Mt. Kinabalu

Mt. Kinabalu

Monday, September 30, 2013

Teacher Barbie Boleh (can)!

               The nickname I have been given by my students is "Teacher Barbie."  I hear on a regular basis things like, "Teacher, you look like Barbie, teacher."  At first I wasn't sure how to take this new nickname.  Though I had many Barbie dolls of my own growing up, as one gets older you tend to associate them with being too "girly" or with negative connotations thanks to her ridiculous body proportions.  Stubbornly not wanting anyone thinking I'm a wimp, I was at first a little horrified by the name.  However, I'm deciding I can definitely own my new nick name.  Barbie may be girly, which may be true of me as well, but she is also VERSATILE.  When I learned a song all in Malay my friend said, "Oooh, Barbie can sing in Malay!" and when I cooked for the first time here in Malaysia my friend said, "Oooh, Barbie can cook!"  Barbie can do so many things and so can I.  One thing this year is certainly going to be about is versatility.  Whether it's teaching English or helping save our plants from a torrential downpour (that happened while I was writing this post last night), Barbie boleh!  Boleh is probably my favorite Malay word because it means CAN and the word can is used so much more here than any other place I've experienced.  So my mantra for this year is Barbie boleh.  One example of my new mantra in action is in the video above.  With the help of my friend Nuria, who taught me the song and accompanied me, I performed in front of the entire school at chapel this week. 

Grace Center students at chapel
Below are photos of all of my housemates bailing our plants out of the rain.  It was quite an undertaking.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Say YES!

My country coordinator encouraged us to say "YES!" to every invitation, especially in our first months.  When I first heard this advice I thought, "ha, not a problem!"  Those of you who know me well know I have a much harder time saying no.  I can often rather delusionally believe I can take on anything and everything while not only maintaining my sanity but also doing it well.  However, when you have been plopped down in the middle of a new culture full of new people to meet and even given a new job, the physical and mental exhaustion can be overwhelming.  In moments when I would have usually jumped at the opportunity to join, I have found just a little part of myself wanting to say no.  It's a strange feeling.  While I certainly want to participate the exhausted part of me just wants rest.  However, another strange phenomena has occurred every time I have said yes against my body's wishes.  In the moments I have said yes, even though I did not go take a nap, I have found rest. 

This week during fellowship ( a time when all of the teachers come together to sing songs, study the bible, and pray) Tracy was our leader and she passed out bookmarks which read, "I will not be a workaholic" and had a verse from Psalms which goes "it's useless to rise early and go to bed late and work your worried fingers to the bone.  Don't you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?" (Psalm 127:2)  Workaholic....story of my life.  I am always over committing myself and am an insanely perfectionistic person.  It was a great reminder that I do need to be aware of my physical needs.  We discussed ants as imagery for the workaholic as they always seem busy.  This works nicely as a daily reminder for me because almost daily I have found one or two tiny little ants darting under the keys of my keyboard and out with a little crumb.  Apparently I had dinner while studying a few too many times during college.  However, the thing about ants is they are almost never alone.  They always seem to be working but they always seem to be working together.  This made me question the definition of rest.  Perhaps sometimes sleep is what we need and is exactly what God gives us.  However, perhaps sometimes he gives us invitations to participate in living life intentionally as rest.  Perhaps he gives us moments full of life and in community with people, which may energize us more than sleep could.  Our country coordinator also sent us a link to The Holstee Manifesto, an inspirational video about one company's empowering philosophy that, "Life is about the people that you meet and the things you create with them."  Our YAGM year is also very much about this philosophy.  Thus far in my own YAGM journey, it has been the moments created from spending time with my new friends, which has given me energy and in that energy rest. 

I said yes when Tracy, one of the teachers who picked me up to take me to Grace Center for the first time, invited me to go to McDonald's with her and some other women.  We ate fries and chicken burgers, food quite familiar to both of us, while getting to know each other across a lanugage barrier.  

I said yes when some new friends we met at church invited us to lunch and dinner and a movie later on and found another community of wonderful people to know during my time in KK.  They are all apart of the youth group which includes young adults and their energy and ability to fearlessly always be themselves reminds me so much of CLC's youth group.  

A few nights ago I was going to attempt to actually cook something for the first time in Malaysia and I was making spaghetti.  I got the noodles boiling before realizing I was going to need a can opener and I had no idea where to find one.  I asked my friends Bella and Sophia if they knew where one was and they helped me look for awhile before we all gave up.  However, they were not as ready to quit as I was and they began determinedly trying to tap a knife around the edge of the can.  Despite their heroic efforts it wasn't going well.  We asked Nuria (the music teacher) if she knew where one was and though she did not she proceeded to open the can effortlessly by placing the knife into the edge of the can and banging the can on the counter.  It was like magic.  After I finished making my spaghetti, I invited all of my helpers to take some.  Luckily I had made enough for four people, though I had intended to make enough for just myself.  Nuria then asked me to listen to the song she wrote, which was beautiful and she even taught me how to sing a song in Malay.  I felt so incredibly happy because it had been such a beautiful afternoon spent in my community.   

