The parents left for London today. Just in time for the Olympic madness.

They’re going on a 3-week tour of Western Europe, just the two of them, which leaves the remaining 3 members of my family all alone to fend for ourselves.

This means washing and cleaning duties to be shared, and cooking to be done.

My dad told me to drain out the water filter, or sommin’. Did you know, we now have a water filter that talks? You make a selection among 7 options on the touchscreen menu, and a female voice goes, “Drinking water coming down”, all sexy-like, and water comes down a narrow pipe. You press the button again, and there she goes, “Water supply suspended.”

Seems like a very unnecessarily fancy piece of equipment, especially since for the past year I’ve been getting my supply of drinking water by walking to the kitchen sink and turning on the tap.

And speaking of equipment, I have a piece of sad news to share.

It seems that my Macbook, dear ol’ buddy of 4 years, my partner who hasn’t once left my side since our first acquaintance, is on its last legs. It has gone through a lot, man. A lot of rough traveling. Every time I travel, it is hastily taken out of its snug pocket in my backpack for security checks, then hurriedly shoved back in again afterwards, only to be kicked under plane seats and piled into overhead compartments after each transit. In school, it is put on messy table tops and on unmade beds, it is laid on my lap at an angle and left on sticky kitchen counters. Sometimes, it is even left sitting precariously on top of a large amplifier on those weekend nights when regular speakers don’t cut it. It never gets proper rest — I turn it off once every two weeks.

I know, I know. I could’ve taken better care of it. But it’s been 4 years, and its struggle to survive another doesn’t seem like it would end well.

Honestly, this is the only thing I have that’s been with me throughout all 4 years of college. No matter which part of the world I was in, this thing was always with me. I got my Bachelor’s Degree with this thing! I got it at a time way back when there was still an “us” and a “them” — us with our smooth white Macbooks, and they with their shiny silver Macbook Pros. Now you couldn’t buy regular Macbooks even if you wanted to, which makes me sad.

One day, I’m gonna wake up and try to turn this thing on, only to find that it is utterly, irredeemably dead.

My new problem then would be this — I have no money to buy a new laptop. Help!


I logged on to Facebook this morning, and was greeted with a flood of “RIP”s and “in memory of”s and “we will miss you”s.

Another Grinnellian from my class has left our side.

They say my class, the class of 2012, is cursed. In the last four years of school, 3 people have tragically passed away, all of them from my class.

This person who just left us was involved in an elevator accident.

Throughout college, our paths crossed several times; never long enough for us to be walking side by side, but enough times for me to have formed a memory of him. My college being a small school, we shared a lot of mutual friends.

The last time we interacted, it was a month before graduation, when he attended a party in our apartment. I found him in a dark space in the kitchen, standing with a small-sized, impressionable Brazilian sophomore, the latter backed up against the fridge. They were both laughing; he was trying to get the sophomore to take shots of Everclear. I tried to intervene — Everclear is 95% alcohol, and tastes incredibly nasty straight — and I knew from past experience that this sophomore falls over his own feet when he drinks. Then that college senior, that instigator, smiled his broad smile, one that looked like his lips would wrap around his face and meet at the back of his head, gave me a wink, and turned his focus back onto that sophomore. I later learned that he managed to coax 3 shots of that nasty into that Brazilian.

I don’t know why I told that story. When I think of him, this memory sticks out in my mind.

I was talking to my friends last night. First group talk since graduation 5 weeks ago. It was an intercontinental call across 4 countries, but it felt like we were in our apartment again, talking about this Grinnellian and that Grinnellian and this job application and that internship.

I think more than anything, the passing of this person shocked me back to reality.

My friends and I always talked about the future — where we want to end up living, what kind of family we want, what our dream job is. And as graduation neared, our paintings of the future became less romantic, our idealistic ambitions were ditched to make way for more practical plans.

And there were so many plans that were made. Plans of traveling, plans of internships, plans of researching graduate schools… So many plans that there was no room, absolutely no space, for such eventualities as, What if I don’t get to carry these plans through?

My friends and I always talked about the future. I have no doubt that this person who passed away talked to his friends, a lot of whom I know, about his plans for the future too. I still have my chance to work hard and see mine through; he has lost his. Graduation was a month ago; we all walked with pride and hope that summer’s day. It’s so weird, so unsettling, to realize that it could all be very suddenly taken away by death’s swift hand.

May he rest in peace.

Stay forever?

Winter break last year.

My friend and I spent a week in Des Moines with an Egyptian family who welcomed us with open arms, partly because they’re warm people who love visitors, partly because they have 6 children, the youngest of whom is 3 months old, and the eldest, 11.

They’ll readily admit that they need all the baby-sitting help they can get.

One boy, Peter, is four. The last time I saw him, I was a college freshman, and he, a happy, bouncy 1-year-old. Back then, he seemed attached to me; we would be sitting around the den, and he’d waddle past everyone else, stop at where I sat, and in clumsy footsteps, climb over my legs and onto my lap.

