Leaving the dizzy web of interchanges and skyscrapers, I find myself headed East toward the winding toll roads and tunnels crossing the Titiwangsa mountain range. Through Lok Yew Street of the old China town, Bentong, and down a windy two-lane road, I pass the first Malaysian palm oil plantation, where stocks of trees sit hacked and neglected amidst undergrowth slowly obscuring the notorious grid formation. As the plantations fade, the valley begins to close as it meets the jungled hills, often blanketed with small pockets of fog that rise above a town center. I pass pungent durian stands and see farmers selling Nangka Madu (Honey Jackfruit) by the kilo out of makeshift wooden stalls. Pastel colored neon lights brighten the evening, calling out passing motorcycles and palm oil trucks with alacrity. Late into the night, the plastic chairs and tables, amongst the stalls, are filled with friends catching up over a game of football, some cigarettes, and a cup of Cameron highlands Boh tea. This drive, that only ten months ago seemed so unapproachable, now feels familiar and uniquely like home.
Ten months ago, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to live and work abroad during my Fulbright year. My leading intention was to understand more about the role of Islam in a mosaic community of majority Muslim Malays, Buddhist Chinese, and Hindu Indians. However, I often half-heartedly mocked the idea that we were “cross-cultural ambassadors”. I imagined that such honored terms were reserved for diplomats and ambassadorial staff. Even as my first months passed in Raub, Pahang, I did not think my English vocabulary games, plates of daily Nasi Lemak in the school kantin, or after school Rugby practices made me worthy of being deemed a true “cross-cultural ambassador”.
But then came the holy month of Ramadan. In Raub, a community that is over 50% Malay, Ramadan is a time when faith is palpable. From the green and yellow Selamat Hari Raya signs, to the vacant school kantin. From the salivating scents and spreads of food at the local bazaar, to empty roads and full households during the meticulous clockwork of iftar. I decided to join my fellow teachers and students in solidarity by fasting for Ramadan. This required waking up before the break of dawn to take our first meal, and then wait until sundown to break fast (iftar) with no water or snacks in between. I ended up joining my community in fasting for ten days, and such participation welcomed deeper conversations about Islamic faith, belief, and traditions. On the tenth day of fasting, I was invited to break fast with my fellow teachers at a local restaurant. Robed in a traditional baju mealyu complete with a sampeng waist wrap, and a songkok hat, I gathered around a table full of tilapia, rice, eggs, and satay. As teachers began to take their seats, we all evaded eye contact with the overflowing table of dishes, anxiously awaiting the evening azan over the loudspeakers from the local mosque proclaiming sundown. As 7:33 arrived, without a second more, tables around the restaurant broke their fast. We started with a medjool date, as did the prophet Mohammed, and after a prayer embarked on our first whole meal since sunrise. After numerous plates of fish and rice, a fellow teacher turned to me with a smile and said “thank you for being so open minded” and gifted me his subha Islamic prayer beads he had carried on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Not until this moment had I ever taken a step back and thought of my time in Malaysia as me being “open minded”.
The scents, sounds, and tastes of iftar during Ramadan is just one example of moments I will certainly not forget. Fulbright in Malaysia has taught me the significance of being open minded and to always say “yes”. From being blindfolded, surrounded by an eager crowd of 300 chanting in Tamil and handed a staff to swing at a suspended clay pot during Pongal Harvest Festivities; to traipsing my way through a gauntlet of wet and unforgiving mud with a group of 50 people being coached in Mandarin on which barbed vines to circumvent during an ascent of a “trail” in the Malaysian hillside. These are the instants I could have never imagined dreaming up ten months ago, these are the distinctive moments that transpired because I learned to say “yes, I would love to join you”.
I now understand the term “cross-cultural ambassador” and this importance of cross-cultural exchange. Teaching English is only a part of our job in Malaysia, but a fundamental medium through which we engage in relationships with our community. I have found that the majority of my engagement in cross-cultural exchange extends far beyond the halls and classrooms of SMK Mahmud. Dinnertimes, athletic games, festivals, and events outside of school have been daily instances of conversations promoting intercultural understanding. Although it is impossible to quantity the efficacy of such exchange, I can already see the ways in which these experiences have reshaped my understanding of the world.
Although I only got to see a glimpse of Malaysian culture and a very particular socioeconomic stratum, I will forever see Malaysia, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism differently. So many of my unconsidered preconceived notions and stereotypes of religions and culture have been corrected through cross-cultural exchange and acceptance of all invitations with an open mind. This year has also for the first time tested and avowed my ideologies in the importance of democracy and freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition, that I so naively took for granted. The extraordinary privilege I have had to experience a Fulbright in Malaysia this past year is undeniable. Returning to America I am confident that for years to come I will realize even more ways that this time in Malaysia has changed me. As I rediscover my own identity in the United States, I look forward to sharing the unforgettable moments about a country many of my friends could not place on a map. I leave Malaysia, reaffirmed by Fulbright’s goal of intercultural understanding, not to change people’s traditions or way of life, but simply to open minds through discourse and dialogue.
My past year in Raub has presented some of the longest and quickest months of my life, and undoubtedly some of the most memorable. I’ll take away memories of long conversations of geopolitics over a plate of Nasi Lemak with teachers in the kantin, hands covering giggled smiles in the classroom, a hot cup of Kopi with just a little bit too much added sugar and milk, imaginative English camps with lively students, the inevitable barrage of “Good Morning Sir” as I make my way through SMK Mahmud hallways, the waft of durian stalls I will never be able to un-smell, and long drives and late nights on weekend trips to beaches and mountains with fellow Fulbrighters. I’ll never forget the hospitality during post-Ramadan Eid al-Fitr open houses; the thunderstorms that shook our house, and rain that made it impossible to hear one another’s voice; the daily azan call to prayer that reverberated off the densely-forested hills above our house; the “Raub famous fish-head curry” at Ratha’s Indian restaurant and the idiosyncratic din of the Hindi Temple bells, and the glow of incense that slowly burns from red altars at roadside restaurants. As my year ends and the school years pass, I’ll look back at the drive to Raub, through the mountains and past the lattices of palm oil plantations. A fractured two-lane road after a storm where puddles amass as threats for motorcyclists. A late-night chat in a smoky roadside stall over a cup of teh Tarik. Sounds of giggling chatter and squeaky wooden tables in a concrete classroom. This year of accepting invitations has forged relationships that make Raub feel like home. Will it ever be the same when I return, or are these moments the only snapshots I have to remember?