As for me, I have another lengthy update as a lot has transpired since my last e-mail. Last time I wrote, I was preparing to travel to Bali, Indonesia with five of my students to the 5th Asia Pro Bono Conference put on by the organization that I interned for in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEACLE).
I am happy to report that the conference was a success in many different respects. First, I was proud to bring these two organizations, BABSEACLE and Fulbright, together to enrich the experiences of my five students as they traveled to a foreign country for the very first time, to interact with native English speakers, and to learn about the legal field and access to justice issues. For most of them, it was their first time on an airplane. Second, the conference fostered steady growth of the pro bono movement in southeast Asia as close to 500 participants joined in from more than 30 countries from around the world. Lastly, I found out that the next conference would be taking place in Malaysia, and therefore I will be attending the 6th Pro Bono Conference in late September of 2017 to continue this incredible ride of learning about justice and legal ethics. This will mark my third consecutive pro bono conference, the first being in Mandalay, Myanmar in 2015.
After Bali, we enjoyed yet another week off from school in September and took that time to travel to India. I took a couple of personal days to make the trip last 9 days and I coordinated with my father who has colleagues in Lucknow, India so I could travel there first to start my journey. I spent two days with my new Indian family in Lucknow who took me in as one of their own, fed me incredible dahl, naan, and curry, and showed me around their historical city. I was amazed by the fact that in India, cows are everywhere. I knew cows were holy before I arrived, but I had failed to connect the dots that cows would literally be everywhere doing whatever they wanted and if anyone were to disturb that activity, they would be in serious trouble. I learned this the hard way later. After exploring a couple of temples and mosques, I was on a plane to New Delhi, which is where I would meet my American ETA friends who were flying in from Malaysia.
First impressions of New Delhi were that it was extremely crowded, and the traffic followed suit as probably the most congested I had ever experienced; even more so then Manila in the Philippines. Poverty was also the worst I had seen and the pollution was equally a paramount issue. To make matters worse, open sewage and people openly defecating in the streets filled the air with urine and human excrement. However, we were determined to not allow these things to affect our experience. We quickly learned the layout of this huge metropolitan area, used the subway with ease, and occasionally negotiated a rickshaw or tuk tuk to get to where we wanted to go. We visited the Red Fort, the India Gate, and many Hindu temples, Islamic Mosques, and royal tombs.
Next stop was Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. We hired a taxi driver to make the four-hour drive to this historic site. Luckily, because it was Eid, the Muslim holiday, we got into the Taj Mahal for free. In no way, did we plan for this to happen and were pleasantly surprised to find out that we came to the Taj on one of the days where they offered free admission. I will say, that of all the monuments and mausoleums that I had seen, this was the most spectacular. It certainly did, in fact, live up to expectations.
To round out our trip, we used the same taxi driver to show us around the city of Jaipur, which completed the “golden triangle” (New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur). We explored the pink city, essentially all the buildings are painted pink (looked more like orange to me) and these encapsulated the City Fort, the Water Palace, and many other beautiful structures. The very interesting aspect of Jaipur is the fact that elephants are used as just another form of transportation. You could go by car, bus, tuk tuk, rickshaw, or elephant. These elephants, much smaller than say an African elephant, will be frequently seen walking down the roads with passengers. I question the ethics behind this, but not outwardly of course as I did not want to offend.
At the tail end of our trip, we travelled back to New Delhi so we could catch our flight back to Malaysia. As we were walking down a very busy road on the way back to our hostel, we encountered a cow. I stated earlier that I had learned the hard way about cows being holy and I certainly meant it. Essentially, my friends and I saw a cow approaching us on the side of the street. My two friends, closest to the side walk, quickly skirted out of the way. I, on the other hand, tried to get a little closer to the busy road to allow the cow to pass. If I had tried to get to the sidewalk, I would have been right in front of the cow’s path. As the cow was about to pass me, the cow proceeded to go out of its way to buck me, to which it had lifted me off the ground slightly. I ended up landing on a moving rickshaw to where I was sandwiched in between a mad cow and a moving vehicle. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt. To say I was shaken up, however, would be an understatement. And of course, the rickshaw driver wasn’t happy, and seemingly yelled at me as if I had somehow provoked the cow into ramming me. My friends, being the great people they are, laughed at me relentlessly and wouldn’t let me forget it for the duration of the trip. I let them know I was experiencing some Beef-TSD from this very traumatic experience. J
The next month, in October, I had a three-day weekend and elected to use my last two personal days to make a five-day weekend to travel to Sri Lanka. This would also be the first time I would travel solo. I was extremely excited yet nervous to take on this endeavor, but viewed it as a challenge. I flew into Colombo, the capital city, and quickly boarded a train to my first stop; Kandy. This town is known for its culture. They house the famous “Temple of the Tooth,” which is a temple that has one of the actual teeth of THE Buddha. The tooth is over 2,000 years old and held in tight security. The city has a gigantic white Buddha on top of the hill that overlooks the town as well. Next up was the town of Galle, which was a more laid back type of atmosphere. Close to this town was Weligama, a little surf stop. I had never gone surfing before and I had heard that Sri Lanka had some of the best surfing in the world, so I hired an instructor and went surfing for the very first time. After about two hours, I was able to successfully ride a wave. It wasn’t a monster wave by any stretch, but I felt pretty accomplished and I now understood how people can get addicted to this very fun sport. To end the adventure, I took the train back to Colombo to walk around the city’s bustling markets, explore a Buddhist temple in the middle of a lake, and I utilized “Couchsurfing,” which is a network of travelers that host other travelers to engage in cultural exchange.
