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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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

When one experience ends, another is just beginning...

Life in Malaysia may have come to a close,
but another experience is just beginning...
My journey in Malaysia has concluded, but I know another chapter of my life is just beginning. I look forward to what lies ahead, because I know every experience leads to another. I am enthusiastic to see what adventures are in store for me, right here, at home in America.

Thank you for joining me on my Fulbright journey this year! You were a wonderful travel companion and I very much enjoyed sharing my experiences with you. Although this officially marks the end of my Fulbright journey and my Fulbright blog posts, I will be featuring some simple Q & A posts. Since my arrival home, I have been receiving a plethora of awesome questions. In the weeks and months ahead, if you have questions, please feel free to email me at rachaelchesley@gmail.com. I will feature them in my Q&A series.

Sharing my experiences with you this year has been such a blessing and a gift.

Until next time, thank you!

A New Lens

Kapas Island, Terengganu, Malaysia.
For most people, the most rewarding aspect of an adventure is the adventure itself. The experience of summiting a mountain or taking a road trip across country or living within a new culture for a year.  However, having returned to the United States after eleven months abroad, I have come to a new realization.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of an adventure is the aftermath; when the traveler gains a new lens towards the way she sees and experiences the world.

My time as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia was the most eye-opening and challenging experience of my life. My daily life in America was replaced with a new culture, routine and community. 

There were good days and there were bad days. There were moments when I felt as though I failed and moments when I felt as though my students, my community and I succeeded. There were times when I was homesick for the comfort of my own home, the Midwest climate and a big American dinner. And there were times when I looked out over the South China Sea and thought, “Wow! I get to live here!”

Now, back in America, I often look back on my experience and reflect. As I adjust back to my own identity, I feel as though I am looking at the world around me differently and with a new understanding.

I sit in church on Sunday mornings and admire the glare from the sun that beams through the massive stain glass window. I hug my family and friends a bit tighter. I speak and react with more patience. I drive my car through the suburbs understanding what a privilege it is to sit behind a wheel. I admire the Chicago skyline that extends across the shore of Lake Michigan. I savor each bite. And, I look back on my photos from Malaysia with a humbled smile. In a way, I feel as though everything that has always been part of my life still remains, but I see it with a new lens. The adventure itself is a true gift, but perhaps the most rewarding part of any undertaking, is the new lens gained afterward.

O'hare International Airport, Chicago before I departed in January 2012.
I was reunited with my family at O'hare eleven months later.
I came home with a new lens towards life and the world around me.

Coming to a close: Beginning my journey back home

On a rainy Wednesday night (no lie… it was rainy!), I pulled three suitcases out of my house and headed to the bus station. Tears filled my eyes as I waved goodbye to the little neighbor boys who waved and yelled, “ Goodbye, Cikgu!” I watched as the house disappeared behind me, and I looked out the window of my mentor’s car. I tried to forever imprint the images of the village I was part of for 10 months.

I boarded the bus, and I waved goodbye to my mentors, as well as my friend Jamaliah who came to see me off with her family. I also waved goodbye to Christina who was staying for a few extra days. I sat in my seat, and I looked out the window. It took me a moment to catch my breath. When I did, I took a big, deep breath that brought air all the way down to my toes.

I gave one last wave to everyone.

At that moment, I still had not made full sense of my experience. However, I did realize one thing – the most important experiences are the ones that pull at your heartstrings in ways you never imagined. The experiences that have peaks, as well as valleys. The experiences that have successes, as well as failures. The experiences that make you smile, as well as cry. The experiences that culminate understanding, as well as confusion. The experiences with potential accomplishments that seem far too overwhelming and difficult to actually earn, but you earn anyway. And more than anything, I realized that some of the best experiences in life do not provide all the right answers, but rather generate the best questions.

It was one heck of a year. It was one heck of a journey. I believe it will remain one of the most important experiences of my life. It was the toughest experience, as well as the most challenging time of my life. For that reason, I think it will prove to be one of my most worthwhile endeavors as well.

