America, Take Note

Guest article by Anelise Zimmer 
Willamette University 
A little over a month ago, my housemate and I moved into our new home, a simple but clean house in the outskirts of a town called Sri Aman. Sri Aman translates to “town of peace”, and it is in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The town is next to a large river, Batang Lupar, and is surrounded by jungle, palm plantations, and rice paddies. I am quickly growing fond of this place and the rural vibes; however, our placement is one of the most remote placements in the program and I can already tell I will cherish the weekends I get to spend visiting with the other far-away ETAs as much as I’ll enjoy getting to know the ins and outs of my new home. 

A few weekends ago, I visited Lundu, a beach town in Sarawak where two other ETAs live. It was a three day weekend and another ETA’s birthday, the Prime Minister of Malaysia was going to be in town (Zoolander, anyone?), there were Chinese New Year celebrations, and the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia, was blooming which is super rare. It was a pretty dang good weekend to visit Lundu.

Anelise with the rare Rafflesia flower.
My favorite memory from the weekend is one that had nothing to do with the long list of activities above, though. After parking to watch the Chinese New Year parade, we ran into a teacher from SMK Lundu, where the ETA, Cikgu (teacher) Mathias, teaches. This teacher, who Mathias had apparently only had interacted with a few times, insisted on buying all twelve of us Sarawak style hamburgers at his cousin’s burger stand. We accepted of course, because in Malaysia it is considered disrespectful to decline free food (both a blessing and a curse).

We waited on the sidewalk in front of the burger stand and played with the myriad of small children who were also hanging out in front of the stand. Giggles and high fives were exchanged — both things I consider to be successful markers of cross-cultural communication.

It began to rain. We were invited to stand under the awning of the house behind the burger stand.

It began to rain even harder. We were invited to enter the living room of the house behind the burger stand.

All twelve of us removed our Chacos and flip flops at the door, and sat down amongst the many people who we now understood to be family members of the teacher that insisted on buying us the burgers. The aforementioned children sat with us, smiling and shy, responding only to high fives. The giggling continued, the exchange improved. While we waited, our unsuspecting hosts brought us warm Milo (basically chocolate milk, for all you uncultured Americans), and chips (crisps, for all you uncultured British). Our burgers were delivered and promptly devoured, but not without a few selfies with our hosts.

The group with their new friends in Lundu.
The parade was about to start, so we began to say our goodbyes. Goodbyes, I’ve come to learn, consist of selfies, exchanging of WeChat contact information, selfies, hugs, holding of children, selfies, thank yous, and then some more selfies. Then, the children came around the room and showed their respect to each of us with a salaam, a gesture common in Malay tradition in which they bowed slightly and held our right hands to their foreheads.

The entire group, the twelve ETAs and our new friends, stepped back to the sidewalk where this whole interaction had begun. We watched the parade together in the pouring rain, under what is possibly the largest umbrella ever invented.

ETAs wait for the parade after eating Sarawak style burgers.

This, my friends, is true hospitality: accepting strangers with unabashed generosity; giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are good people; respecting them, despite varying religious and/or political differences; and making them feel welcome in a foreign country, where the language, food, and customs are different than in their home nations. Admirable, don’t you think?

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