Be prepared for a lot of sports narration. (If you are looking for information about Malaysian culture, I suggest you scroll towards the end or check a different post because this week was composed almost entirely of me doing sports. 😂) This post has a lot of writing since I don’t have many pictures from this week.
Monday and Tuesday I participated in the Perak state swimming competition. Very early in the morning, a teacher drove Ibe and I to the teachers’ university in Tanjong Malim (about an hour and a half away) where the swim meet was held. I was very stressed and scared about the upcoming competition, intimidated by the club swim team uniforms of most other swimmers and severely doubting my swimming abilities (which were developed by doing the Tomatoes swim team when I was nine years old, then many years later swimming laps nearly every day last summer, then not being able to swim for six months, then having a mild practice for two days before the meet). Eventually the meet started, and I had my first event (100m breast stroke) against two other girls. And wow, I won third place! (But apparently I ended up being disqualified. Which I guess is unfortunate but really makes no difference to me.) I later had the 200m backstroke (2nd place out of 2 people, with quite a distance between), 50m breast stroke (I got NOT LAST PLACE! 6th out of 7 or something), and the 100m backstroke (3rd out of 3 people, again a large distance between). With Ibe there for support I usually came out of the water able to laugh it off and amusedly ask her how far behind the other swimmers I came in.
It is okay to not win any events, and even to lose almost all of them, but being The Tall White Girl makes it difficult to hide. and I was sure I had the title of The Tall White Girl Who Looks Like She Can Swim But Is Actually Super Slow. Even though I laughed off most of my losses, this was a pretty disheartening and mentally tough day.
Anyway, seven or more hours later, after five events and a lot of time spent being nervous and scared, and then extremely exhausted, we went home. Our teacher took us for a late lunch and then Ibe and I went home and relaxed. The teacher had asked if I wanted to come back the next day (at first I did not) but I said yes, that I might as well. I knew I would regret it more if I had given up than if I went, did my best, and lost every event.
The next morning, we woke up very early again, and went to the swim meet, again. Amma drove us this day. Of course I was scared and not excited for what I assumed would be another series of losses, but I made myself go anyway, with a determination to Not Lose something. I had two events that I now forget, then the 200m freestyle, after which I was extremely physically exhausted. Even though I had been mentally prepared and excited to Not Get Last Place in the 400m freestyle, I was physically so exhausted that standing was a struggle. But alas, once the buzzer went off I dove in and gave everything I had. I was Not Last for the first few laps, but eventually ended up finishing last. Still, I was proud of my performance because I had done a reasonably okay job and had given the race everything I had.
Later, we finally had the two hour lunch break. We went to the room where a new friend was staying overnight (her family lived far away so they stayed in a dorm room while her siblings were in the competition) and enjoyed talking to her.
Then I went back for my final event, the 50m freestyle. The race started and I gave all the energy I had left, and I got Not Last Place! My day’s goal was accomplished.
Then, relieved the competition was over but happy I had participated and proud I had tried my hardest, we left. I got certificates for some of the events I had gotten 2nd or 3rd in (out of 2 or 3 people, respectively) where I had slightly decent times.
Amma took us around the old campus of the university, where she had attended for her master’s degree. It was really interesting to see a Malaysian university, as it looked a lot like some universities I’ve seen in the U.S. (aside from the large mosque). Along with some really pretty outdoor sculptures in the art department, it had the ‘photo of happy students walking under tall trees’ vibe of almost every U.S. university admissions department pamphlet.
Later, we went home, and I relaxed.
Wednesday— believe it or not— I had cross country practice! I had summoned some unknown mental strength that inspired me to run fast and avenge my disheartening experience at the swim meet, but by the fourth kilometer I was very very tired again, and finished last out of the 6 people in my age group when I had previously been second in all the practices (but had gotten 5th place in the district competition). After practice, I went to school (and simply laid on the floor of the English room) but left early and went home since Amma had a class somewhere else.
Thursday I was supposed to have track and field practice, but thankfully it rained (a lot) so we just had an information session about the district track and field competition coming up the following week. Before the meeting, while we were waiting for the rain to potentially clear, Ibe and I waited with many other students in the school surau (small mosque/ Muslim praying area) for the storm to pass. We had a nice time bonding with classmates while we waited out the extremely loud thunder, torrential downpour, and bright lightning.
Later, a teacher drove me to my host aunt’s shop and I walked home from there (the storm had stopped). More Dengue fever mosquito spraying was going on in the neighborhood so I took a long route to avoid walking through the cloud of chemicals.
Later that evening, I broke down from excessive busyness and stress about the upcoming state cross country meet on Sunday. I really really really did not want to go and the idea of the competition made me feel completely overwhelmed and miserable, but after a lot of crying on my part, Amma convinced me that I should go (though I was still reluctant). I realize how strange it seems that I was more stressed before a 30ish minute run than the night before I moved across the world by myself for a year. But that is how the emotional roller coaster of an exchange year goes: we have days where we are on top of the world, happier than ever before, but sometimes we have days where it’s like a volcano has erupted and a gazillion emotions pour out. As the year has gone on, I’ve been sad and homesick much less than at the beginning (now I am rarely homesick), but still have some days that are very painful.