Three years later, he doesn’t remember me.

“Peeta, do you remember Joo Yan? Do you remember her?”

He shook his head shyly, and for the first day, all he did was stare at me curiously.

He watched me bake an imaginary strawberry cake with his sisters.

He stood around as I helped his brother turn a pile of pillows into a defense fort.

During dinner, he asked if I liked baked yam, and if I could spoon him some.

Then he brought me his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and there I was, in a deep, booming voice, refusing to try green eggs and ham in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, as this tiny boy sits giggling on my lap.

Before I knew it, I was his best friend again.

On Sunday, we packed into the family van, all 10 of us, and drove off to attend service at a Greek Orthodox church.

As we were driving home, we passed a house that was having a garage sale. A large van was parked outside. Every inch of that van was covered in paint and multi-colored glitter. If ever there was a rainbow van, this was it. It was a little bit kitschy, and a lot of cute. The kids loved it.

The older children started shooting off questions at their dad, questions like, “Can we go out to touch it?” and “Isn’t it preeedy?” and “Can we do that to our van??”

The father fielded all questions with a single, less-than-enthusiastic, “Maybe. Maybe we can do that to our van.”

The response set off a volcano of further queries. “When?” “Really?!” “Wouldn’t it be nice to ride in it?”

And as the torrent of questions let out by the older kids continued in escalating decibles, a small, soft voice next to me, one that has remained quiet all along, suddenly went, “Joo Yan, will you come into the van with us?”

I looked down at that 4-year-old. He looked down at his feet, which were slightly sticking out over the edge of the car seat. Then he turned to me. The seat belt, a little too big for him, covered part of his face, and made him look tiny. His hands were clasped, his lips colored a glossy shade of baby pink by his mother’s lip balm, his brows slightly furrowed.

He was concerned!

He was concerned that I’d leave him.

And when the time came for me to really leave, because I could only stay in some one else’s place for so long, he grabbed my hand and tearfully asked, “Can’t you stay with me forever?”

Kids have bad memory. Little dude is not going to remember me a year later. Still, it broke my heart to have to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon, okay?”, knowing that it was more lie than truth.

I’m just writing this down so I don’t forget.

Oh, the mother of this family has now given birth to a 7th child, a healthy baby girl!

Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

(Just a heads-up: this is a navel-gazing sort of post. )

Sometime in March last year, I told my mom over Skype that I wanted to travel to Scandinavia alone. I told her that the “alone” part wasn’t particularly intentional — I just couldn’t find anyone who was interested in going. I’d seen pictures of Norwegian fjords and Swedish archipelagoes that took my breath away and set my heart racing with excitement, and I’d made up my mind that I was going to see these beauties, whether or not it meant going alone.

My mom, predictably, wasn’t as excited as I was about my plan. The world is no place for a girl to walk about solo.

A month later, I called home again, this time to tell her that I was applying to a school grant for a summer internship in Ghana. I could actually hear her tensing up, could picture the furrowing of the brow, could feel the straining of her mind for reasons why it was rationally, sensibly, logically, a very bad idea.

And then, she said, “You know, of all my children, you make me worry the most. You and all your strange, unconventional ideas.”

All that took place in France, where I was studying abroad, instead of Senegal, where I’d initially wanted to study abroad.

My mom gave me a hundred reasons that France is a more rational, sensible, logical choice than Senegal. She needn’t have done that, for I, also, could come up with a hundred reasons for going to France. But I could also come up with a hundred-and-one reasons for going to Senegal, too.

My mother calls my excitement for staying a week with the Amish “weird”. Why would I want to spend a week with a community so intently stuck on living a seemingly preindustrial life? No electricity, no electronics? Gas lamps? Super modest clothing that covered you from the neck down? Horses and buggies? But… why?

At the risk of sounding ridiculously corny, my response to this constantly asked question is, “Why not?”

I’ve thought about all this for quite a bit, I’ve wondered what makes all this so incredibly exciting to me. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got it.

It’s the unknown, the unfamiliarity, the feeling of knowing that every turn of path, every bend of the road, reveals something completely new. And I mean this quite literally — if you don’t know the road, don’t know where it leads, it could bring you to anything.

I guess people dislike change. A lot of people desire certainty, for they crave the security it brings. Friends of mine worry when they don’t have a path figured out, whereas I find great thrill in the uncertainty, for it means anything is still possible.

I crave change; I get stir-crazy when life starts to become too routine, too predictable. And I think, from this enthusiasm for the unknown is where all these “strange, unconventional ideas” are birthed.

It dictates my philosophy of travel. I don’t see traveling as a vacation, an away-time from the hustles of daily life, a time to relax. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to be faced with the new, a chance to experience the exhilaration of coming up against the unknown.

