How do we create relationships while staying true to ourselves?

The first few weeks teaching at SMK Sri Maharaja consisted of a standard ritual: have every student stand up, state their name, hobby, and ambition (the Malaysian way of asking what you want to be when you grow up). Every student spoke so softly that I had to stand in front of their desks. The class felt unproductive because they all laughed at their classmates and talked over each other. How much was I really learning about my students anyways? The activity began to feel pointless, but I had to remind myself – at least they were speaking.

I wanted to know more, so last week I crafted a lesson for my form 4A students – equivalent to highest performing 11th graders – about “getting to know you.” After a fun warm I asked them to interview a classmate about likes and dislikes and present back to the class:

“Izza favorite color is blue because it makes her calm and feel comfortable. Izza dislike to play games because it will waste her time.”
“My friend likes favorite animal is rabbit because it’s easy to care for and very beautiful.”
“My partner dislike sport because the sport make her boring and tired.”

Some of my students presenting.
Some of my students presenting.
I was so proud of them because I knew they were scared. Later, in reading their journals, I discovered that they gained confidence while presenting and learned new things about their classmates too! As thrilled as I was to finally have a successful lesson, it really got me thinking. How do we get to know each other, and how do we share ourselves?

To my students, I am the first person from another country that most have ever met. I represent things like Hollywood and Taylor Swift. The questions they ask me rarely vary from the “Where are you from?” “You like Malaysian food?” “What your parents name?” and “Do you have boyfriend?” My fellow teachers are not much different. A few have studied outside of Malaysia, so their English and concept of my life is different than others, but most just want to know about my family and marital status. These are the first questions because it is what is important to them in the context of a Malaysian life. Framing a foreigner’s life in the context of your own seems logical enough. How else can we begin to understand how to interact?

And yet, I have an inherent fear in answering these basic questions. Whatever I say will label me for the year. During our training, we were told that Malaysians need to fit us in to boxes. If I cannot fit an expected mold, they won’t know what to do with me. At first this seemed ridiculous. Yes, in America we categorize each other every day. We often boil people down to their one most visible identity. This is also not acceptable; but, that oversimplified identity does not force me to consider the perception of my every action. Here, my box – young, white, American, unmarried – comes loaded with assumptions. Us single western women are all alcoholics and promiscuous sex addicts, don’t you know? Eyes are always watching, so one cultural faux paus – like hugging a male friend or staying out too late – could unrightfully cause them to check that box for me.

I do not get to know, though, just what is prescribed. I am hidden, with the best of intentions, to the point where I cannot know. I live on the campus of an all-girl’s hostel. The girls warn us not to wear T-shirts when the boys are at school, the teachers scold us for walking to a food stall alone, and the security guards ask where we’re going to ensure we will keep our 11pm curfew. Our Malaysian friends and mentors want to protect us. We are a temptation to the “bad boys.” We are their responsibility and they don’t want us to get hurt because of what people will assume. The more I think about it, and as I meet more Malaysians, I have come to understand that categorizing is simply a way to deal with the unknown. And if anything, I am the unknown.

Waterfall trek with my crew
Waterfall trek with my crew
Understanding this, however, does not make interactions any simpler for me. Just last weekend I went hiking with a group of friends to the National Park in Kelantan. Four girls and three boys braved the one hour, straight up-hill climb to one of the largest waterfalls in South East Asia. We were the only westerners in the park were practically alone on the trail. Just a few minutes in we were using chains to safely ascend and were sweating profusely. A few of the ladies (I have been living in parts of conservative Asia for too long for this) decided to hike in their sports bras. When we reached the waterfall and swimming hole we were reminded of why “sun’s out guns out” is not Malaysia appropriate: all the women were swimming in full sleeves, pants, and tudongs (headscarf), and all the men were sitting on a rock or swimming at least 50 feet away from them. Our co-ed crew was testing cultural norms enough just hiking and swimming together, there was no need to get half naked too.

Making friends on a mountain top.
Making friends on a mountain top.
But should we really consider this “testing cultural norms?” Travel is an exchange. We try not to leave a big footprint, but we also do want to join our own culture with that of where we’re living. There are ways to be respectful of Malaysian culture while still maintaining our American selves without imposing our values on any one. There are many things that I deeply value about my American way of life – equal respect for men and women and friendship with the opposite gender are high on that list – which I want to share here. The challenge is finding how discuss these topics without jeopardizing relationships.

