A few weekends ago some teachers and I took a bus of students to LegoLand. We had been planning for a long time, trying to find a way to pay for 30 students who performed well on their March English exams to go on the trip. Malaysia’s LegoLand is in Johor Bahru, capital city of the state of Johor. This is as far south you can go in peninsular Malaysia before reaching Singapore.
The morning of the long-awaited trip came and we packed the students on the bus and set out for an all-day journey. We rode in a fan bus for the Kelantan football team, decorated with the team cheer “Gomo Kelate Gomo.”
I enjoyed the rhythm of the bus ride. We drove through the changing country side and through big cities. The students sang and took selfies and slept. We stopped every few hours for soy milk boxes and spicy Pringles.
Twelve hours later we arrived in Johor Bahru. Our bus driver didn’t know how to get to the hostel we were staying at, so we drove around the city for two hours. One student found a map on her phone and sat in the front, giving play-by-play directions.
We finally reach our destination. We rented student housing at one of the top boarding schools in Johor. I shared a room with another teacher. It was my first time being roommates with anyone here besides other American ETAs. It is always so intimate sharing those late evening hours with someone. This time it felt more so than ever because even our bedtime routines were a cultural exchange.
We rose and for breakfast ate nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia. It’s a common breakfast dish: A pile of coconut rice, spicy red sambal sauce, a few cucumber slices, peanuts, and crispy fried anchovies.
Selfies are given appropriate gravitas in Malaysia. We spent 30-45 minutes taking photos at the park entrance. When we enter the park the students point as a nearby rollercoaster rumbles past.
“Miss! Look! Oh, so scary!”
“You like to go on rollercoaster?”
“Miss! I don’t know! I have not!”
The students run to the nearest rollercoaster.
“Miss! Cannot! TOO scary!”
“It’s fun! Your motorbike is much more scary! Try it!”
We glump…glump…glump up to the top, dive into the first fall, and soon it’s all over.
“Miss! Oh! SO fun! We must go again!”
The students went to educational workshops run by the park. The boys went into one classroom where they wore lab coats and did a science experiment. The girls went into the engineering room, where they programed Lego robots. The instructor showed them how to use the computer program. They were to create a program so their robots could complete certain tasks.
We let the students free, and I got in line for the “big” coaster. I looked around and realized I was the only one there besides the ride attendants.
“Miss! Where you come from?”
“Oh! Really? But…”
“Oh, originally from America!”
“You stay in Kelantan? For how long?”
“One year! Saya cikgu Bahasa Ingerris (I am an English teacher).”
They all cheer, “Gomo Kelate gomo!”
The students roamed the park, and I bounced from group to group. Some older boy students motioned me over. They wore matching football jerseys “Come on, miss!” It was a tower with seats around the base, and each pair of people had a rope they had to use to pull their section up the fastest. One of the boys switched seats to be next to me, and together we pulled ourselves up the tower again and again. We beat all the other teams.
We wanted to go on the rollercoaster next, but found a playground instead. The boys were too mature and masculine to play on the slides at first, but soon caved and had a blast.
I sat with a fellow teacher over lunch.
“Oh, Christy is American for today. She eats chicken nuggets.”
“Yes this is my chance to be so American.”
A family of tall, thin, white people, wearing Teva sandals and sun visors walk by.
“Look Christy, it’s your cousins.”
“This is so strange” I say, “I’m no longer the only orang putih (white person).”
Later in the afternoon I go to the adjoined waterpark. There’s a sprinkling of western women there in bikinis. Because my students and fellow teachers are from Kelantan, where bikinis are inappropriate, I wear long pants and a long t-shirt to swim. I get confused looks from many, “Why is that white girl wearing modest clothes?” I’m meeting up with students later, but for the meantime, I go on waterslide after waterslide alone. The attendants are friendly.
“Where are you from?”
“I am from the U.S., but I live in Kelantan, saya cikgu Bahasa Inggeris!
“Oh! You are Cikgu! What is your name? How old are you?”
“My name is Christy! I am 22.”
“Ooh!” Pointing to himself, “Like me! I am 23!”
I get settled in my tube to go down the waterslide.
“Cikgu Christy, I miss you already!”
I get to the bottom of the slide and the other attendants come up to me.
“Miss! Wow, I know your face so well, I can tell your name just by looking at you!”
“Oh! I see you talked to your friend?”
“You are cikgu Christy. You are 22-years-old. You are so beautiful. You are from Kelantan.”
