Moving away from a place is like dying and being allowed to attend your own funeral — only worse because you have to be there for the un-fun parts like getting rid of the furniture and cleaning out the fridge and the scary junk drawer. But the fun parts are the farewell luncheons, the free drinks, and the people coming forth to say goodbye, the friends sending the crying face emoticons. These are the same people who normally are too busy to see you, who, had they made time for you during your tenure in this place, you might not have moved. But leaving is a chance to take stock of your life and see where you might possibly have had an impact or made a difference in someone’s life, even in a small way.
Take for example one of my main pet peeves in life: unconscious use of resources, wastefulness, and littering. I’ve complained bitterly about Asia’s reckless use of plastics and its unwillingness to reuse or recycle. How many times have I purchased an item and handed the cashier my own bag only to have them put my items in a new bag. And then when I say, “No plastic!” they put the new bag in my re-used bag. Now I have doubled my domestic bag population and not for lack of trying. I simply cannot get my message across in Asia. Not in concept. Not in practice.
But the other day something miraculous happened. I was shopping at the Regalia Pasar Mini – the mini market store in the lobby of the building where I live in Kuala Lumpur. The same Bangladeshi guy who has served me probably a hundred times, took my milk and put it in a new plastic bag, to which I quickly responded, “No plastic bag, thanks,” with the same eye-rolling false patience I’ve had since day two. And he looked at me and smiled for the first time in over a year and said, “Oh, sorry. Save the environment!” I was so dumbstruck I didn’t know what to say. It caught me completely by surprise. I tripped on my response, “Um yeah, save the environment.” I repeated it just to feel the glory of the words rolling off my tongue to understanding ears. “Save the environment. Yes, exactly. Thank you.” And I stood there beaming like a parent whose child finally used the potty.
Ho-ly-cow. I couldn’t believe it. He had paid attention to what I had said on scores of previous occasions and he even understood it. He hadn’t initiated actually saving the bag, but at least he got the concept instead of thinking it was just some annoying expat who prefers to carry his milk carton in his hands…how weird. I relayed the story as a minor triumph to Chuan. “Good Hubby,” was his stock response. (I think he thinks maybe I should choose bigger battles, but he knows at least to pat me on the back for trying.)
Then a couple days later, Chuan and I were on the elevator and the same Bangladeshi cashier stepped on, pressed his button and proceeded to look down at the floor as most foreign workers do, avoiding eye contact. I thought the intersection of our lives was fortuitous — I’ve never see him on the lift in my building. So I said to him with a big smile of acknowledgment, “Hey, save the environment.” His subcontinental bindi-ed face came alive and he responded, “Yes, yes, save the environment.” And he stepped off, our short social interaction ending at the garage level. Chuan looked at me with a face of “Good Hubby” and ‘why are you talking to the foreign workers?’ The beauty of the moment, however, was not lost on me.
That was a small but significant moment in my time here but undoubtedly the largest contribution I have made to Malaysia wasn’t even to Malaysia as much as the world community. It was my teaching the impoverished Myanmar refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the Zotung School here in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t say I was a great English teacher as I really have no qualifications. Though I use them all the time, I couldn’t have told you what a past participle was (but there’s one now). I bought a book and watched some YouTube videos about how to teach English. I felt terribly unprepared for this task and just stepped into the stinky rundown school mustering some courage and desire to help. Half the time I hated being there and walking on the broken sidewalks through the rat infested neighborhood on the way to class.
I looked like a school marm in my my drab olive shorts and plaid shirt with my briefcase that wasn’t full of toys, board games, and cookies. It had only one thing: my notebook with an outline of the day’s class which would include some reading, writing, storytelling, and grammar lesson. At first the kids seemed to reflect my stiffness. They were quiet and respectful but not joyful when I arrived each morning. But over time they warmed up sharing gossip (whoa, hold back on that kids!) with me like I was a peer. DimDim wore a little bow in her hair and would proudly show it to me turning her head to the side, “Look teacha!” Tam Wi Oo would get out the folders and put a water bottle on the desk for me. Hang Thung Lia would share a word he learned like ‘lovelorn’ revealing some of his tenderness to the class. Harry gave me a hug-like-he-meant-it when he got resettled to Oklahoma.
