Category Archives: Travel

Foreign lands and cultures, and what it’s like to greet new people and places

Taking pictures because a visitor came!

I was overjoyed to pick my mother-in-law up from the international airport today.  She had flown all the way from Washington DC – from DC to LA to Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur to KK.  The trip takes about 3 days.  She has the benefit of being a nurse, used to changing her sleep schedule.  We had the difficulty of traveling with two young kids who could not sleep once we entered our new hemisphere.

KK Airport - Terminal 1

KK Airport – Terminal 1

I had not been to the airport since we were picked up there.  I remember very little of that first trip… we were all overwhelmed.  But today as we drove, my mother-in-law was snapping photos and I realized how wonderful it is to have her perspective here, now.  She is not as overwhelmed, she has guides that already know her, and she only has to last two weeks here!  But her response to what she was seeing brought me a lot of joy.  It was the kind of time when you see your life through someone else’s eyes, and realize the wonder and excitement before you every day.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

She took pictures of buildings that I now call ordinary.  She took pictures of palm trees.  She took a picture of me, driving on the right-hand side of the car.  She took a lot of pictures, and now when I see them, I think, these are far from ordinary.

Driving around Kota Kinabalu... tourist snapshots!

Driving around Kota Kinabalu… tourist snapshots!

Each place has its wonder, that doesn’t have to wear off; or at least, it can be rekindled.  An apartment building can be amazing in its weaving of culture, architecture, personal styles, and frankly, laundry.  It’s all there waiting to be beheld.

Yet at the end of the day, it was this picture that captured the spirit of the day:

Family, together.

Family, together.

We all want to come home, somehow, whether it’s to a familiar place, or to the arms of family.  This moment between our homesick son and his newly arrived Nana gave a context, a grounding, for all the other pictures.  Places have meaning because of what they tell us about ourselves or one another, and today this city of ours was a place where we embraced and were embraced.  All the memories we share, the wonders we behold, have meaning to us because they are how we connect to our world and one another.  We aren’t collecting images, we are finding life together.

You know you’ve arrived when…

The 6-month mark of living in a new place is important in a lot of ways.  You know which grocery market you like best.  You realize how many street signs don’t have names (true in New Jersey, true in Kota Kinabalu).  You have a library card.  You’ve started sticking stuff up on the walls of your apartment, even if it’s not technically allowed.  You don’t need to get a thousand things every time you go out.  And…

in my case…

You dream about the Dukes of Hazzard driving on the opposite side of the road from which it was filmed.  Vividly.  My theory is, if you’re really there in your dreams, you’ve finally arrived.  Welcome to your new home!

Driving on the left side? the "right" side? the other side?

Driving on the left side? the “right” side?
the other side?

the 1980's tv hit

the 1980’s tv hit







As I typed, we started watching Cash Cab Asia.  You never know when you will find such great balances of new and familiar.  It’s a great part of travel and of living in a new land!


More of the little things…

Malaysia was a British protectorate/colony and so kept things like language and driving on the left side of the road.  We are still learning to use these…. an important one is to not say “pants” unless we mean “underpants” – instead we try to remember to say trousers.  The kids love it when I say, “your pants are so good looking!”

British vs. American English!

British vs. American


Cooking with New Friends

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Going to the Markets

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Chinese New Year

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Day 12 of 20 *Questions*: What potential memories am I bartering, and is the profit worth the price?

Ah, this is the question that, in part, led us to serving as missionaries in Malaysia.  We were just fine where we were – a beautiful congregation that we co-led as pastors, hopes of Eric finding adjunct teaching in the tri-state area, kids in a great school, financial stability, and a great Y and public library.  It was the American dream.  (Yes, our garden even had a picket fence.) 

But as happy as we were, it still wasn’t *our* dream.  Our dream has always been to serve abroad.  For Eric’s Ph.D program we tried to move to South Africa, because we felt this strong pull to moving outside of America.  Nothing against America – but I know that I’ve always wanted to see how others outside of America experience life, and to see their perspectives on the life I’ve assumed as “normal.”  But South Africa didn’t work out (in part because I was pregnant, and my mother put her foot down that “my grandbabies WILL be born in an American hospital” … and there are times when you don’t mess with a fierce Mama Bear.)  Our plans would have to wait, and we mostly thought they were gone, and that was okay.

Until this opportunity in Malaysia opened up.  This time we had Mom’s permission!  (Thanks mostly to Skype and Air Asia.)

In coming here, we had to ask ourselves about our potential memories.  We were giving up Little League and youth group pizza nights and a house that we had named.  (Blueberry Cottage, if you’re asking.)  We were giving up a place where dogs are vaccinated for rabies and vehicle emissions are controlled – those certainly help toward creating memories, though they’re often unnoticed.  We were bartering those memories in order to come here  – and we were certainly deciding a lot for our kids without their voice or consent.