As I departed from Besut, I held my head high. The visions of life in Besut were still fresh in my mind and the stories of my time as a teacher were in my heart. After almost a year, it was time to begin my journey back home, back to where I came from.

After months upon months of Skype session, I could not wait to
see my family in person!

Coming to a close: Saying "Jumpa lagi!"

Class 4A1 and I taking one last picture together! It was definitely difficult to say goodbye to my students.

My final days in Besut are still difficult to describe in words.

My heart was yearning for home after almost a year away from my family and my blessed country. In my final month, I often found myself lying awake at night with images of my hometown playing in my head. I tried to remember how my bedroom, my town and my house looked when I left. I often had images of driving down Cedar Road in my town, as well as the local the New Lenox Commons where I always loved to spend time. I wondered if my dog and cat would remember me, or if the team at my local Starbucks would be the same. I wondered if I would have tough ‘reverse culture shock,’ after a year living somewhere so different. I would toss and turn all night with excitement, as well as a little anxiety in anticipation of home. In fact, on one occasion I caught myself signing off an email to my parents using, “Love you and see you soon!” It literally made my heart beat faster.

While excitement brewed, there was an ounce of sadness. At school, I started looking around and wondering what would become of some of my students- students that I had invested so much time and energy into. Students who improved both in terms of spoken English, as well as overall enthusiasm towards education. I thought of Syatirah who worked hard everyday and dreamed of studying in America someday. I thought of Mustaqin who would run away and hide when I first started teaching but who now spoke to me everyday. I thought of Amanina who attended the girls’ leadership camp and who was dealing with the sadness of her recently deceased father, who passed away while I was her teacher. I thought of Sukri who was from a very poor family and who was in the lowest level class for his age group, but who literally learned to speak English with me. I thought of the energy and enthusiasm I was eventually able to extract from each of my classes, and the confidence my students built towards me. Although I was their teacher, the students were actually some of the best teachers I ever had.

During my final days, I had something of a heartache filled with a yearning of home but a longing to somehow stay in my students’ lives. Moreover, in the midst of sincere loneliness at times, Christina and I managed to create such a happy house that hosted root beer float nights for students, as well as a kitchen perfect for introducing the neighbor kids to microwave popcorn. Our yard had been a soccer field, as well as learning ground for how to ride a scooter. That home in Kampung Amir, Besut did not only house Christina and I, but it will forever house some of our deepest thoughts and emotions.

On my last day of school, I made my rounds around school to say "jumpa lagi" (meet again!) to my students, as well as the teachers. My school also hosted a Farewell Ceremony where I played a slideshow of photos, and teachers and students gave speeches in English about me. I do not think I have ever cried as much as I did on that last day, and I do not think I have ever allowed my emotions to pull at me as intensely as they did that day. 

Class 4 Science hosted a picnic on the beach for me before I left Besut!

A fellow teacher and I saying "farewell!"
Class 2A (pen pal class) and I taking one last photo together.
Photo Courtesy: Amanina, Class 2A, SMK PNZ
I gave each and every student a handwritten note.
Although they did not understand all of it, they understood the general message.
The fellow teachers provided me with a Friendship Book, that
contained pictures of my favorite things in Malaysia. They wanted me
to remember Besut forever.
Photo courtesy of SMK PNZ
The principal and I exchanged flags as a symbol of
cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
I received the Malaysian flag and he received the U.S. Flag.
Photo courtesy of SMK PNZ.

I said a few last words to my students and school community before
I departed. I gave my speech in both English and Malay.
Photo courtesy of SMK PNZ
My mentors and I after my farewell ceremony.
Photo courtesy of SMK PNZ

Coming to a close: Peace Corps/Fulbright Commemoration

The Terengganu ETAs, 2012.
In late October, my friend Jordan and I were asked to prepare and present a Peace Corps Commemoration Speech. It was to be presented to the U.S. Ambassador, U.S. Embassy, MACEE, representatives from the Malaysian Ministry of Education, teachers from Malaysia and several other honorable guests. 

