About Me

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Hello, Ciao,안녕하세요, Hallo, Hola, Selamat tengahari! My name is Rachael and I am a travel enthusiast. Ever since I can remember, my parents have taken my brother, sister and I on good ol' American road trips. It's safe to say that was where my interest in new places, people and experiences was ignited. As my parents always encouraged my siblings and I to explore and ask questions, I developed a sincere curiosity for new adventures. In addition to seeing much of the United States with my favorite travel companions (my family), I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Rome, Italy, as well as a semester in Seoul, South Korea during my college career. Now, I am honored to be taking part in a Fulbright ETA Scholarship to Malaysia for a year! My family's favorite motto is "Life is all about the journey, not the destination." I invite you to join along in my journey of cultural exchange and mutual understanding in Malaysia! After all, the more, the merrier.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Step 3: Adding Lively Colors and Geometric Patterns to My Life

During my first weekend in Besut, Christina and I’s mentors took us to the nearest city, Kota Bharu (KB) to do some shopping for household essentials. People and maps claim that Kota Bharu is a 45-minute drive, but after taking over seven trips there already, I have yet to make it in under an hour and a half.
First time I wore a baju karung. This is
the only baju kurung I have actually
bought myself. It is cotton, instead of
silk and has a very modern design.
Handing Over Ceremony
January 2012

While in KB, we went to a mall where I bought my Celcom Broadband internet, and we bought kitchen supplies. In addition to the necessary kitchen supplies, we bought mini, cloth wardrobes/closets. My room came with a complete, wooden wardrobe with a mirror. So, why did I need to invest in another you may ask? 

Well, because between Christina and I, we are now the proud owners of over twenty baju kurungs.

My American attire and style has indeed been replaced. If I am not wearing yoga pants, button down shirts or t-shirts, which I wear for after school hours, then I am in a baju kurung.  

Terengganu ETAs at a wedding in Marang. The women
are wearing baju kurung, while the men are wearing
baju melayu. -January 2012

The baju kurung is a Malay, traditional costume. It literally translate to “enclosed dress.” The baju kurung is the national dress of Malaysia, but it can also be found in parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. In the past, the costumes were just simple dresses. However, now as the times change, the attire has evolved into a sophisticated style and women buy them to match their fashion tastes. The baju kurung was actually influenced by people, style and products that came through what was then the Malay Archipelago during the 15th Century. As the people adopted Islam as their religion, the Malays slowly started to cover their bodies in order to obey the teachings and tenets of Islam.

In short, the baju kurung is a loose-fitting, full length dress that has a skirt and a blouse. The skirt has foldings on one side, and the blouse has long sleeves, extends to between the hip and knees and is colarless. Normally, the dress is made of silk. The silk is either imported from places such as Japan, South Korea, Turkey, India or from Malaysian states. Actually, my state, Terengganu, and the adjacent state, Kelantan, are most famous for their homemade silk. The culture of batik (fabric) and hand-designed fabrics is still strong and people take pride in it.
My red, floral baju karung on Valentine's Day with my
homemade sugar cookies. They do not recognize Valentine's
Day whatsoever, so I had to celebrate it somehow!

For instance, there are many little shops in Besut that made their own batik and designed fabrics, and students in school sometimes doing batik as art projects.

Many people probably know that my wardrobe does consist of many neutrals and solids and classic type pieces from the sales rack at Ann Taylor Loft, Gap, Banana Republic and Target.  In contrast, here in Malaysia, my style now consists of the lively colors and geometric patterns that are expressed with the baju kurung.

The baju kurung is also often worn with a headscarf (tudung), especially in more conservative states such as Terengganu. In my town, all Muslim women over the age of 10 wear the tudung, and some girls as young as three wear the tudung as well. However, I do not wear the tudung, as I am not a Muslim.

When I tell friends and family back home that I wear a baju kurung everyday to school, I get a wide variety of reactions, such as “Holy cow! Isn’t that hot?!”

The truth is, yes it is hot, and it takes some getting used to. I also am not forced to wear it, but the community members, students and fellow teachers sincerely appreciate and are proud when I do. The alternative to me wearing a baju kurung everyday is wearing a long skirt down to my ankles, a long sleeve shirt to cover my elbows and a scarf to wear over a v-neck shirt. 