I gave my last class just before Christmas and I will likely never see Dim Dim, Tam Wi Oo, and Joel again. The other students I had over the year and a half of teaching moved on to other schools, were resettled to other countries, or died on the street here. But wherever they are, I think a small part of me lives in them and a bigger part of them lives in me. Maybe they will remember my words of the day like forgiveness, cooperation, and respect. Did I help them with their past tense verbs and prepositions? Sure. But more importantly I saw them as human beings in a place where they are illegal and treated like rats by the police. Of all things in Malaysia, I will miss them the most.
Summing up my life in Malaysia, it has been full of less than grand moments of triumph and defeat. That I figured out a small handful of restaurants in which to dine without going home with extra creatures in my bowels that would leave me glued to the toilet for days, is an unglamorous but noteworthy achievement of my time here. It’s one of many uninteresting details of life that I’ve tediously knocked out here by trial and error. The list is too long and dull to even enumerate. Knowing the ins and outs of a place is just what you do to survive. And I survived. But I didn’t thrive here. Thriving would be to savor the beauty of a place, to wake up in the morning ready to embrace the day and head out on a walk or a ride enchanted by what you might encounter. That faded shortly after I arrived and took the blinders off — the blinders that got me here in the first place.
But if I look back at the reason I moved to Malaysia, I would say that I did achieve what I came here for. I found it in Chuan in spades. In my time here in Malaysia, countless people have asked me, “What brings you to KL?” I’ve fumbled for the answer saying anything from, “I wanted to get away from the US for a while,” (which always raises suspicions that I’m some sort of fugitive or as Chuan’s grandfather suggested, an operative for the CIA) to, “I came to Malaysia to find love.” That’s the truthful answer and one that makes no sense to anyone here. I quickly learned not to make that statement to any local here. It sounds like I came here recruiting for human trafficking victims. Their faces, upon utterance of that reason, give a look as if I had placed a turd on the table before them. A mission of love is the import of someone from a ‘developed nation’ — a privilege in a place that is more caught up in survival than such tender matters. And so I abandoned revealing the truth about my intent here just as I abandoned my enthusiasm for the place. You can read my original blog posting about it by clicking here.
It was not an easy 18 months in Malaysia. I had my fun and my anguish but the scales were tipped a little too much to the latter and I admitted that I simply couldn’t make it work. In the end I did get what I came here for and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful I had the courage to risk so much to venture over here. And grateful that in so short a time I found what was missing in my life in America. I’m grateful for the handful of beautiful people I met along the way, as one always does even in the most dreary places. Do I have any regrets? Yeah. I shouldn’t have eaten those candlenuts. I should have tried the chocolate camel’s milk. And I shouldn’t have scratched that car. (But I’ll tell you more about that once I’m out of the country.)
In a few days all the furniture will be sold or donated, the piano will sit unplayed in the store where I found it, the bed stripped of all its late night cuddles, the magic carpet rolled up, and the curtains on the magnificent view pulled tightly shut. The smell of Chuan’s baking will be scrubbed off the walls, the oven sent to Auntie Louise, the pots and pans to Auntie Eve. The air conditioner will be switched off and the hot, humid air will overtake the apartment. Chinese New Year fireworks will go unheard by my ears this year and Chuan’s nightmares will go un-comforted when he returns to his bunk bed in his mother’s apartment where he lived before we met. My plane bound for the States leaves just after the sun casts its first orange light between the Petronas Towers onto my former home.
In my 30 hours of flying home I will go from being rich and exotic to being poor and ordinary, and my name ceases to be “Boss.” I will be just another white face in a mostly white crowd, but this time I won’t be going home empty-handed. Chuan has his B2 visa and his flight is booked for April.
Cross an ocean, start a new chapter.
Here’s the farewell video with a recap of the last month in Malaysia and a little slice of domestic life in KL…
Have a look at the Gallery of Goodbyes. Click on one and advance with the L or R arrows…