The speech was to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the first Peace Corps volunteers arriving in Terengganu, Malaysia. At the same time, it was also to mark the conclusion of our journey as ETAs in Terengganu. Jordan and I were honored to be selected to represent our cohort. However, we understood the difficulty of encompassing seventeen different Fulbrighters’ year-long experiences into one commemoration speech. Fortunately, together, we created and presented a speech that represented our cohort and a speech that truly came from the heart.

Terengganu ETAs during our first along the coast.
January 2012, when our journey was just beginning.

“Nine months ago, as we drove north up Route 3 along the beautiful coast of Terengganu, we looked ahead and tried to imagine our future experiences in our new Malaysian villages and homes, and especially our time ahead in our assigned schools… That is where our journey as Terengganu ETAs began…”

Jordan and I went on to explain our journey as ETAs in Terengganu, a place very different than our hometowns in America. We broke our journey into five stages. We explained the stages and told little, personal anecdotes that corresponded to each stage. The five stages we identified were – shock, confusion, learning, exploring and finally, understanding. The personal anecdotes and emotion really captured the attention of the crowd, as well as the fellow Fulbrighters. Although some stages were more difficult than others, each stage was crucial to our experience. All in all, our experiences, living and teaching abroad in Malaysia, challenged us, moved us, and allowed us to embrace the highs, as well as the lows.

Jordan and I ended our speech by saying, “ Senyum sokmo.”

Smile always.

Coming to a close: Pancakes with a dose of coconut

Enjoying food with fellow teachers!
Photo Courtesy of SMK PNZ
During one of my last days of school at SMK PNZ, Form 3 students had finished their long-awaited PMR exams. Therefore, Form 3 students engaged in different activities that did not involve textbooks or papers. It was something similar to “free days!” Fortunately, I had the opportunity to spend a morning with about thirty, happy, enthusiastic Form 3 students. When I asked what activity we were going to do together, the students exclaimed that they wanted to make “pancakes from America!”

Their wish was Cikgu Ruhanna’s command, so Cikgu Ruhanna hosted a pancake event in the school kitchen, and she generously invited me. The students were excited to make pancakes. One girl even took my hand and said, “Teacher, we make you feel home.” It nearly brought tears to my eyes. 

As we made homemade pancake batter, I shared stories about Sunday mornings at my home in America. I explained that my family often makes pancakes and shares breakfast together on the weekends. The students were happy to hear my stories. I was even happier when Cikgu Ruhanna suggested a “variation” to the typical American pancake recipe. She put coconut flour in the homemade pancake batter.

There I was, in my school, with my students, making pancakes with a “Malaysian” twist. Best of all, they were delicious! I looked around the kitchen. The students were sporting green, pink and blue polka dotted aprons, flipping thick, perfect pancakes on the stovetop. I smiled, because when I looked around, it occurred to me that this was indeed what cultural exchange was all about- sharing. After all, it had been the sharing of thoughts, perspectives and ideas throughout my year as a Fulbright ETA that culminated the bridges to mutual understanding.  

Coming to a close: The Terengganu Fulbright Family

The 50 Malaysia Fulbright ETAs at the Prime Minister's for High Tea.
January 2012.
“Happiness is found not in the things we collect, but in the connections we keep"
- quote on a greeting card

As I have mentioned in previous posts, there were 50 Fulbright ETAs who represented the United States in Malaysia for 2012. Among the 50, 17 of us were placed in Terengganu, Malaysia. On a few occasions, all 50 ETAs were able to meet and connect, which generated great conversation, as well as quite a good time.

However, most of my personal time was spent with the 17 Terengganu ETAs who were placed in districts along the coast of the South China Sea. Our Terengganu cohort became known as the “T-gannu Crew.” Throughout the course of the year, we spent a great deal of time together. Each of us had a community of family and friends back at home to nurture connections with. However, beyond that, we were given the wonderful opportunity to nurture friendships and connections with one another. We became one another’s fellow ETAs, fellow teachers and fellow expatriates. We also became one another’s support system and source of inspiration. Over the course of the year, we became something of a Terengganu family. A simple weekend together hanging out provided a sense of motivation, support, inspiration and sanity in the midst of some uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations and experiences. Together, the 17 of us were able to create an environment that felt like something similar “home."

