Monday, April 28, 2014

The Power of Words

Lately, well maybe all year, I've been really aware of language.  Language has proved to bring with it some of the biggest joys as well as some frustrations.  It is a good feeling when you can effectively communicate something you're feeling, especially in another language.  Languages surround me this year.  While English is still a part of my daily life, so is Malay, Chinese, and now Malay Sign Language (not the same as American Sign Language).  I'm learning all of these on some level, but am better at communicating in some more than others.

The power of positive language has really encouraged me this year.  This past weekend we had an overnight outing with Cheshire Home.  With 40ish people, there was a lot to do and prepare.  I can be a little awkward at inserting myself into situations, but I really wanted to help the women with the cooking and food preparation for this big group.  So I walked into the kitchen and asked if I could help.  I did some chopping (which I am not good at making things a consistent size), but then I was given the spatulas to the wok.  As I stirred the vegetables and added in sauces, one of our sweet cooks goes "Ah! Sarah pandai sudah!!" (Sarah is clever already)  And I was then welcome to help prepare all weekend long.  That is one example, but I have countless others... Mrs. Soong telling me she loves me when I was sick and crying in December, one of the sweet residents at Cheshire calling me "Auntie" everyday when I see her, hearing "Good morning Teacher Sarah" when students walk in the door.  Words can make you feel so so good.

But language can also tear down and cause hurt.  The words I am talking about are hurtful ones, ones that I feel forget that I am also human.  The most hurtful language I have experienced this year has mostly surrounded race.  I have been called "another species", I have been reminded that I am "so different" from everyone else, I have been told that all white people look the same, so it is hard to pick me out, just to name a few...
While these independently may sound funny or absurd to you, or perhaps like things you have said to reference other races, even jokingly, after hearing them repeatedly and being on the receiving end, they really are not funny.  They are very hurtful.

**(I feel the need to do a really big disclaimer here- This is not characteristic of the majority of people I interact with on a daily basis.  Instead these are isolated incidents.  However, let that show that even one or two people can have a profound impact on the way a person perceives themselves.  Also, the feeling of being white here in Malaysia is something that I have wanted to talk about on a blog or in some way for awhile now.  I would say that usually, I receive comments like "You're so beautiful", "Hi Miss, you're so pretty" if I am just walking down the street... which is endearing but also at times just makes me uncomfortable to constantly be a spectacle.  So, the race comments I receive are across the spectrum, yet still have affected me this year.)

Statements, even if not ill-intended, that are made at the expense of another person really are so hurtful. On the flip side, be encouraging!  If there is a way that you can build someone up, do it!  To quote Kid President, "If you can't think of anything nice to say, you're not thinking hard enough."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lessons Learned

One year ago, I attended the Discernment-Interview-Placement weekend for YAGM.  In the year since, I have learned so much.  I have learned about myself, the world, the church, people, God, and faith... just to name a few.  Here is a small sampling of a list of all I have learned:

1. Vulnerability. Ask for help, admit when you're wrong, and be honest in your experiences.  The ability to share freely these things as well as to rejoice together has resulted in some really deep and meaningful relationships this year.  This is a lesson I am continuing to work on, but one that I am reminded of frequently.

2. I am not needed.  My presence in this country and in my sites is not necessary to anyone's survival or well-being.  I do not bring with me an invaluable skill to this year.  I have had to realize that no one here "needs me".  This was a hard lesson to learn.  I expected to jump in and be put to work right away and be busy all year.  But that just has not been the case.  There are days when I do not have a lot to do, and my main "job" is to just be present, just existing alongside other people.  While this may sound boring, like a waste of my time or skills, I have come to learn that it is just the opposite.  I have learned that it is healthy that my presence here exists in this way.  It is a good thing that no one is depending on me in a way that in my absence, things would fall apart.  I have learned that as humans, we enter into a situation "to do".  My mindset of "doing" has shifted into a mindset of "being".  I have learned about myself from the discomfort I felt in the absence of "work" and I have learned more about people and life in community in the days where my "job" was to sit and listen, talk, or help with small tasks.

3. People make up religions and denominations.  This year has been one of religious diversity.  There is so much religious diversity in Malaysia.  I interact with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists daily.  Even going into this year, Christianity has looked different than what I have been used to.  The BCCM's theology and worship styles vary in some ways from the traditional Lutheran background I come from.  There is common ground among denominations and even among other religions, but even if there are differences, the people behind the title of "Roman Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", "BCCM", "Muslim", "Buddhist" are all people.  Their beliefs shape them into people of faith who above all else want to love and serve their god and their god's people.  Having focused on the differences that separate especially Christian denominations in the past, this year has been a lesson on the value of the people of the church.  I think when you know and appreciate the people you can appreciate and learn from their beliefs even more.

