Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Culture Shock - it's Totally a Real Thing

When I was a freshman in high school, a friend of mine from my weird-kid homeschooling days went to Thailand on a study abroad program. (She has a pretty cool blog too, actually. You should check it out here)

I was instantly struck with jealousy. I've always had a travel bug, and being a student in a foreign country somewhere was my ultimate dream. How cool would that be, to be able to live with a regular family and go to a regular school, in an altogether non-regular place?

So I started looking into exchange programs. As a sophomore, I first applied for the Rotary program, which I didn't get. Bah. And then I applied to a program called AFS. AFS stands for something like 'Ambulance Field Service', 'cause they were an ambulance service during WWII. But after said war, the founder decided he'd had enough of young people killing one another for stupid reasons, and so a study abroad program was created.
pictured: stupid.
And wonder of wonders, I was accepted. Now I had to pick a country. My choosing process was simple: find a country/culture I knew jack shit about, make sure it was really, really far from the US, and go. From this process came Malaysia.
yeah, how much do you know about it? that's what I thought.
My parents were none too thrilled with my choice of countries. I think my dad checked the FBI website for info on Malsysia probably twice a day. They vetoed Turkey, which I found silly, but finally OK'd Malaysia, though they weren't entirely thrilled. But I was bound and determined to go.
though to be fair, it does border Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Georgia. which aren't exactly peaceful places these days. maybe they had a point...
And so, as just a young snippet of a thing at 15 years old, my family put me on a plane to Malaysia for a year. Well, they actually put me on a plane in Casper, Wyoming heading to Denver. Then from there I flew to Los Angeles, spent a few days there meeting the two other US students that would be going to Malaysia as well and learning all sorts of helpful multi-cultural things like "never lend someone your passport" and "what to do if you've lost your passport".

And then the three of us (me, an obnoxiously hipster douche named Nate, and a bouncy blonde girl named Jeana) got on a plane to ride for 13 hours to Taipei. Once in Taipei, we wandered around for a bit, then flew another 4 hours to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Next time you're in a bookstore, go to the language section, and look for a Malay-English dictionary or phrasebook. If you can find one that has more than 50 pages, I'll give you a dollar.
this kind of dollar!
Because of this aforementioned fact, my Malay was admittedly a little slim. I could say "thank you", "please", and "toilet". Maybe "My name is..." if you really pushed me. Nate the Hipster Douche was smug in his greater knowledge of Malay, grandly spouting off his age, his purpose for travel, his country of origin, and probably his goddamn favorite color and shoe size as well to the stone-faced Customs agent, all in Malay. My process was slightly less smooth, though we managed to understand each other with a series of complicated hand gestures (mine) and heavily accented stilted English (the Customs agent's).

Now for those of you who are unaware, Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country. Their main governmental religion is actually Islam, and many of their laws and customs are based around this fact. The population of Malaysia is in fact quite divided, with around 50 or more percent of people being ethnically Malay. 25 percent or so are Chinese, and 15 percent are East Indian or Sri Lankan. By law, if you are ethnically Malay, you must also be Muslim. Likewise, if you marry a Malay, you must convert to Islam. I can't remember how much of your ancestry has to be something other than Malay before you don't have to be Muslim anymore, but it is a pretty high percent.

Most Muslim women in Malaysia do not completely cover their faces, and those who do tend to opt for colorful clothes and head coverings (known in Malaysia as a tudung). I would estimate around half the girls I went to school with covered their heads, and none covered their entire faces.
one of my pictures from a Hari Raya celebration, at a friend's house. I totally blend, right? the colorful clothes are called baju korong, and again the headcovering is called a tudung.
But when I first got there, and was trying to navigate KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) with a giant suitcase, massive jetlag, and the beginnings of culture shock, I didn't know any of this. So the three of us little American students get on one of those transport shuttle things to get to baggage claim. And I was looking around, and noticed that Jeana and I were the only two girls on the shuttle that weren't wearing full-on burquas.
good lord it must get sweaty inside that thing.
And then I had a mini panic attack. Because what I didn't know at the time was, since Malaysia is such a Muslim-friendly country, there are a lot of Middle-Eastern Muslims that travel there for vacationing. They know they can get halal food (a.k.a. food safe for Muslims to eat = not containing things like pork or alcohol), not be harassed for wearing traditional clothes, find mosques easily, and find a place for morning prayer. But like I said, I didn't know that. In my head, I thought Oh my god, what was I thinking! Everyone here is going to be wearing buquas, and people are going to judge me for not wearing one, but I don't want to wear one because it looks really really hot, and shit what am I gonna do...

And so forth and so on. I managed to calm myself down when I noticed one of the women on the shuttle was reading Janet Evanovich and wearing a leopard print dress underneath her burqa. And then several of my cultural stereotypes were shattered right then and there, and I started to breathe again.
oh the horror! wait, no...
So yes, I spent eleven months in a country by myself when I was fifteen. And it was one of the most terrifying, exhilarating, interesting, fascinating experiences I have had thus far in my life. Don't worry, I'll tell you more about it. But there's no way I can fit it all in one post, so I'll leave you with this gem.

you're welcome. sorry if you don't like snakes.

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