As though the Yearbook entry requested by AFS Malaysia didn't pose a daunting enough task, I will try to illustrate my year in the context of those who will be reading this report. I've noticed that this challenge of summarizing and presenting this exchange year is one that begins far before my departure, and I am grateful for the preparation in some senses. The monthly write-ups put short-term memories into perspective and aid in collecting miscellaneous experiences and observations, and are therefore slightly more helpful than the journal writing I've committed myself to. In writing a journal, you know your audience as personally as you could, and I find myself jotting the phrase, "don't forget this" to myself once or twice an entry. These reflection processes are excellent- their diversity is one of the features I most like about writing at different times in different situations.
At our End Of Stay camp, the students were asked to write a letter for the incoming country-mates, and it was surprisingly difficult to phrase all of your experience into an advice and encouragement-giving format. I'm sure that as I continue through my school career (and hopefully, life) I'll find more ways to express just what this year has meant to me, utilizing every medium I can wrap my head around. At some point, my memories will begin to fade, and I'll look back into my sent mail and blog and journal and unsent letters, searching for the truth I found here about myself and humanity. My only hope in writing this is to give you a sliver of that light, so you might perhaps understand that no matter how many times I will tell these stories, I will always get something new from them.
This is a personal report, as I understood it (please, if my understanding is in come way flawed, correct it. In my defense, there was a lot of other information coming with the prompt to this essay), and I plan to use this format personally. At an orientation, we were asked to write down our personal growth of the month on small index cards; a different approach than another orientation, earlier in the year, where we wrote down a more public experience or growth. For example, in the first orientation, I wrote that I fasted almost the entire month of Ramadan with my family. In the second, I admitted that it wasn't difficult because at that point, I despised the food. That disgust is a far cry to the crazed hunger with which I now devour any Asian food put in front of me. There was one card on which I wrote that I had found my true family in the students of my new chapter, and the personal realizations that came with that affirmation just boiled over the edges of that brightly colored rectangle. I knew that the community of students that, in a pinch, would sleep on the dirt floor of a hostel after losing their bag and look beautiful the next day, and somehow seemed to respect and love me an an individual, would mean a great deal to me- but it wasn't until I actually wrote it down that it was a fact that they have become my family. My personal growth during this year begins to blur with half-formed opinions and ideas until I put it down on paper (with pen or with paint), and I think that says more about me as the person I've become than anything else in this essay. One of my more noticeable points of personal development revolves around this idea, if you'll bear with me.
As an exchange student, you can't withhold all judgement- it's dangerous to give the man driving a taxi at 10 at night "just one chance" if your gut says wait ten minutes for the next cab. But the ability to hold those judgments in your head and not act on them until they are affirmed, or it is affirmed that you need to keep observing to get a better picture of the situation, is a skill I've cultivated here. In less dangerous situations, this is mostly about listening and being aware of your surroundings, and being able to see this simultaneously objectively and subjectively- both inside and outside of context. This is a skill necessitated by the personal turmoil I suffered with my first family, cultivated in the constant conversations revolving around it in my second situation, and made use of in my last six months of regular school, good contact with the students, and correspondence between my parents and myself. I feel very fortunate to be able to have people around me that could recognize this shift in perspective, and this ability to observe and think and present fully developed (but still evolving) conclusions. This scrap of personal growth is part of a larger theme that I touch on in all my reports; catalyzation. One of my more developed perspectives on this year and how my experience has shaped me involves the idea that as a teenager, one is a chemical reaction waiting to happen; with all the components of childhood and new found experiences of almost adulthood coming together to react with the individual. Everyone had different experiences, unique components, and the idea of the catalyst is the idea that being in a certain environment with some new factors contributing to your personal experiment (off topic, but what is life but an experiment?), means that everyone matures in a very individual way. I've experienced that catalyst of a year studying in Malaysia, and that has caused me to develop in ways that may not line up with those my peers in the US experienced this year. They may have had to pass an AP Exam or the SATs, or gone to prom, but I attended weddings of three cultures, cleaned anchovies with my hands, and spent what seems like an eternity separated from my parents. Perhaps this very different catalyst will forever label me as the weird one, doomed to spend her life misunderstood; but I see unprecedented opportunity for the highly respected community of people who will return home just as foreign as I will, as well as the potential I see in the recognization I will receive for completing such a challenging program.
My interaction with the program that sponsors me and the program that hosts me made up a considerable part of this catalyst, mostly because AFS Malaysia was a part of the family life in each of my hosting situations, and I collaborated with very few people ignorant to the program. Even on the YES Abroad group's community service/bonding trip, the people we worked with who directed our programs were aware of the organisation and it's successes and shortcomings. That week in Kuantan and Tioman with my fellow Americans was arguably the best week for reflection on this year I had; all this without ever being dull and including intense community service and genuine bonding. This week was entirely without organized bonding sessions or team-building activities, and was full or beach and bicycle conversations between pairs and small groups, which I have come to realize is how we, as people, not just as students, open up. Give a group a series of unorganized challenges relating to a personal and public goal they want to achieve, add some time for enjoying yourself and put a program approval sticker on it, and you'll find that more reflecting and talking gets accomplished than at most orientation sessions. The chapter leadership also seems like a strange contradiction to the human nature of how communication works and the cultural patterns or responsibility and leadership in a hierarchy, but I have other reports in which to detail those problems. Without the program-related challenges, I don't think I could have begun to learn to represent myself in situations where my judgement or honesty is called into question by an authority. As I run through these challenges once more, I have realized that they mean more to my experience and have more to to with the catalyst that is this year that I first gave them credit for.
This is all to do with the self-reflection process I discussed in the opening of this essay, the conscious reviewing of achievements and growth and the acknowledgement or challenges and setbacks is absolutely necessary to getting the most out of this short time that will last a long time. From the letters to my grandmother to the short surveys filled out in haste, from the journal and blog entries to the midnight talks with other students, this experience has given me a great deal to think about and talk about. In conclusion, it's going to be very difficult to forget this place and these people for a number of reasons. My paper trail and the digital representation of it is only the beginning of the impact this has made on my environment. The impact things have made on my and the contributions that have been made to my catalyzed reaction are palpable; I can feel the changes and sometimes I can recall the series of events that led to the specific growth. Realizing my development and reflecting on it in different methods has truly opened my eyes to the beauty this experience presented me.
So that's what I wrote for my "Personal Report", and I promise I'll write all about Kuantan and Tioman adventures later!