More challenging is honestly representing myself without compromising safety or reputation. After the hike, my friend Brendan and I decided to camp while the rest of our friends went home. We knew it could be scandalous as a young man and woman staying together among many young Malaysian men. A young Malaysian man, Ali, invited us to join him and his friends that evening and sure enough, within the first hour Ali asked us “So, you two are married?” Yes. Yes we are.

Our beautiful evening with Ali
Our beautiful evening with Ali
An easy lie in the moment became so much more complicated as we became friends with Ali. That evening he fed us one of the best meals I’ve had in Malaysia (something about cooking while camping always does that for me) and taught us a Kelantanese card game. Despite these wonderful experiences our guilt was rising. This meaningful relationship was all built on a lie. What were the implications of us lying? To be honest, I think lying enabled us to build a friendship with Ali. Had we told the truth, knowing what I do about the conservative state of Kelantan, I cannot believe he would have welcomed us with such open arms. In an ideal world, we could have discussed different American values: male and female friendship does not mark a woman’s purity. However, I was not willing to give a stranger – no matter how gracious a host – the benefit of the doubt.

Malaysian men will make kissy sounds when I walk next to a male ETA and ask if I am his girlfriend. They do this not because they are curious. If I am someone’s girlfriend, I fit into their promiscuous, loose, sexual western woman box. That is not an assumption I wanted anyone to make while sleeping at a campsite surrounded by sexually oppressed young Malaysian men. As much as I want to trust the people I become friends with, I cannot trust what their ingrained reactions will be.

Working towards those small victories I brought some watermelon to share with my teachers. It was a hit!
Working towards those small victories I brought some watermelon to share with my teachers. It was a hit!
Clearly these problems are multi-faceted. Making a friendship built on a lie for safety makes me even sadder about gender dynamics in this country. I feel stronger about the desire to make real relationships in other parts of my Malaysian life, but fearful that it can never happen. Slowly, I build rapport with teachers at school. Our chats over breakfast in the canteen feel less directed or forced. The new teacher at my school, a 24 year old woman who studied in the UK, and I are beginning to become friends. But, these friendships can never quite get to the point of being fully open. Small victories are how I get through my school day – a student responding to a new question, a girl asking me to join her during recess, a lower form boy joining in on the hokey pokey – and how I must begin approaching my relationship interactions also. This week I strive for a shared laugh over something more than my mispronunciation of Bahasa Malay and a conversation of something more than small talk.

Miss this pretty lady. Thanks for the nomination Danielle!
Miss this pretty lady. Thanks for the nomination Danielle!
So what is important to me that people do know about me? Why is it that I want to get past the small talk? Building meaningful relationships has been a long held value, and thanks to the people I have met over the past few years, thinking critically about those interactions has become just as important. Thanks to Danielle for nominating me for the Liebster Award – an online award for bloggers from bloggers to recognize new and quality work. I’ve only ever written to get what’s going on in my head down on paper (or I suppose, the internet) so I feel honored that this wonderful woman likes me for more than our shared chocolate, Friends episodes, and hours in the OSA office. If nothing else, her prompting got me to sit down and start writing this post.

Here are the rules

  1. Display the Liebster Award badge on your blog.
  2. Thank and link back to the person who nominated you.
  3. Answer the nominator’s 11 questions.
  4. Nominate 11 other new bloggers. Some of these people I know, others I don’t. Some may accept, and some may not. Either way, their stories deserve to be heard.
  5. Draft 11 new questions for the people nominated by you.

Here’s to nominating blogs that make me think, laugh, and stare in awe. Here’s to people that know I appreciate them and people that don’t know I exist:

  1. My big bro, who if it wasn’t for my grandmother wouldn’t have had a cause to ask me to start blogging: Create Adventures
  2. Everyday Ambassador, a family of remarkably intelligent and socially conscious world travelers who encouraged me to ask the hard questions.
  3. Grace Farson for always being an inspiration since the day our kayaks met.
  4. My former youth minister, Greg Cochran:Along the Way
  5. Rose, who diligently records this Fulbright adventure.
  6. Max, who does the same and always gives me a fresh perspective on Kelantan
  7. The Feminist Kitchen You don’t know me but you were a great source to get my research juices flowing and reinforce what I believe.
  8. Women LEAD You also don’t know me, but ever since we featured you on Everyday Ambassador, I have been in love with your organization.

