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.
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!
…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.”
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.]
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?
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!
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”?
It’s not all fun and games…Our First Batch of Homework:
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…
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.”
Everyone is here, safe and sound, along with all of their luggage. Hurrah for that!
This morning, the Carlin family went to the USM International Office, where we met the USM buddies. Each Gustavus student is paired with a Malaysian student, who will help them navigate life on campus. We and the USM buddies–and David, the single Gustavus student who arrived the night before–boarded a charter bus to the airport, where the students’ plane landed at noon.
It was a lot of fun to see everyone meet for the first time.
Then, we went straight to taking care of basic practicalities. The students tested their Gustavus debit cards to make sure the cards would work (they did!). They installed SIM cards in their phones to make sure the phones would work (some did!). We stopped at a Giant hypermarket where they could purchase necessities (pillows, water, clothes hangers, etc.). Many students grabbed a quick bite to eat at the cafe inside the store.
Finally, the bus took us back to campus and dropped off the students–Gusties with their USM buddies–at their new dormitories. After nearly two full days of travel, the Minnesotans can finally rest this evening. Tomorrow is a full day of orientation!
Our family has been in Malaysia for a week now. What a whirlwind!
We have settled into an apartment in Penang Times Square, which is right in Georgetown. The bottom five floors of the building are a shopping mall. The apartments are on top; 23 stories high. We are on the eleventh floor and we have a great view of the city.
We have started to figure out the details of daily life here. There is a very large Chinese grocery store just down the street from us called Gama. That will be where we go for day-to-day groceries. I’ve also made some forays into other parts of the city. There’s a Tesco (basically a British Wal-Mart) and a Mydin (and that’s the Malaysian Wal-Mart) to get a sense of what’s available where.
Transportation has also been a big learning curve. Sidewalks here–especially in Georgetown–are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. So walking from place to place, as I’d intended, is nearly impossible with a toddler. Instead, we’ve been using Uber, the mobile car hiring program. For the uninitiated, Uber is an app for your phone. You type in your location and your destination, and a private driver shows up to take you there. Your credit card info is stored in the app, so no money exchanges hands during the drive. And a receipt is mailed straight to your inbox. We’ve also taken some bus rides. There are several buses that stop in front of our building and many more just down the street at Komtar. Local rides in town are only 1.4 ringgit (about 33 U.S. cents), so that’s certainly affordable.
And then there were all the appointments. On U.S. Monday (our Tuesday morning) I video-conferenced into a city council workshop for the first time ever, and it worked pretty well. My plan is to do that every other Monday, and it seems like all the technology is there to make it work.
Later on Tuesday, our whole family went to Island Hospital for my first Malaysian pre-natal appointment. As everyone had promised, Dr. Narinder is warm and friendly. I will have a private delivery room and a private recovery room, and all the nurses seemed quite nice as well.
On Wednesday, we made our first trip to Universiti Sains Malaysia, where we met with the staff of the International Office. The Malaysian staff have done an incredible job of organizing the logisitics–now Joel and I just have to catch up and learn all that they’ve planned for us!