Tag Archives: Gustavus

Wesak Day

(Confession: I really hate blogging out of chronological order.  But eh, I’ve got a two-month-old baby and our class has had lots of adventures worth sharing!  So I’m blogging still, even if it’s out of order. Stay tuned–there’s a bit more to come still!)

May 21 was Wesak Day, an important Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.  The Gustavus students had their very last field trip of the semester, a trip to a couple of famous temples in Penang.

There was a little confusion at our first stop.  Joel, Penelope and I arrived a bit early.  We were soon met by our instructor, Wei, but no students could be found.  The students were to come from campus via minivan.  But we waited and waited, and they never arrived.  A few phone calls later and we had it all straightened out.  The USM drivers accidentally went to the wrong temple.  Because Penang is the type of place where you have to specify exactly WHICH Thai Buddhist temple you plan to meet at.

Anyhow, the students eventually made it to our starting location and we headed inside Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple, otherwise known in Penang as the Reclining Buddha Temple.  This temple was originally built by the Thai community in 1900.  It’s undergone extensive renovations, however, and as the Thai community in Penang is quite small now, it is primarily administered and visited by Chinese Buddhists.  The reclining statue of Buddha is 33 meters long, making it one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world.  Different depictions of Buddha represent different aspects of his character.  Reclining Buddha is meant to depict the Buddha at the instant of his death and his final detachment from the physical world.

Reclining Buddha.
Eat your heart out, Jamberry.

Naturally, this would be a very popular temple on a day meant to celebrate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death.  There were crowds assembling out front.  A small army of temple volunteers had set up large tents in the courtyard and were distributing free vegetarian food.  Highlights included cinnamon buns (colored green and flavored with pandan) and some sort of noodles.  

Because of the crowds, this particular temple does not allow the burning of joss sticks (incense) inside.  However, lotus candles are a popular devotional offering.  Candles represent light.  Light symbolizes wisdom; light drives away darkness.  For a small donation, devotees can purchase a bright pink lotus candle and add it to the many on the devotional tables.  We walked around the temple to see more detail. Behind the Buddha statue is a columbarium, where the ashes of cremated devotees are kept. Murals and paintings adorned the walls with stories from the life of Buddha.

Lotus flower candles.

Conveniently, two of the most famous Buddhist temples in Penang happen to be across the road from one another.  After we finished up at the Reclining Buddha Temple, we wandered across the street to Dhammakarama Burmese Temple.  This is quite a sprawling complex, with little rooms and free-standing temples dotted across the facility.  One highlight is the large standing Buddha.  

There were many lovely and detailed paintings in the main hall, depicting the life and experiences of the Buddha. I wasn’t familiar with most of the stories, but was admittedly amused by one titled, “The Buddha subduing the fierce, drunkened elephant, Nalagiri.”

Watch out, Baby Penelope!
In addition to the temple, there is also a monastery on site. In the corner of the main hall, Buddhist monks in saffron orange robes sat and offered prayers to visitors. Wei explained that this was not a blessing, but a prayer of protection for one’s mind. Several of us chose to receive a prayer while the monk dipped a leafy branch into a bowl of water and sprinkled it over their heads. Afterwards, they were each presented with a small yellow string bracelet, a physical reminder to remain strong against the challenges to one’s mind. Several students knelt for these prayers, and I took Penelope over as well.
Receiving prayers.

Everybody loves a man with a baby.

From there, we wandered outside a bit more.  Wei explained that there were many novelty attractions to entice visitors to come to the temple.  These were not necessary components of Buddhism, but just ways attracting attention, which will hopefully lead to more people being exposed to and embracing Buddhism.  For instance, there was a pond with rotating metal bowls featuring auspicious words (love, harmony, education, etc.).  Toss a coin into a bowl; win the prize.  It felt just like a carnival game, to be honest.  Many Gusties used up their loose change at that pond, although I don’t know if anyone was successful. 

The coin toss game. In the background, the mural depicts Prince Siddhartha as he abandons his life of royalty in seaerch of enlightenment. His distraught subjects beg him to stay.

