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Expatriate in Kuala Lumpur – a woman's walkabout – Elizabeth Goodhue

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros

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Malaysia

There is no dew on the grass here


In three weeks I go home to sell my house. A breaking point in my journey. Job offers are beginning to come in, which makes me thoughtful and a tiny bit flattered. To all of them, I want to say yes.  A job helping teachers teach in Columbia, another job helping American teachers problem solve on-line, another on-line job teaching English at a Vietnamese university. How can I do them all and not leave my job here behind? My ultimate goal is to juggle all of these jobs remotely, which means scaling back on the one I have, which I am not ready to do yet. There is so much to learn. I want to learn how to be an instructional designer, but all of these opportunities would support that as well. Once I opened the door and left ConVal, the world opened up and it is hard not to grab it all up at once.

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Expatriate living pulls people like me together. People who do not quite fit into the routine world of one culture. The sensitivity that we have to the logic of the world turns us into introverts in the rat race careers that we hold until we realize this.  During my walkabout, I have deep connections with people who, like me, feel as they do not belong in this world. I have always struggled to wrap my mind around what people do and the decisions that they make especially in education.

I do not understand why educators pile students into little slots like pigs for the slaughter and lie to them about their future. School is incomparable to anything they will ever experience when they leave it.

We tell them that they need school, when what they really need to do is hold onto their curiosity and wonder.
IMG_2540I once taught at a school that everyone considered was a dump. It was in a small factory town where everyone knew everyone else, where some parents did not have teeth, and some did, some students had no parents and were living with friends, some students came from hard-working middle-class families. In my first year, four of my students were pregnant, one probably by a family member. This was a town where the nation had decided to dump its nuclear waste. This was a town with that kind of reputation.

But this was a magical place to teach. This was a place where brainstorming sessions were simple: what do you mean you have nothing to write, one student would say, remember that time your father lost his finger in the logging accident or the time you tried to shoot the deer that hopped over you with a bow, or when your father left you in the woods alone all day to turn you into a man? And the girls had more tender stories to tell about boys, about sneaking out of the house, running away, school, being homeless, under the surface girl stories.

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Girls in Hue, Vietnam traffic

This was a school that solved the chronic scheduling problem that schools have. The reason why so many students sit in classes that they did not sign up for: scheduling. Early in the morning, each teacher would set up a table in the gym with one list for each course that she taught and on it twenty slots for the number of students who could sign up for the class. At 7:35 on the Monday of arena scheduling, the gym doors would open and the seniors would stream in to sign up for an essential course, or a favorite teacher. Students got what they wanted, teachers got students who wanted to be there and all was harmonious. Don’t get me wrong, I had my fair share of classes where six out of the twelve students dropped out the minute they were 16, but if students made it to their senior year, this system worked. The beauty of it was that the students chose who they wanted to teach them and what they wanted to learn.

Ten years later, after four years of being a full-time mother, I taught in a school with a good reputation. It was not a community; it was a farm. Small communities were set up in classes, which dissolved after 18 weeks, never to be formed again. Students were from rich, middle class, poor or no families at all. They were separated economically under the guise of intelligence. Students with disabilities were in one room, emotionally disturbed in another, the middle class took the mediocre classes and the rich took the honors classes. The teachers were segregated by departments. Great teachers and a great principal taught in their own bubbles that rarely touched.IMG_2906

So I gave up because I just couldn’t accept working in isolation. My passion for teaching students to take responsibility for their own critical thinking was too strong. My intolerance for mediocrity was too strong. I was too strong. People wanted to sail, but to me, they were setting off on the Titanic. I got off the boat as it sank — perpetually.

 

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Ferry boat woman in Hue, Vietnam

 

I hung in there for 24 years while the ship kept its bow above the water. And then I set sail for Mexico and then to Malaysia. And it as if the world has opened itself up to me. I can keep my ideas to myself; I can support e-learning, which I think is the answer to education. I can live in the world community and embrace what it gives to me every day.

In the House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, the three witches tell the protagonist, life’s a circle, you understand. You have to leave in order to come back. The protagonist had to leave the world in which she was stuck, the world in which her cousin’s Cadillac couldn’t escape because the streets were so narrow. Sometimes you need to step out of the cycle to understand it. I am coming to the understanding that my physical journey will take me back to the states, but spiritually, emotionally, maybe my place is just right here with me. Maybe I can be my place. My place, my bliss.