Later on that same night, Nuria had invited me to go to fellowship in Donggongon.  We walked under the stars by the light of the "torchlight" setting on my new handphone (old school cell phone) through hills of dirt and a jungley path into the community nearby.  We were welcomed into a family's home where the living room was cleared out and chairs were lined up all the way around the room.  People of all ages filled the room and we sang beautiful songs, heard the word of God (though it was in Malay, Nuria translated for me later on), and of course had snacks.  Milo (my favorite hot-chocolate like drink!) and some chocolate pastry sort of deserts.  It was a wonderful night of living among God's people.

I said yes when my Korean friends Bella and Sophia offered to share some fruit with me.  We ate mangosteen (queen of fruit in Malaysia) and another fruit I don't remember the name of.  The fruit was delicious and as I have been finding more and more food is a great way of breaking language barriers.  I have learned a lot more about Bella and Sophia thanks to sharing food or meals together.  I learned that Bella and Sophia are actually their English names, learned about their internship here at Grace Center, and learned about Korean food of course (all of which I have tried has been delicious).  

I said yes when I was working late in the office and my students asked me to play volleyball (bola tampar, directly translated being slap ball).  I not only gained some student buy-in but I also learned what sort of foods I should try.  Are you seeing a theme with food here?  They also explained that though they don't get picked up until 6:10 pm (school gets out at 4 pm), they don't get home until 10 pm and I got a glimpse into the lives of my students.  

These are the ordinary moments God has turned into rest for me.  These are what gets me through the week when I feel exhausted and tired of adjusting.  These are what my time here is about.  I am learning to create beautiful moments out of nothing but accepting invitations weather great or small.  Tonight I am invited to a birthday party.  I cannot wait to see what beautiful moments are in store.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013


My definition of diversity has developed into a term that means much more than difference in culture or skin color.  It is such a relative concept because even within a group seemingly very alike there is likely a vastness of diversity.  However, in talking about culture specifically, there is currently great diversity in my life.  I am a Scandinavian American living with people who are Korean, teaching with people who are Dusun, teaching students who are Indonesian, and attending church with people who are Chinese.  What a mix of culture.  We met some new friends at church today who explained that there is a colloquial language called “rojak” which is named after a traditional fruit and vegetable salad.  Sound familiar (i.e. melting pot, etc.)?  Rojak literally means mixture in Malay and the language rojak is just a mixture of many languages.  It seems pretty common for the people of Malaysia to know at least some of two or three languages.  When my new friends were describing rojak to me they said they might switch between languages quickly (like mid sentence) and sometimes combine languages in a single word.  They also told me I should get comfortable adding –bah,  -lah, or –kah (kah is more for questions) to the ends of sentences and words so I can sound more local.  Okaylah!  Now to learn how I fit into this awesome mixture of people as my definition of diversity is challenged and grows even further.  
World mural in the courtyard of Grace Center

Roll with It

            I have been at Grace Center for one week now.  I both live and work here so every morning I wake up to the beautiful sound of children playing.  This can be comforting because it reminds me they are right there waiting to learn and be loved while it can also be terrifying because it reminds me I am supposed to somehow teach them English while I continue to struggle to pick up Bahasa Malaysia (BM).  My first day of teaching was an interesting one.  I thought I might watch or observe one or two classes even after being introduced to all the different classes.  I may not have communicated this desire strongly enough because I walked into class expecting to watch and was given the class to teach.  I grabbed the eraser off of the whiteboard and decided to play a name game by tossing the eraser around the room.  This sounds great in theory, maybe even resourceful, however by the end of the day I had black smudges all over my face and neck.  Any place I had tried to wipe away sweat was now full of black smudges and at one point I managed to even draw on my cheek with the whiteboard marker.  I was literally a hot mess.  Thankfully with teaching seems to come the natural instinct to laugh at oneself and it gave me a good opportunity to laugh with my students.  I have mispronounced countless names and have had my students repeat them daily to the point where it seems painful.  However, Friday I was able to recite every students’ name in at least two of my classes!  Though another teacher told me one of my older classes said I am very serious (I’m ok with that for now J), I have sung silly songs, acted out words when language wasn’t cutting it, and have just been a goofball in general.  This week has been all about getting to know my students and allowing them to get to know me.  I’ve heard ahhs as I talk about how all the plants die in winter and snow covers the ground in Minnesota as well as gasps when I tell them about how long I sat in an airplane to get here.  As I attempt to figure out how to teach them English they have been helping me learn words in BM here and there.  It’s always fun when I whip out a new BM word I’ve learned.   Suddenly I see light bulbs going off all around the room because their crazy teacher finally makes sense.  Looking back on my week it was actually very fun but it is really truly so incredibly difficult.  Walking into class the first day with no idea what I was going to do was absolutely frightening.  While the odds seem to be stacked against me as I am jumping in almost at the end of their school year (their year starts in January and runs until November), I don’t know what they already know, I am inventing curriculum, I don’t have pre-made assessment tools, I don’t know their learning styles, and I have five classes ranging from approximately 3rd-9th grade (there is a mix of ages in each class), I am learning to just roll with it.  On my way to each class I literally say a little prayer that together my students and I will learn something.  I am trying to give myself grace in that if we do not learn complete sentences in this first week there are other important things to learn too.  That being said my students have also shown me incredible grace.  As I have butchered their names, struggled to communicate, and have given confusing directions, they always smile at me and ask how I am doing at the end of the day.  Side note…I have a student named Delia (the second Delia I have ever met in my entire life)…clearly this placement was meant to be.      
My oldest classes made "facebook pages" to tell me about themselves!