The temple featured some other interesting statues.  In one corner stood two huge Panca Rupa, guardians of the world, and possessing the strongest features each of the elephant, lion, deer, fish, and eagle.  (These are not really a Buddhist symbol at all, but as with many religious sites, there is a blend of religious and cultural symbolism.)


A Baba Nyonya Farewell

Saturday night was the farewell dinner for the Gustavus 2016 Semester in Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia.  It was a swanky affair–held a the Equatorial Hotel Ballroom.  There was a delicious meal, dance and musical performances, and a few speakers.  

It was incredibly humbling to see just how many people were involved in this endeavor.  There were the administrators, the IMCC staff, the module coodinators, the lecturers, the Buddies… A whole lot of dedicated and thoughtful people made our stay in Malaysia so incredible.  

The theme for the night was Baba Nyonya.  Baba Nyonya is an informal term for the Peranakan or “Straits Chinese,” the descendants of Chinese immigrants who retained their native religion and traditions but adopted the Malay language and clothing.  Their culture and history is a unique fusion of different regions, and perhaps a beautiful symbol of the partnerships that USM’s International Mobility and Career Center creates with its students all over the world.  Far and near.  Old and new.  Comfort and adventure.

We had so much to celebrate: new friendships, new knowledge, and wonderful memories.  Yet the evening was bittersweet, for we all knew that goodbyes were looming; the first of the Gusties left the airport the very next morning.  The official program is over but the friendships have just begun.  How lucky we are, to live in an era where we can still stay in touch from opposite sides of the world.  

Penelope was sleeping soundly at the end of the meal…
…when the Buddies took the stage with a dance routine…
…she was a little startled by their performance.
Dr. Hafizal & Keishi
All the Gusties took turns sharing their favorite memories from the semester.

Athirah always has a calming effect on Penelope.

There was a costume contest. Carl won “Best Dressed Male.”
Ai Chan and Keishi.
Hannah takes part in the flower tossing fun.

Penelope’s Blanket

It’s started. The first of our Gusties has boarded a plane and left Malaysia. I’ve been so honored by the opportunity to travel and explore alongside them this semester, and so grateful for the kindness they’ve shown my family.

When Penelope was born, the Gustavus students presented us with the most incredible gift; one I will treasure it always, both as a memento of our time in Penang, and also as a symbol of their generosity. In secret, the students arranged with a local batik shop to make a special baby blanket for Penelope. All 10 students participated in painting the blanket, which was as well outside the scope of what Rozana’s Batik would normal create. They presented the gift to us on Easter Sunday, the first time we brought Penelope to USM.

Thank you, Annika, Carl, David, Emma, Helen, Jen, Jenna, Lily, Sam, and Zack.  See you on the other side of the world!




Bananas and Baby Sea Turtles

As part of their Tropical Ecology class, the Gustavus Living Diversity program traveled to Malaysia’s Terengganu State and Pulau Redang this past week. Pulau Redang is an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, and it’s well known as a beach paradise and snorkel/dive hotspot.

We all met at the USM campus late on Tuesday night.  Our charter bus departed at about 10pm and the plan was for us to sleep on the bus and wake up at our destination the next morning.  The good news is that both kids slept quite readily.  As Penelope had cried through the past two nights, I’d been a bit stressed that she would  keep everyone awake.  She didn’t.  In fact, she slept soundly and barely made a peep all night.  I had a harder time falling asleep.  Our bus continued to climb up mountainous slopes and careen down the other sides, the driver frequently straddling the middle line, only to slow suddenly when oncoming headlights appeared.  I think most of us adults were awake.  Sometime after midnight, I finally fell asleep.  Penelope was on my chest, in a baby carrier, and we both had a good sleep like that until morning.

In the morning, we ate breakfast near the mangroves and the students went on a boat tour.  Joel and Simon accompanied them, but the professors warned that it would be too hot for a baby.  Penelope and I checked into our hotel, the Pandan Laut Beach Resort and waited for their return.  The hotel was a simple place with rustic free-standing cabins.  I think our group were the only guests, as we nearly filled all their rooms.

Penelope and I met up with the gang at lunch time.  Some local ladies appeared and taught us the fundamentals of their style of weaving and (of course) offered the products (placemats & baskets) for purchase.