In addition to my support system back home at America, I owe my experience and accomplishments in Malaysia to my fellow Terengganu ETAs who became dear friends. Thank you Kamayani, Kate, Katie, Morgan, Melissa, Julie, Marquitta, Hannah, Nazeeha, Chelsea, Jonathan, Jordan, Nick, Michael and of course, my roommate Christina.

Terima kasih kawan kawan! Cannot wait to see where we meet next, and long live the roti rolls…

Singapore: My concrete jungle

Being away from my lovely family and community in America for such a long time was tough at times. However, I was always reassured that someplace comfortable was somewhat within reach – Singapore. Singapore is home to my friend Clement and his family.

Clement and I exploring Kuala Lumpur!
January 2012
I met Clement while we were both exchange students in Seoul, South Korea in 2009. Over the years, we kept in very good touch with letters, emails and Skype dates, although we never knew when we would see each other again. During my Fulbright stint in Malaysia, I was able to see Clement on four different occasions. Clement came to visit me during my first week in Malaysia, and we explored Kuala Lumpur together. It was very comforting, and I went to visit him and his family in Singapore three times.

During my first trip to Singapore in April, I saw Singapore as a tourist. Clement took me to see all the sights, such as Marina Bay, the Singapore Night Safari and the Singapore National Museum. He also introduced me to kaya toast, koi bubble tea and Chinese food. Moreover, I stayed with Clement and his family in their home, so I was able to meet his family as well as his relatives who came for a get together one night. It was the perfect introduction to Clement’s home life, as well as the city he comes from. In addition, it was the first time I was able to attend church since moving abroad. I was able to attend service with his mother and sister at New Creation Church with the reknown Pastor Joseph Prince. All in all, after my first visit, I could not wait to return again!

Clement, Andes, and I reunited after
three years!
Exploring Singapore, Clement's hometown.
Marina Bay, Singapore. April 2012.
After the Singapore Mizuno Wave Run.
September 2012.

I returned in September for the Mizuno Wave 16K Run. During that trip, I was also able to see my friend Malena from Germany who was temporary stationed in Singapore for work. Similar to Clement, I met her while studying in Seoul, Korea and we had kept in touch. We enjoyed a great night out on the town and great conversation! In addition, Clement and I met up with our friend Andes, also from our days in Seoul, who was visiting Singapore. We enjoyed awesome pork soup, as well as koi tea! It was a perfect day!

On my 16K race day, Clement and his dad cheered me on as I ran through the streets of Singapore. Clement even ran the last 4K with me, and he was my photographer as I crossed the finish line 10 seconds ahead of my goal time! After the race, I went to church with his mom and sister. For lunch, we all enjoyed Chinese dumplings. They all commented that my chopstick skills had improved a great deal since my first visit to visit them five months before.

Enjoying delicious chili crab and seafood
with Clement's family!
After I moved out of my house in rural Besut and before I headed back to the States, I visited Singapore for the last time. Once again, I stayed with Clement and his family. However, this time, me and Clement’s friend from Korea, Sunny, came in for the weekend as well! She had been working in Vietnam. It was one grand reunion! The three of us did some sightseeing, and enjoyed excellent conversation. Clement’s family took us out to a big dinner filled with fancy seafood and I learned how to eat complicated dishes that I had never tried before. I can honestly say, it was the first time I have ever thoroughly enjoyed eating seafood. Clement, Sunny and I also went to a club one night to experience Singapore nightlife. On our last night together, we went to a nice hotel in Singapore that played jazz music. We sat eating peanuts, laughing and enjoying one another’s company!

