Life on the Unnamed Road

Guest Article written by Maddie Taylor
Pennsylvania State University

It’s a Friday morning at the beginning of May and something important occurs to me.

As I wrap up my routine of a beach run and four-way video call with my family, a WhatsApp message from an ETA friend flashes across my screen reading “send me your address when you get the chance!”

I am four months into life in Malaysia. I have a clear head looking forward to Ramadan and the midyear school holiday, my friend is going to stop by my sleepy little beach town on the way to an English Camp, and I…

…don’t know my home address here in Malaysia.

I pause for a second, then proceed to drop a pin of my location:

“Unnamed road”, it says. “Kerteh, Terengganu, 24300”.

The unnamed road. I can’t put my finger on it in the moment, but something feels strikingly right about it. As though for some reason, it just makes sense.

I’ve been living life on this unnamed road for eight joyous, confusing, exhausting, and affirming months now. What I’ve come to realize is that the unnamed road is a very fitting metaphor for my year as a Fulbright ETA in Malaysia.

This road has taken me all sorts of unexpected places this year: spontaneous waterfall swimming with my students, dead car batteries, eating bugs, exterminating even more bugs, being dragged across a field on a palm leaf, racing bikes during track practice, singing karaoke into the wee hours of the night, binge eating ice cream with my colleagues as a “relay race”, playing football in a torrential downpour at my own English Camp, and the list goes on.

Me and my Form 4 students, making the best of a very rainy Earth Day English Camp

More than just the location of my physical home, my whole journey in Malaysia has been an unnamed road of sorts with its bumps and uncertainties. I can see it in the days that fly by juxtaposed to the days where I countdown the hours until I can go to bed. I can feel it when I stop in the middle of the road on a run around my kampung, either to cry or sing or marvel at the way the palm trees look with a cloudy blue-sky backdrop. Sometimes it’s all of these things at once. And even though the road has rougher sections, eventually the path clears and you hit those smooth stretches where you can just stride. 

The sights and sounds, smells and colors of this place take my breath away every day. When I ride my bike home from school, there’s this consistent moment where the smell of the hot breeze hits my face as I round the corner right before the unnamed road, and it reminds me of a beloved beach town in New Jersey. Every day, I marvel at how the smallest moments of life here, foreign as they may feel at times, connect me back to my life before Malaysia, and how all these things are most certainly part of my personal growth.

A small, beautiful moment of biking home after school with my crew

One day in the middle of June I found myself in a mangrove patch, knee deep in the muckiest mud pit I could have ever imagined. I felt a little panicked in the moment, but as I looked around and saw my students taking off their boots and embracing the mess we were in, I couldn’t help but smile. Siti took a triumphant belly slide, Amir lobbed mud balls at his buddies, and Aniiqah still diligently tried to plant her mangroves. It was the most chaotic yet oddly comforting scene, because I knew these students and they knew me and even though we were now chest deep in this mucky mud pit, I knew we were going to get out alright.

As we walked back to clean up, Nazif, a quiet student that I had been looking after all day, turned to me and asked a simple question. 

“You okay?” 

It was such a small thing, yet the impact of it and the look of concern in his eye almost made me tear up. I was completely caked in mud, 9,000 miles from home, but yes, I was okay. I was more than okay. I had my school community around me and this quick check-in from Nazif after a long day meant the world to me in that moment. 

In times of doubt and comparison, something that I keep coming back to is that there is no one right way to ETA. We’re all on a journey this year, navigating the bumpy concrete of our own unnamed roads. And there’s no telling what the last two months will hold, but if the first half of the year is any indication, it’s going to be a wildly colorful time.

A view from the unnamed road