Next stop was the Pink House, a womens’ conservation cooperative.  It was started about a decade ago with assistance from Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Nestle.

Nestlé funded a survey of the socioeconomic needs and existing conditions of communities in key villages in Setiu. The survey identified the local communities’ capacity building needs. Emphasis was put on the women because, as mothers and co-income earners, they had an important role to play in the area’s long-term development in a sustainable manner. The project entailed equipping local women with the skills needed to develop cottage industries, including training on basic entrepreneurial skills, adopting clean “green” practices in food processing, marketing and branding as well as environmental awareness.


The organiational chart looks a little different in a woman-owned conservation cooperative.
Simon plays mancala on the steps of the Pink House.
Local paper crafts.

By all the measures, the venture was successful.  The original funding for the program has expired and the women now work to make the Pink House financially self-sufficient.  The women there showcased some other handicrafts and taught us how to make the regional style of banana chips.

You start with very green bananas…
…peel them with a sharp knife…
…slice them thinly…
…and fry in oil until they are crispy, golden brown.

I’ll admit.  I was a bit worried about everyone walking away with their fingers intact.  Using a mandolin slicer without your fingers–no grip–is a bit scary.  But we were OK.   And the banana chips were addictive! The ingredients were: very green, hard bananas, oil, and sugar. So simple; so tasty. Almost everybody walked out of the shop with a few bags to go.

I needed my hands free to chop bananas. Fortunately, there were plenty of women available to help me with that.

Our last stop of the afternoon was at the turtle hatchery. Around the world, sea turtles are at risk because their eggs are harvested and consumed by local people, who often view them as a delicacy or believe they hold special medicinal properties. Because of this, it has become a routine practice for conservationists to patrol beaches at night, identify sea turtle nests, and relocate the eggs to a safe spot until they hatch. Joel and I saw a nearly identical set up when we visited Petatlan, Mexico, in 2012. The biologists explained that while other species used to nest in this part of Malaysia, they’ve all been extirpated except for green sea turtles. Much to our surprise and enjoyment, one of the nests erupted and baby turtles started crawling out of the sand as we watched. Even better yet, we were told that we could witness the turtles being released that evening at the beach by our hotel.

Each red stake represents a relocated nest of turtle eggs, which has 60 to 100+ eggs. The location is guarded around the clock and the fence is sunk into the sand several feet to keep predators out.
Nets prevent the hatchlings from wandering too far before the biologists can take them directly to their home beach, where their mother laid the eggs.
Petatlan, Mexico, March 2012. A nearly identical set-up.
These turtles actually emerged from their nest while we were watching.

Hanging out at the beach at Pandan Laut, where we would release the baby sea turtles a few hours later.

At about 10:00 that night, we all gathered on the beach. We were instructed to turn off all lights and stand completely still and quiet. One of the sea turtle biologists uncovered a box full of baby turtles and tipped it over. The little turtles skittered towards the sea. It was so dark we could barely see them, but they crawled along, occasionally bumping a foot or crawling right over. (Yes, it tickles!) No photographs, because the flash would be terribly disorienting to their sensitive eyes. But everyone agreed that it was a highlight of our trip to Malaysia so far.

Simon Among the Simians

 The Gustavus students took a Saturday field trip to the mainland, coordinated by one of the Tropical Ecology lecturers, Nadine Ruppert, a primatologist.  Joel, Simon, and I were very excited to come along, too.  Dr. Ruppert also was accompanied by two of her graduate students and her three little boys.

We visited two zoos in one day: first was Bukit Merah’s Orang Utan Island.  (I love the name; it sounds like something from a Scooby Doo mystery.) This is actually a breeding facility for orangutans, which are native to Borneo but not peninsular Malaysia.  We were a very lucky group–we had the opportunity to see quite a few orangutans up close, which is probably not always the case.

Watching the big male of the island eat his breakfast.


The young’uns get to play all day.
This baby’s name is Cha Cha. In the wild, he’d stay with his mother for 8+ years.

Just three feet–and a highly elecctrified fence–between us and the apes.
Simon and simian.


Simon and Emma, having fun.


So apparently Bukit Merah is a popular fishing destination.
Impromptu class discussion with lots of little boys.

