I wrote this essay for BP, the provider of my scholarship, when I was approaching the three-month mark of my time in Malaysia.
AFS BP Global Citizens of Tomorrow Scholarship: Three Months In
Two years ago, I remember seeing a photograph of the Batu Caves in my AP World History textbook and thinking that I would like to see that famous landmark someday, but doubting that I actually would. Now, I can scroll through my camera roll and— hidden among the 2,000 other photos I’ve taken so far— I see almost exactly the same photo. Even one year ago, I would have brushed off the foolish idea that I would be living in Malaysia. I’d barely even heard of Malaysia beyond the name of Kuala Lumpur and the missing Malaysian airplanes. Yet here I am, living in Malaysia for eleven months, on what I am sure is the greatest experience of my life so far. I distinctly remember the moment I found out that I received this scholarship: at 1 am, seeing the most exciting email I’d ever received. I talked to everyone I knew with a connection to Malaysia. I contacted AFS returnees from Malaysia over Facebook and read their blogs; I read dozens of Southeast Asia packing lists; I scrutinized the Google Maps street views of my host family’s house and the school I would be attending. In the months leading up to my departure for Malaysia, I felt a lot of things: I was ecstatic. I was proud. I was terrified. I was excited. I was dreading it. I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t wait to go. I was really proud of receiving the scholarship, and everyone else in my life seemed proud of me too. I had some days that I was incredibly excited for the coming adventure, but I remember one day that I cried and wanted to cancel the whole plan. My friends and I made a bucket list of everything we wanted to do before I left— go to the farmers’ market, go to the beach, take the train to D.C., do tie dye, go to a concert. Some of it we did, and some of it we didn’t. I made letters for my friends with envelopes saying things like “Open when you miss me,” “Open when eleven months feels like forever,” “Open the night before your half marathon,” “Open when there’s boy drama,” and they made similar cards for me. My three best friends and I celebrated the birthdays I would miss all at once. Saying goodbye to my friends was hard, but I realized that they weren’t goodbyes: they were see-you-later’s. I spent a lot of time with my parents, and we became closer than ever, talking about my upcoming adventure, giving advice, and focusing on enjoying each other’s presence. Hugging my parents, grandparents, and stepparents in the airport for the final time was surreal. I cried while waiting in line to go through security. But once I walked to the terminal where I would be boarding the plane— the first time I’d ever flown anywhere without my family— I was excited again. Meeting the other Malaysia-bound AFSers was exciting, and they gave me confidence that I had people who were going to make it through the year with me. We understood each other, and we were going to get through this together.
Before I left my home in the US, I didn’t feel ready at all— I was afraid I hadn’t studied enough Malay, I didn’t have the right clothes, I hadn’t spent enough time with my family and friends— but I realized that I would never be completely ready to pack 44 pounds of luggage and move 10,000 miles away from home, not to see my friends or family for 11 whole months, and walk into the door of people who were suddenly supposed to be my family. Almost all of the fears that I had never materialized. I was worried that my host family wouldn’t like me and that we wouldn’t be able to communicate. I was afraid that I would have trouble making friends at school and that the school curriculum would be incredibly stressful and challenging. None of these things have been the case. One of my biggest fears was that I would be miserably homesick for the entire year, and I was really dreading being in a small sleepy town with nothing to do. Thankfully, neither of those has been true. I’ve been homesick a lot, but I’ve mostly been happy here, and I’ve had some moments of absolute happiness that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ve experienced so much, and it feels like I’ve been here far longer than just two months! I’ve visited many famous landmarks, gone to prayers at Hindu temples dozens of times, and met so many kind people. I absolutely loved seeing Melaka from 80 meters up right as the sun was setting, seeing the Batu Caves, and going on a tour of Hindu temples all over the state of Seremban. I meditated in an amazing Buddhist cave temple high up in the mountains, saw the famous Petronas Towers, and went whitewater rafting. Equally amazing, however, are the moments that I realize— in the middle of my outdoor aerobics class, walking around town and being greeted by everyone— what a gift it is to be in this beautiful place with all these amazing people I didn’t even know existed until a few months ago. I love seeing the tropical fruit stands along the road, viewing mountains and palm trees as a backdrop everywhere I go, hearing the sounds of all kinds prayer and seeing how religion is such a key part of almost everyone’s life here, and greeting familiar shopkeepers in town. I’ve been surprised by how, in many ways, Malaysians have a lot in common with people I know in the US. But I also love seeing all the things that make Malaysia different and learning from the Malaysian way of life.
My main goal for this program is to simply have as many experiences as possible— they don’t have to be all good or all bad, just adventures! One of my goals for this program is to become fluent in Bahasa Melayu (or as close to it as possible) and to learn to speak basic Tamil with the help of my host family. I also hope to brush up on my Chinese. I have several small goals: I want to learn to bargain for prices in markets, to cook Indian and Malay food, to tie a sari (I’m almost there!), and to play traditional games like sepak tokrow. I want to travel to nearby countries as much as I can (especially Thailand!). Mostly, though, I want to continue to learn flexibility, open-mindedness, conscientiousness, and bravery. I have already matured and changed so much as a person, becoming more patient, compassionate, conscientious, and aware of the ways of the world. I’ve been here for two months, and I’ve already done and seen things that I didn’t even know existed– let alone imagined myself experiencing. Before I left, dozens of people said my experience would be “life-changing” and I would be a completely different person when I returned to the US. But I brushed this off, since I had no idea how I could change or if I even needed to. Now, however, I know that I will learn and grow more this year than any other year in my life.