Later, as a way of cheering me up, Amma taught me to cook cabbage the Indian way (see, I am learning to cook Indian food! I used way too much turmeric but it still tasted good).
Friday, I still felt like I was surrounded by a cloud of stress about the cross country meet, but it had lessened to a mild tropical storm rather than a hurricane. After school, I went for a run which helped a lot. Later, Appa took me to Kampar to buy clothes and fruit for the cross country meet. (During the race I got to wear shorts! In public! Almost knee length, but still a strange feeling since I haven’t worn shorts in public in many months).
Later, as a nice break in the sequence of excessive sports that I felt was robbing me of time for cultural experiences, I went to the temple with Muthu Periamma (host aunt) for prayers for Lord Shiva. I really enjoyed this and was able to find peace and relax a bit.
First the priests did prayer rituals and women chanted prayers, and then everyone followed a chariot for Lord Shiva circling the temple once.
Interesting cultural fact: of course we cannot wear shoes inside the temple (the same goes for every single house I have been in in Malaysia, along with some offices and classrooms) but shoes also cannot be worn when carrying an offering in a procession to/from/around a temple. (Another note: there seem to be gazillions of cultural notes I could add, but often do not remember to, because I now take them for granted. About to enter a store? Look inside and see if the other people have shoes on first. Receiving anything from someone? Use your right hand. Getting someone’s attention? Say ‘aunty,’ ‘uncle,’ ‘teacher,’ ‘abung,’ ‘adik,’ etc.
My experience in Malaysia has made me feel like I have very little culture in my life in the U.S. I suppose putting the water glass on the right side of the plate (not that it really matters), leaving tips at restaurants, attending at least one baseball game each summer, wearing as little or as much clothing as you feel like, and chewing with your mouth closed could be considered cultural practices, but that’s all I can think of when it comes to my culture at home in the U.S. This isn’t meant to insult Americans for being fat whiny slobs who eat McDonalds three meals a day– in fact, I haven’t heard this stereotype at all in Malaysia– and randomly bump into Justin Bieber on the streets of New York City when we are too busy looking over at the nearby Hollywood California sign; it is simply to point out how different our countries are. Before I came here, I didn’t even know this much culture existed in the world– yet this is only one country out of 196!
Back to narration of the week: Eventually I went home, packed for the weekend, and slept (a bit later than planned).
Saturday morning, Appa took me to a school in Bidor where all the district cross country runners were to meet. I had a nice time talking with my new friends whom I had made at the cross country practices. After a long time waiting for people arriving according to Malaysia Time, we split up into teachers’ and coaches’ cars for the drive to Manjung, a few hours away. After stopping for lunch, we arrived at the Islamic secondary school (high school) where we would stay in the asrama (dorms) overnight. That evening, we drove along the 6km trail we would run the following morning so we knew the route (though after a series of wrong turns I think I was more confused than when we started). Over the course of the weekend I got much closer with the other runners, and I was so happy to realize I had made these friends almost entirely by speaking to them in Malay! My Malay got a lot better over these two days (since usually I’m immersed in Tamil, which my host family and almost all Malaysian Indians use to speak to each other).
The next morning, we woke up very very early and got ready for the race. I felt confident and full of energy, and after a good warmup I was excited to run. Of course I was nervous until the gun went off, but once we started, I was fine. I started out towards the back of the pack but kept a good pace almost the entire time. I pushed myself as much as I could and ended up with 22nd place out of 60 in the category. I got second place out of the six runners from our district. My goal had been above 20th place, but my secondary goal had been to simply survive and finish the race (this goal established in the days of stress leading up to the race), so I was happy. I know that happiness comes from within, and I could have chosen to be happy leading up to the race too, but once I had gotten the race over with I was instantly extremely happy and felt that all stress from my life had vanished. Later, I talked with friends and drew some of their names for them with fancy hand lettering (another hobby I have gotten into, which they were really interested in when they saw me drawing). We had lunch and then went to a long awards ceremony. Three U-18 boys from our district had gotten top 10, and those who were in the top 6 will advance to nationals. (Even if I had somehow placed in the top 6, I would not be allowed to go to nationals since I’m not a citizen.)
Later I drove home with a teacher and two other girls. We stopped in Teluk Intan and saw the Leaning Tower (if you want to see it, google it; I didn’t take any pictures) and got a second lunch (this is Malaysia, lah). On the beautiful drive through rice paddies and palm oil estates, we saw water buffalo!!! We drove one girl who is Orang-Asli (indigenous people) to her home and saw a beautiful jungle view of the mountains on the way. The view along the whole drive was so gorgeous, and along with my on-top-of-the-world feeling from being done with the cross country meet, I was super happy and so so so grateful I have ended up in Malaysia. I made a pledge with myself to spend as much of my life as possible living in a place that looks like it came right out of a National Geographic magazine.
Once home, I watched a movie with Amma and Appa and attempted to take a nap.
Much to my elation, Amma said I didn’t have to go to school the next day!
(Partly because the day after that, I would be in the district track and field competition. It amazes me that at the beginning of my year here, I craved sports and longed for exercise and there was a lack of it, but suddenly there are SO MANY sports events.)
That’s all for now! Thank you to anyone who read the whole thing!