Aside from the teaching side of life I haven’t been perfect at adjusting to daily living either.  I’ve messed up my schedule, been nervous about trying new food, clearly struggled with the heat, and found myself at a loss for words when I didn’t have the language I needed to say something.  I just have to keep telling myself to roll with it and take baby steps.  In general I’ve considered myself to be a “go with the flow” sort of personality but suddenly “rolling with it” has taken on a whole new meaning.  Yet with all the adjustments I’m making, I have always felt loved and have truly enjoyed myself in the process.
Every week the teachers do fellowship together where we sing songs, discuss a bible passage, and pray together.  This week the bible story was the feeding of the 5,000, an impossible task made possible through the hands of God’s people.  It seemed all too relevant to my life right now.  My adjustment to a completely new culture has seemed impossible at times and yet it is made possible through the hands of God’s people.  There have been many beautiful moments of grace and understanding like my roommate’s mother bringing me dinner, another teacher asking the cook to make fried chicken for lunch after noticing my difficulty adjusting to a new diet, my students kindly redirecting me when I show up for class at the wrong time, and the companionship of all those around me despite language barriers.  I imagine the people present at the feeding of the 5,000 had to use what they had to “roll with it” and together they accomplished the seemingly impossible.  Here in my new community I imagine we too will accomplish miracles as we use what we have and come together to be both a school and a family.      

The road to Grace Center is lined with these wonderful flowers.  They are one of the first things I see every morning.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Survived my first week of teaching!  It was very fun getting to know my students and figuring out what I can teach them.  My new snail mail address is below if you want to write:
Locked Bag no. 13
Suite no. 88303
88890, Kota Kinabalu
Sabah, Malaysia

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Growing from a Source

Just a week and a half ago we were in Kuala Lumpur visiting the National Islamic Arts Museum.  Now I am at my placement site in Kota Kinabalu and I find myself reflecting on a panel I found at the museum.  The panel described foliate motifs in Islamic art and how they were originally accompanied by a concept of Malay Muslim society.  The example of one of those beliefs was this poem:
"Growing from a source 
A source full of secrets
Growing without piercing a friend
Climbing without clinging to a rival 
But intertwining with grace and friendliness"

In a place of such great religious diversity the word "source" makes sense in describing how we grow together.  As confusion becomes a pretty typical feeling for me in a place where I don't speak the language I also like the idea that the source is full of secrets.  However, most importantly there have already been many moments of grace and friendliness.  As stories begin to intertwine I cannot wait to see how we grow together.

  • Some moments of grace and friendliness:
  • A friendly stranger pointing out my stop on the crowded bus when I no doubt looked scared and alone
  • Sharing a meal at McDonalds with some of my new teacher friends (familiar food!)
  • My roommate offering me a desk to put some of my things
  • My students helping me learn school routines, being kind when I attempt Malay, and laughing with me when I get whiteboard marker on my face.  

Growing from a source
A source full of secrets

In other news:  So far my students think I am like Barbie and my oldest class thinks I am very serious.  I'm ok with that for now :)  Excited to get this year started and thankful for the beautiful new people in my life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where to begin...

