Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Au Revoir, Ipoh!

As the adage goes, one does not completely realize what he or she has until he or she does not have it anymore. I feel like this saying applies to my feelings right now. Today is my last day in the city of Ipoh, where I have lived, learned, and celebrated for one year of my life. Despite my appreciation of urban life, I have grown to enjoy the peaceful and nurturing environment of Ipoh. As the conclusion of my time in Ipoh draws near, I feel wistful for my first few months in the city. Bittersweet emotions fill me when I think of my return to the U.S. For all of my desire to return home, the notion of leaving Ipoh is quite sad. I will be leaving not only this city but also the school that I have attended for the last ten months, the friends I have made there, and the host family that has graciously hosted me. I will definitely miss Ipoh and its people, and I know I will revisit this city in the future.

As I said, today is my last day in Ipoh; however, it is not my last day in Malaysia. I have a few days left in KL before I leave for the U.S. on June 9. This year learning about Malaysian culture and languages has had a positive influence on me so far, and I am sure that I will learn from and grow due to my experiences in Malaysia. From the colorful festivals and people to the diverse languages and food, Malaysia has been a new land of adventure and discovery for me. I will always remember this year and the colors, celebrations, sounds, individuals, sights, and spices that have made it so vivid. My recollections of Malaysia and Ipoh in particular will remain strong, and I will always treasure my memories of my experience here.

Selamat tinggal, Ipoh!


Monday, May 26, 2014

End of Stay Camp

Selamat malam!

The last few days have been some of the most exciting, eventful, and memorable days of my time in Malaysia. They've also been some of the saddest and most evocative. Last Thursday, I set out for KL to attend the AFS Malaysia 2013-14 End of Stay Camp from May 22-25 along with the rest of the exchange students set to leave Malaysia in June or July. Most of these students are going to be returning to their home countries for the first time in nearly a year, and the rest have not seen their homes in almost six months. Although we have had many cultural activities and trips throughout the year, I had not seen a couple of my friends since the first orientation back in July 2013 due to the sheer distance between our locations in Malaysia.

After arriving in KL and the hotel at which our orientation was to be held, we discussed our feelings regarding the year and our experiences in Malaysia. In addition, we had many activities that helped us reflect on our year and prepare for our return to our home countries in a few weeks. I learned about the difficulties I would face when I returned home after eleven months in another country with a different set of cultures. Moreover, I came to see just how much I would miss Malaysia, the friends I have made here, and the manifold festivals and celebrations Malaysians participate in and enjoy so much. My favorite part of the reflection process was on the second day of the camp, when all of the students sat hand in hand in a candlelit room and listened to a general description of the course of our year while reflecting on our individual experiences and memories. Although it was a very poignant
experience, I truly appreciate the time given for all of us to meditate on our time in Malaysia, as we came to understand the magnitude of our year and the memories we had made.

The first two days of the camp were taken up by sessions of preparation, organization, and reflection and free time for the students to socialize. Saturday, the third day of the camp, was devoted to preparation for the annual End of Stay Dinner, which was later that night. We ran through the Bollywood-themed dinner and practiced the student performances earlier in the day to prepare ourselves for the real dinner at 7:30. To kick off the event, Dato' Mahadzir Lokman, the chairman of AFS Malaysia, gave a short speech and cut the commemorative cake for the occasion. Next came the actual dinner, which was accompanied by the student performances. Considering that several of our performances were planned during the camp, the practices were very helpful, as we managed to perform with relatively few errors during the actual dinner. From Indian, Chinese, and Malay dances to Malay and modern songs, the performances were lively and demonstrated all that we had learned and absorbed during the course of our stay in this culturally vivid country. Between performances, each of the exchange students and volunteers in Malaysia received a certificate recognizing his or her completion of the program. As I walked up to the stage to receive my certificate from Dato' Lokman, a sense of pride, happiness, and sadness filled me and made my night so much more special and unique. I experienced a feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment, as I was walking toward the culmination of my year spent celebrating Malaysian festivals such as Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Deepavali, eating tasty Malay, Chinese, and Indian dishes, and meeting and befriending so many wonderful people in an entirely new country and environment. I saw that I had learned so much from people in Malaysia about their cultures, religions, languages, and lifestyles while teaching them about the U.S., its various cultures, and my life as an American. The feeling I got in that moment was simply magnificent.

