Challenges

The subtitle of this blog claims it to be “an honest portrayal of life overseas.” Honestly, I’ve not been that honest. There are two real reasons I’m keeping this blog:
1. To have somewhere to post my photos so I and others can enjoy looking at them rather than letting them get stale in digital iPhoto albums.
2. To show my family and friends and interested others what I’ve been up to on the other side of the world.

In reality, though, there’s a lot about life here that bothers me and a lot about work and housing that has me really, really frustrated. Omitting those details makes this blog not honest, but I don’t think it makes it dishonest, either. There’s always that question about omission: Is it a lie if you don’t tell the whole truth? The US government would say yes, but the US government says yes about a lot of things.

Anyway. That’s a post for another time.

There are a few good explanations for why I choose to keep most aspects of my life private, and these hold true no matter where I’m living:
1. Firstly, I don’t use the Internet as a way of validating every thought and feeling. (i.e. “Wow, 12 likes in 10 minutes! I guess it’s good to be depressed sometimes! Everyone tells me they miss me!” I have never gone for stunts like that.)
2. Secondly, my family and I keep in very close touch over the phone so I don’t need to blog about my worries and woes to ask the people who matter the most to lend an ear; they’re doing that anyway.
3. Additionally, the process of getting a work visa (Oh, wait, I’m not supposed to be working without one?) is very slow and there’s no need to get myself into trouble with anyone who has the capabilities of checking up on me.
4. Finally, the Internet is no place to moan and groan about work. Ever. Work is work. Sometimes it’s wonderful and inspiring and amazing and sometimes it’s not, no matter who you are or where you are.

So I ask again, have I been dishonest in omitting the nitty gritty details about moving to a new country, working in a new school, trying to get working papers, and adjusting to life in a hotel while waiting for the apartments to be built? I don’t think so, but who am I to say? Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player blogger. (But I do adore that album.) That said, there are some difficulties, challenges, and frustrations that I’d like to share:

Disabilities and Medical Care

I have a Master’s in inclusive education and as a result, or maybe as a symptom, educational and social inequality for people with disabilities was a major concern for me at home; it is even more so here. Special education does not exist in Malaysia. I don’t know what happens to children with disabilities, but I’m willing to bet they’re not in schools. I say this mostly because there are intellectual disabilities that manifest physically and I can’t honestly say I’ve seen anything in that area. We have several children at school who would definitely have IEPs for a variety of reasons in the US but there’s nothing here. No paperwork, no note from a parent, no comment from the parents when we meet them before and after school. I understand stigmas, I understand cultural pressures, I understand bias, and I understand opportunity. I even understand fear. What I don’t understand is what happens next. I’m teaching at an elite international school where the goal is for children to attend elite Western universities. What happens then? What happens to the children who need services but can’t get them because they don’t exist? Children from affluent families can attend elite schools with Western teachers who at least believe that people with disabilities have a right to an education. What happens to children from poor families?

Interestingly, I’ve seen more people here with physical disabilities than I generally do in the US. Mitch pointed that out to me during our first week in Malaysia. There are a lot more people in wheelchairs, a lot more people with facial growths, a lot more people who struggle with mobility, etc. Mitch wondered if we have better medical care at home and can provide treatment early so that correctable “disabilities” don’t manifest as people get older. (For example, my sister was born with clubbed feet; she had surgery as an infant. I have seen enough here to know that surgery for clubbed feet isn’t, or hasn’t always been, widely available.) On the one hand, the fact that we’ve seen so much means that there’s at least somewhat of an acceptance of physical difference here. On the other hand, let’s talk about medical care, shall we? Let’s have a system of health insurance, perhaps. Just a thought.

Walking

If we’re talking about mobility, Malaysia fails every test. There are no sidewalks. Anywhere. I’ve asked Malaysians and they sigh and tell me to go to Singapore. Since there are no sidewalks, there are obviously no curb cuts. And you’re constantly dodging motorcycles, cars, stray dogs, manholes that have had the covers stolen, and whatever else happens to be in the way. Consequently, Malaysia is a car culture and traffic is a mess because the towns themselves weren’t built to hold as much traffic as they do.

Racism

And I thought the US had problems. Well, the US does have problems but very different problems. People in Malaysia are racist in a way that I’ve never experienced. The Malays themselves are known as Bumiputeras and are given special status in everything (housing areas, interest rates on loans, interest rates on bank accounts, reserved spots in universities, quotas for jobs) as a result of the race riots on May 13, 1969. In brief, Malaysia used to be a British colony (no surprises there) and the British built up cash crops in Malaysia’s tropical environment. To work on the plantations, the British imported workers from India, which led to a flood of immigration from China, as well.  Throughout the mid- to late-1800s, the Chinese in particular became very successful and opened banks and insurance companies that were a) useful to the colonizing British, b) impossible for the Malays to run because of sharia law throughout Malaysia, and c) both useful and harmful to the local sultans ruling Malaysian states alongside the British because they were in constant need of cash.