While we waited for the bus, Dr. Ruppert led a discussion full of really great, thought-provoking questions. Some of the things the class pondered: What is the best way to protect an endangered species that has many simultaneous threats (habitat loss, illegal poaching, etc.)?  What if we become very successful at breeding orangutans, but don’t have enough stable habitat to release them to? Can animals that have been bred/raised in captivity be successfully released into the wild?  How do we balance the value of public education with the rights of animals in zoos?  How do you accommodate the spatial and physical needs of a wide-ranging species in captivity? There are no easy answers.  (Conservation can be tough.)

We left Bukit Merah resort and stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant.  From there, it was about a 30 minute drive to Zoo Taiping, our second destination of the day.  In a rare occurrence, Simon fell asleep on the bus ride.

Dr. Ruppert told us that she thought Taiping is possibly the best zoo in Malaysia, and it certainly was nice.  Several of the enclosures were under renovation, as they attempt to make “open concept” enclosures that more closely mimic natural habitat for the animals within.

While it doesn’t quite look like a real rain forest, this habitat gives the orangutans plenty of structure and exercise.
Gibbons are the smallest of the apes. This little baby wanted to follow its mother across the bridge. He put out his arms to balance and looked just like a human toddler learning to walk.


With help from a zookeeper, Simon feeds a slice of white bread to a giraffe.
Taller than a giraffe.
Just like horses, giraffes have exceptionally soft muzzles.
Please don’t feed the animals…unless the zookeeper hands you some Wonder Bread and says it’s OK.

The last stop was the hippopotamus enclosure, where the zookeeper fed them an assortment of veggies.  Hippos are known to be very dangerous, and I’ve never actually seen them up close, out of the water before.  Watching them eat was incredible.  He tossed an entire pumpkin or hard squash into the hippo’s mouth, and it puréed it as fast as a banana in a blender.  …With the lid off, I might add.  

So these are pretty much the most terrifying animals ever.
Yeah, you’re gonna want to back up, unless you want to be sprayed with orange squash goo.
The end of a long, hot, slightly rainy day. We were all pretty tired.
It was a 13-hr day and Simon was really well behaved. After he helped some strangers and made some great choices, he was allowed to pick out a souvenir…a rather scary Transformers mask.


When To Kill Your Mom and Dad…

…and other things we learned in our Malaysian university classes.

As a group, our four months of living in Malaysia will no doubt generate hundreds of stories and thousands of pictures.  So it is easy for people back home to think that our time here is all about enjoying local food and tolerating large lizards (or vice versa).  But we also represent a group of people, trained in the American private liberal arts tradition, learning at a prestigious Asian public university ten times the size of Gustavus.  So in addition to learning how to use our phones, the coins, and ordering coffee, we are also taking interesting and challenging classes that teach us everything from “ecosystem services” to “when to kill your Mom and Dad.”

Lily takes notes, fueled by her crackers and chrystanthemum tea juicebox.
Lily takes notes, fueled by crackers and a chrystanthemum tea juicebox.

So here is Joel’s run-down of our four classes (called “modules”) at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the kinds of topics we discuss.

Religious Experiences in Malaysia

This course is an introduction to the beliefs and practices within the main religious traditions of Malaysia:  Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity.  We also discuss the notion of ultimate reality, ethics, salvation and afterlife, rituals, justifications for beliefs, religious experience, and religious pluralism.

How do you balance ethics with respect for religious belief?  Consider a culture that believes that your body in the afterlife is forever in the condition the body had at death.  The religion understands a woman at age 90 who is weak and blind will spend eternity in that condition.  Thus, it is the duty of loving offspring to kill their parents (commit parricide) before decrepitude occurs.  What is the role of the outsider here – should the stranger interfere with a well-established ‘merciful’ religious ritual?   As we learn about religious practices, how do you balance moral relativism with cultural respect?

[Disclaimer:  After the Living Diversity Malaysia program ends, the institutions of Gustavus Adolphus College and Universiti Sains Malaysia and their representatives are not legally responsible for any suspicious loss of parents.]

Dr. Gan, a Religious Experiences lecturer, challenges notions of God.
Dr. Gan, a Religious Experiences lecturer, challenges notions of God.

