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.

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…