words & images erin d’amelio

The cicadas punctuate the whirring of the fan in the 5 Unggul classroom as my male students throw parcels of Malay vocabulary at me and I hungrily practice with them. An emphatic congregation of “Oh!” adds to the night sounds when I correctly pronounce lupa or accurately define comel. Suddenly, one of my students, Nabila, appears in the door frame with her friend Azmieda. Her eyes lock with mine and she beckons me over with her hand. I cock my head to the side curiously while the boys raise up an army of “No!”

With a shy but playful smile on her face, Nabila walks over to me and whispers, “Come, follow me.” Promising the boys that I'll return in five minutes, I rise to accompany her. She takes me over to the already dewy athletic field, where tents pepper the sidelines and the lights bleach patches of earth. In front of us, groups of students are singing and dancing in shining, colorful costumes.

“Our school will perform soon,” Nabila tells me, “and we want you to watch.”

There is a Malaysian phrase that I hear often whenever I admit that I don't know much Bahasa Melayu, Malaysia’s official language: Sedikit-sedikit lama-lama jadi bukit. “Bit by bit, over time, it will accumulate into a mountain.” But what, I wonder, is the “it” beyond expanding my vocabulary? Will it include more profound mysteries of my ten months of living in Malaysia? Is it acceptance as a member of my school or the larger community? If so, where does the mountain start? And, even more potentially unanswerable: When will I know that I am atop it?

I only have moments now to answer these questions. Yet, these moments don’t arrange themselves chronologically nor do they necessarily catalyze my acceptance into my new surroundings, if that is what my mountain was about:

  • My student Shahrul, who goes by "Boboy," reaching across the desk that separates us (as well as the strict gender segregation) and plucking a gray hair from my head, much to my bewilderment and horror.

  • Singing Disney songs with my roommate as our dinky little Kencil rattles along the curving roads with every press of the gas pedal.

  • Being invited by my students to munch on raw mango apples dipped in soy sauce and sugar on a fading, yet gilded afternoon as ants trail in front of our feet.

  • My brain’s inability one night to string together a coherent sentence in English as both Malay and French battle for linguistic territory.

  • Writing and recording a parody of MAGIC!’s song “Rude” and making a video with my Form 1 girls.

Ultimately, I come to understand that the “it” of my mountain isn’t about achieving success or getting accepted. No, my mountain is about becoming comfortable in this new country. Habit, I learn, is a good thing. It keeps you from placing a destructive, fixed impression on what you are doing, especially when it comes to traveling, when a “foreign” experience can’t be considered authentic if it evolves into something mundane. It was, for example, when I didn’t find novelty in scooping up nasi ayam with my fingers at a food stall for dinner, bereft of any distinction to it, that the mountain began to definitively form. Instead of looking forward to my return home and thinking of all the stories I could tell or of all the trinkets that I could bring back, I hardly thought of my future in America at all. I awoke each morning prepared to live in that day.

While I watch my students perform their skit, a group of boys wanders to the shadowed grass where I sit and plop themselves down beside me. They ask me questions about America as the night grows cooler. Suddenly, one boy named Nazri farts. We all burst into laughter, and I teach the students the English word for it. And, we continue to watch the performance.

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