The Random Writings of Rachel: October 2015

Any Questions?


The end of October means the end of talking about the past. If you've read my blog before the month of October, you know that in the last few years, my husband and I have moved from Michigan to China to Malaysia. I just couldn't stay away, and, it turns out, neither could he.

For the finale to my series, I thought I'd open up the comment section to any questions--I'll plan on answering questions in the comment section if possible, so check back to see an answer. Do you wonder anything? 

Possible questions: 

What is your favorite Malaysian food? 

How do you say "The girl used a credit card to buy a new blue dress." in Bahasa Malaysia?

What should I make sure to see when I visit Malaysia?

If you were a hot dog, and you were on a desert island starving to death, would you eat yourself?

Bringing Home a Boy

You have to understand, relationships pretty much don't go "public" in Malaysia until a couple is planning on getting married someday. Sure, casual dating happens, but people don't tend to announce it. The tight-knit community here means that you don't want to even bother introducing someone special until you're basically sure that they're special enough to spend the rest of your life with.

So, you can imagine that inviting a boy from America to fly to Malaysia to meet your family and all of your friends might be a slightly sensitive undertaking. We weren't engaged yet when Angel bought his plane tickets, or when he arrived. We were expecting to get married, Angel had purchased a ring, and had formally asked my parents permission via email...but we weren't engaged. In spite of that small fact, my family began planning and inviting everyone we knew to an engagement party in honor of Angel and Rachel, to be held on the last Friday of his visit. I was just hoping that nothing about Malaysia or my family would cause him to change his mind once he got there. He proposed two days after he arrived.


 Meeting for the first time after more than three months since his last visit.

He had no idea what he was getting into. First of all, most of our friends here didn't quite believe that his name was Angel. We received several "Congratulations!" cards addressed to Rachel and Andrew. I felt like I was marrying someone else.

He had to simultaneously adjust to life with a LOT of sisters..

And life in the tropics, where a torrential downpour might interrupt a sunny beach trip with no advance warning...

Some were surprised by what Angel looked like. I showed a picture of him to Auntie Letchimi before he arrived, and she was shocked. "You said he was handsome, so I thought he would be tall...with blond hair and blue eyes..." she said, dreamily. Mexican telenovelas actually have a certain fan group over here, and when one of my friends heard that my boyfriend was coming, she got pretty excited, picturing a daytime television star.

Others were surprised by the suddenness. I'm not sure why, because most of the time, people are either single or dating very seriously in Malaysia, so it didn't seem as if the fact that I suddenly had a fiance should have been that surprising. But, at the same time, most of my friend community tends to go out for a long time, years, before actually setting a wedding date. And it's not as common to get married while still in school, as education is really highly valued. We actually seriously contemplated  the idea of heading to the US embassy in KL and getting married ASAP, which would have turned our engagement party into a wedding reception...but we decided that the amount of paperwork involved would probably make it impossible to achieve, and figured that in this one case, it was better to be sensible and just have fun taking Angel sightseeing in Penang. Sometimes I contemplate what a different story that would have made to tell, if we'd been able to go through with our dreamed of emergency international wedding. haha! The Malaysian side of the family would have been so happy--the American side of the family, on the other hand...

Angel was welcomed with open arms into our Malaysian community--he may have been slightly daunted at the tight schedule we kept him on during the time he was here (jet lag or no jet lag), but this was a precious time, and so important to me. I wasn't about to marry anyone who hadn't met my family and didn't even know the first thing about how beautiful and how hard and how real life is here.

{This is Day 30 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

My Surprise Return

My first return to Malaysia after my freshman year of college was hailed with eager anticipation on both sides of the globe.


However...I like to keep things slightly more complicated than they need to be, so, as soon as we bought the plane ticket for my return, I made my parents and siblings swear to complete secrecy about the actual date of my arrival. I widely propagated news of a return date approximately 2 weeks after my actual return date.

My friends responded to news of a return date by creating countdown calendars and planning all manner of fun and frivolity. One friend sent me daily emails with "# of Days Left" in the subject line.

Did I feel guilty about tricking them?

No, not really, because I was too busy being proud of the master plan I had created. When do you get the chance to surprise people by showing up on a side of the globe you're not expected to land on for another couple of weeks?

I arrived on a Wednesday, and on Thursday our family headed out to a waterfall park to stay busy and out of sight of our friends until my grand "reveal" on Friday evening at youth group. Catching the reactions of my friends was so much fun.

After the long, long year away, it felt so good to be home again. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'd play the trick all over again just because there's not much I love better than a happy surprise. So, Americans, ye be warned.

{This is Day 29 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

Strangers in our Homeland

Going back to the country of your birth after years away has to be the weirdest feeling ever. That trip home in 2008 was a very long one for my family--they stayed all summer and fall and left a few days after Christmas, because my parents wanted to experience a good old-fashioned American Christmas after so many years away.

The funny thing was, after experiencing all of our old American Christmas traditions for the first time in so long...we realized how much we missed our new Malaysian holiday traditions. The fact is that Christmas in Malaysia and Christmas in America don't really look or feel anything alike--neither one is better, but they are so completely not alike that even while celebrating one version, you miss all the good stuff about the new version. Sure, there's something to be said for turkey and green bean casserole and pumpkin pie made by grandma...but there's also something to be said for a traditional 8-course Chinese banquet shared with your neighbors.