Tropical Ecology

This course aims at introducing students to the studies of tropical biodiversity, ecology, and conservation biology as applied in Malaysia. The program is field-based, with only 90 minutes spent in the classroom each week, and the rest conducted in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened ecosystems in the world.  Field activities range from visiting orang utans, to counting aquatic insects and measuring sea turtles!

Why do the tropics, and Malaysia in particular, have so many different kinds of plants and animals?  The greatest number of species found in the oceans are found in tropical coral reef ecosystems.  The greatest variety of land species are found in tropical rainforest ecosystems.  We live near BOTH of these ecosystems, in a nation that contains one in five of the described species on the planet.  Why?  Is it the greater land area? (after all, the Earth is at its widest in the tropics)   Is it the heat? (higher temperatures in cells should increase the rate of mutation)  Is it the stability over the millenia?  (Malaysia never has experienced an Ice Age that wiped out previous creatures)  Is it that species cause more species? (Once a new plant species forms, a new plant-eater can evolve now, too!)  OR can more than one of these be correct?

Dr. Ruppert teaches us the fundamentals of ecology, and the proper way to say "Orang Utan."
Dr. Ruppert teaches us the fundamentals of ecology, and the proper way to say “Orang Utan.”

Bring on the Biology!
Bring on the Biology!

Malay Language and Culture

This is a basic level Bahasa Malaysia course, starting with pronunciation and basic grammar, with an aim to creating basic conversations.  Here is where we learn to count numbers, order food, and wish our teachers a good afternoon and basically how to get up in the morning.  The class also exposes students to the culture of Malays, from holidays and festivals, to our first field trip, and the apparent need to feed guests every 30 minutes.

Why is English so complicated?  Bahasa Malaysia is very challenging for us, as our habit of looking for Greek/Latin root words is simply not helpful.  So every, every word must be learned via rote memorization.  But the grammar? Oh pleeez … this is an absurdly simple language.  No verb conjugation, no male/female pronouns, the pronunciation is straightforward without special letters (no umlauts here).  Can’t ask for more than that!

On our first field trip ever, this time to the Kota Aur homestay.
On our first field trip ever, this time to the Kota Aur homestay.

Living Diversity

Several classes in one, Living Diversity combines the approaches of social sciences and humanities in examining Malaysia’s diversity. The social sciences provide Malaysia’s political and sociological history that will serve as background knowledge to understanding contemporary issues in Malaysia.  Against the backdrop of the nation’s history, the diversity theme re-appears in an examination of literature about and from Malaysia.

What does it mean to be a citizen?  The news around BlackLivesMatter, the US Presidential election, and Syrian refugees means that we are all being asked (or are being told) what it means to be “an American. “ Malaysia has the same question, but from a very different viewpoint.  Malaysia’s founding Constitution is based on negotiation and race, rather than one based on revolution and ideology.   Malaysians must write their religion on most government documents.  Children go to one of five separate school systems (college is the first time Indians and Chinese and Malays attend integrated classes).   Ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples hold a separate legal status, defined in the constitution, from Malaysians of Indian and Chinese descent.  And yet Malaysia is one of the most (if not the most) politically stable nations in Southeast Asia.  So what, if anything, defines being “Malaysian”?

Dr. Azim discusses why Malaysia is a nation, but not a nation-state.
Dr. Azim discusses why Malaysia is a nation, but not a nation-state.

It’s not all fun and games…Our First Batch of Homework:

  • Read a chapter from Bash’s Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Respond to the assertion that God cannot forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the victim.
  • Memorize and recite (or sing) a song in Bahasa Malaysia, like this one (Americans will recognize the tune!).  This assignment will no doubt be awkward and embarrassing, so group leaders definitely shall video our efforts for later blackmail…
  • Read the scientific journal article “Twenty landmark papers in biodiversity conservation.” Choose at least two issues as personally interesting, and consider these as potential topics for a scientific review presentation at semester’s end.
  • Provide evidence of the ‘stable tension’ in which Malaysia’s multiple ethnicities exist.  In other words, create an essay, backed by observations from campus, field trips, the media, etc., that describes “segregation with cooperation.”
Some of us are more artistic than others...
Some of us are more artistic than others…
Ten Gusties eager to begin their day of learning. Or at least, eager to enjoy a classroom with working A/C.
Ten Gusties eager to begin their day of learning. Or at least, eager to enjoy a classroom with working A/C.