Cutting the AFS Malaysia cake

Walking up to the stage to collect my certificate

Perak Chapter!

Me with my certificate!

Even with all of the celebration and commemoration, the best part of the camp was certainly the times I spent with my friends. We spent most of our free time talking with each other and forming great memories. The last day of the camp was definitely bittersweet; apart from my American friends, with whom I will travel back to the U.S. in two weeks, I will probably not see the other exchange students again before I leave Malaysia. That notion led to many sad and emotional farewells and promises to meet up again in the future. I really do feel sad about saying goodbye, but I am so glad that I had the chance to create such good memories with all my friends and hope that we get the chance to catch up in person in the future.

Group picture!

Not only will I miss my friends; when I leave the country 14 days from now, I will miss Malaysia and its people so much. I cannot imagine the thought of bidding Malaysia farewell after 10 months in this beautiful country, but I am sure I will visit this land again and remember my days as an exchange student here. My ambivalent emotions about leaving Malaysia can be somewhat confusing at times, but I know that while I miss my family, friends, and life back home in the U.S., I have come to love those parts of my life here in Malaysia. Malaysia has served as a home, classroom, and paradise for me, and I can happily and confidently say that I will never forget this vivid country halfway across the world or the memories, friends, and family I have made here.

Terima kasih banyak, Malaysia!


Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Today is an extremely important day in the lives of Buddhists throughout the world, as it marks the celebration of Wesak. In Malaysia, the Buddhist festival of Wesak is commemorated grandly in many of the major cities in the country, including Ipoh. I'm hoping to attend a celebration later today, but as I already know a bit about the festival, I wanted to share the details regarding today and its significance in Buddhist culture and Malaysian society.

Just as Malaysia is an interesting mix of languages, beliefs, and cultures, so too are the major religions in Malaysia. A variety of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs from several religions often come together or make their way into an existent way of thought to form a colorful amalgam of a faith. The religion of many of the Malaysian Chinese is no different. Most Malaysians of Chinese descent adhere to either Christianity or a way of worship derived from a couple different religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other traditional Chinese sects. The latter's mix of sundry religions can be clearly observed in Chinese temples, shrines, and households; one can notice a Buddha idol with a smile dancing across its face next to a bearded Taoist god garbed in vivid robes in each of these venues. The assortment of Malaysian Chinese festivals attests to the diversity of beliefs in Chinese religion as well; from Chinese New Year to the Mid-Autumn Festival, manifold gods and spirits are worshipped and revered in many different ways. Wesak, the celebration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and exit from the material world, is another festival celebrated in a unique but very intriguing way.

A giant reclining Buddha statue at a famous temple in Penang

In the early morning of Wesak, Buddhist devotees congregate at temples and shrines to meditate on the Eight Precepts, which are the eight additional precepts to the five fundamental ones. These extra eight are meant for devotees who wish to follow and practice Buddhism more strictly and simply encourage followers to not take life, steal, or indulge themselves. After meditation, food and small amounts of money are handed out to the poor by devotees, who proceed to take part in the prayer session by reciting important verses or mantras. Finally, and most notably, religious processions commence throughout the country. These processions make use of candles and modern light sources to spiritually ward off darkness and ignorance and bring about light and enlightenment. Large and brightly lit statues of Buddha reclining or smiling happily are the greatest spectacles of the event, which can last for much of the day after prayers. The parades are definitely the centerpiece of Malaysian Wesak celebrations, as both Buddhists and members of other religions look forward to and partake in this part of the ceremony.