Our reaction upon re-entering America was to wander supermarkets in awe of the sheer size and variety and take photographs of really large food.

 Could anyone possibly even drink all of this cocoa?

Just look at the size of these monstrous eggs! And they're white. That's scary.

We used a lot of power tools, as any homeowners know that if you leave your 100+ year old house alone for a couple years, it's probably going to need a lot of work done the minute you get back. This meant that even though we'd lived in the tropics for years, we all got incredibly tanned from working outdoors for most of the summer. We had to go to Michigan to get tan, obviously.




Seriously, I have never been this tan either before or since. Of course, I'm a little more proactive about using sunscreen these days.

We threw ourselves into all sorts of activities that were "normal" to us prior to our move. Tractor shows and 4th of July parades and car shows. For us kids, it felt a like a very interesting cultural education. We visited several of our old homes, including Kentucky. Much of what we did was very fun, but this trip back to the USA definitely left us realizing that there was not a place left on earth where we fit in completely. When growing up in Malaysia, whenever things were confusing, or everyone else was speaking a language we didn't understand, we blamed it on the fact that we were American, we were naturally outsiders, and because of that, there would always be times when we felt like we were on the "outside." 

The problem is, by the time you go back, you realize you're an outsider once more because your face turns red after you accidentally say "Uncle" instead of "Sir" to a man who you're asking for help at the grocery store. You can't understand why your cousins are confused when you're telling a funny story about a cicak because you've forgotten that cicak isn't an English word.

And while everyone's telling you "Welcome Home!" and expecting you to be nothing other than happy and relieved about it...you can't help but silently think...I miss my other home.

Visits to America have come to mean, in my world, family reunions and shopping trips for clothing that's hard to find in Southeast Asia and long evenings of telling stories and hooking up the computer to the TV to show pictures of our life here. I'm spoiled rotten to have family on opposite sides of the globe. Some parts of this expat life will always be tough--but there's something really precious about being connected by love to places thousands of miles apart.

{This is Day 28 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

Leaving Home

Nearly every moment from the week we left Malaysia for the first time has burned its imprint on my memory.

We left for the first time in May 2008, after nearly four years in the country. The rest of my family was only leaving for a temporary visit to family and friends in the USA, but I was leaving for college, and at that point, wasn't sure if I'd ever come back to Malaysia long-term. This departure was already fraught with emotion, and our friends didn't make it any easier. This goodbye meant a great deal of loss, and a huge life change for me, as I was faced with losing both my home community and the presence of my family over a very short time span.

Our community's response to the news of our departure was rather dramatic. Some dear friends of ours had already been planning a wedding in August. When they heard we were leaving in May, they decided to change their wedding date to the Saturday before our plane left, so that my family could be a part of their wedding.

Lizzy and I were bridesmaids, and Dad spoke during the wedding ceremony. The little girls handed out programs at the door.




The wedding was a morning affair, with no large reception, and that evening, Lizzy and I went out with friends to an outdoor market next to the seaside. The bride and groom joined us, as they didn't want to waste any of the few remaining days they had left with our family (recall...this is the evening of their wedding day).

The next day, Sunday, our community had a farewell barbecue for our family. As is tradition at farewell parties, we had a tear-filled session in which we all sat in a circle and different people got up to talk about good memories they had with those of us who were leaving. It felt almost funeral-esque. 


On Monday, someone had decided that a whole family + all of our best friends paintball outing was exactly what was needed. I know that photos exist of this outing and I wish I could find them. The whole family went, though Mom and the youngest girls stayed behind the safety net and watched the rest of us hooligans shoot paintballs at each other. The newlyweds were part of this event, too.

On Tuesday, our final day, we went out to the weekly Tuesday night market for supper and met up with many friends there. Some of them came home with us afterwards, though we weren't much of a lively crew. We sat up pretty late into the night--no one wanting to go to sleep or to go home.


We left for the airport in the afternoon on Wednesday. We had been packing for weeks ahead of time--there were 9 of us, which meant we were taking 18 suitcases and 9 carry-ons and 9 personal items along with us. Auntie Letchimi ran out of her house carrying a turquoise and white sari less than an hour before we left. She asked me if I knew any tailors in the USA who could make a sari blouse for me. I didn't, but she gave the sari to me anyway. Several friends drove to our house to say one final goodbye--one family happened to see another one of our friends running on the road towards our place and stopped to pick him up. He'd ran out of his school the minute it let out for the day--he didn't have his own transportation but he was determined to run to our house and say goodbye before we left. If he hadn't been seen and picked up, he wouldn't have made it.


Several friends drove along with us to the airport. I remember staring fixedly out the car windows, trying to carve an indelible picture of everything that I saw on my mind. 

The 9 of us plus all of our luggage plus our send-off committee made a huge group at the airport. We really tried to convince people that they didn't have to come to the airport to see us off--we know now how futile that was. It's the culture here--nobody goes to the airport alone. Nobody.

They gave us a few more final goodbye gifts at the airport. One was a handmade scrapbook just for me. I said all the final goodbyes and gave all the final hugs and walked through immigration with the rest of my family and then collapsed to my knees, sobbing as if my heart was breaking. When I could walk again I continued with the rest of my family, toward our gate, and I looked back and saw our friends, still standing there, still waving at us through the glass.

