As my dad and I sat drinking coffee in a rooftop café in Bukitingi, which is a small city in the mountains in Sumatra surrounded by jungle and volcanoes, we looked up and noted how the moon was almost full. We looked down again to converse, and a few minutes later looked back up at the moon to contemplate what day it would be completely full. When we looked up, it was fully covered by a cloud, which had snuck in quickly.
“You know, clouds are like geckos,” my dad started as we looked up. I looked over at him, confused about where his statement was going. “When you look at them, they’re completely still. But as soon as you look away and look back again, they have moved so quickly and in a direction you did not expect.” We laughed at this newfound analogy. His statement did not only strike me in its humorous metaphor though; it made me reflect on expectations.
During our pre-departure training for our internships we spoke a lot about the importance of having (little to) no expectations for our time abroad. No matter what we expect, of the country and city we would be living in, the organization, and the nature of our internships, everything would likely be drastically different from what we imagined. I took this to heart, and tried to come here with as few expectations as I could, which is an unrealistic expectation in itself. Besides, there were so many expectations that I did not even realize I had, most about myself and my feelings, and some about Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or MSRI.
Some personal expectations I had without realizing were:
- My feelings and the cycle of feelings I experience while in Malaysia would follow how I felt last time I was abroad. When I arrived in Malaysia, I expected to feel a mixture of emotions, ranging from anxious to excited to sad, since that’s how I felt when I backpacked a few years ago. However, the first few weeks I was here I felt almost emotionless, albeit a bit excited and overwhelmed. I originally thought that over time, I would feel better, not linearly, but generally getting more comfortable. However, once I realized I was emotionless, I thought that might be my state for most of the time I was here. Then, in June, we had nine days off of work due to the end of Ramadan celebrations, so I went on an island hopping trip by myself. I arrived on some secluded islands called the Perhentian Islands, realized very few others were staying at my campsite and I was very alone on this island, and my emotions came crashing over me. Since then, my feelings have been all over the place, and I try to not predict or expect how I will feel at a certain time, since it will likely be different and dependent on a multitude of factors.
- I would be working for an organization that had little help. The help MSRI gets from individuals, communities and organizations in Kuala Lumpur astounds me. Though they are lacking in financial support, there are many community members who are very open and willing to lend their time to the organization to help out, particularly with the children in the school.
- Living in a tropical place is a dream! However, Kuala Lumpur is a big city. Yes, nearby there are jungles to explore, and if you go a few hours you can arrive at some tropical beaches. However, days when you are just in the office it can be hard coming out from an air-conditioned building to a humid, muggy, busy city at 5pm.
- When I am abroad I will grow a lot, and that I will experience amazing things. Though this is happening, it is not as noticeable when it becomes your day-to-day life. I also think growth is something you often notice later. Furthermore, I have noticed I have grown a bit here, but not in the ways I have expected. For example, I thought I would rarely use social media here, since I barely used it when I backpacked. However, I browse even more than I do at home so I can check up on what my friends and family are doing, and I post more so they know what I am up to, since I am not someone who texts or calls friends or family often. Also, with reference to amazing experiences, a lot of the things I do here are type-2 fun. The kind of thing you realize was fun or funny after (like struggling with a language barrier with someone, and eventually you both break down laughing since you cannot understand each other). In regards to this, I have also had a hard time when comparing my experiences with others, which is often exemplified with social media and instant communication. Seeing other CAPI interns doing amazing things in their placements and the places they live can make me feel quite down at times, so I try to remind myself of the things I am experiencing and the ways I am growing. Also, I try to just focus on the happiness I feel for them, rather than feeling happy for them but then worse about myself and my experiences in KL and at my internship.
- I would be challenged in terms of learning a new language. Many people in Malaysia know basic English, and a lot of people are fluent. Furthermore, many of the communities I work with speak Arabic or Farsi as their first language, so learning Bahasa Malaysia does not feel as useful. Though not having to learn a new language is comforting and convenient now, being pushed to learn may have felt like a greater learning experience.
However, there are also some things I wish I had expected before so I could have been more prepared for them:
- Vegetarian food is hard to come by! Before I came, I knew that many people who practiced Buddhism and Hinduism, which are two common religions in Malaysia, were often vegetarian. Therefore, I thought finding vegetarian food would be easy (also an expectation in itself). However, I have found it quite difficult to find vegetarian food, especially in the area I live in.
- Our pool would be broken for the first three months we were here. Though this one is not a big deal, I was looking forward to swimming everyday (once again, also an expectation in itself), but upon arrival in our building, we realized the pool was broken. That was over three months ago, and the pool finally opened a week ago. However, now that it has opened, I realized a lot of kids use the pool, so I shy away from it anyways.
- 7 months is a long time. Of course, I knew this before, but I have never lived in a place for seven months straight with having this much free time. Here, I do not have to worry about homework, multiple jobs or volunteer commitments, or visiting family or friends. Figuring out how to spend this much time is harder than I thought. Now, I fill my time with reading, friends, going out for food, doing yoga, journaling, exploring, etcetera etcetera.
So what do I personally take from this? Well, first, I do not know how to live without expectations. Not having any expectations in itself is sort of an expectation. For me, I think focusing on not having expectations may be a lot like beating myself up when trying to meditate. When meditating, I often get mad at myself when I follow a train of thought. When I get mad at myself instead of just accepting it, I find that it makes the experience more negative.
In addition, I personally find having expectations healthy! If I do not expect anything, I don’t get excited! Excitement is good for my soul. Also, though anxiety can be crippling, it can also help me plan for things that could possibly go wrong. Maybe instead of trying to not have expectations, I should try to learn to go with the flow regardless of whether my expectations match up with reality.
Things are always going to be different than we expect, even if our expectations are minimal. If we can accept things as they are, maybe our lives will be simpler and less stressful.