Maybe they don’t see a lot of young white women in modest clothes playing by themselves at the water park.
We finish the day at the park. The students have all spent a long time changing into carefully-planned outfits for our evening trip to the mega mall. The boys have plenty of hair gel. The girls are in skinny jeans or long flowing dresses, and fresh color-coordinated tudong. They take one look at me, “Miss. What is the matter with your hair? I have a brush if you want to use it.”
A group of students insist I come with them for dinner at the mall. “But first we must fix my friend’s tudong in the bathroom. You come with us?” They mess with their tudong until they’re perfect, then we take bathroom mirror selfies.
“Miss, what will you have for dinner?”
“I want to have sushi! You know, it is my favorite food and I have not eaten it in so long. Have you ever tried sushi?”
“No, miss! It is raw? I am scared.”
While I pick out my sushi, the girls look on in curious disgust. One brave student takes the plunge and buys the same sushi roll as me. “I will save this for snack later. I will eat normal food for dinner.”
I stand in line for drinks with one of the girls.
“How do you feel?” I ask the girl.
“I am very sad.”
“I miss my mother too much.”
“Don’t worry, the first day is the hardest. You are very brave to come here even when you miss your mother. Tomorrow you will be with her again and can tell her all about your adventure. You can always talk to me when you miss your mother.” Tears come to her eyes.
We window shop at the mall and get back on the bus.
“Miss! Look what I bought! Shu-shi!”
One student points at a party platter of sushi.
“It was on discount! Good deal!”
“Oh no…when are you going to eat that? Didn’t you already have dinner?”
“Don’t worry miss, I eat it for a snack tonight, or breakfast tomorrow!”
The student who earlier bought sushi with me finally opened it and took a bite.
“Miss, cannot, it tastes too bad. Can you finish for us? You will eat it all?”
I took the sushi and went to the back of the bus where the coolest boys hang out.
“Are you brave enough to try the sushi?”
They all shake their heads. “No, miss.”
Eventually one boy volunteers. He chews and tries to keep his composure, but doesn’t want to swallow what he just ate.
“What do you think?”
“It’s okay, miss.”
One-by-one all the cool boys try the sushi, most of them insisting I cut the pieces in half for them and feed it to them with chopsticks. I turn to the smart, quiet boy sitting behind me.
“You want to try sushi?”
I give him the last piece of sushi.
“What do you think.”
“It’s very good, miss. No problem.”
That night all the students and teachers slept in one room together. Thirty people successfully shared one shower and one flooded toilet. The next morning, we got ready and boarded the bus for what would be a 16-hour ride. We stopped for an hour at a morning market to get SpongeBob pillow and fish chips, we stopped for lunch, we stopped for 5-6 tea breaks. During one break at a coconut shake stand, two students explained the Muslim naming system in Malaysia.
“For girls, our first name can be Siti or Nur or Nik and our second name can be anything, like Amirah, Syafika, Faridah.”
“I have seen that girls have binti in their names and boys have bin. Is that what you say before the family name?”
“No family name. We have father’s first name only. We say after binti or bin our father’s name.”
“What about your mother’s name? Do you have any of her names.”
“No. Our mother has her father’s name. We do not have her name when we are alive.”
“What do you mean?”
“In this life we must take our father’s name, because that means he is taking care of us and we are his children. But if we die we will take our mother’s name.”
“So when you die you officially change your name to your mother’s name?”
“Yes, you know, because we are born from our mothers and created from our mothers, so when we die we belong to our mothers and must return to them.”
After the coconut shakes we go to the mosque to pray.
“Can I come with you to observe?”
“Yes, of course you can!”
I follow them to the washroom where they get ready for prayer and then we head into the mosque together. It is all white, with high ceilings.
We enter through a separate door from the men into the partitioned back left corner of the mosque. I sit quietly in the women’s section while the girls pray.
“What is the big digital clock on the wall for?”
“Oh, that tells us the athan, the exact times during the day when we should pray.”
We drive and drive all day, from the southern most tip of Malaysia back to our home right on the boarder of Thailand. Around 10pm I look around the bus. It’s quiet. Most people are sleeping, a few students are crouched up front near the driver, mesmerized by the vast, open highway. It feels the same as ski trips I took with my family as a kid. The salty snack wrappers everywhere, the sleepy calm after a day of hard fun. All was quiet, and for this short time, we spoke the same language. The white lines zipped by on the black road.