It was so hard to leave.

On the other side of that long, long plane flight were excited grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles who were eager to see us after four long years. We were happy to get to see them, too, but it was, for me anyways, a very difficult season of learning to live with my heart split in two.

{My high school graduation party, our first weekend in the USA}

{This is Day 27 of my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing up in Malaysia}

Thankful for Pesticides

Mosquito fogging trucks and men in suits that look like they were made for space travel surround our apartment complex and pump clouds of mosquito-killing fog into the air. The fog smells as toxic as it is, and when the trucks are coming, we try to either leave the apartment complex first, or else we have to hole ourselves up inside a room with all the windows closed and the cracks under the door stuffed with towels to prevent the poisonous air from leaking in. Mosquito fogging happens once every month or so--more often when dengue cases are reported from our apartment complex.

In a world that's all for being all-natural, it's living in a country where mosquito-borne illnesses are a real and deadly threat that makes me grateful for chemical defense against the insects that are so pervasive here.

Dengue fever was, for me, anyway, once something that I read about on one of the cards in the game Worst Case Scenarios. Now, it's a disease that has affected more than a dozen people I know personally here--a disease that sends healthy adults to the hospital, wracked with pain and fever. Thankfully, it can be treated, but there's no guarantee of living through dengue unscathed.

Dengue isn't the only mosquito-borne illness over here. Thankfully, we don't live in an area where malaria is a problem, but chikungunya, another fever which appears similar to dengue, landed my little sister Rebekah in the hospital for nearly a week about six years ago.


My family has always been very vigilant about mosquito exposure. When we first moved, we slept under mosquito nets. Eventually, my parents opted to pay for screens to be installed on all the windows in our rented home, as that would offer us mosquito protection during the day as well. We made sure never to water our plants too generously, as any standing water turns into an instant breeding ground for mosquitoes here. We laid in a good supply of bug repellents and weren't allowed to go out to the park or other known places where mosquitoes were bad without them. We wore jeans and tennis shoes when hiking in the rainforest to prevent bug bites on our legs. The little girls had to come home from friends' unscreened houses before dark when the bugs got bad.

It's been interesting, using so many strategies to try to prevent mosquito bites--to remember to view them as not just as the causes of itchy little bites, but as insects that can potentially cause very serious disease. The youngest person I've known to be hospitalized for dengue wasn't even 2 years old...the oldest was well over 60. Those mosquitoes don't discriminate, and it's impossible to totally guard against them in this climate. Many people have visible scars left by mosquito bites. I wish we could ask these insects politely to please not bite us, but that doesn't work, so in the meantime, I'm grateful for mosquito fogging trucks.

{This is Day 26 of my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing up in Malaysia}

One Woman's Love


It's a Sunday--a busy day in real life, which probably explains why it's usually not such a busy day in the blog realm. I thought today I ought to share once more a story I've already told on this blog a few years ago--to this day it's my favorite story about my Aunty. Words can't really describe the immense impact she's made on my life and my values--but let me tell you about the way she loves, because it's crazy. Crazy love.

A Question of Color

Very rarely will you hear a person identify as Malaysian only--most identify as Malay, Indian, or Chinese. Those of mixed ethnicity have various names for themselves--Aunty Letchimi's daughters call themselves Chindian.

It's not uncommon to hear ethnicity identified when someone is being described, either. It's always "the Indian aunty who sells drinks at market" or "the Chinese uncle who sells chicken."

An eerily solemn family photo from my parents' vow renewal ceremony, about 6 years ago.

My family, with some of us being fair-skinned and blue eyed, and others of us tanned and dark-eyed, have sometimes bewildered those who attempt to describe us either via ethnicity or nationality. I remember my family being told, "You must not be Americans--you are too skinny!" But we don't look Dutch or German either, though most of us are tall, we're not quite that tall.

My mom in particular has been found to be a conundrum. I distinctly remember that once I was attending a drama club meeting when the school's security guard walked in the room and said, "There's a Eurasian mom at the gate asking for her daughter." I looked around at my fellow drama club attendees, and realized, "Oh, that must be my mom!" It was.

Just weeks ago, someone who had just met mom told her, "I can tell you're Eurasian. You know how I know? It's the accent." It's true that after 11 years abroad, she's lost a lot of the tell-tale American accent.

Angel is a new mystery for the community around us. He blends in better than I do, but many people guess that he's not a local. In the elevator a few weeks ago, an aunty asked him, out of the blue, "Are you Malaysian?" When he replied, "No," she said, "Oh, Pakistani." He clarified that he was American.

Some years ago, one guy asked him if he came from Oman. He's most commonly identified as coming from somewhere towards the Middle East. Angel made his own wrong guess the other day, when he asked a guy standing in line behind him at the post office what a sign in Bahasa said. The guy said, "I don't know!" Angel was surprised, because he'd assumed the guy was Malaysian. So, he asked him where he was from, the guy said, "Chile"...and I'm sure you can guess, from that point on, the conversation continued in Spanish. So, he made a new friend.