A statue of Buddha pulled around the city (Image found here)

I haven't had the chance to see a Wesak celebration yet, but I'm hoping that I will experience one later in the day. I also cannot wait to hear my friends explain their Wesak celebrations and the importance the festival has in their lives, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not. Wesak is certainly the most important festival to Buddhists in Malaysia, but I am inspired by the amount of interest individuals here have in festivals of different religions and the happiness they get out of experiencing such celebrations. Throughout the year, for each Malaysian festival I have experienced, whether it celebrates the principles of Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, or any other religion, people of other faiths have invariably been tolerant and eager to participate in the festivities. I am sure that celebration of Wesak will be no different.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014



Last week was a pretty fun one, and it culminated on Sunday, when I got to experience the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. Sikhism is a religion originally from the Indian state of Punjab, but its followers can be found all over the world, including Malaysia. Sikhism is a very comprehensive and interesting religion, and some of the main facets of the religion are the 5 articles of faith a Sikh man is supposed to wear or keep with him at all times. Because these 5 articles of faith all start with the sound of the letter “k," they are commonly known as the 5 Ks. The first two articles are the Kesh, uncut hair, and the Kangha, a small wooden comb. The Kesh symbolizes the perfection of God’s creation and that there is no need to tamper with this perfection. The Kangha signifies the need to be clean and tidy at all times. The next K is the Kara, a bracelet made of iron or steel. The Kara serves as a constant reminder to Sikhs that they are committed to God's will and must act righteously and honestly. The Kacchera, a piece of undergarment, reminds Sikhs of the need to control their negative impulses, while the Kirpan, a short dagger, represents a Sikh’s duty to protect those who are unfairly persecuted or oppressed. Vaisakhi’s religious significance comes from the 5 Ks, as it was on Vaisakhi day in 1699 that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, created the Khalsa, the order of just and brave Sikhs who always donned the 5 Ks.

Since the inception of the Khalsa, Vaisakhi has become one of the most important Sikh festivals. Ever year on the day of Vaisakhi, parades and processions take place in India, Canada, Malaysia, the U.S., and many other nations with significant Sikh populations. However, I had never seen a Vaisakhi celebration or even been to a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, before Sunday. So, while I was still in Malaysia, I wanted to participate in a Sikh celebration, visit a gurdwara, and learn more about the Sikh people and its history. Due to the kind offer of one of my friends, I was able to accompany him to a large procession starting in a town outside of Ipoh. Leading the parade were five Sikh men who were part of the Khalsa and a chariot that devotees had decorated earlier in the day. Inside the chariot were priests and devotees leading the chanting of prayers and the Guru Granth Sahib, the main Sikh holy book. For the next 2 hours, we followed the chariot along with hundreds of devotees as it led us to the gurdwara in another town. The journey was actually quite interesting and fun, as I got to learn a lot about Sikhism and the importance of Vaisakhi through talking with nearby devotees.

The procession was led by 5 members of the Khalsa

The start of the procession

The beautifully adorned chariot

The large procession followed the chariot for nearly 2 hours!

After the trip, we arrived at the gurdwara and entered the centrally located prayer hall. I’ve seen the inside of temples, churches, mosques, and other houses of worship in the last few years, but the interior of the gurdwara was certainly unique. In many ways, it looked like a combination of several different types of places of worship. Inside the prayer hall was a carpeted floor on which people sat and a red rug that led to a sort of shrine. Behind this shrine sat two prayer leaders who recited verses and chants from Sikh religious texts. As the chariot came into the gurdwara, the Guru Granth Sahib was unloaded and brought into the gurdwara. The Guru Granth Sahib is quite interesting, as it is considered not only the central text of Sikhism but also the 11th guru of Sikhism. Therefore, it is revered and treated as if it were a human guru. After the book was placed in a separate shrine in the temple, all of the devotees in the temple gathered around the shrine and followed the prayers led by priests and the members of the Khalsa. When the prayers were over, the devotees moved to the dining hall, where chapathis and other offerings were served.

