Life in Malaysia. Really, that’s what it has become. Not an “exchange year,” but a life. I have friends and family and teachers. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve loved, I’ve argued, I’ve lost and I’ve won.
With just five months left, I realize I have “officially” reached the halfway point in my exchange. I have experienced so many things. Just this month, I have explored the big city of Kuala Lumpur and have forced myself to settle down and adjust to the calm and peaceful kampung life. I have talked to more strangers in this month than I have ever talked to in my entire life. I have danced with the Malaysian-Indians during Thaipusam, and I have carried a Malay conversation with the Malay people in my school.
Next week I will be going with a temporary new host family to celebrate Chinese new year — Malaysia style. I have seen the Malaysian sunset almost every day and listened to the town become quiet as the sun sets and it becomes Mahgrib time, the time in which all Muslims must respect and perform one of their five daily prayers. I have heard the Azan five times a day, every day, for six months now and will for the next five months to come.
The interesting thing about living in a culture so different from your own is how easy it becomes to be an observer. You can watch and notice things you wouldn’t notice about your own culture. The smallest things we don’t pay attention to may be some of the most interesting things to a foreigner.
We don’t notice the way we sit, the way we set our bag on the table, the way we hold a knife or the way we fidget when we are nervous. But to a foreigner, those are some of the most interesting things.
I remember my first day of school in Pahang, Malaysia. I gave a speech to my school, then proceeded to my class with several new friends. We made casual conversation (“Hi where are you from?” “Indiana!” “Oh ... what’s that?”) and eventually made it to our classroom on the third floor of the school. I found my desk in the front and sat down, slinging my backpack on the floor without a thought. One of my Malay friends stared at it for a moment, then just looked at me and pointed to the bag.
“Kaley, you cannot do that!” She pointed to the bag, concernedly.
“Wait, can’t do what?” I was confused. Did I bring the wrong type of bag? Was there something wrong with the color? The size?
“You can’t just lay it on the ground like that. It’s so disrespectful to our teachers,” she replied gently. I picked the bag up and put it on my lap.
“Oh. Then what do I do?”
“Just don’t lay it down like this,” she said as she put my backpack horizontally on the ground. “This is OK.”
She took the bag and leaned it back upright against my desk.
I felt slightly shocked and a little humiliated that I hadn’t known this before. Such a small gesture to me could be very disrespectful and offensive to others. It made me wonder what “small gestures” and things like that we value in America. To the Malay girl, the bag sitting upright was common sense, but to me, it was no big deal to lay it on the ground without thinking twice.
The culture shock really hit me when I started pulling all the things I had done into my mind wondering, “Was this actually culturally inappropriate? Have I done anything else insensitive without realizing it?”
I think I learned one of my most important life lessons that day. I have learned to not just look at and admire the fabric but question the sewing pattern and color of beads. I have learned to appreciate the unique textile that is life in a different country.
Being a foreigner in this country has not only allowed me to learn about their culture from observing and experiencing, but also has allowed me to learn about my culture by giving me the opportunity to re-evaluate the smallest things about my life in America and rediscover the way I lived there and how I live — and should live — here.
Thanks for reading; until next time.
Courtlyn “Kaley” Heaberlin is a 16-year-old Whiteland Community High School student who traveled in July to Malaysia for a 10-month cultural immersion program. Her occasional column is excerpted from her blog. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.