Here’s what I want to know about them:

  1. Where do you feel the most at peace?
  2. When do you feel the most yourself?
  3. Who was the most important person in your life last year?
  4. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you want to be?
  5. What is your personal super power? Not what do you wish you could have, but what of your own skills do you consider to be a super power?
  6. What is your guilty pleasure?
  7. What are you jonesing for right now?
  8. How are you creative in your day to day life?
  9. What do you wish more people knew about you?
  10. Describe your perfect meal.
  11. What’s next to check off on your bucket list?

Here are my responses to Danielle’s thoughtful questions. Perhaps these are the things I will strive to have my Malaysian friends learn about me before I go?

  1. Who are you? An overly optimistic 22 year old who sees the best in everyone. A young woman conflicted between being ambitious and wanting to see the world. A curious girl who itches to climb everything tall she sees, feels at peace when she’s watching the sunrise, loves meeting new people (both when networking and when traveling), is learning how to not fear commitment, and wants to hear everyone’s story.
  2. Where are you from and where do you currently live? I spent my entire childhood in a beautiful red brick house in Baltimore, Maryland that boasted a garden filled front lawn, swing set in back, and plenty of hand chopped wood for fires in the winter. Maybe it is because of the comfort I so value in my family that I have been unable to stay put for the past few years. Currently, I live in the predominately Muslim state of Kelantan in Peninsular Malaysia.
  3. What do you love? Long conversations with good friends over a home-cooked meal. Used book stores. Summer thunder storms. Climbing trees. Listening closely and asking the right question.
  4. Do you have any morning rituals? I have countless ideal morning rituals which I have never quite managed to master. But for the past 2 months since arriving in Malaysia Ive been pretty good about playing three Luminosity brain building games before I start my day.
  5. What is your favorite smell? Sea breeze. Freshly cut grass. Old books. My grandmother’s cut out cookies
  6. Coffee or tea? Coffee. It depends on my mood, sometimes a good herbal tea really hits the spot, or a taste of Darjeeling takes me back to a mountain in India, or green tea just makes me feel a little healthier. But in reality, there are few things better than a real, dark, fresh brew. Sadly, here I have to settle for overly sweet Nescafe, so coffee doesn’t have quite the allure anymore. One more kopi-o kosong please!
  7. What is your favorite sound to fall asleep to?A babbling stream and crickets chirping.
  8. What is your favorite breakfast? Hosting a potluck brunch for friends. Though of course, I always make way more food than I need to because I want it all: homemade cinnamon buns, scrambled eggs with shallots and garlic, hash browns, jalapeno cheddar biscuits, sage grits… oh I have to stop before I get hungry and sad that I can’t have it.
  9. What does your perfect day look like? Exploring a new place with an old friend. We’d start by watching the sun rise while drinking really good coffee. Then we’d find a great place for breakfast and wander our new city for a while, hopefully getting a little lost. Maybe we’d make some new friends and get to know them over lunch. There’d be some outdoor adventure of sorts that would end in a stunning sunset from a high point to see out over the rest of what we’d discovered that day. The evening would include more old friends, a lot of good food, and some craft beer.
  10. Pick three words to describe yourself. Curious. Determined. Empathetic.
  11. What’s your sign? Cancer, but I can’t claim to know what that means.

2 thoughts on “How do we create relationships while staying true to ourselves?

  1. Just when I thought I couldn’t love you anymore than I already do – you are the most beautiful person, inside and out! I am so excited to read the blogs you recommended.

    PS: I do miss our chocolate and nutella peanut butter FRIENDS dates though.

  2. Interesting story, I can totally relate as I just got posted to a school here, too. Same thing – name, hobby, ambition. I don’t know if I’d prefer getting students like yours or sticking to mine. Don’t feel so bad because I, too, felt like a failure when they laughed at each others’ replies. In mediocre English. When one child said that he loves Taylor Swift, a more confident one said, “Why do you like that slut?”


    Oh well, I’m glad (in a way) that they’re keeping in trend with words the world is going to throw around a lot anyway, when they eventually grow up.

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