Saying “Good-Bye” is never easy, but lately it’s become more of a familiar phrase for me. In August 2011, I said my ‘goodbyes’ to my family and friends and headed off to Malaysia. In September 2011, I said my ‘goodbyes’ to the rest of the YAGMs as I headed to Sandakan. Then in June 2012, my mother and aunt came to visit me in Southeast Asia and I gave them another farewell ‘goodbye’. Now, it’s time for me give my final ‘goodbyes’ to all my friends here in Sabah and the rest of YAGM group, as they head back to States, and I travel onward to China.
I look back at my year here and reflect on the different things that have taken me by surprise.
When I first arrived, I hardly knew any Malay and the words I did know came out wrong, so I became the laughing stock at work. It was frustrating and intimidating. Eating noodles and seafood for breakfast was completely foreign. I thought I would never be clean again because within 5 minutes after you showered you were sweating. The awkward stares, the multiple questions and the picture taking made me feel like I had my own paparazzi. I was asked to help out with big projects that I had never done before, like opening a new business or organizing a charity event for a few hundred people. Or random projects, like a recycle runway show or an underwater photo shoot.
There were also the warnings… “Make sure you open up the rooms every now and then in your house so the spirits don’t take over”. “Don’t take the bus system it’s not safe”. “Make sure you wash your hair after it gets wet from the rain, otherwise you will get sick”. “Don’t eat too much of that it’s a ‘heating food’ ”.
Of course there was the food… There are many different kinds of vegetables and fruits that you can only find in this part of the world, like durian and rambutan. When I first arrived, people kept asking me, ‘what do you call this in English’…I said, ‘I never seen that fruit before, so we probably do not have a name for it’. I never thought putting salt on pineapple would be good or thought I would be able to mix my food together (yes, that’s right family back home…you can get rid of the divider plates). The seafood, the fruit, the curry dishes and the traditional dishes, like hanvia will definitely be something I will miss.
And then there were the stories…
I have a friend who is separated from her husband, has been sick with a heart condition and cannot afford to pay for rent, healthcare bills, plus childcare and schooling. So her mother takes care of her little girl at her family village (which is a few hours away from Sandakan). Her boy has finished school and lives with his father. She only gets to see her children about 3 times a year, when she can afford to take time off work and travel back to her village.
I have another friend, who has been trying to have a baby for years; she has gone through more than one miscarriage. She says the stress from work and the traveling she has to do to get to and from work is hard on her body. She feels left out and sad at times as she watches her friends around her build families. But in order to make the payments she can’t leave her job.
Another friend, who is happily married with four children, told me she only gets to see her husband on the weekends and holidays as his job is out-stationed from the Sandakan area. When I first heard this I was shocked. I thought there was a language barrier or a miss-communication as her personality and her love for her family and husband are more than words can describe. It amazed me that this was considered normal. I asked her if it was hard and she said ‘ya’, but in a non-emotional way, it was more of ‘what to do, that’s life’. Just the other day, her face was filled with joy and I asked her why she is so happy, it was a Friday and her husband had sent her a message saying he was on his way home. When she came back from her lunch break, I asked her where her car was, she said ‘my husband take it to town, he is picking me up later and taking me to dinner’. At that moment, I thought to myself, I hope I can find love like that. After 10 years of marriage, four kids and only getting to see each on the weekends, they still are so happily in love.
The random projects, the superstitions, food and the stories have now become known as my normal life, verses a surprise. So not only will I have to say goodbye to my friends here but I will also have to say goodbye to my new adapted lifestyle.
Then there was saying goodbye to the YAGMs, the other volunteers that came to Malaysia with me. In Chicago, many of us were strangers to each other, we were nervous, excited and some even scared about the next journey we were getting ready to approach. After we arrived in Malaysia, we were what you could say forced to get to know each other, build relationships and use each other for a support system. I would have not of been able to get through many of my struggles this year without the other seven. But like many chapters in our lives, I had to say goodbye to them as well.
The big question that many of us ponder on is how do we describe our lives here. Some people will of course refer to this as ‘a trip’ and ask ‘how was your trip?’; which I would then precede with telling you about ‘Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Bali’ as those were my trips here. But Malaysia was my home, this is where I buried my tears in the ground and spread smiles around. There are so many stories, so many feelings, so many tastes, that it’s almost impossible to try and sum up my life here. But for those of you who are only looking for the short version, here is what I would say; “My year here was challenging, yet rewarding. There were times of joy and times of tears. I was able to learn about new cultures, new religions and new traditions. I built relationships with complete strangers for survival, for knowledge, for hope and for love. After only a few months these strangers became my family. I would love to sit down and tell you stories about of either fear, hope or happiness; because the stories are easy, it’s the relationships that changed me that will be the most difficult to describe”.
And so from here, I start the next chapter of my life….China!