In this part of the world, you get used to being asked about your heritage and where you came from. When you look obviously different from everyone else, it makes people curious. Some in my family blend in better than others, but those blue-eyed little girls, they have certainly had their day in the spotlight, with strangers frequently asking for pictures with them. In September, I was out with my sisters and mom when a family asked if they could take a picture with Sarah. After Mom said it was okay, they added, "Well, how about with the whole family?" We all huddled into one spot for a photo.

Living here so long, you come to take the questions and the requests for pictures as signs of care and love. This isn't America, where we're pretty much content to not know anything about anybody we pass by. This is Malaysia, and if we see anyone who looks interesting, we'll stop and stare, and then we'll go over to have a chat and say hi and ask them all sorts of personal questions. The conversations make life fun, and make you feel as if it's possible to turn strangers on the street into friends within your community.

{This is day 24 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

Burning Schoolbooks

Intense.

That's my mom's favorite word to describe her children. Our greatest fear is the fear of boredom and normality.

Somewhere along the way, we started a tradition of having a bonfire on the beach made out of the pages of our schoolbooks at the end of every school year and roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the ashes of a year's worth of academic toil.


Do you actually need lighter fluid to start a bonfire composed of paper? Probably not.

We just wanted to be really sure that they would burn.

We would invite all of our dearest friends to these bonfires, and as workbooks and notebooks went up in flames we'd dance around the fire singing, "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me..." in the style of Elizabeth Swann and Captain Jack Sparrow.

We might carry back a few cooked hot dogs later on to those who opted to remain inside the house--Mom and Dad and the baby, none of whom were the beach bonfire fans that we were.



It actually takes a long time, and lots of busy hands, to tear up an entire year's worth of school notebooks for 6 students.

Some might argue that it's useful to keep your school notes from year to year. Those people would be nerds.

I'll have you know that even in college, I maintained this tradition, though I had to swap a romantic beach along the Indian Ocean for a bonfire pit in a backyard in the Michigan countryside. So it's not necessarily true that you have to hold on to notes even from undergrad. I burned mine and I'm surviving just fine.




We'd sit and chat and burn things until after the sun set, and then we'd douse the ashes with a couple buckets of water, cover them with sand, and wander back home, heeding (to a greater or lesser extent) Mom's commands not to track sand all over the house--this usually required hosing ourselves off in the driveway.

There would be a lot less drama, and far fewer memories, if we'd just dumped those notebooks in the trash or stored them in boxes under the bed. I prefer the bonfire.

{This is Day 23 in my Write 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

"Bad Monkey Island"

I've been to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, only once, and it was a traumatizing enough experience that when I recently expressed some interest in someday going back to Kota Kinabalu, my parents were completely shocked that, after a decade, my negative feelings toward the place seem to be dissipating.

Let me tell you the story. On our first evening in Kota Kinabalu, we ate dinner at KFC (my least favorite restaurant of all time). When we got home from supper, we discovered that someone in the family had left a corridor-facing window unlocked in our rented suite, and several items were missing from the room, among them, my portable cd player. This was slightly tragic.

The place where we stayed had a bucket shower-- the shower facilities consisted of a tiled room with a cold water faucet two feet off the ground, with a larger and smaller bucket in the room. You fill the large water bucket, and then use the smaller one to throw water on yourself. This is a relatively common traditional and simple showering system in this part of the world, one that many people live with in their homes. However, it doesn't compare to the luxury of having heated water come out from an shower head installed 6 ft. up on the wall. Fourteen-year-old me didn't enjoy the shower facilities.

The next day, our family headed out to an island that, henceforth in all family story-swapping sessions, has always been referred to as "Bad Monkey Island." I think now that it was actually Sapi Island.

I had woken up feeling very ill, but being ill on vacation is something that simply isn't done, so with the rest of my family I headed out to the island on a speedboat. Don't think badly of my parents, it's quite possible I didn't even tell them that I was sick. I've always been the sort of person who sees my own sicknesses as an embarrassing weakness and tries to hide them as much as possible.

I enjoyed the speedboat--to this day, I love riding on fast boats.







However, Sapi Island is a terrible place to spend a day of sickness and discomfort. Like the rest of Malaysia, it's hot. Unlike much of Malaysia, there are no modern conveniences like air-conditioning or real bathrooms or beds. I spent most of the day feeling very miserable and sleeping in the sand under the shade of a tree while my siblings wandered in the ocean or buried themselves under piles of sand.


The highlights of the day involved running away from a monitor lizard who came a little too close for comfort and watching monkeys attack tourists who had food with them. There was altogether a little too much wildlife involved. My mom has a long-standing aversion to monkeys, and found herself unable to relax with too many of them hanging out a little too close.


Now as I look at these '05 pictures of  ours from "Bad Monkey Island," I can see why some might enjoy the place, but I'm now old enough and wise enough to know to just stay in the room when sick because slightly remote islands just aren't the place to spend a sick day.

I wonder if I'll ever make it back to Kota Kinabalu, and if so, if we'll get along a little better next time...

{This post is Day 22 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

A Walk in the Park

Language barriers as well as cultural differences tend to lend themselves to communication breakdown upon occasion. For example, this last spring, in China, some friends invited us to join them for a walk at the beach one Saturday. We'd been to the same beach a few times before, assumed we knew what we were in for, and only after we had already arrived, found that the day's plans included a 20 km hike along a trail that eventually led to the beach.