Four 1A students and I at Prophet Mohammad's
Birthday Celebration. These students also bought me a
beautiful baju kurung, which I will wear in
future pictures! - February 2012
Honestly, the baju kurung is much more suitable and comfortable for hot weather, as it does not have seams hitting me in weird places, fabrics that soak in and show the sweat running down my back all day and cuts that cling to me when the hot air already makes it hard to breathe. I think the fabric, style and colors of the baju kurung make it more comfortable for teaching in hot classrooms all day. – Now, that is my interpretation of it. I know many people who would disagree with me. And for the record, would I rather just wear my sun dresses and skirts with a t-shirt or tank top? Of course, but that is not an option here. Plus, when will I ever get to wear such beautiful, colorful fabric again in my life?

Over the last three months in Malaysia, I see what a fashion statement people can make with their baju kurungs. People accessorize their baju kurung with a complimentary tudung, and jewels and pins to clip onto their dress and tudung. There are baju kurung shops everywhere, especially where I live, and there are baju kurung blogs, online stores and magazines. It’s a whole culture! In fact, everyday teachers bring in incredible batik swatches and magazines to choose and shop for new fabric for new baju kurung. It almost reminds me of the process of buying Girl Scout Cookies or Boy Scout popcorn.

My first day of school picture!
When teachers and students saw me wearing the baju kurung on my first day of school, they were so excited, because it is such a part of their culture. Thereafter, several teachers would bring me in bags of baju karungs, and two of my students each bought me new baju karungs. Although I do not accessorize it with a tudung, I do accessorize it with earrings.

I miss my wardrobe and style back home. However, if wearing a baju kurung everyday here allows me to gain insight into the Malay culture and allows me to connect more fully with the Malay people, while personally being more comfortable in extremely hot weather, then why not?

My cloth, blue wardrobe is currently home to my unworn, yet not forgotten American clothes. They sit there waiting for the days I take trips out of my town, so that they can be brought out again!

My blue wardrobe housing my American clothes. The wardrobe
is also partially broken, so if it looks like it is slanted forward, that
is because it is!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Step 2: Behind the Scooter

 Behind the Wheel Scooter

I remember the autumn of 2004 when I was enrolled in my high school’s Behind the Wheel course for my zero-hour period one quarter. While most teenagers could not wait to get their hands on their very own license (aka ticket to independence), I was hesitant. I secretly wondered if I could live off rides from friends and family the rest of my life. (Okay, maybe not the rest of my life, but at least for a long while.) Ironically, my parents were the ones that explained what a fantastic privilege driving would be.

One Saturday afternoon, my Aunt Gail chaperoned me and took me to a parking lot in my town to practice parking. I was worried to death and frozen with fear. Then, one night, a few weeks later, my dad said, “Let’s go for a drive.” We went to the parking lot down the street, and as my bones and hands froze up, I frantically drove in circles. I was barely moving and in a frenzy. Honestly, I do not know how my dad handled my freak-outs with such gracious and patience. 

My favorite driving buddies and I on our car ride to
the airport!

Well, as most or all of you know, driving is now one of my favorite hobbies. I absolutely love driving, especially with my brother and sister with our favorite tunes on!

However, driving on a motor scooter in Malaysia…?

I think this initially caused me the most anxiety of my entire experience here thus far. Since my arrival in Kuala Lumpur almost three months ago (holy cow… three months ago), when I found out I would be living 9 kilometers from my school, I dreaded the day when I would have to learn to ride a motorbike or motorscooter. For the last year or so my dad had been asking me to go on rides with him on his Harley, and I was terrified to even be a passenger. 

Now I had to not only sit on a two-wheeled mode of transportation, I had to drive it.

The dreaded time came on my third day living in Besut, when three teachers said, “Okay, let’s go motorbike shopping!”

“Ah…” I reacted nervously. In America, when people make purchases like this, there is normally some thorough discussion beforehand. (not all the time, but I would like to think most of the time)

“Okay, we go now!” they said, and in the SUV we went for a ride to the local city of Jerteh, which is “where everyone buys their bike.”

The motorbike/motorscooter dealership in Jerteh, Terengganu

Apparently it was the thing to do, so I was just going to leave the bike business in their hands.

For only a little under an hour, we went from store to store searching for a bike that would be up to my teachers’ expectations:
1) safe
2) easy to ride 
3) appropriate for ladies (since I would be wearing   baju kurung on this bike)

It also had to be up to my roommate, Christina and I’s standards, since we would be sharing it. We knew nothing about motorbikes, so our one condition:

1) within our budget.