Sunny, Clement and I!
Clement and I watched as Sunny left through the departure gate, and we reflected on how grateful we were to be able to spend one whole weekend together. Clement and I grabbed burgers before I had to depart, and we enjoyed the last hour we had hanging out together. It was a tearful good-bye at the departure gate. I was so happy that my year in Malaysia allowed me four opportunities to enjoy his company, but I was sad because we did not know when we would have that opportunity again.

Saying farewell.

One of the greatest blessings during my year in Malaysia was Clement and his family. Weekends with them served as a ‘rock’ of sorts, reminding me of home and making me feel welcome. Singapore became a second home, and it is the place I will miss the most from my year abroad. Clement’s family provided me with such a comfortable place that I always looked forward to coming back to during my year in Malaysia. They made me feel at ‘home’ even though I still remained so far away from America and my family. For that, I will always be incredibly grateful. They are planning a trip to America, and I only hope that I can show the same hospitality to them! 
My German friend Malena and I, reunited in Singapore after three years!

Clement's mom and I enjoying a day out all together!

KOI Bubble Tea - It's amazing.
Clement, his brother Ben and I enjoying a beautiful view!

Bali, Indonesia

Rice paddies, palm trees and lush green was can be seen throughout every inch of Ubud, Bali.

In September 2012, my roommate Christina and I set off to experience what Bali had to offer!

Our longhouse that we stayed in during our time in Ubud.
We stayed twenty minutes outside of Ubud, Bali in a longhouse style lodge. It was surrounded by jungle terrain, as well as green, rolling rice paddies. During our entire stay there, I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the open wooden doors and windows giving way to the wind that lightly blew the beautiful, white sheer mosquito net that surrounded my bed. For the five days we were there, we shared a house with a couple from Argentina. Every morning we would wake up and enjoy toast and jam with the couple. We chatted about the couple’s trip around the world. They had been on the go for over two years and still had about three years to go. Whenever they ran out of money, they would pick up little jobs and save up enough to set out to their next destination. It was fascinating to hear the story of how they were managing their trip and budgeting. In addition to their trip, they were blogging and in the process of writing a book.

This corridor gave way to a gorgeous view of Bali.
At this point, Christina and I had only about eight weeks left of our stint in Malaysia. Ubud, Bali was a good place to journal while reflecting on our year. In a sense, Bali reminds me of Rome. Instead of trying to hide and erase age and ‘fix’ ruin, it embraces it. It builds upon and around what remains from the past. There is such beauty and wonder to be seen from the ‘age’ in Ubud, Bali. As I stood along a stone wall, looking out at the scenery all around, I felt as though the ruin could tell stories of what was, and what will be.

The weathered facades of Ubud are unlike any other!
The Ubud, Bali Starbucks! (Yes, they had Starbucks!

In Ubud, there are worn, weathered facades of buildings and huge palm branches that hang over the tight, narrow roads. The rough roads are filled with scooters and cars, as well as many automobiles from the 50’s-70’s. Unlike other places I have traveled to, Bali feels and exudes a peaceful, calm and quiet demeanor that makes one want to simply write, read, take pictures and sip Indonesian coffee all day- which is precisely what I did.

My heart will forever adore Bali, because it is a city that fully embraces its roots, culture and especially, it’s age- an age that gives way to tremendous architecture, art and ruin. No doubt, I will return to Bali. I’m not finished with it yet. 

A small door I found during my walk through Ubud.
The garden entrance to an ancient temple.
Ubud, Bali has multiple layers and elevations. 

The vehicles in Bali made me feel as though I was in an adventure film,
or I had stepped back in time.
The peaceful scenery makes Ubud an easy place for a tourist to relax.

My nice, cozy bed that had large, open windows.
Since we were nestled within the rolling hills, it actually got
chilly at night.
An image that can be seen during a walk through Ubud.

A temple outlined by lilly pads.
We found tortilla chips in Bali, and boy oh boy, did we take advantage of that!
Rice paddies outlined by jungle terrain make Bali a unique place to visit.
A Balinese village outside of Ubud, Bali.