Long story short, the Chinese rose in British esteem, which led to a divide in wealth and power. Racial tensions boiled over on May 13, 1969, leading to a host of affirmative actions programs (again: housing areas, interest rates on loans, interest rates on bank accounts, reserved spots in universities, quotas for jobs) for the Malays, the Bumiputeras, to put them on even footing with the Chinese. (The Indians are a much smaller group of the population and don’t have the same wealth, influence, or power as the Chinese.) The problem, of course, is that everyone else is upset at these programs because they fail to take merit and changing times into account. They were initially set up as anti-poverty programs but now that the income distribution has levelled out more, the Bumiputeras still receive special benefits. The same programs do not exist for poor Indian-Malaysians or Chinese-Malaysians. People openly bad-mouth people of other races, too.

To top it all off, there’s still a colonial mentality here in which anyone with light skin is automatically deemed superior to anyone with darker skin. Enter bleach in soaps, skin lightening creams, an aversion to the outdoors, and reverence for white foreigners. White people here have a special nickname, as well. We are known as “Mat Salleh,” a possible bastardization of “mad sailor,” because the first white people to land on Peninsular Malaysia were British sailors. As a white person in a suit, Mitch has been able to walk past security desks in office buildings in KL with merely a wave. He tried it more than once just to see if he could. And that brings me to . . .

Staring

Seremban isn’t what I would call cosmopolitan, so the number of foreigners here is much lower than it is in a major financial center like Kuala Lumpur. Therefore, Mitch, my coworkers, and I are novelties. People stare at us when we walk around, giggle, whisper to their friends, stare at us, and giggle some more. People ask me about my hair. People point to my hair. People follow us around stores and constantly ask if they can help us. That would be a mildly irritating gesture if it were simply customer service, but it’s not – it’s because we’re white, which makes it really, really annoying and uncomfortable. No one has asked for pictures yet, but that’s not to say no one has taken any. I don’t stare back so I just don’t know.

Hygeine

Definitely a cultural difference. I really, really, really love toilet paper in bathroom stalls (not just on the wall for everyone to grab on the way in), using soap (that’s not really a thing here), sneezing into elbows instead of hands (we’re literally teaching this to our students), and food workers wearing gloves (I can count the number of times I’ve seen that). As one of my colleagues said after a lunch in a very traditional Malaysian restaurant complete with flies landing on everything, “It’s no wonder people here get typhoid.” And that’s the reason we all got shots!

Environment

I got a job in China and didn’t move there because China is notorious for its problems with pollution. When our flight from Chicago landed in Hong Kong, Mitch and I marvelled over the beautiful fog over the airport at 6am, only to realize several hours later that the fog had not evaporated and was, in fact, pollution. While the air quality is much better here than in much of China, it’s not great. On a bad day, you can feel your lungs burning if you spend too much time walking around outside and on most days we can’t really see the mountains that surround Seremban. But then there are perfect days, too, like yesterday’s hike.

Another major issue for me is recycling. Everything has recycling labels on it and there are “Go Green!” mantras everywhere, but there’s nowhere to recycle! I asked local coworkers about a recycling service and they laughed. Everyone knows you’re supposed to recycle, but I haven’t been able to find any recycling companies! There’s trash pickup, but no recycling pickup so everything goes right into the trash. I’m a fanatic about recycling at home, so this has been very upsetting.


And so, dear reader, there you have it. A more honest portrayal of life overseas is beginning to unfold. You’re probably sorry you asked.

9 thoughts on “Challenges”

  1. Hi Rebecca,

    I think you are doing a great job in your blog and think this current one has been the best by far.

    You and Mitch are on an amazing adventure. Deciding to keep a digital “journal” of your life in Malaysia to share with family and friends is a great way to share what your adventure is like. I can only speak for myself but I know nothing about Malaysia and am learning through you. I don’t think you have been lying at all but I agree if you are sharing honest account of your life there, the things you wrote about tiday are important. Not only so that we can share in your adventure but so we can learn about this place in the world that you have chosen to live in that most of us will never see for ourselves.

    You are a great writer and I for one, for what it’s worth, would love to see more posts like this ( in addition to the post you did about your hike).

    With love, Janet

  2. Wow!!! What an eye opener altho I expected your observations (from what I’ve seen on documentaries which by the way I can watch 24hrs a day if I could). That is why travel broadens your horizon & makes you appreciate what we have in our own country. I will write you more via e-mail. Love GRANDPA..

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