The stately exterior of the gurdwara

The prayer hall

The shrine in the prayer hall

The 5 members of the Khalsa accompanying the Guru Granth Sahib to the shrine

The prayers led by the priests and the members of the Khalsa

Celebrating Vaisakhi was definitely a really fun event. I learned so much about Punjabi culture and the importance of Vaisakhi. Before Sunday, I really did not know much about Punjabi lifestyle and celebration, but by the end of the festival, I had experienced a day in the life of a Sikh. Moreover, the generosity of the Sikh people truly amazed me; several benevolent devotees drove by in their lorries and trucks to give water and other drinks to anyone along the road during the procession. Even individuals not participating in the procession were given as much water as they could carry!

I’m so glad I got to tag along with my friend to observe the festivities for Vaisakhi. It’s great to learn about a culture in History or through reading, but it’s more enjoyable and enlightening to learn more interactively. The great part about Malaysian festivals and religious houses is that most of them are open to interested viewers and people who want to learn more about a certain group of people and their faith and culture. As I have participated in and experienced so many Malaysian religious celebrations directly, I have picked up so much about different religions groups and their beliefs, customs, backgrounds, and languages. Sunday was a great day culturally for me, and I hope to learn more about Malaysian Sikhs and their lifestyles before I return to the U.S.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

MH370: An International Tragedy

I'm sure most of my readers, especially those in Malaysia, have heard of the MH370 incident, which has been discussed and remembered via radio, television, billboards, newspapers, posters, conversation, and all other forms of communication in Malaysia. For those who are not familiar with the disaster, on March 8, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on its journey to Beijing; however, soon after its departure, communication with the airplane was lost, and by the time the waking hours of the morning came around, the disappearance of the plane had been disclosed to the public. Since that day, a coalition of countries has searched for the missing plane in various parts of the oceans and seas surrounding Malaysia. On March 24, based on satellite information and other forms of data, the government of Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines concluded that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, with no survivors. The international team has since turned to the Indian Ocean to find the plane and investigate its crash.

As a calamity of this magnitude was both unprecedented and unexpected, the loss of MH370 was an immense blow to the friends and families of those within the plane. Days and weeks of mourning went on as millions worldwide grieved at the situation at hand and their inability to do anything about it. In Malaysia, daily reports and the release of new evidence and information did little to soothe the hearts and minds of those affected, and relatives and companions of those lost were forced to go about their daily lives unsure of their loved ones' fates. The state of the country was melancholy and unfortunate. When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sadly announced that the government had gathered that MH370 had gone down in the Indian Ocean and that none of the individuals on board the aircraft had survived, all those who had been agonizingly waiting for an official answer had their hearts broken as they listened to the all too possible explanation for the disappearance of their close relatives and friends.

It has now been a full month since the plane's disappearance. 30 days. It's hard to register that it's been so long since the incident. Although I am not personally connected to anyone on the plane, I do feel sorrow and grieve for the passengers and crew of MH370. I've tried to empathize with the families of the victims and understand their suffering and loss, and I've started to see just how tough they are. To face a death in the family is extremely difficult, but to go through that process without knowing for sure what happened to the victim is an immense hardship. However, these poor individuals are not alone; radio stations, television networks, Internet websites, and the rest of the Malaysian media have stepped up and helped the families cope with their losses. Listening to Hitz FM's poignant songs and prayers of remembrance for the victims of MH370 and reading the sincere and heart-warming comments left for families and friends of the passengers and crew on websites, newspapers, and posters of remembrance have genuinely changed my perception of tragedy and loss. Seeing the citizens of my wonderful host country have to go through such a traumatic and terrible event is saddening, but their ability to bond and get through this event together is truly inspiring.