But under it all, we decided that the biggest and defining memory for our kids would be them watching us follow our passion.  That hope goes for all who had to grieve at our leaving – our family, friends, congregation and colleagues, and even our kids’ friends.  We bartered their memories as well, and that is no small thing.  But I fervently hope that people who have lost track of those specific dreams might have a door or window opened by knowing that people can indeed follow their passion – whatever that passion may be for them.

This question asks us to balance our todays and our tomorrows, as well as the things that give us satisfaction now versus what we will look back on someday.  This question reminds us that we are always defining our future and that we have a say in what not only our future will be, but the future of those tied to us.  It reminds us that we are always negotiating, always finding our way.  This question reduces our complacency, and replaces it with verve.

How to give an Asian scalp massage

This is a picture “In Context” – you might wonder why giving a shampoo would be serving one another in love. So I will tell you how to do this most amazing thing, and you can surprise a friend or loved one, because it is paradise. If you go to an Asian salon and ask for a shampoo, you get what is in the picture on the sticker, and some basic steps are listed here for you. (One of our boys brought this sticker home from Sunday School – a reminder that for them to understand what is being shared, they have a lot to learn!)

1. Cover the massage recipient’s shoulders with a towel, maybe even a plastic bag under the towel.

2. Squirt a quarter size dollop of yummy-smelling shampoo on their cowlick (everyone has one, or two!) Start rubbing it in the dry hair, in a circular motion. Add a little bit of water from time to time, but not too much. You can squirt water, spoon water, whatever, just not too much. You want thick lovely bubbles.

3. Get all their hair sudsy. Use your fingernails to stroke the hair back into a vague pony tail (or just make lines back if their hair is short).

4. Know how Mr. Spock held his fingers? Do that with fingers pointing toward the floor, with their ears between your center fingers. You can also gently squeeze the skull above the ears. That is probably the best part! You can also trace along the tense muscles from front of ear down the jawbone.


5. Put index and middle finger about 1-2 inches apart and press in a pattern from the forehead and up over the skull.

6. Rub the back of the neck, especially where the base of the skull meets the neck. In Asia it’s common to press very hard.

7. When finished, let them wash out in a sink or have them shower. 

8. What a generous thing to do for someone you care for!

The Hap-Happiest Season of All… or, 3 months away from home

Advent greetings, friends. Is your Christmas tree up yet? Our is, no thanks to my annual humbugginess. I am definitely a humbug. I love the idea that God comes to Earth, to meet us as we are, that God isn’t afraid of being a vulnerable baby, that it took a whole cast of people to live out the original nativity that we celebrate. I just hate untangling Christmas lights, and people running up to me saying, “If we don’t get the decorations right, it ruins the whole feel!” As Mary about the whole feel of Christmas, and I bet there was no turkey, wrapping paper, or post office involved!

OK. You get the gist. But, there are parts of Christmas I really like, especially the music. Eric made us a whole Christmas playlist from our digital music collection, 11.1 hours of all kinds of Christmas music! And amongst the music came this radio favourite:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year 
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer” 
It’s the most wonderful time of the year 
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings 
When friends come to call 
It’s the hap- happiest season of all ‘

We tend to hear these songs and accept them as a picture of normal holiday feelings. But really, kids are not jingle-belling, they’re prepping their list of demands from Santa; and if you’re in a blue or cruddy or tired mood for any of a thousand reasons, being told to “be of good cheer” is not going to cheer you up, especially if you are depressed or grieving or lonely. Is it the most wonderful time of the year? I love that moment of candlelight at Christmas Eve worship, but I think I really like those first days of spring when you can smell the earth blossoming more. And the song goes on – those holiday greetings (that we politicize and haggle over) and gay happy meetings (in our free time, right?) when friends come to call (and we don’t worry about if our house is photo-shoot ready)? Really? In my mind I romanticize the days before electricity and cars and central heat, when people had nothing to do in winter except feed the animals and wait for spring, and if they did go out across the prairie, they would stay awhile with friends just to warm up before coming home. When things were slower, less was expected, and people knew their neighbors’ names *and* their stories. Maybe it wasn’t that great in real life, but I tend to think of it as better than today’s consumer rush and drastic expectations of ourselves. There. Have I ruined the song for you?