4. I need structure.  Fun fact: I considered myself pretty go with the flow... then I came to Malaysia and realized I was delusional.  Having no set "syllabus" on how to successfully complete this year was a scary realization.  I will say that this desire for structure has not changed, but instead I have learned how to create some order on my own.  I really value the routines I've established, which have made life a lot less overwhelming.

5. I am not ______________.  Be it other YAGMs in Malaysia, YAGMs serving throughout the world, or the volunteers that came before me, there is a huge temptation to compare in this year.  "I'm not as outgoing as _________."  "I'm not as good at Malay as __________."  "__________ did this but I haven't done that yet."  "According to facebook, ________ is just having such a great life and today is really hard for me."  I am Sarah, I have my own strengths and my own weaknesses.  I have my own way of approaching this year.  And I know deep down inside, that people only put the good stuff on facebook, that everyone has struggled in this year in some way.  I'm thankful for the other volunteers serving this year as well as for the ones who have come before me because I am constantly reminded that this is not a one-woman show.  This is a continued relationship, and I am a small small piece to a much greater and beautiful picture of companionship.  The story neither starts nor ends with me, and each individual brings their own abilities to the table.

6. There are a whole lot of people who have the love of God just seeping out of them.  Hospitality, caring for me when I'm sick, quality time, sharing food, smiles and encouraging words have all shown me God's love, faithfulness, and presence in this year.  I could do a whole separate blog on the people in my life, but in short, I could not be more thankful for those whose paths I have crossed this year.

7. Being comfortable with the unknown.  I entered into the YAGM process not knowing what country I would go to.  I then agreed to come to Malaysia not knowing where I would live or what I would be doing.  Then once the year started, there were transitions in leadership, changes in program plans, lots of change and lots of uncertainty.  Being someone who apparently likes structure (see #3) this hasn't been easy for me.  But, as the changes and questions of what's next arise, I have the past to remind me that God is faithful and that I can find peace in the midst of a lot of unknown.

There are more lessons, and I still continue to be challenged by the things I have named here.  When I sat in that room at DIP in Williams Bay, Wisconsin last year, I didn't know what the year ahead held, but I was confident that I was being called to this place.  I think God had and still has a lot for me to learn.  Malaysia, you have taught me a lot, and I will continue to learn from you even after I leave.  For that, I am so thankful.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sudah Makan?

If I had to keep track of the most common Malay words and phrases I hear and use, this is at the top of that list by a lot.  "Sudah" means "already" and "makan" means eat.  When I get to Cheshire Home in the afternoons around 12:30, the first thing I hear is not "apa khabar?" or "how are you?" but instead "Sarah, sudah makan?"  At this point in the day, the answer is not yet, or "belum".  So, I head to eat lunch right away.  I leave the office and walk through a breezeway where staff and residents are sitting to hear variations of, "Makan, Sarah!" Even as I enter the kitchen and grab my plate, I hear, "Sarah, makan!" At first, and even some days still I think to myself, clearly that is what I am doing, I am going to eat right now!  I get my food and sit at the table with a mix of staff and some residents.  Usually, we talk about what we are eating.  "Makan ayam, Sarah!"  (eat chicken, Sarah) "Sedap-can" (it is delicious- right?) "Manis" or "Masin" (sweet or salty)  It shouldn't be a surprise, then that I am most confident in talking about food in Malay.
So I eat my lunch, head back into the office to prepare to teach the language lesson for the day, then emerge around 2:00 back into the living space.  Today for example, there was porridge made from green peas... so so delicious!  "Makan bubur, Sarah!"  So, I grabbed myself a bowl and ate some porridge.  Around 4:00, I noticed a box of bananas, a bowl, and some flour, which can only mean one thing: pisang jamput jamput (that spelling is approximate as I have been told about 15 times what these things are called, only to butcher the word when I try to say it back) "pisang" is banana.  The cooks at Cheshire know the way to my heart.  There was a day when I was sitting in the office listening for the phones when one of the aunties came in to tell me that these little bites of banana heaven were waiting outside.  So today, I pulled up a stool and started helping to peel bananas.  "Saya boleh tolong!" or "I can help!"
I find it easier to talk to people over food.  Conversations begin with me naming foods I know, talking about how much I love them, but them slowly turn into more.  While I don't always understand everything, sharing stories and emotions seems a lot more natural when you are communally peeling bananas.
The question is never "kau lapar?" or "are you hungary?" but instead a more straightforward "sudah makan?", "have you eaten?"  Sometimes I get asked this at like 3:00 in the afternoon, and I haven't quite figured out the appropriate response... Have I eaten?  Recently?  Not really.  Is it meal time?  Also no.  Could I eat something right now?  Maybe, whatcha got??
Tonight as I sat with Mrs. Soong, she asked me if I had eaten.  I told her about the marathon eating that was today at Cheshire and that I wasn't really hungry for dinner.  She still gave me a piece of cake and offered me some bread.
Here, food is just tied to well-being.  There is never a bad time to eat, and always, food can bring a group of people together.  Sharing the food you are cooking is a language of love, and offering someone food is a way to show that you care.  Showing love through food, there's a practice I can say I've gotten on board with.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Maybe I haven't posted in awhile because I've been busier, or maybe its because things don't seem out of the ordinary as often.  Either way, it has been awhile, and there has been lots going on!
As far as work, I've been teaching at both of my sites these days.  In kindergarten I am still assisting in two classes, and am finding myself planning and teaching more and more as time passes.  At Cheshire Home, I've been teaching both English as well as attempting Malay (there is a big key word: attempt) to our bakery students, all of whom are deaf or have a hearing impairment in this batch.  The biggest thing to work on with their Malay is sentence structure, because the way you sign something is not necessarily the way you write it.  While I sometimes don't feel too adequate to teach Malay, I am really appreciative of people I work with who are helping to teach me and helping to teach the class.  Also, I am learning sign language along the way, which is pretty exciting! (It is Malay sign language though, so I'll be interested to see how it compares to American sign language.)
Speaking of teaching, I've also been working with Girl's Brigade (like our Girl Scouts in America) here in KK.  The past few weeks, I have started teaching a first aid class to the girls to help them get a badge for the upcoming badge ceremony.  Last weekend, I helped out with a Girl's Brigade camp on wetlands conservation and learned that KK is home to a pretty beautiful wetlands area!  I'm hoping to do something "very American" with the girls before I leave to do a little cultural exchange, so if you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear from you!
So just work and other activities themselves have kept me busy.  It is nice though to be involved and to learn about yourself, the things that are life-giving and the things that are not so much, what you are good at and where your "growing edges" may be.

