By Kara Timrick

I am one of several year-long exchange students in Malaysia, but I was born and bred in Chicago. I consider myself lucky to come from such a diverse city because I got to be exposed to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and religions. One group of people that I often encountered were those that followed Islam.

Throughout my life I have seen many different perspectives surrounding Muslim people, both good and bad. This prompted me to start studying this religion in high school, and eventually choose to spend a year in a Muslim country. I wanted to truly understand this religion. But the reason I chose to study in Malaysia specifically, is because this country offers a unique opportunity to experience and learn about three cultures: Chinese, Indian, and Malay.

For the past 10 months I have been hosted in Alor Setar, Kedah. I was worried it might prove difficult to move from a big city like Chicago, to what has been described as “a small, rural town” in northern Malaysia. I could not have been farther from the truth. I stepped off that small Malindo airplane in the Alor Setar airport for the first time, stared at the vast padi fields surrounding me, and smiled because I knew that this was exactly what I needed.

Living in Alor Setar has been incredible. Here I truly get to feel like I am living like a local; running into people I know all the time while I am out and always having conversations with the owner of shops I always go to. Alor Setar has become my home in every sense of the word and the two most spectacular things about living in Alor Setar are of course my host school and host family.

I have felt like I am truly a part of my host family since the first week I was here. My family welcomed me (and my craziness) with open arms and have given me all the love and support I needed and then some. I still remember during my first few weeks when I was having a bad day, all I needed to do was talk to my older brother or mom and they would help me through whatever I was going through. Of course, no family is perfect, but whenever we encountered a problem we worked through it together and it made our bond even stronger. I have laughed, cried, danced, sang, and truly lived as a member of this family and part of me will always be with them.

Now onto the second reason why Alor Setar has truly become my home: my host school. To say my school welcomed me with open arms is an understatement. I still remember my first day of school (which also was my birthday) everyone around me in the hall started singing happy birthday and pulled me on stage to celebrate with cake. This is just one example of how caring my school is towards me. Even though a majority of students do not speak English well, I have become very close friends with many, especially my classmates. This has also helped me improve my Bahasa Melayu. I often end up staying in school late just to hang out and and laugh with my friends. In addition, I participate in many programs like choral speaking, my school radio, sports day, English camps, and many more which makes me really like I play a part in the school community.

Of course any intercultural exchange will have its ups and downs. One of the toughest challenges I had to face and adapt to while in Malaysia was my level of independence. I am used to being a very independent person. For example, in Chicago I would make the one-hour commute to school alone every day using public transportation, and here my school is a one-minute car ride away. In Chicago I was used to doing many things alone and independently, and here I am almost always surrounded by people and doing things together. However, about three months into my exchange I realized that I am given independence here, just in different ways. For example, I am trusted to travel around Malaysia using buses and planes, which is something I have never done alone in the States before. I soon adapted to the different kind of independence I was given here, and now this is no longer even seen as a challenge in my eyes.

As for the up moments, one of my favorite has been my family trip to Terengganu. In December, my family took a 4-day trip to Terengganu to visit my father’s hometown. The whole trip was filled with non-stop laughter. We got to visit beautiful beaches, eat delicious keropok lekor, visit monuments like the Crystal Mosque, and I got to meet many members of my family for the first time. This trip will always remain a highlight of my stay in Malaysia.

If you are thinking about spending an AFS year in Malaysia, I highly encourage you to jump in and do it! Things will not always be easy, and this culture will take time to adapt to, but I promise you, you will end the year not wanting to go home. You will learn about three distinct cultures, get to celebrate incredible holidays, eat delicious food, make life-long connections with people, and grow exponentially as a person.