Now, it’s not quite fair that this song played just about at our 3-month mark of being here. Here is a chart of average responses to moving to a new place:

The process of adjusting to living in a new place, by Clide Sargeant, with revision by Daniel Kealy

Note that there’s a dip there. I was warned that this would be coming (and many thanks to author Clide Sargeant, with revision by Daniel Kealey) and so I can keep some perspective on my emotions and reactions and expectations these days. I can be gentler with myself. This morning I lost my voice, had a terrible head cold, and looked at this chart – right below “frustration” it notes that this is the time when people develop colds, headaches, and are most prone to take sick leave. So I spent the morning reading the not-so-holiday “Hunger Games” trilogy. I took the boys to mail Christmas presents and didn’t lose my temper when we found we had to re-pack them twice and still not get it right (“ah, I thought, ‘frustration.'”) I sent an e-mail inviting friends to come to call.

The seasons come, whether it be Christmas or monsoon or “frustration.” But in our missionary handbook, right beside the chart that says some seasons will be hard, are these verses, appropriately, from the book of Lamentations.

“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!        My soul continually thinks of it, and is bowed down within me.                                           But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:                                                         The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.                                      “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.” -Lamentations 3:19-24

Week 2 – a log of Day 10

At the entrance to one of the 5 buildings here at Sabah Theological Seminary is a garden with koi, plants, and stones. It is both a quiet place to meditate and a place to gather with people to be introduced and connect.

What a day.  We mostly wake up at 6 AM, which is common here – getting things done before the day gets warm.  First we went to the “wet market” – produce, meat, spices and sundries, in a warehouse with aisles and aisles of booths.  We gave each of our boys 5 ringgits to buy something.  Caedmon picked out broccoli, which actually cost 6 ringgits ($2) for 3 heads.  It was his job to pay, but he couldn’t reach, so the woman came out from behind her wares and gave Cade the kindest smile, patting his head and pinching his cheek. Everyone does this here with kids – tender smiles from everyone passing by at the mall, head pats and “hello”s from so many people.

Dante couldn’t decide what to buy, so we finally agreed on a bag of cooked lo mein noodles and a strawberry soda.  Soda is a treat since we can easily boil water and carry it with us.  Then we walked back up the stairs from downtown to the seminary.  We had thought it was 90 stairs, but having counted once it is somewhere between 110-150. One loses count, though, as there is so much to see – lizards and ferns and such.

Then is was time for showers and off to Karamunsing – the mall for electronics.  It is what we now think of as an Asian mall:  Lots of technology, and yet in a smaller space with no clear layout.  It’s little things that are different, like stairs instead of escalators, and people wearing anything from jeans to hijabs.  It is foreign to us but very accessible.  Today was a day for big purchases, so the I.T. director from the seminary accompanied us as we bought a tv for our apartment (we will get satellite – ESPN and NatGeo Wild, plus local tv so we can practice Behasa Malaysia, the local language).  We looked at desks for the boys (at the top of their wish list, we don’t really know why) but someone from the seminary will soon be moving to Hong Kong and may have furnishings, like desks, to part with.  We are settling into our apartment quite nicely, with our rice steamer and toy boxes.

Then we came home and rested.  Then we set up the tv (though we don’t have anything to watch yet) and I mopped the whole apartment – it’s amazing how much dirt and dust comes in even when we don’t wear shoes inside.  I was grateful for my camp days that taught me to mop a floor well.  And it was good that I did, as Cade later broke a glass on the floor, and we could see easily where the pieces were.

Last was dinner, which we had ordered from the school’s canteen.  We figured that ordering what the students are eating will help us learn local foods that we can then try to cook.  Tonight was a major challenge, though:  whole fried fish.  We wanted to balk at that one – other foods have been more like things we would get in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S.  But we were brave and tried them.  Tricky to eat, but delicious.  A local would probably have been horrified at how much meat we left on the bones, and would definitely chide us for leaving the best part – the head and eyes.  But we had used up our brave quotient for that meal.  Dessert was the biggest treat for me (Wendolyn) – years ago in the U.S. I had a yellow watermelon, and I’ve been trying to find them ever since.  Well, here they are.  I sliced them in small pieces and we ate ½ of a watermelon in no time at all.

Then it was off to bed at 8 PM.  We are going to Church tomorrow with the YAGM coordinator (Young Adults in Global Mission – one-year volunteers from the ELCA come to serve in one of 8 locations worldwide).  We’ll go to an English-speaking congregation of the BCCM – what Lutherans here are called.

Time to go now and see if there are fireworks – Monday is “Malaysia Day” when the states of Sabah and Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) joined peninsular Malaysia.  A day off from school and a day to celebrate this amazing nation which has welcomed us.  Thank you for reading this – I hope it gives some clues and images for life here.  Perhaps it will let you look around at where you live and see what you can celebrate or mull over.  Peace!