A Happy Misfortune

Guest article by Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt
The College of William & Mary

Rebecca standing next to her rental car

Oh my goodness, what a morning.

It was supposed to be a very important one for me. Madame Tan (my mentor) had arranged to have my official “welcoming ceremony” at today’s 7:20 AM assembly, so this morning my alarm went off at 5:45. I was dressed, prepped and out the door by 6:20, but when I got in my car, I realized that I desperately needed gas. Luckily, I live right next to a Caltex, so my car was filled and en route to Kedai Buloh by 6:30 AM. This was when things took a turn for the worst.
I was zipping along the dark, nearly empty road, feeling good about beating the 7 AM Kota Bharu traffic. Thinking about what I should say in the speech I’d been asked to give today, my confidence was boosted when “We Built This City” began playing on my new favorite radio station. Singing along and still feeling like a pro for driving on the left side of the road, my spirits were high. Then, about two miles past the gas station, every warning indicator in my car lit up. As the Almera quickly slowed without my help, I immediately pulled over and grabbed my phone.
The first person I could reach was Najib, my state’s English Language Official, whose title has now been changed to Rebecca’s Official Person Ever. Even though I woke him up, he was quick to come to my aid…and to realize why my car was in its current state. When I told him that I’d just put diesel into the Almera, he gasped, laughed and said, “Oh, Rebecca…you’ve made a horrible mistake!” Then he assured me that everything would be alright and that, after getting dressed, he’d come to fetch me.
This was when my misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When Najib came to pick me up, I just kept apologizing and thanking him for taking the time to rescue me. I felt stupid for making such a big error and, even worse, I felt horrible that I was likely going to miss my own “welcoming ceremony.” The confident go-getter who’d been just been belting out 80s hits was replaced by a quiet and mortified loser. That was how I felt when Najib arrived…stupid and embarrassed.

Encik Najib to the rescue!
But Najib didn’t make me feel dumb or burdensome. He kept insisting that there was no need for me to apologize and that, from his perspective, the only thing that mattered in this situation was my safety. Because we were having trouble reaching an emergency hotline, Najib suggested that we leave the car and go out for breakfast. So, off we headed to McDonald’s, where Najib bought us halal chicken and egg McMuffins and coffees. At breakfast, Najib and I just chatted about family, school and hobbies. I felt fortunate to have some one-on-one time with such an important person, and I really enjoyed his company and our conversation. Our talk also kept my mind off of the Almera and the possible repercussions of this morning’s screw-up.
After leaving McDonald’s, Najib took me to his office, where I had the pleasure of meeting many of his lovely co-workers. All of the women in the office complimented me on my baju kurung and ensured me that my car would speedily be fixed. That being said, literally every person who heard that I’d put diesel in my car completely exploded with laughter when they found out…but by that point, I was laughing, too. I was surrounded by compassionate, understanding new friends, and I felt lucky to have met these people. In the words of Najib, my morning was a “happy misfortune”…and it kept getting happier.
At Najib’s office, we were finally able to reach the emergency hotline for the car rental company. Despite this, we lacked a piece of crucial information: my license plate number. So, after saying goodbye to the staff, we headed back toward my Almera, making two quick stops along the way. Najib had to meet with two principals, and this gave me the chance to see two new schools…and the beautiful smiles of many young Malaysian students.
After reaching my car and calling for a tow truck, Najib then proposed a trip to visit his wife, Zakiah, at the school where she teaches. I had really enjoyed chatting with Zakiah when I first met her, so I was glad for the opportunity to see her again. At Zakiah’s school, Najib and I also got to have “second breakfast” and teh-tarik (Malaysia’s famous “pulled tea”). Our meal granted me another nice chunk of time with Zakiah, who already feels like a second mother to me. I feel like she and I relate on a deeper level, and having that sort of connection with someone outside of my own culture is so inexplicably exciting and comforting. Once again, my morning’s error was proving to be a “happy misfortune”…a true blessing in disguise.
And now I am home, well-fed and feeling so supported and loved by the community that surrounds me. Today began with misfortune, yes, but that misfortune sparked grace, understanding and real human connection. It also sparked lots of laughter, but that’s okay…I’ve learned my lesson. Fellow ETAs, don’t put diesel in your Nissan Almeras…but if you do make that mistake, not to worry. The Malaysians will save you.

3 thoughts on “A Happy Misfortune

  1. Rebecca: what a wonderful story! I am the former Cultural Attache at the Embassy and loved working with ETAs during my tour (2006-2009). Raymond Chew is a good friend of mine. I certainly hope you have sent this article to your alum magazine at William and Mary. Would you mind if it was republished in the newsletter of “Friends of Malaysia?” It's the organization of former Peace Corps folks from Malaysia…AND we are hoping that ETAs will eventually join us also! If you want to reach me, my address is marjorieharrison@yahoo.com


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