My vision was fuzzy as I blinked my crusty eyes open. I couldn’t tell if I was still dreaming or if the sound was somebody buzzing to get into the room. I stumbled toward the living room of the hotel suite and realized that it was just the phone ringing. I picked it up.
“Hello?” I answered, trying not to sound like I had just woken up from an embarrassingly deep slumber.
“Hi, this is your representative from the US Embassy. The State Department has just issued a level 4 Do Not Travel Advisory, we are sending you back to the United States. I need to know your final destination.”
I stuttered out a location, before clarifying with the speaker on the other end what was actually happening. Part of me still felt like I was in a dream, though I knew that the sensation of the cold tile on my naked feet was far too real for it to be a dream.
Let’s rewind a little bit.
Two and a half months prior to that dizzying hotel room phone call, I started a Fulbright grant, working as an assistant English teacher in Malaysia.
Upon starting the grant, it had been more than a year since submitting the application, as the Fulbright program in Malaysia runs from January through the end of October. From the time I received the news about winning the grant to the time I departed, I had almost nine months to prepare and I was more than ready.
Though the arduous nearly 18-hour plane ride to get to Malaysia was brutal and, by far, the longest flight I had ever been on, I was brimming with excitement at the opportunity to participate in the Fulbright program and to live in such an extraordinary country like Malaysia. I met a number of other grant recipients on the plane, many of whom I would form close friendships with and end up working with on larger projects as the year got started.
When I found out my placement, Terengganu, my heart pounded wildly, and thoughts raced through my mind. How will my community react to me? Would I find friends? Will my students like me?
The following week, I met my mentor: a young, modern, energetic, and endlessly optimistic woman named Mahira. She welcomed me with open arms, as well as an open mind. She assured me that students and other teachers would love having me and that I would thoroughly enjoy my time in Terengganu, a state located on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. The first day I met her, she invited me to her wedding the following month.
Though I was nervous in the beginning, my first day of teaching at school reminded me of my previous experiences teaching, which helped me to quickly settle in. School assembly, schedules, student speeches, announcements, eating in the kantin, maintaining class interest and control, the usual stuff, just as one would see in schools in the US and around the world.
I was there for the long haul, a whole year, potentially two or more, and I went in with the mindset of wanting to develop deep and meaningful relationships, have lasting and positive impacts that students could also take outside of the classroom, feeling connected above all else. Though at times, I undoubtedly felt like an outsider as a foreigner, with basic Malay skills, a different look, and a different religion, these differences proved no barrier to connecting with others.
The night before Mahira’s wedding, I went out with the other bridesmaids, her best friends. We talked, we gossiped, laughed, shared stories, and ate cake on the floor of the hotel room we were staying in. I didn’t feel different, I felt connected and that’s what humans crave, connection with other people.
I began training for the Kuala Lumpur marathon and ran daily in the afternoons, despite the 90-degree temperatures. I formed regular routes and sometimes on days when I would mix up a route or take a rest, the neighbors would wonder where I was or why I wasn’t running. Two weeks before I got the call to be evacuated, I bought a bicycle with the intention of joining a bicycle troupe. My friend Fakhira, a fellow biker, drove me 40 minutes to pick up a bicycle and helped me select the perfect one. I went biking once with the group, we went out for food and tea afterwards, and I told them I would go biking with them weekly so I could berlatih Bahasa Melayu saya. After daily studying for a month and a half, I felt that I was really catching on to the local dialect and was determined to become conversational by the end of the year.
It was heart-wrenching to call Mahira, Fakhira, students, and neighbors and tell them that I would not be returning back to Terengganu. It all happened so fast and few people saw it coming, we all thought there would be more time together. Once in a while, I think about the lesson plans waiting for me on my desk at school, the extracurriculars I was going to do with students, the field trips I had planned, the biking troupe I joined, my new, shiny, blue bicycle, my freshly painted bedroom, my Malay phrasebook, the neighbors who might wonder where I am. It’s only natural.
The beauty of the modern-day is that even though I’m now on the opposite side of the world, I can still connect. I chat with students on Instagram, I send voice messages via WhatsApp to my friends, I still ask for recipes from teachers. I’m still here. We still exist. Those relationships transcend any program, those connections transcend any pandemic, those friendships have no borders and have no politics. Though I might not be back to Malaysia as a Fulbright grantee, I know that I’ll be back one day and, perhaps, no longer as a foreigner but as a local who has some connections there.
Fulbright Malaysia ETA 2020