Back when we first moved to Malaysia, we had a eerily similar day of mismatched expectations. A new family friend said that he wanted to take our family out to the park for a walk. We were brand-new in town, and didn't know the park, but we got all dressed up, and headed out in his car.

It turns out that the "walk" he was planning on, while not 20 km in length, was in fact a jungle trail leading straight up a mountain.

This trail is one I've done many times in the years since then. Only at the times when I'm at my fittest can I actually make it to the top of this trail and back down without feeling ill--it is an intense climb, full of steep, uneven stairs and heavily rutted pathways. And...there are a lot of monkeys, ready to attack if you're foolish enough to bring any sustenance with you.


You have to remember, at the time of this "walk in the park," there were 6 of us kids between the ages of 13 and 2. In addition, we weren't dressed for nor were we wearing appropriate footwear for a serious hike.


Yep, that's a 4 year old you see clinging to a rope by herself. But it's Rebekah, so she was tough enough to handle a hike like this, even then.

I was actually wearing my new black slacks, and dramatically fell and scuffed and muddied the fabric, which made me very sad, as clothing tragedies always do (in case you don't know what kind of person I am, I'm the kind of person who develops emotional attachments to my clothing). My slacks actually survived the experience quite well, and I was wearing them throughout beauty school in 2013, which tells you how sturdy that pair of slacks was.

This is now a cherished and exciting memory from days long past--but let it serve as a warning to others: When you're living in a different culture and you're not sure that you and your friends are speaking the same language, you might want to clarify the meaning of "a walk in the park" (or "a walk on the beach") before you actually embark on one. Either that, or wear sensible shoes at all times. That works too.

This is Day 21 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing up in Malaysia}

The Bread Man

My Dad called him "7/11 on the back of a motorcycle"...but the rest of us just called him the Bread Man.

Every evening, before the sun started to set, perhaps around 6:30 p.m., the Bread Man would drive down our little street and honk his horn.

It was like ice cream truck music for a different generation. Kids would pour out of neighborhood houses, eager to exchange ringgit for snacks.




Every day, as soon as we heard the horn, kids would start asking Mom or Dad if they could go buy something from the Bread Man. Mom didn't always say yes, but the chances were higher when the pantry was actually out of bread, because then Mom would send the kids out to buy a loaf or two of bread, and they'd add a couple of snacks to the bill.

"Monster"--a packet of ramen noodles that is eaten dry instead of as a soup, was probably their favorite. They also liked to buy another snack packet that came with a little plastic toy inside. Whatever was in the snack packet to eat was apparently toxic, because Aunty Letchimi warned the kids never to eat it. Their solution was to continue buying the snack packet, throw away the toxic food, and keep the plastic trinket.

It's hard to underestimate the value of random plastic trinkets to small children. Mom, however, eventually managed to put a stop to that practice and told the kids only to buy snacks for eating.

Twisties--in BBQ, Cheese, and Prawn flavors--were also popular in our house. The Bread Man sold prawn crackers, too, but those were never a favorite. I, being the picky eater that I am, was more likely to be found in the kitchen cooking myself an omelet that I didn't want to share with anyone than outside buying snacks (I ate omelets randomly all the time in high school).

The Bread Man was a community institution. On Angel's first-ever evening in Malaysia, we dragged him out of the house, jet lag and all, to check out the selection on the back of the Bread Man's motorbike. And that's the only reason we even have any pictures of his motorcycle, because somehow, it's those normal everyday things that never end up getting photographed...

{This post is Day 20 in my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

Care Packages

A lot has changed in the 11+ years since my family moved to Malaysia. When we first arrived, donuts didn't exist in this city, T.G.I Friday's and Chili's weren't built yet, and you had to go to the capital of the country if you wanted to experience Burger King (I never did, given my hatred of fast food burgers, but you know, if you wanted it, Kuala Lumpur was the place to go).

Malaysia has changed in the past decade, and so has my family. When we first moved here, I admit we were a bit flustered by all the 'normal' things that we could no longer find or afford. Convenience foods like canned or frozen fruits and veggies  were very hard to find when we first arrived, and also very expensive--we're talking $3-4 USD for a can of beans. Like many large families growing up in the 90s in the midwest...we'd been raised on lots and lots of frozen and canned veggies. The kitchen scenario was a little different once we found that everything had to be bought fresh and cleaned and cut and peeled by hand.


One could say that Malaysia forced us to eat more of an all-natural diet. Funny thing is, now, none of us kids will touch a traditional bland bowl of veggies that came out of a can or a freezer bag. We got all spoiled by dishes full of green beans and cabbage and bok choy and okra and spinach, cooked with generous amounts of chilies, turmeric, onions, garlic, or coconut milk stirred in.

You really can't go back to canned green beans after you've tasted the glories of stir-fried spicy turmeric green beans.

When we first came, also, it was rather impossible to purchase many basic craft supplies here. For a homeschooling family with a lot of little kids...this was rather distressing. In the years since, the crafting community in Malaysia has grown immensely, and a lot of supplies are more widely available now, if you know where to look, but in years past, this was not the case. When Mom was put on bedrest for the 2 months before Sarah was born, she immediately asked her family to send her a box of embroidery thread and patterns and projects to embroider, because she knew that sewing would make the weeks of bedrest a little more palatable--she ended up embroidering an entire baby blanket before the littlest one arrived.