A remembrance poster in Johor Bahru with thousands of messages and prayers written on it

For all those families and friends affected by the MH370 disaster, I want to let you know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope that your memories of your loved ones stay strong and that you also remain strong. As in the past few weeks, let us, the people around you, help you cope with the tragedy in your lives. If you stay strong and remember the positive memories of your family members or friends, you will get through this.

The catastrophe of MH370 will not be forgotten. It cannot and should not be forgotten. People will remember March 8 as a day of mourning and remembrance. No matter what happens, we the citizens of the entire world should not forget this date, as this accident does not pertain to only Malaysia or other countries whose citizens were on the plane; it is relevant to each and every one of us, as we are all human beings. Just as we keep in the annals of our memories the dates of other tragedies, we should always be able to look back upon this date and commemorate the lives of those on board MH370 because as long as we have them in our memories, they will never be completely gone.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

STE Chronicles: 2 Weeks in JB

Selamat petang!

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted in 2 weeks. On account of that as well as the sheer amount of interesting experiences I had during the past 2 weeks, this blog post probably contains more content than most of the previous ones I’ve written. That’s okay, as I’m really excited to let everyone know what I have been doing recently.

My first week in JB, I attended a local school and spent time with students and teachers at the school. On my last day at the school, Carmen and I participated in a Q & A session with the Form 5 students. We answered many of their questions about American culture, our lives in Malaysia, and lessons we had learned from our year abroad. The questions the students asked were both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed being able to interact with a different type of Malaysian student body. For the rest of the day, we spent time in a classroom and spectated the class’s activities and lessons.

An outlet mall in Johor Bahru that gets daily visitors from Singapore. This mall is really clean and reminded me of an American outlet mall I've been to in Texas.

Our Q & A session

After our week in school was over, I spent a few days going to malls and meeting up with friends before visiting the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple, the first glass temple in the world, with my Johor STE host family, chapter leader, and friends. The temple’s architecture was entirely of South Indian Hindu style, but rather than using typical construction materials, the builders utilized glass to construct much of the exterior and interior of the temple. The gopuram and shrines of the temple were especially beautiful, and the interior of the temple shined like the sun on a hot day. It was therefore somewhat difficult to take immaculate pictures, but from the naked eye, the temple was certainly one of the most incredible and stunning ones I have seen. Pictures are definitely amazing to look at, but seeing the temple with my own eyes up close was certainly an amazing experience that I will never forget. In addition to the glistering vividness of the structure, another part of the temple fascinated me. Within the building, there were several different alters for and statues of important Hindu deities and sages; however, there were many depictions of significant and righteous individuals from other religions as well: Buddha (Buddhism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), and Mother Teresa (Christianity).

The sign reads: "Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple, 'The First Glass Temple in the World'"

The gopuram (the tall structure on top of the main building) was one of the coolest parts of the building, and although it cannot completely be seen in this photo, the gopuram was shining brilliantly due to the strong sunlight of the day.

My temporary host family and me in side the sparkling building

Buddha statue

Shrine of a Hindu deity

The large, colorful, and glistening interior

After seeing the temple on Saturday, my host brother took Carmen and me to Singapore on Sunday. There, we spent some time visiting locations in downtown Singapore like the famous Singapore Merlion, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and the Singapore Flyer. Then, we proceeded to visit a few shopping malls throughout the country. As this was my second visit to the tiny country, I didn't do or see many new things, but unlike last time, I was able to look around a Singaporean shopping center and see how the country compares to Malaysia and the U.S. It was quite intriguing to see that although Singapore is so close to Malaysia, its products and shopping malls are so similar to those back home in the U.S. Although we did find a lot more restaurants, clothing stores, and products with American and western brands and names, we soon discovered that the price range of items in Singapore is more like that of the U.S. than of Malaysia!

Visit Malaysia 2014 sign!

Downtown Singapore and its numerous banks, hotels, and other edifices

The Singapore Flyer

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore. At the top floor is a huge swimming pool. What is most interesting about this building actually has to do with its price: I recently found out that this hotel was the most expensive building ever constructed at a price of 5.7 billion USD.

