Our first 10 days here in Penang, Malaysia have been a whirlwind. From the food to the heat to the languages to the city, we have all had so many new experiences and already have some great stories. During orientation at the Hyatt Place in Minneapolis, we took a field trip to the Midtown Global Market to do some intentional people-watching and journal about our observations. For some, it was awkward to just sit and write about the people that we saw, and to reflect on our feelings at the market. We also did an activity where we were divided into pairs and were given an ethnic group to find a cultural object (dishware, decoration, symbol, specific color, spice, etc.) related to that ethnicity. Some shop owners thought we wanted to buy these objects, but they all answered our questions about the culture.
Finally it was time to embark on our 36-hour journey to Penang. Arriving to the MSP airport at 7:00 am, we all eagerly boarded our first flight to LAX, where we then got on a HUGE 777 plane to take us to Tokyo, an 11-hour flight. We had to get off in Tokyo so they could clean the plane and refuel, and then it was back in our tiny seats for a 7-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. Most of us slept some on these long flights, which helped to get over the jet lag. Besides that, there were several meals and free movies to keep us entertained. We landed in KL around 4:00 am on Wednesday, Feb. 12, which was 2:00 pm on Tuesday, Feb. 11 in Minnesota. After a 3-hour layover and eating breakfast at a kopitiam (coffee shop), we boarded our last flight to Penang and finally, finally reached our new island home.
Some staff members from the International Office at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) greeted us at the airport and took us to our hostels on campus. After moving in, we started our orientation from the International Office. We had a campus tour, library tour, a formal welcome from the head of the International Office and from the deputy vice chancellor, and get-to-know you activities with our student buddies (equivalent of the Greeters, but for international students). Everyone is excited to have us here, especially since this is the first program like ours that USM has hosted. On Friday evening, we got to meet all of the other exchange students, and we each country got to perform/present about their country. We represented Minnesota well, complete with information on hotdish, hockey, and our unique accent. On Saturday, we went in to Georgetown by bus (this was the first time I had ever used a public bus!!!) for a cultural activity and lunch. Steve and Shirley gave us three items, phonetically spelled, to try and find in Georgetown. One was Malay, one was Indian, and the other was Chinese. We got to explore Georgetown and had to ask local shop owners where we could find these items, some of which were difficult to pronounce, let alone figure out what it was. Lunch in the air-conditioned restaurant was a welcome break, and we shared our items and our experiences finding them. Afterwards, we got our cell phones set up (hooray!) and most of us ate at the hawker stalls outside the Gurney mall. If you ever want to try the best food in Penang, go there!
On Sunday, 8 of us decided to make the trek north to Batu Ferringhi, a beach resort town where many tourists go to vacation. After relaxing in the pool, walking on the beach, and parasailing, we went to the night market, where you can shop for designer items (mostly knock-offs) and haggle with vendors. We also tried our first apam balik (batter fried with sugar, nuts, and sweet corn, and folded like a taco), which we refer to as ‘that delicious thing!’ because the name is hard to remember. They also can make them with chocolate!
Class started on Monday, Feb. 17. We are all taking the same classes, and our courses were especially designed for the Gustavus program, so there aren’t any other students besides the 12 of us. We have Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language) three days a week for 2 hours, Living Diversity twice a week for 90 minutes, Religious Experiences for 90 minutes twice a week, and Tropical Ecology once a week for 2 hours. Our professors are from USM, and most of them are not used to teaching in a liberal-arts style like Gustavus, and they do not collaborate with professors from other schools (area of study, like Gustavus’ academic departments). During our second Bahasa Malaysia class, we quickly learned how to introduce ourselves because the vice chancellor of USM (equivalent of our college president) was coming to have tea with us, and we needed to impress him with our language skills. There were so many people there to take our pictures and record us as we stumbled through, “Nama saya Kirsten. Saya datang dari Washington. Umur saya dua puluh tahun” (“My name is Kirsten. I’m from Washington. I’m 20 years old). They have already written two articles about our semester program, and people seem generally excited that we’re here.
We are still adjusting to life as a USM student in Malaysia. I think it’s safe to say that we all have a renewed appreciation of air conditioning, because it will be above 90 F every day. USM has over 22,000 students (GAC has about 2600) and the campus is much larger. We are learning which buses to use on campus, where and what to eat (I recommend Subaidah’s roti canai), and when we can bargain for items. Next weekend, we have our first Tropical Ecology field trip to Orang Utan island. More adventures and stories will be coming soon!