Dear future intern/risk-taker/food-eater/traveler/ongoing-learner/stray-cat-petter/friend-out-of-stranger-maker,

To be honest, before leaving Canada, I did not put excessive thought into the internship and living in Malaysia. I was busy writing papers for classes, working, and spending time with friends before we parted ways for a long time. I was very conscious of the fact I would be moving across seas soon, but I wasn’t exactly mentally preparing myself. I guess what I am trying to say is I don’t think it’s worth it to fret too much beforehand; there’s not too much you can plan before, so it’s best to enjoy your time at home before heading out.

You are about to embark on one heck of a journey. I cannot tell you what your experience will be, since everyone’s is different. But I can tell you some things, as well as give you my opinion on other things. 

1. Things will be hard at times. Some days you will likely question why you signed up to move to a foreign country that is drastically different culturally, ecologically, socially, economically and politically for almost seven months. Some days it may feel like your time abroad will go on forever. You might miss the comforts of home, but don’t forget to consider that you may be romanticizing your time at home. The grass is always greener! And remember, “this too shall pass”. You’re only there for a short while, so it’s good to try to make the most of it while you can. Push yourself to do things. Challenging yourself is where you learn and grow. Say yes when your coworkers ask you to go for lunch or dinner after work. Chat with people on the bus. Take up your bosses offer to go to that fundraiser on a Saturday.

“Wherever you are is called Here.”

David wagoner

2. Find something that grounds you, whether it be going to a(n expensive) western restaurant when you miss the food from home, going to a park for a walk, or reading your favourite book (again and again).

3. Don’t compare your experience with others! Including the other interns in other placements; you’re all on your own journey. I had a hard time with this during my time in KL; I felt like other interns were learning a lot more than me, and having more fun in their host country due to their Instagram and Facebook posts. I often stressed because our placement in Kuala Lumpur seemed like the “easiest” placement, since many people in Kuala Lumpur speak English, or can at least understand some basic things. As Tracy mentioned in her last blog, I did not learn Bahasa Malaysia while here since most people speak English, and many of the people I work with do not speak Bahasa, but rather speak Arabic and Persian/Farsi. Worrying about these things often worsened my own experiences, rather than provided motivation to do more.

4. Related to my above statement, I urge you to learn the language of the place you’re in! Even if people speak English, many have told me they appreciate the effort at least. I have always been someone who feels awkward speaking foreign languages if they speak better English than I speak their language. For example, in South America, I will speak to people in Spanish until a bilingual English-Spanish speaker rolls up. Then, I suddenly feel awkward about my accent and limited words, and get them to translate. Please do not follow my footsteps in this way. I wish I had read this article before embarking.

5. Make friends with the kitties and pups. The place you live may be filled with stray cats and, depending on the country, dogs. I made lots of animal friends while in Malaysia and surrounding countries, and even took care of a kitten for a while. The security guards in my building knew I love cats, since I always was on the search for one to feed and pet. One of the security guards had my number since there was a cat family I was worried about (after a heavy rain they were hanging out in a car to warm up by the engine and I put a note on the car so they would make sure the cats were out before driving away, as well as alerted security), so I gave it to him to give me updates. He texted me one evening in the middle of October, and asked if I wanted a cat “for a bit”. Originally, I thought he meant a few days while the owners were away. On our way home from dinner with a friend, Tracy and I stopped at the guard house. The guard went in, brought her out from under the desk, and we were shocked to see she was a kitten. I asked how long we would be caring for her, and he told us the kids who found her weren’t allowed to keep her. Tracy and I brought her upstairs, fed her, played with her, fell in love and named her Honey. It ended up taking us forever to find her a home (eventually one of MSRI’s employees adopted her) so she was our pet for about a month. Long story short, adopt a kitten! Robyn really wants you to.

A shy pup I met in Koh Lipe, Thailand. He didn’t come close enough to pet, but he came and sat near me for over an hour.
A wild boar curious about my friend Sarene on a hike. The boar thought she had snacks in her backpack. This is a sad result of wildlife getting comfortable with humans since some humans feed them, which can put wildlife in danger.

6. Learn about your local ecologies, connect with them, and discover culturally sensitive ways to protect them. Even though KL is an expansive city, there is tons of nature within and around the city. I tried to make sure I went to a park within or on the outskirts of the city at least every few weeks. The natural environment is so different than home, it truly is mesmerizing. In connection to this, try to maintain your personal ecology (as mentioned in my last blog post) in order to be respectful of the environment you are a visitor on, but also make sure you’re doing this in a way that is culturally correct.

A waterfall on the outskirts of KL.

7. Travelling on weekends is only sometimes worth it. At the beginning, I went on weekend trips all the time! I was so excited to be living in a tropical climate, and wanted to explore tropical ecologies and cultures. However, I soon realized that though weekend trips are nice, they can be really exhausting. They take planning, transportation time, mental preparedness, excitement after a long work week, etcetera. I’m a fan of travelling, but started to find this exhausting, and slowed down after a few months. I would recommend limiting them so you don’t get too burnt out, and so you can save some of that money to travel after your internship, before heading home (which I really hope you do)!

8. Take the extra leap! If there’s a lot of free time in your internship, find work to do. A lot of my internship was creating extracurricular activities for students in the school. I took advantage of this, and focused a lot of the activities I organized around the things I am most knowledgeable on, such as environmental sustainability and urban nature.

Students part of the Sustainability Club at an urban farm in KL, learning about how nutrient rich soil = nutrient rich food.

9. Don’t forget to have fun!!! Sometimes, I got so caught up with my work at the internship and the stresses that come with living abroad that I would forget to check in with myself and make sure I was enjoying myself.

Good luck with your internship, I am rooting (and routing) for you!

With love,