Happy Birthday, Marine Corps!

During our two years in China, I spent weeks (or possibly months) plotting the details of each Marine Ball. Along with friends, we searched for hours online to find the perfect dresses, used the top floor bathroom to take measurements at lunch one day and then ordered our beautiful custom creations. We scanned page after page of up-do options and had endless talks over steaming bowls of noodles about whether to go with gold or silver accessories. As CLO, I organized make-up tutorials with one of our wonderful community members who was a professional make-up artist, so all of the women could sign up for a personalized rundown of what exactly to do with all those little boxes of cosmetics in their drawers. I also hosted a mani/pedi party each year, where all the women and girls were invited over for an evening of drinks and snacks and full-access to my nail polish collection. Yes, in the giant scheme of things, none of this is important, but it was fun to plan for a nice of playing princess and it was a good way to pass smoggy Chengdu Saturdays and the annual ball created a great excuse for all of the ladies to get together and play dress-up together.

Coming into fall this year, I assumed we would attend the Kuala Lumpur Marine Ball, but without my plotting partner Stephanie, didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the various permutations of gowns and shoes and jewelry. Tickets went on sale the week we were in Kota Kinabalu for Thad’s work, but I didn’t worry about it, figuring we’d pick up tickets the following week when we were back in town. Chengdu’s small ex-pat population meant you could get tickets up until the week before the event. Not so in KL! With a much larger ex-pat community and an embassy three times the size of our previous consulate, this year’s tickets were gone before we even got back to the peninsula! I was bummed when we missed out on the chance to go, but not heartbroken. It just wouldn’t be the same anyway…

But then, out of the blue, a week before the ball, Thad got an email asking if he wanted to buy tickets! He texted me to see what I wanted to do, but I was in class, so didn’t hear about it until I called him at the end of the day. Initially, I begged off, saying we didn’t need to go and to pass them along to someone else. Not one to usually change my mind, I surprised us both when I immediately called him back (stuck sitting in lovely KL traffic, so lots of time to spare) to say that yes, we should get the tickets and go. Why not!? Of course it isn’t going to be the same as last year when it felt like a party with all of our closest Chengdu-ren, but that’s the point to the lifestyle, right? New adventures. New experiences. New sidewalks to explore.

With just a week to prepare, I knew I’d be wearing last year’s dress (heavens, no!) which needed to be dropped at the dry cleaners ASAP. This was also the perfect excuse to go get my highlights redone, something I had been putting off since I haven’t been working and ex-pat salons here are a pretty penny. Before Thad got home from work that afternoon, the dress was at the cleaners, my hair appointments were scheduled (one for color earlier in the week and another for the up-do that day) and I had found a place for him to rent a tux. When I need to, I can move and shake, even in a crazy new country!

No, it wasn’t the same as last year. We didn’t sit at the head table and I didn’t trade plates with the boss’s wife when she liked the look of my dish better. We didn’t dance Gangnam Style with the consul general and we didn’t get photos taken with the best Marines ever. But, we did have the chance to meet eight new people, our fellow tablemates, who were great dinner company. We enjoyed a well-done ceremony celebrating the birth of the Marine Corps and we (okay, I) had a fantastic time checking out the myriad of dresses, all colors and styles, that danced the night away. It wasn’t Chengdu and that is okay. It is Kuala Lumpur, a post we are learning more about each week and a great place to spend Thad’s second State Department tour.

Happy birthday, Marines!

(To see pictures from Marine Ball 2013, click here. To see pictures from Marine Ball 2012, click here. Enjoy!)