There is a twist in the year that many of you may have learned of by now, but I did want to share here, too.  I sent an email to those of you who receive my newsletter about YAGM Malaysia's end-of-service date.  As you may have noticed, be it in my newsletters or through conversations with me or my family, immigration in Malaysia has been a frequent topic in this year's country group.  Unfortunately, we have had volunteers as well as other ELCA personnel in the country flagged by immigration, which means they have either been asked to leave Malaysia for a certain amount of time to prove they are not working here or at least been called into the immigration office to talk with officials.
*I will stop here and say 3 things: 1. We are not in any danger, nor are we breaking any laws in being here.  We are not working in Malaysia/making Malaysian money nor are we here to convert people. Which brings me to number 2. This is not happening because we are Christian.  Immigration policies and procedures are  in a season of crack-down and we happen to be on the end of those more rigid procedures. (Does this sound like seasons of immigration crack-down in America? I think so.)  3. We are not getting kicked out of Malaysia.  This is a YAGM/ELCA decision to conclude due to the uncertainty of the ability for our country group to successfully obtain visas through July.  If you have any questions about this, please message me or email me.  I would be happy to clarify or just talk about it further.*
The length and complexity of what I just shared shows you that this isn't an easy situation.  But, because of this complexity, the YAGM program/ELCA has decided for the YAGM Malaysia service period to conclude in May.  It is hard and unforeseen news.  Therefore, goodbye happenings are starting, closing travel and plans are in the works, and a lot of emotions are happening all at once.  So, in May, our country group will travel to Thailand for our closing country retreat.  From there, our group will spread out a bit.  We have some volunteers traveling back towards the US, some volunteering in Indonesia, some in Hong Kong, and some in Thailand.  I will be one of two volunteers in Bangkok, Thailand serving with a program similar to YAGM through the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I will be there for about 5 weeks, then will make my way back to the US.  I do not want to leave Malaysia in May, however, I am so thankful for the opportunities that have presented themselves to continue service in a new way.

Even though plans, mindsets, and realities of life right now are not at all what I expected or really desired, even though the program is ending early and there have been twists and turns of various kinds throughout this year, life is still so good.  As I hope you get from the first part of this post, I am so happy right now.  Though unexpected and uncontrollable program things have affected this year, they have not and will not negatively impact how I see the year right now nor how I will look back on it in the future.  Much of the sadness in leaving early is simply because this year has been full of joy.  Some days are really hard and some days are just wonderful, and that's life.  And this year of life, I have learned so incredibly much and am thankful for so much.

Thank you for your continued prayers for the program, especially with the upcoming transition.
Peace and Joy!