Where to begin...this story begins in so many different places, in so many different ways, and with so many different people.  How do I begin to pinpoint the best place to start?  I feel like I could already fill an entire journal with words attempting to capture my experience.  If you asked me what Malaysia is like we would have to set aside several hours and even then the beautiful reality is you would still hardly have the slightest idea of all that Malaysia entails.  Can you imagine trying to give someone the gist of the US in a few minutes?  It couldn't be done because of the abundance of diversity.  (Interestingly, I have noticed places in Malaysia tend to be described by what food they are most famous for.)  The hardest part about telling this story is that I will never do it justice or be able to tell the whole story.  I can show you photographs, but photos will always have four sides and exclude the rest of the senses.  This blog is beautiful because it enables me to share this experience and will enable others to walk with me without being physically present.  However, it will always be limited to the snapshots I choose to share.  There will be times when I don't frame the story exactly right or I will make observations which may not be quite accurate.  I hope how my observations, perspectives, and judgments change will be a growing experience my readers can accompany me through.  So bear with me while I stumble along the journey of sharing this wonderful new part of my life.

The nine other Malaysia YAGMs and myself have been in in-country orientation for close to three weeks now (one in Kota Kinabalu [KK] and two in Kuala Lumpur [KL]).  Though my photographs might make it seem like we have been on vacation, we have been doing some very important preparation and making lots of adjustments.  Of all the icebreakers, get to know yous, and team-builders we did, one activity in particular stands out to me.  Peter (our country coordinator)  had us make observations while we strolled through the Gaya Street Market.  Later he placed five sheets of paper on a table, each with a different sense in the middle, and asked us to write our observations down.  After we had exhausted all of our senses describing our new Malaysian experiences he read our descriptions out loud to us and we had to decide whether each one was an observation or a judgement.  Whether it was a positive or negative comment, many of our observations had really become judgment through the language we used.   Rather than saying, "I tasted ginger,"  I wrote "ginger is BITTER" with several underlines.  Clearly judgment had found its way into my observations much more instantaneously and subtly than I might have anticipated.  The point of the exercise was not to make us feel guilty for our judgements, we were told to divorce ourselves from what we wrote before they were read, but rather it was to make us aware of how quickly judgments can be made.  For now, while we still often find ourselves in a state of awe or surprise by our observations it is better to turn to wonder rather than judgment.  As I gather more I will do a post about my observations and the subsequent wonderings.

Aside from important preparation activities like a two week language training class, attending church which included the closing service of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia's church-wide assembly, and adjusting to food & climate the most meaningful moments so far have been moments or people that have just been beautiful by being ordinary.  Here are a few of many:

Going for a jog with new friends with no pressure to push too hard or race, while the sun rises behind the mountains in the distance.  After which we stretched while watching monkeys bounce around in the trees above.

Sketching the view in cool mountain air drinking a cup of milo (hot-chocolate sort of drink) while on a retreat to Mt. Kinabalu.  A welcome escape from the seemingly extreme heat and humidity of Kota Kinabalu.

Handwashing laundry in a bucket having great conversation with a fellow YAGM on the rooftop of the Sabah Theological Seminary where we were staying.

Belly achingly laughing together while watching a ridiculous Jackie Chan movie at a dinner of bravely discovering new foods.

Attending Luther House Chapel (the church Peter interned at) and meeting some really incredible people.  Also, watching YAGMs share songs, stories, and thoughts with the Sunday School and youth group.

A waitress bringing myself and another YAGM a little scoop of ice cream to share on the house as we pathetically tried to locate a laundromat using the internet in the YMCA cafe after a failed attempt by foot in the rain.  We still had all our laundry in tow.  It turns out if we would have gone through one more door it would have been right in front of us.

A man asking me to videotape him talking (in a language I did not know) about a display at the Islamic Arts Museum.  When I asked what the video was for he replied matter of factly, "for the facebook."  (of course!)

Going to our favorite spot the Hussain Cafe (tagline: try once and you want it again!) and the waiters no longer handing us a menu because we have been there so much. 

Making new non-YAGM friends who will undoubtedly have an incredible impact on this year.

Photographing all of it.

Don't even get me started on the extraordinary moments ;)  There is just so much to share and so much left indescribable.  New posts coming shortly as I prepare to make another incredible transition from KL and my YAGM family to my placement site in Kota Kinabalu.  I want to thank again everyone who is supporting this journey in any regard.  I feel so incredibly blessed to have such an amazing sending community and to be headed into another wonderful community all to soon.  God is good.

Selawat dan Salam 
(Peace & Blessings) 

Doing laundry on the roof of the Sabah Theological Seminary (STS) housing.
Sketching on retreat at Mt. Kinabalu
My incredibly amazing YAGM family
The scoop of ice-cream described above
YAGM ladies and our new friends Wen, Paula, Sofie, and Hannah

Shopping with Audrey, Wen, Jenna B, and Sarah
Eating lunch at the Hussain Cafe (Makan di kafe Hussain)