As we looked for a bike, I stood in silence and observed as the salesmen and the teachers would talk, negotiate, look at me, look at the bike, look at me and negotiate. At the seventh store, we found “the one.” The teachers found it for me, and summoned me over to look at it. I was hooked. I loved it.

The moment I first laid my eyes on it!
I did not want to drive it, but I loved it. It could be a great conversation piece for our porch.

It was shimmering in the sun on the side of a busy street parked next to many other motorbikes and motor scooters. It was pink, adorable and it looked like a happy bike, which put a smile on my face.

A few papers to sign, a deposit and a safety inspection. It almost seemed like too quick of a process to be legit, but that is how motor scooter shopping goes here in Malaysia. My parents asked about the license plates and such, but honestly, I do not know and most people do not seem to know the logistics involved with that. So, I just go with it.

Sales man demonstrating some sort of
safety feature? - Honestly, I did not
understand, because it was in Bahasa Malaysia
A few days later we picked it up. As Christina and I could not ride it yet, a student, as well as my mentor, Halilah, took us to get it and escorted us back.

Deep inside I was trying to think of any way possible I could avoid having to actually drive it. 

Could I just keep getting rides? Could I wake up at the crack of down and ride my bicycle 9 kilometers to school and then bike home in the heat? Could I find a taxi somewhere to be my driver for the year?

But, fellow ETA Michael drove those questions out of my head really quickly. He came over about an hour after we brought the scooter home and said, “Get on and just ride up and down the street a few times.”

With the same uncertainty I had as a fifteen year old learning to drive a car, I got on and drove up and down my street a few times.

The next day Michael practiced with Christina and I again. Before I knew it, three days later I was on the town’s main road, stopping at intersections and driving to the beach and night markets with Michael as my guide. Within a week and a half of purchasing the motor scooter, I was successfully driving myself to school.

Within two weeks, Christina and I were driving with both of us on it at one time.

Test drive down our street. Photo: Courtesy of Michael

In the weeks leading up to my first “ride to school by motor scooter,” I kept trying to explain to my students:

“I am so nervous to ride my scooter like you are nervous to speak English. But if I ride my scooter, you can speak English.”

My scooter and I after I took it for the first ride down
our village street!
 (I know it is horizontal. It will not format
for the time being.) Photo: Courtesy of Michael
I am not sure how much they understood, but some of the students definitely got my point. The students who understood were sure to give me “air fives” and "Yaya," after I road to school successfully by myself for the first time. It was absolutely adorable, and I wish I could have had it on video. The teachers were also very pleased.

I have been driving to school on my motor scooter while wearing a bright, floral baju kurung for many weeks now. However, every morning when I arrive, the security guard smiles with a giggle and all the students yell, “Teacher Rachael. Good morning. Scooter so cute.”

Some of the older male students have even gotten clever. As I pull into the lot and park, they jokingly say, “Miss Rachael, can I have your scooter?”

“You want a pink scooter?” I ask them as I take off my helmet and grab my bags.

“Yes!” they yell and run away.

When I depart from school, all the students gather around and watch as I unlock my scooter and awkwardly get comfortable on the seat while maneuvering in my baju kurung. Sometimes it makes me nervous with so many people watching, but as I pull out of the parking lot, they all shout, “Be safe!”

It makes me smile when the students are so concerned about my safety. Believe me, the teachers were and still are equally as concerned. I still get questions about whether or not I like it and feel comfortable driving it.

I love our trusty little scooter, and it has its very own place under the roof of our porch where it stays cool from the sun and dry from the rain. I look forward to opening the door every morning and embarking on an adventure with it, whether it is to school, to Supermas or to our favorite restaurant.

Riding the scooter on my way to school or on my way home gives me such a feeling of relaxation and freedom. For the first time, I understand why my dad loves riding his Harley. I cannot wait to be my dad’s Harley buddy when I get home.

This is a testament to the infamous line, “You never know until you try.”

Looking back, I cannot believe how much anxiety I allowed the “long-awaited, dreadful scooter riding” to cause me. For something I was for so long dreading, it has become one of my favorite things about my new life here.

It’s just so darn cute, and I cannot wait to see what journeys lie ahead with our scooter.

We have not found the perfect name for it yet. We’re thinking something sassy…