Nathan in Malaysia
In late 2018, I took a short break with Braids & Jade to really dive into what this website meant to me - especially now living in the United States and feeling disconnected from the continent I consider to be my second home. Despite not publishing work during this time, it was an incredible moment for me as I reached out to amazing peers and friends all across the world.
In this interview, I reconnected with an old college friend of mine, Nathan, who had the incredible opportunity to live in Malaysia. Learn more about this unique and diverse country below:
Hey Nathan! First things first - please introduce yourself.
Hi! My name is Nathan. Originally from Plano, Texas, I’m currently teaching in East Peninsular Malaysia for their 2018 teaching calendar year. I’m a fellow Furman alum (go Dins!) and studied accounting before coming to Malaysia. I love to try new foods and meet new people.
So how did you end up moving to Malaysia?
I moved at the beginning of January after receiving a Fulbright Grant for their English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program. I always knew about the Fulbright program, but once doing some research and talking to friends, I realized that I wanted to live in Malaysia. The program targets low-English performing secondary schools and places you in those communities, so currently I’m living on the east coast of the peninsula in northern Terengganu, Malaysia.
How's it living and teaching in Malaysia? Are there any differences people react to male v. female teachers? White teachers vs.teachers of color?
That’s a great question. Living in any country can come with challenges and exciting opportunities. I live in a conservative, Islamic state that has access to some of the best beaches and islands in the world. Food is loaded with sugar, salt, and shrimp paste – so that has me developing a different palette. I have access to a lot of bananas, mangosteen (a juicy white fruit wrapped in a dense purple shell), rambutan and Southeast Asia’s favorite –durian (author’s note: yuck). Life here revolves around food and religion – often like back home in the South.
In terms of male and female teachers: It is definitely a change of pace from my life back in the US, as there are things I can and can’t do. As a man, you are often treated with more privileges than the females in my community in general and it's sometimes not even viewed as that, but rather just normalcy. Women often have to cover more of their bodies than men, eat after the men and variety of other things that can be jarring. As a teacher of color I am oftentimes having to prove my “Americanness”. Some days can be difficult, but some can also be very rewarding as I get to explain to my students and community how America is more than what is fed to them through the media.
Teachers are normally given a lot of respect in Malaysia as they are viewed as a big community leader and people work hard to get this federal job. I am always respected. But with that respect comes an “all eyes watching you” scenario. My peer teachers will treat me lesser due to my race. Sometimes strangers, however, due to my Americanness, I’m always seen as a welcomed guest. It’s complicated.
What are the best and worst things about living in Malaysia?
Malaysia is a beautiful place full of so many natural wonders. The beaches in Sabah and in my state of Terengganu are beautiful. I’ve been able to take up diving this year as I live one hour from an amazing island (Perhentian Islands – go visit). The people are always welcoming and will always give you a welcome drink and snack. You can’t make plans to do even an errand with a friend without being expected to grab some kopi/the (coffee and tea) or roti cannai.
Driving in Malaysia can get annoying due to only two-lane roads. Malaysian politics have been heated this year and I think that it affects more than you realize in daily life. There use of single-use plastics also can get tiring however they are adopting a “#TakNakStraw” campaign nationwide that hopefully get people thinking about the litter at the beaches.
Braids & Jade is also a source of inspiration for students of color (or recent graduates) who want to make that leap in studying/living abroad. What are some tips for people interested in going abroad?
Do it. Just do it. I know it is daunting, especially when you don’t see yourself represented in travel sites/blogs, but you have to realize you get to be that pioneer and often times get to teach others how much bigger America is than what they think. Also, I say find a way for you to be funded – for me it was finding a grant program that could fund my expense to live in a rural community. However, there are more jobs out here than you think and sometimes locals in these areas are looking for an outside voice to join their program or business. Teaching is a great way to start traveling Southeast Asia as you can save during the school days and then travel during school holidays. Also, Malaysia is a great place for expats as it has a mix of people, a great regional airport (the hub for Air Asia) and all sorts of people are coming and going from the city of Kuala Lumpur.
Write down what you want from an “abroad” experience is it an adventure? Food? Rural? Urban? Futuristic? Challenging? Religious? And then start doing some research. After its all said and done, pick a spot, pack a bag and go. Malaysia can answer the questions above, but certain areas thrive in some aspects more than others.
What are your spots/eateries to visit in Malaysia?
Penang is often pegged as the city to visit for food as it has very Charlesonesque vibes in terms of a colonial history that merged good food, people, music in a beach-like setting. Even better than that, I would say visit Perak for the city of Ipoh, a former tin mining community, with a great taste in food and stellar architecture.
Beyond Nasi Lemak, Chicken Rendang and the ever popular Kaya Toast, Char Keuy Teow and Roti Channai make sure to try the following…
Laksa - a spicy seafood broth made with sambal and seafood and topped with crunchy green vegetables. Each state in Malaysia has its own version.
Chicken Rice – a must. literally chicken and chicken stock rice. It's like their version of chicken noodle soup only better because you want it every day.
Nasi Kerabu – a blue flower died rice accompanied by vegetables, fish, chicken and sardine sauce called Budu. This is the most colorful and wonderful dish.
In addition, I would say look into visiting the islands in Borneo and East Peninsular Malaysia. They are packed with amazing diving, untouched coral, various wrecks and both macro/microfauna that is unreal.
My state of Terengganu is normally not discussed in travel sites, but just renting a car in Kuala Lumpur and driving across the country to the east and then exploring the waterfalls, mountains, beaches will provide for a great experience. If you come during June/July you can also watch a turtle hatching.
What are three essential packing items/tips before going to Malaysia?
A quality face sunscreen as you are closer to the sun and will tire your skin faster than you think.
Quick dry pants (Lulu/OldNavy works but the ever popular Uniqlo brand over here definitely delivers on this front)
Good pair of slide-on shoes - I’ve gone through a pair of Chacos and currently on Tevas as the humidity calls for open-toed shoes.
Interested in discovering more of Nathan’s global teaching adventures? Follow @CikguNathan.