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Superlatives and Cockroaches

Trying to be calm and collected, I deftly maneuvered around the room, looking over students’ shoulders to see their progress on a foldable activity charting comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. Praising a student for writing “more fun” instead of “funner” and then quickly hopping over to the other table to re-explain that you can’t always just put “-est” on the end of any adjective to make it superlative, I was only 70% focused on my larger lesson. The other 30% of my brain was entirely honed in on tracking the movements of the mid-sized cockroach who had joined our class for the day. Knowing that my students lived in rooms very much like the one we were using as a classroom, cockroaches are a part of their lives on a daily basis and I didn’t want to be the wimpy foreigner who couldn’t handle a couple of oversized antennae wiggling across the floor. But, being barefoot, it was essential that that dang, prehistoric bug didn’t get anywhere near my feet! (Yes, I also have cockroaches in my house, but they are mostly confined to the first floor laundry room, and when I see them, I always squawk like a terrified owl and run for higher ground, hollering at Thad to come destroy the evil that can’t scurry across my floor with impunity. Such a reaction would probably not gain me much respectability in the classroom, so I use every ounce of my willpower to keep my shit together, at least temporarily.)

Some days it is cockroaches and others it is rats. Always there are lizards. The abundant wildlife in my classrooms would lead one to believe that I’ve taken up a new career as a middle school science teacher, but alas, English is still my first love and my new little friends are just an added bonus.

Moving every couple of years means it can be difficult to have a prolonged career trajectory, but we knew that would be the case when Thad joined the State Department. Trading my career for the ability to have a lifestyle that not only settles us in far-flung locations for a few years at a time, but also gives us the chance to travel on a regular basis was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, nor was it an easy one. At the time, I’m not sure I realized just what it meant, employment-wise, to uproot every couple of years, but with a few moves behind us now, I’ve come to see that while there can be a lot of frustration inherent in the process, there is also a level of freedom that would be unachievable if we had stayed as educators in Idaho.

This go-round, unable to find a position at the embassy in KL, I decided to look beyond the official diplomatic community and see what other opportunities existed around the city. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, the branch of the UN that deals with helping refugees resettle into safer countries. Malaysia is home to a huge number of refugees, many of them coming out of Burma. These displaced families are here trying to get their documents and paperwork in order so that they can apply for visas to resettle to any number of western countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Families can be here for years as they get in line for resettlement, which means certain “daily-life” activities need to carry on- schooling being one of them. To facilitate their continued education, the UNHCR supports dozens of refugee schools across the city, where students take daily courses in English, math, science and their local language. After filling out the forms and getting the necessary background checks, I was assigned to a Chin refugee school in the center of the city. The neighborhood is a rundown one and the school is merely a set of rooms in an apartment building, but volunteering there two days a week has quickly taken me back to my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In class, when I am not stealthily dodging cockroaches, we review basic grammar points (like most TOEFL students, there are problem areas that need constant attention) and talk a lot about western culture. Since the ultimate goal of these students’ families is to move to an English-speaking country, we talk a lot about western holidays, mannerisms and classroom behaviors, but there are also a whole lot of pop culture chats. Who knew Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber were so beloved by Chin students from Burma? I’ve learned vast amounts about soccer, as they all have favorite teams and players and most of the boys are horrified at my immense lack of knowledge of anything “football”-related.

When we learned we were headed to Malaysia for our second posting, I was disappointed to find out I wouldn’t be able to teach at the international schools due to visa regulations. (This rule has since changed, but the modifications came about too late for me to apply for positions since international schools hire in January/February of each year and the visa requirements didn’t adapt to fit my needs until late April.) Thinking that I couldn’t teach, I turned my eye to other positions within the embassy community, looking at a couple that seemed to be perfect fits with my background in education and volunteering, but when neither of those worked out, after a few days of wallowing in the misery of rejection, it was back to teaching I found myself, although in a different manner than I had ever imagined. Now, I spend two days a week in small rooms, with just ceiling fans for ventilation and a not-quite-erasable white boards, helping upper elementary and middle school aged kids prepare for a life-changing move, but couching it all in lessons about Thanksgiving and One Direction. It may not be what I had planned for myself for this second State posting, but, as it often turns out, the unplanned experiences are the most rewarding.

(*Note on photos- Because my students are minors and refugees, I did not want to post any pictures of individuals to the internet, as they have fled their home country out of concerns for their safety and security.)

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