In those early years, my family developed a regular list of requests, full of things that were difficult/impossible to find where we lived in Malaysia, that we'd send to anybody interested in sending us a care package. After you read this list you might understand why my baby sister views America as the land of really awesome candy..

Here is our care package list:

-Twizzlers Cherry Pull'n'Peel licorice - cherry
-Twizzlers Regular licorice - cherry (but none of that Red Vines stuff)
-Ranch dressing packets (My Dad loves Ranch dressing, but it was impossible to find--dry packets made it possible for us to make it here)
-Nerds (a highly beloved candy)
-Wheat Chex (this was just for me--it was my all-time favorite cereal and the only one I ate)
-Brass paper fasteners
-Pipe cleaners
-Googly eyes
-Any clothing that falls outside the limited sizes available here: i.e. my brother's size 13 shoes, or my 5'8'' sister's jeans.
-Spray'n'wash Stain Stick

We sure got pretty excited about all those care packages that our aunts and uncles so lovingly put together for us for Christmas or other events.

As time has passed, we've certainly improved at living with what's available here, although my parents have been known to wander a supermarket or Hobby Lobby in awe when they've gone back to the USA on a visit. And these days, the care packages have started to go the other way around the globe, as we send things like bags of Malaysian curry powder, packets of uncooked papadam, tubes of henna, and batik tablecloths back to those college kids who are missing home. It's interesting to look back and see how the tables have turned as the years crept by.

The Tsunami


The story of the tsunami that hit our island the day after Christmas, 2004, is one I've written before, so I won't be writing it again. However, it seems incomplete to share a series of stories about my coming of age in Malaysia without sharing this one. This is a part of my history, and, to a much larger extent, it's a part of the history of this region of the world. To understand the impact that the tsunami left on countless villages is to understand a small part of who the survivors are today. So, today, I ask, if you haven't already read it, please click over to this post to read about what happened on December 26, 2004.

{This is Day 18 in my Write 31 Days series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

Rain Bugs

They surprised us one evening--suddenly pouring into the house through every open door and window, thousands of flying bugs.

It was early October, our first rainy season in Malaysia, and we had absolutely no clue what to do--except run around like maniacs shutting windows and doors and swatting pointlessly as the house appeared to swarm with a quantity of bugs the likes of which we'd never seen.

We battled them--every member of the family versus the strange bugs, and we finally conquered them, sweeping piles of dead bodies and broken wings up into the garbage. We looked at each other in utter confusion--what was that about?

We still don't really understand this phenomenon, although we learned how to handle what we have termed the "rain bugs" better in years since. I don't actually know what kind of bug they are--they're larger than a fly, with wings nearly an inch long. They come occasionally during cool and rainy weather, and they come in huge swarms, seemingly attracted to the lights of the house.

Our first house was nearer to nature--near the beach and a wooded area--we haven't noticed the rain bugs nearly as much since my parents moved into an apartment complex, though there are still times when a few will come flying in.

But those first few times, when everything about Malaysia was new, were a mite overwhelming. Once we realized that they didn't bite and weren't dangerous, and once we realized that they had a habit of dying of their own accord before morning came, we didn't freak out quite so much.

I remember one evening that the rain bugs attacked, it was already rather late, and I was tired. I remember going to bed, covering my face with a sheet to guard against any especially curious bugs, and sleeping like that till morning, when I awoke to find exactly what I expected--the floor littered with the corpses of these intense little insects.

At some point, my parents got screens for our house, which helped immensely at keeping both the rain bugs and the everyday mosquitoes out--they didn't keep the other critters, like the cockroaches and cicaks out, but at least they don't come in swarms...

Preschool at Home: The Letter I and Insects

Homeschool Preschool


Week 10:
Major Themes: The Letter I and Insects

Notebooks: 
-Write in the number of the day on the calendar each day.
-Point out which day of the week it is.

Alphabet:
-Sang the Sing, Spell, Read, & Write letter sounds song.
-Sing the short vowel sounds song.
-Practice writing names. 
-Practice writing upper and lowercase letters with workbooks.
-This week we focused on the letter I and had several associated activities:
  -Found things in the house that started with the short 'I' sound.
  -Asked, "Does your name have the letter I in it?"
  -Listened to the Letter I song.
  -Looked at the I page in our picture dictionary
  -We made a cute letter I insect (six black legs, two antennae, googly eyes)
  -Made the letter I with playdough

Letter I Insect for Preschool

Math:
-Number flashcards up to 20 
-Practiced writing numbers 1-13 on whiteboard
-Preschool math writing workbooks
-Counting blocks.

Reading:
-Switched things up a little this week with reading from Sing, Spell, Read and Write's Book 1.
-Teach Your Monster to Read for 5-10 minutes a day.
-Sight-words: to, has, is, the, his, her and I.

Bible and Storytime: Week 10 from Sonlight Core P4/5 Instructor's Guide.

Months of the Year: We use this song.

7 Continents of the World: Memorizing the seven continents with this song.

Telling Time: I use this song with a little clock that has movable hands.