Kota Aur: Homestay Weekend

Last weekend, the Gustavus students traveled to the small village of Kota Aur (on the mainland) for a weekend homestay with local families.  Joel and I discussed the trip with the USM administrators before the students arrived.  We all agreed that with me being nine months pregnant, it probably wasn’t wise for our family to stay there, so far from our preferred hospital and doctor. So we made day trips (a little over an hour’s drive) to the village each day, while the students slept overnight in the village.  It made me feel a little self-conscious about the extra treatment; I don’t think that pregnant women get so many accommodations in the U.S.  I certainly appreciated it, though!

When our USM bus arrived in Kota Aur, the community had a big welcome for us.  Young students from a nearby town were dressed in traditional clothes and performed hand drums as we walked the path to the village.


Cute kids.

We were greeted with food (always, in Malaysia!) and hot tea.  It felt good to eat something after our long bus ride.  Then the students were paired with their “foster parents.”  


Second breakfast!
Noodles, curry dumplings, and the green thing is a confection called “kuih.”
Meet your new parents!

After that, we hopped back on the bus for a busy itinerary of sightseeing for the remainder of the day.  The first stop was at a nipah plantation.  The nipah palm is native to mangroves in this part of the world and is cultivated for many purposes.  It’s an unusual tree, as the trunk actually grows underground, in the thick mud of mangroves, and only the leaf fronds are visible.  The palm fronds have long been used for thatching roofs and making baskets.  But there is also a food use: the large flower clusters can be tapped for their sap, much like maple trees.  You can drink the sap-juice; it’s a bit like coconut water.  But with its high sugar content and the intense heat here, it turns to alcohol within days.  And if you wait a little bit longer, the alcohol turns to vinegar.  The farmer was selling bottles of vinegar, so I bought some.  I’m not quite sure what we’ll do with it yet.

This is a nipah flower cluster. They get even bigger and are very heavy. The plantation own cuts off the seed head and collects the sap in a plastic bottle.


Tasting nipah juice.
Nipah vinegar for sale.

Our next stop was the famous “whispering market.”  This is a fish market, where fishermen bring in their daily catch to sell. Normally, the fish would be sold by auction or by bargaining over a set price.  But at the whispering market, they have a different system.  A seller places a quantity of fish out to be seen by all the prospective buyers.  Then, one-by-one, the buyers whisper their offer into his ear.  He announces the high price, and the fish are sold to that customer.  It’s basically a sealed-bid process.  Apparently this market is a one-of-a-kind place; I found it really interesting.


Whispering at the market.
Loading up fish that have been purchased.
Joel went nuts with the chance to play marine biology prof for the afternoon.  He soon had permission from the buyers to wade into piles of fish and was giving an impromptu fish anatomy lesson to all of the Gusties (most of whom aren’t science majors). Simon wanted to be just like Daddy, and the fishermen were very kind to let our little boy grab and manhandle the fish they were trying to buy or sell.


Non-biologists always look a little confused when Joel starts talking about fish.
Digging into the fish pile.
Many students had never seen a horseshow crab before. Yes, Malaysians eat them!
Simon wants to be like Daddy.
Getting silly.
These are the fishermens’ boats. Similar small boats can be found all over the world, and are the way that much of the world’s population acquires their dietary protein.
The guy in orange really liked Simon. Every time they walked by, he handed Simon a different fish.

Oooo, baracuda…
We had a deliciously lunch at a local seaside cafe, and then I made the decision to head home.  Sometimes traveling with a 3-year-old means you have to miss out on some of the fun, and I knew Simon was hot and tired and would need to go home soon or melt down.  USM had sent a private driver just for this purpose, and so Simon and I said our goodbyes and headed home.  

All of the Gusties have been so gracious and patient with our little person. I am so grateful to them for their kindness.
Fish for lunch!
 Joel stayed with the class for the rest of the day’s activities, so I’ll have to let him tell you about the boat ride, the ancient ruins, and all the other cool stuff they saw.