My country coordinator recently had us watch a short clip called "Where the Hell is Matt?" http://vimeo.com/1211060 In it, Matthew Harding dances with people all around the world. He has to start dancing before others will join....it's like that awkward moment at the start of high school dance where no one wants to be the first to start dancing, but you know that after someone starts it will be so much more fun. Matt starts the dance.
I have been in Malaysia now for over a month and in Tenom now for two weeks. Unlike many of the other YAGM I didn't start working right away. I feel like it has been a blessing in many ways that I have had time to truly settle: wander the town, practice my language skills, and communicate back home with people that I love and miss. Each day during my first week I walked into town, and while it may seem silly, every time I entered a shop and felt the eyes of all who were in that shop gravitate towards me, I could hear my heart pounding. I never was sure what would be in each shop, I had to go in to find out: to read labels, to see words, to make meaning out of a language that was foreign to me. Part of me dreaded, while another part hoped for a conversation to attempt at communicating. And while I faced this fear over and over, it was constantly washed away by either a friendly smile, a question of where I was from, or a wave goodbye. As I was browsing the cooking-ware, twelve-year old boy from Sabah Agricultural Park shuffled over next to me with a huge smile on his face, "Excuse me, Miss. Where are you from?" He was talking to me! I was so excited to meet someone (I think it's that feeling of being new in town and never having enough friends). And between my English and his Malay we were able to have a conversation. If I hadn't left my comfort zone, I never would have gotten the joy of talking with a kid who seemed to be so happy to talk with me. This happened in various forms in my adventures around Tenom; whether be at the market, in a restaurant, or even in another shop. More often than not I had to face that fear of taking the first step into the darkness and unknown and afterwards found a new friend, conversation, a laugh, or even a smile.
I haven't yet introduced you to some of the people here, and so today I would like my two families to meet. These are people who have made my first two weeks (now 4) in Tenom feel like I have been here for months. They have walked with me as I have learned to figure somethings out and also not figure out somethings out (and be okay in that).
Ester: Ester is one of my two housemates. She is 25 and a nurse at the clinic in Tenom. She is one hardworking gal and also one of the most kind people I know. She loves Korean dramas, plays the guitar, sings in the shower (very well), and also loves her chili sauce. Ester is the youth director at the Church and so its been fun to plan games with her and hear her messages during youth group. Ester's first language is Malay, and so I am constantly asking her a million questions and she faces them all with so much patience and earnest desire to understand me. We have spent many a night having a conversation with both our laptops set to google translate and while it sounds like it could be tiresome, it is amazing how satisfying it is when we do understand each other, especially when we are talking about religion, culture, or family, some conversations that I think are difficult to have in English. I feel like I am always learning around Ester; she is a natural teacher.
Thorothy: My other housemate. She is 22 and works for Pastor Lucy (my supervisor) and also helps with a lot of Church programming. She always has a smile on her face and is also always checking in with me. Thorothy loves to laugh and also loves to watch Korean dramas (they are really popular over here). On one of my first days here Thorothy told me that she loves to swim, and so later when we we were at the swimming pool I asked her why she was only hanging onto the wall. Thorothy doesn't know how to swim, but she stills loves being in the water and therefore loves swimming. When I think of myself I think of the things that I like and they are things that I am "good" at or things I think I can do. I don't tend to like the things that I am not good at. I spent the afternoon teaching her and a couple of kids at the pool how to doggie-paddle and float. Trickier than you would think in broken Malay-English! haha. I later found out that Thorothy almost drowned when she was younger; and yet she loves water and is excited at the idea of us all going to the pool. That's the thing about Thorothy; she chooses to meet things with joy and excitement.
The past 4 weeks Ester, Thorothy and I have spent many a night cooking and baking; whether that be lentils, fish, chicken, pudding, cookies, even making our own teh-tarik. These nights have been some of my favorite nights as we take turns around the stove or on the cutting board and end around the table with full bellies and full hearts.
Julius and Ros: They are a husband wife team who own the restaurant beside the shop that Pastor Lucy and her family own and live above. I ordered roti canai and teh tarik one day and asked Julius a question about his restaurant, "Bismillah." We ended up talking for a couple hours. After that I came back almost every day. Julius will whip out a plate with some sort of fried pastry and some kopi-O as soon as he sees me, and then him and his wife sit next to me (my dictionary in hand) and we talk. I tell them about America, my family, and they tell me about Malaysia and their family. They help me with my Malay and I help them with their English. It's one of my favorite times of day-when I can sit and visit with Julius and Ros.
While my weekdays have largely been spent practicing my English, my weekends are devoted to Church activities. On Friday nights, we have prayer circles and either visit at a church member's house or meet at the BCCM Church in Tenom. Saturdays we have youth group in the evening and then on Sundays we have a morning service in Tenom and later have an afternoon service in Mensasoh, the village BCCM Tenom has a relationship with. I also have accompanied Auntie Helen to Mensasoh and Keningnau on other Church business; whether to visit someone in the hospital or prayer visits outside of Tenom. I may not have officially started at a worksite with a set schedule where I know what I am doing; I look back on the last four weeks and know that I have started to create relationships with people that I already care deeply about. These people have taken me under their wings and helped me to take that leap into the unknown. It has been in these moments of community that I have found renewment and fulfillment.
"Living,” said dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille, “is a form of not being sure, of not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong. But we take leap after leap in the dark." I guess you have got to take that risk of being the first person to dance; maybe it will be a flop, but then maybe it will be something so special, it's hard to put into words.