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Cooking the lesson


Source: Cooking the lesson


I find myself wondering how I can be here, or in Thailand or any other place I seem to land. Last weekend David and I went to Chiang Mai for a brief visit, but we did so much that it felt like a long  journey. At this point I am non-plussed by cities, so we ventured 45 minutes north of Chiang Mai for mountain biking and kayaking.

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Bike ride in Thailand

It felt so good to feel my body moving on the open road again. I felt like toad from The Wind in The Willows with his motor car. Most of my exercise these days is limited to a pool or a yoga studio, especially since I had my “pump bump,” otherwise, known as Hoagland’s’ Deformity, shaved off of my heel. I wish doctors knew that when they tell me that I will be walking within a few days that I take them literally. This has taken forever to heal due to my own stubborn impatience. Anyway, I was up for a ride through the rice paddies. Our first stop was  a brand new temple in the countryside. It went on and on like India. Every corner I turned had a delightful surprise — lines of ebony-colored soldiers facing a Budda-like figure, roosters with feathers of red, orange and silver, dragons coming out of a serpent’s mouth, rats, lions, elephants, and tigers against a teak background — enough to leave me breathless. Our guide had to drag me away. The rest of our time was spent barrelling through rice paddies, lush, without rice, fields of garlic and cilantro.

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Serpent

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Hours that seemed like minutes later, we arrived at the river to start our kyack. It was the first clean and swimmable river I have seen in my travels. I do not think that tropical countries have the kinds of lakes that we have in New Hampshire.  The river’s current carried us for hours meandering in a crack in the earth. We could not see above the banks on which 10-foot stalks of grass grew, but we didn’t need too. The birdlife and the sheer joy of being in the quiet natural environment were enough. We stopped to swim and watch our guide spear fish, then completed our journey.

Since I last wrote, I have been in Penang, Malaysia with Kate and Claire, to Singapore (which would have been better if I was off of my crutches) and Ko Lanta, an island off of the south of Thailand. There we had a great kayak, boat ride, and three-hour wait in the airport with a new friend. My job continues to be just what I want it to be, and I still do not miss teaching one little bit. This weekend I am off to the eastern side of the Malaysian Peninsula to a hotel in the coastal town of Kuantan. Then David and I will go to Vietnam in two weeks before he returns to Putney.

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Kuantan, Malaysia

My plan is to sell my house and everything in it. I have lived without all of that stuff for two years, so I can do without it. This will fulfill a long-term goal of getting rid of stuff and carrying my life possessions on my back.  I will return in May to see Claire graduate from Mass School of Pharmacy as a nurse! Then I will return at the end of the month to continue working in Malaysia until another adventure calls me.

E-learning: hop on the bus


Source: E-learning: hop on the bus

The View from Here


Morning Meditation

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I start my morning meditation on my 20th-floor balcony overlooking Kuala Lumpur. As the sun starts rising over the mountains, I close my eyes and listen. The city murmurs day and night — large cranes creak from mile-high buildings, hammers clank against metal, a long train slithers among buildings and roadways, an airplane breaks the steady sound of traffic until the tropical a bird’s call is barely a whisper. The sun crawls up the back of the mountain ridge kissing the clouds with every shade of orange it can muster. The sounds rise with my breathing. When I open my eyes, women in white al-amiras float ghost-like past the school bus parked on the roadside to catch up to its schedule. Construction workers begin to leak out of the shantytown across from the site.

The traffic swells until the sun is well beyond setting. Red taillights move beyond simply speckling the streets as they fade with the stars into daybreak. I never thought that I would find peace in a city, but every morning that I breathe it in and out it seems that I have found a place to perch for a while.

The View from Here — In Malaysia 

Mary Oliver wrote a poem called In MalaysiaHer poem reminds me that I do not have to dig deep to find beauty and peace. Whether it is Langkawi, the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang, the contrast is one of reality and beauty spanning a panorama from litter, the putrid smell in back of the food court, cigarette smoke, to the people endlessly mopping or sweeping away the mess that may or not be there, to the plum blossoms, the man holding the door, the waft of street food, or a magnificent Buddhist temple in the distance. Asia opens up another landscape for me to appreciate.

The call to Prayer

Five times a day, the call to prayer fills the sky — a caterwaul, a battle of bands among mosques competing in prayer. Somehow it reminds me of the people in Whoville singing despite the Grinch. Each call to prayer is a reminder to everyone to stop what they are doing to worship their god.