Science:
-Talked about the different kinds of insects we know about. What insects do we see inside the house? What insects do we see outside the house? How many legs to insects have?
- Listened to the Icky Insects song.
- Went on a walk outdoors and counted how many insects we saw: ants, bees, butterflies, and one fly.
- A huge grasshopper came to visit my house this week and hung out on the front door, so that made a bit of an impression given our topic!
- Watched Bill Nye the Science Guy Season 2, Episode 11, Insects


Storybook:
The Bee Tree by Patricia Polacco

Bahasa: 
Bahasa vocab this week is all edible:

Rice = nasi
Water = air
Bread = roti
Milk = susu
Apple = epal
Banana = pisang

I chose these food vocab words to start with because they are favorites--probably the most asked-for of all snacks for the girls. Now I have to teach them to actually ask for their snacks in Bahasa.



Life skills: 
- Did some basic chores together, the usual: veggie washing, dish washing, bathroom cleaning.
- Angel was home one morning and got out his flag collection and let them see and touch his flags, and talked about their friends who live in the different countries he has flags for. The girls don't know anyone who lives in Mexico, though, so I had to tell them that Angel's grandma, or popo, as the girls call their grandmas, lives there.



Crafts + Play:
- Visited the playroom and the library!
-Learned how to have "thumb wars" with each other  (taught on Angel's day off).
-Used watercolor paint to paint butterflies.

Previous Weeks: 
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6
Week 7
Week 8
Week 9

Durian Ice Cream

We were on our way to Kuala Lumpur. We stopped in the middle of the 5 hour drive, as large families are prone to do, for a bathroom break at a rest stop. We piled back in the car afterwards, and the car wouldn't start.

A car filled with 9 bodies under the tropical sun is no place to be when the vehicle won't start and there's no air-con, so we all got out as Dad looked under the hood and tried to figure out if there was any obvious solution to the problem.

There wasn't, other than getting a tow.

Only, getting a tow isn't so easy when you're in an unfamiliar part of the country and you have 9 people along with a car that needs to be towed.

Dad figured it out through a series of phone calls, and then we sat down to wait for an hour for the promised tow truck and taxi. We were headed out on vacation, but no one felt particularly happy at this point. Sitting on benches outdoors in the afternoon sun while waiting for a tow truck when you were supposed to be gleefully headed toward you vacation destination...well, that's no one's idea of a good time.

Dad had an idea to cheer us up. There was a man selling ice cream scoops out of a refrigerated box of ice cream next to the bathrooms. He gave us some money and told us to go over and get ourselves some cones. There was only one flavor. We bought 6 cones of creamy yellow ice cream that we assumed was vanilla--it only took one lick before we realized our mistake.

It was durian ice cream.

Durian has a fairly large reputation for itself--it's a prized and beloved fruit in Malaysia, and it's banned from most hotels and taxis due to it's pungent smell. Honestly, it smells like a dumpster. When it's durian season at market, I have to hold my breath to keep from gagging.

On this day, we discovered that durian ice cream doesn't have the same tell-tale smell that its mother fruit does, but the strong taste of the fruit is very present. Many people like durian, many people don't. Everyone in my family ends up on the same side of the durian debate--we don't like it.

Clearly not durian ice cream. We were too depressed to get any photographic evidence. This is a green bean sundae from McDonald's.

So then, we were 6 kids sitting in the hot sun waiting for a tow truck--kids who had been excited by the promise of ice cream, only to be intensely disappointed by the only available flavor. When Dad saw that we weren't eating our ice cream cones, he took one and tried to start licking it, only to find that he, too, thought it was disgusting. We didn't want to appear ungrateful for our ice cream treat...but boy, we also wanted to dump all of those ice cream cones in the trash, and quickly. Mom and Dad gave us permission not to eat them, and we threw them away.

We did not have an easy road ahead of us on the way to KL. Dad and Isaac ended up being able to ride along in the tow truck while the 7 of us ladies stuffed ourselves into a 5-seater taxi with the taxi driver and followed them.

Turns out that the motherboard on our vehicle had conked out and needed to be replaced. Who ever heard of a random car malfunction like that?

{This is Day 16 in my 31 Day series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

The 2nd Motorbike Accident

Dad wasn't the only one who got hit by a motorcycle.

I mentioned before the big social event that was night market. Every Tuesday, Lizzy, Isaac, and I would faithfully show up.

 I finally managed to find a few shots of what night market looked like when I was growing up.

 Satay on the grill. (Isaac's favorite at night market)

The beginnings of murtabak--my personal favorite dish. It was bits of chicken and cabbage and onions and spices mixed up with egg, fried, then wrapped in a thin sheet of bread dough, and fried again.

It was a 10 minute walk, with only one major street to cross, but any street crossing is dangerous. We were cautious kids, and waited till the light turned red for the cars and green for the pedestrians...only one time, that wasn't enough.

The pedestrian light was green, and all the cars on my side of the road were already stopped. I stepped out into traffic, Isaac and Lizzy right behind me, and safely made it past one lane of traffic when two men on a motorbike darted out from between two lanes of traffic, running smack into me, knocking me flat on my back in the street.

All that seemed to matter at that second was getting up off of the street. I was lying there, wind knocked out of me, with a long line-up of cars and motorcycles stopped and waiting for the light to turn green. I knew that once the light turned green, there was little chance they'd stay stopped long enough for me to get out of the road.

