Today is the 4th of July. In America, it marks the date our country declared itself free from Great Britain. Today, America is 237 years old.
This time last year, it was my second night in Malaysia. I spent the holiday with the other YES Abroad students and two AFS volunteers. They were practically strangers then; this year they're family. This time last year, I watched the fountain and light show in front of KLCC, heart full of excitement and nervousness for the year to come. This year, my family had a barbecue and we sat on the front porch. I watched fireflies flicker around the backyard and listened to the fireworks boom in the distance.
1 year, 366 days, 12 months later, here I am.
I left my home to return to my home, and it wasn't easy. I've had to relearn how to interact with people I've known my whole life. Little things like eye contact, shaking hands and speaking proper English throw me off completely. Friends and family in many ways have stayed the same, and expect me to be the same, but I've changed a lot. More than anything I'm often left pondering the question: did anyone actually miss me? And deep down, I know that they did. But there's a lot more awkward silences with people that I used to talk to for hours on end before I left. And there's a lot of miscommunications between my parents and me. And there's a lot of feeling horribly foreign in a country that I once called my only home. When people said re-adjusting to America is more difficult than adjusting to Malaysia, they weren't kidding.
I'm not saying it's all bad, it's definitely not. Seeing my parents and friends again is great. Having my cats and dogs in the house with me is a beyond awesome feeling. I bask in the comforts of toilet paper in every bathroom, and free re-fills. I had blissful reunions with good ole New York brick oven pizza and burritos. And Greek salad. And Kraft mac&cheese. America's treated me well. I got my learner's permit and am learning to drive which is equally terrifying and exciting. The whole other side of the road thing was confusing at first, but I've finally stopped walking to the wrong side of the car when I get in. But like I said, it's hard to be fully present when a good chunk of my closest friends and family are a solid day's worth of plane rides away.
Whenever I've seen someone for the first time since I've been back, they always ask "How was Malaysia?" There's a variety of answers I give, depending on the who asked the question. The short version is "amazing and rewarding." The slightly longer version, "I learned a lot about the culture from my host families and I really have grown a person." The longest conversations, and the ones I enjoy the most are long chats with friends and family of all ages, preferably over a cup of tea. The listener is as eager to hear my adventures as I am to share them. Those are the moments where I hope I leave an impact.
The questions I get sometimes never fail to surprise me. People are surprised that I was able to buy an iPad mini while in Malaysia, that that kind of technology exists there, but then again I've been asked if I lived in a tree.... A lot of people seem taken aback by the fact I went to an all girl's school where I had to wear a uniform. Many also wonder about what it was like living with a Muslim family. To that, I respond; it was a lot like living with my family in America. I felt just as safe and just as loved, despite their different religious views. And I've probably explained 15 times that Malaysia is that little country in between Thailand and Singapore.
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Malaysia taught me a lot, and changed me just as much.
I'm more mature, open-minded and understanding. I've learned to stop and smell the roses, or maybe stop and smell the ikan bilis. Time has become more relaxed and I've realized it's okay to not be doing something after school everyday. I'm more outgoing, and speak up more often in large groups. I carry myself more confidently and am not afraid to ask questions. Some of my mannerisms have become distinctly Malaysian.
I fell madly in love with Malaysia. Char kuey teow, roti canai, Islam, night markets, lake gardens, highlands, teh tarik, baju kurung, Little India, Buddhism, cave temples, sarees, Hari Raya, KLCC, the LRT, Deepavali, KL Sentral, tudungs and tosay, dim sum, Changkat, Pavillion, BOH tea, Hinduism, Chinese New Year, incense, illegal firecrackers, expats, Starbucks, Ipoh, Penang, beaches, islands, lah, boleh, Punjabi men in turbans, judgmental Chinese aunties, tea on tea on tea, Nescafe, pinafores, prefects, Morals class, 5 Kekwa, fresh coconuts, pisang goreng, diving, snorkelling, shopping, chopsticks, nasi lemak, mamaks, exchange students, AFS camps, the Monorail, Times Square, stray animals, crazy taxi drivers, Ampang, Terengganu, Bahasa Melayu, SMK SS, lepak-ing, McDonald's
, nasi at every meal, bargaining at the markets, Jalan TAR, cheongsam, orang asli, Sabah, jungle trekking, my best friends, my worst enemies, people that loved me, people that hated me, oh my english, aiyoo, can or not.
That is my Malaysia, my satu Malaysia, my truly Asia, and I miss it and I love it and I want it so much it hurts. I am proud to call Malaysia my second home and Malaysians my second family. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Punjabi, Sikh, Orang Asli, Chindian, Portugese, Eurasian, mat salleh, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist,I don't care, I am so grateful to each and everyone of you.
There are so many thank yous to be said for this year.
To my host families, and schools. Strangers that welcomed me and called me sister, daughter and friend before they knew anything about me.
To my natural family- who let me go abroad in the first place, supported me throughout the year the year and encouraged my dreams.
To my friends in the US- the ones who stayed in contact, and the ones who didn't.
To AFS Malaysia and AFS USA- who helped with the logistics of the program.
To all the volunteers- especially my LP Naz who were there to support me when ever I needed them.
To the other exchange students- my crazy international family who taught me how to swear in Italian.
To the YES Abroad Program and the State Department- who allowed me to have this amazing experience.
To the American taxpayers- who funded the best year of my life.
To the Embassy- who ensured we met up with other Americans and allowed us to share our experiences with the Ambassador.
To the blogger that made me twitter famous (Love ya Effi)
To every single Malaysian that helped me in some way- the mamak aannes, the school teachers, the people that asked for photos with me. The people that put up with my endless questions and silly American quirks.
To the Malaysians that gave me a hard time- the girls that started rumors about me, the football teams that whistled at me in Penang, the people that stared and laughed and pointed. Believe it or not, you helped me to be a stronger person.
And to you. To everyone that read my blog, shared the link, left a comment. Those who stuck with me and encouraged me to write when I had the worst writer's block ever. I appreciate all of you so much and hope you enjoyed following my journey.
But the journey's not over yet, oh no, it's just begun.
But for now?
Jumpa lagi, see you again.