Cranes, Plum Blossoms, and Fireworks

Plum Blossom
These fake plum blossoms are stapled onto a real tree trunk

After a swim beneath the stars and the well-lit cranes towering above, I return to my balcony. The dark sky’s coolness makes it bearable. The city is still vibrant, still humming. People nestle into the bars below or stroll among pink plum blossoms marking the Chinese New Year.  The stream of traffic blends into the broad light show below. The sound of construction has stopped, and occasionally a motorcycle shrieking along a straightaway breaks the lull of the traffic  below. Last night, not for the first time, fireworks exploded in pocketed communities all over KL to welcome in the year of the monkey.

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Happy New Year

Camellia Suites

I still miss the screech of the owls behind  my house on a crisp winter night, the silent thump of fresh snow falling from a laden pine, and the trickle of snow running down my sweaty back as I ski through the woods. But from my 20th-floor balcony of the Camellia Suites in Kuala Lumpur, I am not complaining.


Source: How to Mount and Elephant


Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Source: Beyond the Lotus Flower

Source: Beyond the Lotus Flower


Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world.

Source: Beyond the Lotus Flower

Beyond the Lotus Flower


I am learning to be home again. To return to the familiarity of Kuala Lumpur, the walk up the hill from the LRT with its mixtures of smells and rocky sidewalk tiles, and the modern simplicity of this city. I realize how insignificant my life is in a world so full of wonder. The world that I have always known, the tiny chunk of New England, is a wonder in its own beauty.

Asia has opened me. Starting with the Lotus flower and so far ending with the temples and fishing villages of Siem Reap, which houses Angkor Wat, the Elephant Palace, the palace of the Leper King and dry shallow moats. Somehow these places have survived with their people. A place where the effect of dormant land mines is everywhere. A place that survived the Khmer Rouge, and that still survives poverty within a calm of Hinduism, motorbike riders wearing facemasks, and tuk-tuks carrying tourists from temple to temple at dawn. The smell is of Mexico, the food an imitation of India, China, and Malaysia. The thing one takes away from this place is a sense of peace carving its way back after years of strife.

I ask myself where I have been while I grew up listening to the black and white news on TV about this region of the world. What do I know? How can I begin to imagine what the people who are now my age survived when they were six years old? When I asked our guide about the effect that the Khmer Rouge had on him, he told me he was sent to the rice paddies at six years old, split from his family, and that he lost his father and brother. We agreed that there was no way to for him to describe to me his experience or any way that I could begin to understand it. What can I possibly begin to know of that?

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“one dolla”

How can I know anything of the little girl and boy who clean out the garbage can after I throw away my morning egg and toast? I reach into the trash for the little girl and open my wasted breakfast. She rejects the toast and takes the egg to feed to her brother.

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I find him later befriending tourists and picking at their breakfasts while hundreds of tourists from all over the world wait with the cameras for the sun to rise over Angkor Wat. And it never really does. The light leaks into the sky, fading the silhouettes of the towers built miraculously of tons of limestone carted from 25 kilometers away.

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is magic. Despite its tourist attraction, and multiple children selling postcards and cooing 1 dollar, one dollar, I was still awed by it. The irony of people absorbed in their selfies surrounded by such spirituality and wonder struck me. The vanity of the human race overwhelms me, and I still have that serene desire to curl into a cocoon and be alone with the universe as I continue my journey.

The world continues to be a treasure hunt. The pile of gold that I have accumulated continues to heap up bringing me closer to myself and that mysterious place called home for which I continue to search. I saw what must have been a mile-long carved mural of the Ramayana, and like so many other spiritual guides, he too was searching to rid the world of evil, to increase its goodness, and to try to understand what it is to be human.IMG_3405

Like India, there are few words for my short weekend in Cambodia. It was a whirlwind tour for me who believes that less is more. When I visit a place that is grand, I want to go to one place and absorb it, rest with it and let it wash the soul. I will go back to Cambodia because it only takes two hours to get there. My hope is to start doing some trekking to get away from the tourism and closer to the people of Asia. There are many things that everyone should experience in a lifetime: the Special Olympics, rowing a wooden Kaschper in perfect synchrony, raising children, India, New England, giant thunderstorms over the Pacific Ocean, body surfing the perfect gigantic wave, skating on black ice, swimming many miles. My list is infinite, how fortunate I am that it is.

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