A cool visual display at ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore

After returning from Singapore, I had 5 more days of STE left before I was to return home to Ipoh. Fortunately, my host family planned an exciting vacation to Penang for 3 days. On Wednesday, we left for Penang early in the morning and arrived in Melaka for a short sojourn. There, we visited the Christ Church of Melaka, a notable attraction in Melaka, before continuing our journey. By nightfall, we had reached the mainland of Penang. Less than a month ago, a new bridge was built connecting the mainland of Penang to the island, and in order to see the bridge and its novelty, we took this second bridge to the island. The funny thing about our trip was that the new second bridge failed to show up on the GPS we were using; instead of showing our car travelling along a solid bridge to our destination, the GPS was displaying our vehicle floating in the middle of the water!

The Christ Church of Melaka was founded in 1753 by the Dutch.

The Melaka flag kind of reminds me of the Texas flag!

The second bridge at night

The GPS was pretty confused and tried to calculate our route several times, which was quite hilarious!

During our two full days in Penang, we visited a couple Buddhist temples in the city. They were all very interesting and were of various cultures and architectural styles (Thai, Burmese, Chinese), but each one of them had similar features and carried the same purpose as places of worship for Buddhists. I found many facets of all of the temples that were very similar to parts of and deities in Hindu temples, and I also saw many paintings and captions on the walls of some of the Buddhist temples that held stories and mythological figures derived from or related to similar Hindu myths and individuals. The connection I discovered between the two religions through solely by observing their respective places of worship was very eye-opening.

The sheer size of the religious houses was rather astounding as well; one of the houses, a Thai temple called Wat Chayamangkalaram, holds the 3rd largest reclining Buddha statue in the world! This statue is 33 meters in length and takes up much of the space within the main building of the temple. Additionally, the Kek Lok Si temple is the largest Buddhist house of worship in the entire Southeast Asian region! Getting to see these amazing places of worship during my time in Penang was definitely edifying and fulfilling, as I have been wanting to visit these temples ever since my last visit to Penang in January.

A very long dosai at a mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurant in Penang-it took three plates just to hold the dosai in place!

The Penang flag next to the Malaysian flag and a Buddhist flag

A Thai temple in Penang

The reclining Buddha statue in Penang is the 3rd largest in the world

The Kek Long Si temple in Penang is the largest Buddhist place of worship in Southeast Asia

The panoramic view from Kek Lok Si is pretty incredible!

The immense Kuan Yin statue at the top of Kek Lok Si is simply astonishing.

 After visiting all of the incredible Buddhist temples in Penang, I travelled to the northern state of Kedah. There, my host family and I visited my host mom's parents and siblings. We also got to try the Kedah version of Indian food, which I will say is very different from typical Indian food in Malaysia but also exotically delicious. Also, as far as my travels go, I have now been to 8 of the 13 Malaysian states and 2 of the 3 Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal territories): the states of Perak, Selangor, Melaka, Johor, Pahang, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, and Kedah, and the territories of KL and Putrajaya. I still have the states of Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu to visit in West Malaysia and the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the territory of Labuan to visit in East Malaysia before I can say that I have fully covered the states and territories of Malaysia. I don't expect to do exactly this, but I do hope that I can learn more about these states while travelling to new places in my last few months here.

After visiting my host mom's parents, we returned to Penang, had a good night of sleep, and set off for Ipoh the next morning. I'm really glad that I had the opportunity to experience STE with my temporary host family members. Both my host mom and dad were very welcoming and genuinely caring, and my host siblings were approachable, interesting, and friendly. My temporary chapter leader was also extremely instrumental in helping me have an informative and enjoyable time in Johor Bahru. I'm very grateful for all of their help, and I truly had an amazing time down in JB. In a way, I'm a little sad that STE has come to an end (and for me, it really whizzed by quickly), but like Dr. Seuss once said, I try to "smile because it happened."