Lizzy was pulling me up off the ground and back toward the side of the road we'd started out on, while Isaac was dashing forward to get my shoe, which had been knocked off and thrown into the street in the collision.

The motorbike that hit me slowed slightly, the man seated in the back turned around to look, and then sped off.

The three of us made it back safely to the side of the road, shaken. One man on a different motorcycle that was waiting at the light called out to me to ask if I was okay. I nodded a "Yes."

See, here, motorcycles don't seem to need a lane to themselves. They weave in between cars and progress through stopped traffic much faster than any car for that reason. I hadn't been able to see the moving motorcycle on the other side of the cars line up in the lane nearest the road, and I'd made the assumption that just because all vehicles I could see had stopped for the light, that all vehicles indeed had stopped. That was a faulty assumption, and one I no longer make.

After taking a few minutes to recover, the three of us made the eminently sensible (in the minds of teenagers) decision to continue on to night market and have dinner with our friends. There was no need to return home and tell Mom and Dad about the little accident right now. I limped to market, as the foot that had the shoe knocked off was beginning to ache.

When we got home from dinner, we did tell Mom and Dad what happened, and they responded like normal parents and wanted to know what we were thinking and why we hadn't come home right away?? Mom took me to the local clinic for them to have a look at my foot, but like I suspected, no major damage had been done, it was just a little bruised, and I left with an ankle wrap, a little pain medicine, and orders to rest up and stay off it for a few days.

Good thing the motorbikes here are so small and light. I think being hit by something like a Harley would be a completely different kind of problem.

{This post is part of my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}

An Epic Sandcastle

We used to live within very close walking distance of the beach. Our house was maybe 50-100 meters from the shore, although the trees and the fishermen's cabins lining the shore meant that we couldn't actually see the ocean from our house. One day, just a few months before I was headed off to college in the USA, I took some of my little sisters and their friends down to play at the beach--something that, surprisingly, we didn't do all that often. Our beach was a working beach, where many families lived, and many fishermen moored their boats during the daytime, so it wasn't what you might think of as a pristine tourist beach meant for lounging on. The dogs that wandered and the dead jellyfish that washed up on shore didn't make for an especially safe playground.

We set about making a sandcastle. It turned out that we'd arrived at the beach just at the time in the late morning when the fishermen were cleaning out their nets--emptying them of water creatures that had been swept up along with all the rest of the fish that were destined for market.

The fishermen took great interest in our little sandcastle project, and began to come over, one by one, bearing "gifts" of live sea creatures, and placing them in our sand castle as the inhabitants/fearsome guards.

Rebekah and I 

 See the 3 horseshoe crabs, plus another big crab in the moat?



The fishermen clearly enjoyed the excitement and squeals they got out of the kids as they brought over crabs and starfish and other critters to inhabit our sandcastle. I still clearly remember one of the men putting a huge mantis prawn down in the middle of our castle and warning the girls: "This one, better not touch. It can hurt."

They taught my sisters how to pick up a horseshoe crab, and showed off all manner of different, and to me, unidentifiable, bits of sea life that had been left behind in their buckets and nets. Most of the 'leftovers' from the morning's catch were dumped back into the ocean after show-and-tell, and the crabs that had dwelt in our castle for a short time scurried away. I guess they didn't find the castle as luxurious as we thought it was.

For me, it was a surreal experience, hanging out on the beach with a couple little girls and a bunch of fishermen who were having fun giving us a glimpse at creatures that seemed so strange to us--creatures that ought to be found in a science textbook or ocean documentary--but for them were just a part of the job.

"Can I Have Your Number?"

The first house that my family lived in here had an electric meter located just inside the front door, which meant that every month, we had to let the electric meter reader in so that he could check our electricity usage.

The regular meter reader was an older uncle, but one day, I opened the door to a new meter reader--young, short and slim, with close-cropped black hair. He appeared slightly startled when I opened the door, after all, this was his first visit to our house and he apparently hadn't heard that an American family was living here.

The metal gate on our front door...plus a baby. Sarah, when she was tiny.

He chatted with me while he wrote down the numbers off of the meter. I'm afraid I probably wasn't very chatty in return. I was in my early teens and just a little awkward around strangers in the first place. Before he headed out the door, he asked, "Can I have your telephone number? Can I text you?"

My eyes got wide, and I looked around for parents or siblings to save me from the situation. Where's an overprotective dad when you need him? At work. Mom? Upstairs, teaching the kids. Kids? Doing their schoolwork, at the most inconvenient time possible. "Umm, sorry, I don't have a phone," I mumbled.

"Please?" He said, "I just want to practice my English with you."

By this point I was ushering him out the door and closing the metal gate behind him.

"Can we just be friends?" he asked, through the gate.

I smiled what I hoped was a polite smile and not a terrified grimace as I clicked the padlock closed.

"Sorry, I don't think so, thank you, bye!"

And I shut the wooden door. From then on, when the meter reader rang the doorbell, I hid from answering the door...just to be on the safe side.

And that's the tale of the first time I ever got hit on, when I was 14 years old, by probably a perfectly nice young meter reader who terrified me.  TCKs are not necessarily any more comfortable with awkward social interactions than teens in their own culture, I guess.

{This is Day 13 of my 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}