Playing Tourist for a Few Days

Don’t you hate it when you walk up to a group of people you think are your friends only to realize that they are, in fact, some random Australians? On more than one occasion this past week I almost unintentionally spent the day with some Aussies, possibly snacking on vegemite sandwiches, instead of enjoying Chinese New Year with my Fulbright family.

Clearly, I’ve forgotten what it is like to be a tourist.

After spending a few nights in Malaysia’s second largest city, Georgetown, I was more than ready to head back to the quiet comfort of my kampung home. I was slightly overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city. I missed the dark and unlit streets of Kelantan. I missed the tranquil sounds of Mother Nature: the breeze slowly rustling the tops of the palm trees, the occasional songbird making his or her presence known. I missed parts of my life Bachok.

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Hanging out with a fellow tourist in the streets of Georgetown, Penang.

It is truly amazing how quickly one’s body can acclimate to a new living environment, even if it is drastically different than anything you may have experienced before. Prior to my Fulbright grant, I had only lived in urban environments. I went to school in a city, I student taught in a city, I visited friends and family in cities across the United States. And then I came to Bachok and suddenly everything changed. I live 5 minutes off the main road, surrounded by coconut trees, grazing pastures, and small rice paddy fields.

As I rolled my suitcase into my home for the first time I struggled to believe that this could feel like home anytime soon. To my surprise, it has. My mind successfully flipped the switch from Colorado, Cedar Rapids, or Chicago living to Kampung Dusun Itik living. I had not noticed this change until I arrived in Georgetown for our Chinese New Year holiday. Then everything came rushing back.

Arguably one of the largest Buddhist temples in all of Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si was covered in lanterns and lights to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Arguably one of the largest Buddhist temples in all of Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si was covered in lanterns and lights to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

I had forgotten how being a tourist can a wonderful thing. You are free to move as you please; unassociated with any community that may urge you to be stationary. You are also afforded the opportunity to stick to an intensive itinerary or to let the time come to you. On holiday, time is whatever you want to make it.

I loved being able to roam around Georgetown in search of new street art or a bustling Indian vegetarian restaurant. Walking through hoards of people and dodging lion dancers during Chinese New Year celebrations was exhilarating. My adrenaline levels skyrocketed! But I also appreciated being able to spend a few hours aimlessly wandering through Malaysia’s largest Buddhist place of worship, the Kek Lok Si Temple. That was an experience I won’t soon forget.

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Ernest Zacharevic’s Little Children on a Bicycle Mural. Georgetown, Penang.

One of the best parts of the Fulbright program in Malaysia is the encouragement we receive to travel throughout Malaysia and Southeast Asia. This stance towards cultural exchange via travel is unique amongst countries offering Fulbright grants. I am fortunate to have this opportunity to experience these distinctly diverse cultures in a beautiful part of the world.

However, I am also blessed to live in Bachok. Even though I will spend a lot of time over my grant period traveling, I will spend even more time within this small fishing community. While traveling fulfills and recharges me, it also reminds me of how little I contribute to the communities I am passing through. Granted I may be supporting them through small financial investments. But that is pretty much where my contributions end. I struggle to process this thought whenever I travel.

Maybe this is the result of my teaching background: as an educator I am constantly seeking to establish and maintain strong communal relationships. Or maybe I’m simply overanalyzing these situations. But nothing makes feel more at home than when I am in my classroom community. Although my holiday in Georgetown was exactly what I needed, I am eager to return to my day-to-day life in Bachok. I’m ready to return to my classrooms and hang out with my students.

#ThanksFulbright

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