Not Alone

Guest Article Written by Nicole Colon

New Jersey City University

I had prepared myself for a lot of things before coming to Malaysia. I thought I had gotten the right products, the right advice, the right books. I had prepared myself for the culture shock, letting things go, going with the flow, and learning new languages. What I hadn’t prepared for was the loneliness. This feeling that no one understands what you’re going through, that no one cares what you’re going through, that you are alone in this unfamiliar place and are expected to be okay.

Before I arrived in Malaysia, I visited relatives in the Dominican Republic for the holidays. During those two weeks, the person I gravitated to the most was my uncle, an Army veteran, who has had a lot of experience being away from home. During one of our conversations, he warned me about “tears in my ears,” or the time I would lie in bed and suddenly burst into tears because I missed home while I was in Malaysia.

I cannot say that has exactly happened, but I have had those tears in my ears because of the aforementioned loneliness. I wasn’t crying for mom or dad or my little brother specifically, I was crying for someone, anyone to tell me it was going to be okay. This loneliness was my own doing, though. From April to early May, all my weekends were devoted to helping others with their English Camps and putting on one of my own. I had stressed myself out so much so, that by the time the month was over, I needed some serious recharge time away from people. Instead of re-energizing me, this self-imposed isolation took its toll. I prolonged and prolonged this so called “recharge” period until I began to reject being around other people, period.

The Pahang ETAs gather to makan after an English Camp.

With this in mind, I wasn’t looking forward to returning to Kuala Lumpur for mid-year programming, in which all 99 ETAs would be together again. I was worried about feeling drained. I ended up spending most of my time at mid-year alone, but a handful of times I let myself be around people and I regret none of those moments.

An important thing about this program I am a part of is that there are 98 other people in my same position, and a handful of people (coordinators) who have already been through what I’m going through. Weeks go by quickly, so it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with your own life out here, but there are rare moments when things just slow down and you can appreciate where you are, how far you’ve come, the things you’ve done, and the people you’ve been able to meet.

We are all far from home, but over the past couple of months we have found things that remind us of home or we’d like to bring back home with us. We’ve found coffee places that serve our favorite drinks (new and old), we’ve had food that is so worth the ringgit, we’ve come across places that make our days a little more fun, more easy, more bearable and we want to share them with each other.

ETA Nicole Colon and ETA Farhana Hasan of Pahang

There are only two months left of my time as an ETA. A large part of me wants to focus solely on the things my students and my school needs, but I know that I will lose out on the other important part of this experience, connection and learning from those connections.

From the beginning of the this program, we have been told time and time again that our fellow ETAs are our biggest assets. These people are the ones you work with, the ones you share your foreign life with, the ones you travel with when solo-travel won’t be as fun, the ones who don’t judge you when you whine over not being able to eat tacos or sandwiches. Even though sometimes these connections feel rushed or forced, a lot of them are very real and very necessary.

It’s not uncommon for ETAs to travel to visit other ETAs on the peninsula or in Borneo! ETA Jacob Hippert of Sarawak pictured on the right!

For some, it is difficult to make a connection with those in their communities and the ETA relationships are the saving grace. For others, it has become a balance of “American time” vs “Malaysian time” in which too much time with either group of people can become overwhelming. For me, it is pulling myself out of the haven I created for myself in my for-now home and actually working to make connections with my community and fellow ETAs.

Nicole celebrates Teachers’ Day (Hari Guru) with her mentor, Selvi.
I have, over the past couple of weeks, declined my roommate’s offers to go out and join her outings with her students and co-workers. Then, last Monday, I pulled myself out of my room and joined her. We went over to a neighbor’s house, a teacher friend, to have dinner. I was wary and hesitant, but once I sat down at the dinner table and was served a bowl of spaghetti, I regretted turning down my roommate so many times. The spaghetti I was served tasted like the one my mother makes back home. There is a certain taste to Dominican spaghetti and this wonderful Malaysian woman had gotten it into her dish even though she was fasting and couldn’t taste her own cooking.

I had tears in my eyes.

I had the taste of home on my tongue.

I had a smile on my face.

When that woman smiled at me from across the table, surprised by my reaction, I knew I had what I needed. I can sit here and name all of the things my fellow ETAs have also done, intentionally or not, that bring me to the same level of emotion this spaghetti did, like a a compliment, a smile, a hug, or even just a text, but that’s eight months worth of material. The point is, I sometimes deprive myself of human connection in fear of getting hurt, but often, that is all I need in order to stop hurting.

As I’ve said before, it’s a process. But it’s a process I don’t have to go through alone. Thankfully.

ETAs Meera Doshi, Nicole Colon, and Allya Yourish.

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