When I tell my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a landmark, when I heed a map that tells me to turn left down a street 4 blocks away, I don’t know what to sight to expect. When I order reindeer stew, or agree to try banku with palm oil stew, I don’t know if I’d find it delicious, or if it’d kick up a storm in my tummy. And that’s what makes traveling to distant, foreign places so intensely exciting.

A reason why I love traveling alone (my best travel experiences were done solo) is that the less I have the presence of someone familiar to depend on, the more thrilling the experience.

The unfamiliar and the unexplored don’t only come from traveling to foreign places. I remember times in Grinnell when I’d go, “Let’s have an adventure!”, and we’d figure out things to do that we’ve never done before, and would probably not think of doing if it weren’t for the pretext of “having an adventure”. Like taking the long walk to the cornfields in the dead of night and observing the stars. Like going high on the swings in some stranger’s backyard in the middle of a snowstorm, singing Bohemian Rhapsody against the whistling winds. Like going to one seedy bar in Grinnell after another, having conversations with colorful characters as we make our way through cheap beer and even cheaper shots.

No surprise then that my favorite word—the word that my friends often quote me on—is “Adventure”. It encompasses everything that I’m trying to convey in this post — coming face to face with the unknown, braving the unexplored, the foreign.

I would be lying if I said the unknown doesn’t scare me. On the contrary, sometimes it scares me shitless. Flying alone to a land halfway around the world, not knowing what it’d be like, but knowing it’d have to be home for the next 4 years, that was scary as fuck. I’ve probably said this a thousand times, but I’ll say it again — that scary decision was the best I’ve ever made.

The night before I was to fly to Ghana, I started panicking. Suddenly all those warnings of malaria and hepatitis and poor people who’d rob you of your money and the unthinkable sanitary conditions and the violence of people desperate to find a means to live, they began to hit me like a tsunami. All that, coupled with my imaginations of loneliness, of being sick from bad food, of being confused by the local language, of homesickness, of committing endless social faux pas… all of these worries swarmed my mind, making me feel more than a little nauseated. But none of these worries came true, and I had an incredible time in Ghana.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t worry before going to France. I’d been there before, and prior to that, I’d spent a month in London, which, language aside, isn’t too different from France. While I had a good time in France, it ended up falling short of the exhilarating experience I was hoping for, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged.

This really points to one conclusion — that comfortableness is not necessarily good, and fear is not necessarily bad. Fear is an indication that you’re heading into unchartered ground, that you’re exploring the unexplored.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that Grinnell has made me become aware of so many more life opportunities, possibilities that I’ve closed myself off to before this.

To be precise, my Grinnell education—both in and out of the classroom—has built me up to be braver in facing the fear of the unknown, so that strange, previously untraveled paths have now become an option. It has helped me grow to not only be able to confront the new, the strange, the foreign, but to revel in them, to seek them out, to pursue them, knowing full well that if I don’t stretch beyond the comfortable and familiar, I won’t grow, won’t flourish.

Sometimes, you have to confront your fears, take a free-fall of faith…

… and land wherever the wind takes you.


As one of my favorite bands, the Polyphonic Spree, puts it:

The unknown, while uncomfortable at times, provides us with the most satisfying rewards after the day is done.

I feel like I just babbled my way through an entire post.

Before all this, I’d really wanted to say, I found a job opening for a high school teaching position in Somaliland. Somaliland! Horn of Africa! A country who proclaims itself an independent state, but no other country recognizes its independence. As a foreigner, you have to be accompanied by armed escorts if you want to travel outside the capital.

It would give my mom a heart-attack if I so much as hinted that I think it sounds like an interesting opportunity.

Should I propose an application to the position then, just for shits?

Stew, Cambodia

I don’t know if my last post makes it obvious enough, but I’m missing Grinnell.

Right now, I feel.. bored? That life is too slow-paced? That I’m lacking stimulations? That the Malaysian heat is slowly cooking me, turning me into a sluggish heap of meaningless existence, keeping me stagnant, slowly stewing me in my own boredom.

Isn’t it weird? A few weeks ago, I was still in Grinnell, and life was like a bullet train, speeding from one stop to the next, leaving me with hardly any time to catch my breath. So many things happening, so many things to be dealt with, so many people running everywhere, so many words being spoken, being written, being read. So much information, so many exchanges of so many kinds.

And now, I’m back in Malaysia, and suddenly I have so much time. Time, the one thing I didn’t have enough of in Grinnell, I now have in abundance in Malaysia.

* * * * *

Thank god I have a trip to Cambodia planned! An effective way to kick me out of that pathetic mood that got me writing the nonsense above.

So yes, I’m in Cambodia. When I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport and into the streets of Phnom Penh for the first time, the one thought crossed my mind was — my god, this place seems so much like Ghana!

The dusty roads full of potholes, the endless stream of motorcycles weaving around cars and pedestrians, tarp-covered stalls by the roadside, children balancing large tubs of goods for sale.

This is an image that development and modernization will soon erase.

I’ll write more later, very tired.