut and Dominos. When I refer to pizza and pasta as Italian, most of my students are confused because they do not know that Italy is a country, and if they do, they think it’s the same as the “country of Paris,” and if they know that, they aren’t quite sure if it’s in Europe or another continent.

Despite this lack of focus on geography, many are excited when I tell them that I have also learned Italian as a second language, just like they’re doing with English. They often ask for me to teach them some words. Some school favorites are Ti amo “I love you” and fumatore “smoker.” Many students are more excited to learn Italian than English because Italian is something they freely choose to learn.

I recently did an Italian cooking class with a group of my advanced English students. I went grocery shopping the night before and walked into school the next morning with all the ingredients for pasta and tomato sauce with onions, garlic, and green peppers. We met at 9am in the school’s cooking classroom, and I explained that you must boil the pasta and make the sauce at the same time. You want to cook the green peppers and onions first because if you add the garlic too early, it will burn and become bitter.


“Miss, onion!”

“In Italian we say cipolla.”

“Miss, what is this called?”

“This is garlic. In Italian we say aglio.”

“Okay class, now you must cook the cipolla and aglio before you add it to the sauce.”


The students are very independent and responsible in the kitchen, much more so than their counterparts in America tend to be. Right away they started chopping. “Miss, I chop the cipolla and aglio to this size?” They quickly chopped all the vegetables into uniform pieces and started cooking. A few students found bright aprons, and lead chefs quickly emerged in the group. Both boys and girls cooked together, stirring, adjusting the heat, checking the pasta water. “Miss Christy, is it time to add the aglio yet?” “Is the water boiling yet?”

“Remember, the pasta package will say how many minutes to cook it. It will be different for different shapes of pasta. But what is important is that you taste the pasta every few minutes while you cook it, it will be done cooking when it is al dente.”

“Miss Christy…what is the meaning of al dente?”

“Until the noodles are soft but not too soft!”

“Miss, are they al dente yet?”

“Try them and tell me!”

“No, not soft enough yet!”


They finished cooking and we all sat down to eat. The students dug into their bowls of pasta with a fork in their left hand and a spoon in their right, the traditional way of eating noodles here. After they finished eating, the girls in the group without direction or prompting quickly and efficiently cleaned and put away all the dishes and wiped down the kitchen.

“Miss can we cook together again? Maybe next time we make mushroom soup?”

Selamat Hari Raya!

Long-lost Cousin

Excitement grew during the month of Ramadan for the holiday right after, Eid al-Fitr,  Hari Raya. Teachers sold and bought holiday cookies, biscuit raya, and students came in shy groups to my office to invite me to their homes. At Hari Raya it is traditional for families to host open houses with special holiday foods. Reminiscent of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all at once, Hari Raya is a time when groups of family and friends roll-up in their most stunning baju raya (holiday clothes), eat a plate of food or some biscuit raya, greet each other with the Salaam, and say “Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!” It is also a serious holiday, a time to honor dead ancestors by visiting their graves, and a time truly to appreciate the abundance of food and water after one month of fasting. It is when you forgive others and start fresh. But above all, Hari Raya is a joyful celebration of food, friends, and family.

I slept over at one of my student’s houses the night before the first day of Hari Raya. Teacher/student relationships are more casual and have no special separation here, so it’s normal for teachers to spend time with students and their families outside of school. We ate raya eve dinner at her grandmother’s house. This is a special meal because it is the end of the last day of fasting in Ramadan.

My dear student whose family generously hosted me for Hari Raya.

When I got there all the women of the family—the kids, the mother, the grandmother, the great-grandmother, and some of the aunties–were sitting in an outdoor kitchen area. The family’s kitchen helper was butchering a freshly slaughtered duck. She had a block of soft stone and she used two different knives and no gloves. She expertly hacked through bone, slicing and scraping. As it approached 7:30pm, the time of Iftar, breaking fast, we went into the dining room and sat on mats on the floor for a traditional Malay meal. We each had a plate of white rice and added whatever curried, stewed, meat and veggies we wanted from the communal dishes, and of course we ate with our hands. Dinner was fast, as every Iftar I’ve experienced has been. You listen to a short prayer, drink some water, eat a date, then dig into your rice. Everyone’s done eating in about ten minutes.

My student woke me up a couple hours later, around midnight, to get up and cook with the family. They were preparing food for the next day. I helped make potato dumplings for a bihun soup and stirred a bubbling beef curry for 30 minutes. I watched as all the men in the family congregated around the technical task of setting up a fire to roast the lemang. Lemang is s big deal, it’s a raya specialty of sticky sweet rice and coconut milk tightly packed into half-meter bamboo stalks and slow roasted over a fire.


We went to grandma’s house again for breakfast. Families members all wore color-coordinated outfits, and my baju raya was purple to match. Everyone did a quick prayer, then we intensely ate chicken satay in peanut sauce and sweet rose syrup drink for ten minutes. I’ve noticed it’s more polite in Malay culture to eat your food fast and heartily, as opposed to slowly and intersperced with talk, as it is in Western culture. Most meals here are short and silent, and it is considered rude to ignore the food in front of you for too long once you’re begun eating it. After the satay, the children received duit raya, cash in envelopes adults give to children. Then we took family photos together!

We went home to continue cooking and eating. One Hari Raya specialty is tapaiTapai is a leaf from the rubber tree folded over and stapled together with a wet blob of sweet, fermented rice in the middle. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I see the nuanced appeal only after eating many during the holiday.


I was so overjoyed to be included in my student’s family’s most intimate and special yearly festivities. I was the only guest, and they treated me both as a special honored guest and as a long-lost cousin. Several times all three sisters and I piled into the back of the family car to go to grandma’s house–they leaned their heads on my shoulder and fell asleep.

Wedding Crashers

After days of festivities another student texted me last minute to ask if I could come to her house. I was a pro by this point. She offered me biscuit raya and a sweet drink. We piled into an SUV with all my student’s friends, uncles, and brothers and a few minutes later were at a wedding. I never found out whose. But at Malay weddings, uninvited guests are welcomed, encouraged, and expected. We ate plates of rice, meat, and fruit, and greeted people. We went into the room where the bride and groom were seated on the traditional Malay wedding platform, surrounded by flowers, draped cloth, and soft lighting. They were in their best clothes. It’s traditional in a Malay wedding for the bride and groom to sit on a beautifully decorated throne and greet members of the community and take photos. I was standing in the doorway and they furiously motioned for me to take pictures with them. They placed me between the bride and groom with some of my students assembled in the foreground.


Hari Raya was joyful. It was a time to enjoy being with friends and family, to feast, and to be reminded of all the pleasures and good fortunes of life.