About three weeks had passed before I would travel again, this time to Bangkok, Thailand. If you remember, I had been here once before, but that was for tourist purposes. This second trip would be strictly business. I applied to the Schwarzman Scholarship, a one-year master’s degree in Beijing, China at Tsinghua University. I became a finalist and therefore got a free trip to Bangkok (the closest geographical location to Malaysia) to interview for the scholarship. I met the other finalists and engaged in a group interview where we had to work on a team to reconstruct an edifice using Legos. The second part of the process was a luncheon with the interviewers, which was essentially another interview. Then came the actual interview where I was interviewed by a seven-person panel of top people from around the world. My panel included General David Petraeus, the CEO of Singtel (Singapore’s largest telecommunication company), an ambassador to Singapore, and the provost from Yale University.
Directly after the interview process, I flew back to Malaysia, but this time, instead of flying back to my town of Bachok, I flew to Kuala Lumpur for the wrap up of the Fulbright program or “disorientation” as they call it. After a few days of programming, we all said our goodbyes and just like that, my Fulbright grant was over. Some scholars chose to fly directly back to the U.S. and others had the option of postponing their fights so they could travel around the region. I chose, unsurprisingly, the latter. I chose to fly back three weeks after so I could travel to some places in Indonesia, Borneo island (which is also part of Malaysia), Brunei, and Taiwan.
My first stop was Jakarta, Indonesia, where I had a friend from BABSEACLE living there. He showed me around and I got to see the 4th largest mosque in the world, which is where President Obama visited in 2010. I then traveled to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, which is on the same island of Java. Two main temples dominate the tourist circuit there; Prambanan and Borobudur. They certainly did not disappoint, although they were a little pricey compared to Angkor Wat’s archaeological site in Cambodia.
After Indonesia, I ventured to Sabah and Sarawak, two states of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. In Sabah, I went to the Kota Kinabalu National Park, which is home to Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. In Sarawak, I went with some friends to the capital city of Kuching, which literally translates to “cat.” This city is really all about cats and is home to a cat museum, many cat statues all throughout, but surprisingly not many stray cats. On the same island of Borneo, there is a tiny country called Brunei that I traveled to and it sits right in between Sabah and Sarawak. This country is predominantly Muslim and sharia law has been implemented. They are rich in oil and therefore the country is immaculately wealthy and clean. It reminded me of a Muslim-version of Singapore.
My last country (depending on who you ask) to visit in Asia for the year 2016 was Taiwan. I started in Taipei and was blown away with how modern everything was, including the 8th tallest tower in the world, the Taipei 101. Some of the highlights included the Palace Museum that housed some of the oldest artifacts from China. Their collection is so vast; they can only display about 1% of it at a time in this gigantic museum. I checked out Liberty Square where they celebrate their democratic values, which completely contradicts the mainland of China. After Taipei, I went down the coast to Hualien to taste their famous beef noodle and stinky tofu. There, I went to the Taroko National Park and witnessed the beautiful and ancient white marble that snakes around a river throughout the park.
After almost a year and a half of being abroad while living in Thailand and then Malaysia, I was finally coming home right in time for Thanksgiving. Then, of course, my grandparents wanted to go on a Caribbean cruise in December. We sailed to the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Cozumel, Mexico. Jamaica turned out to be my favorite stop as my sister and I climbed the famous Dunn’s River Falls and experimented with some of the different rum flavors they offered. In total, I congruently traveled to 16 countries in the year ‘16.
In January, I was fortunate to land a job as a Session Aide in the Washington State Legislature for State Senator Reuven Carlyle, a strong Democrat representing the 36th legislative district of downtown Seattle. I was given full responsibility in managing the Senator’s and the Legislative Assistant’s schedules. In addition, I gained experience writing numerous constituent letters, taking meetings, and I even had the opportunity to draft my very own bill. I worked with another Session Aide and Caucus Staff to draft a bill that would have created a joint legislative task force to implement a comprehensive computer science curriculum for K-12 students. The bill had a strong emphasis on how to incorporate girls into computer science courses to bridge the gender gap in this field by encouraging gender balancing in computer science courses. Unfortunately, we were unable to introduce it before the policy cut-off deadline, but it was an interesting process nonetheless.
I write that last part in past tense as the last day of the 2017 legislative session, or Sine Die, was yesterday. I do have two more days of employment to transition the Olympia office to their district office in Seattle, but after that, I will have completed my tenure as a Session Aide for the 2017 legislative session.
Like I had mentioned earlier, I applied to the Schwarzman Scholarship and interviewed for it in Bangkok. You might already know this, but I was fortunate to receive said scholarship and I start my one year master’s degree in Beijing, China in August of this year. I will be studying either Public Policy or International Relations.
Before the program begins, however, a bunch of Schwarzman Scholars came up with an idea to go on the Trans-Siberian railroad trip beforehand. This was a trip that the first cohort did last year and we thought it would be a great idea to replicate it. However, we got a little ambitious. Last year’s trip started in Moscow and went throughout Russia, through Mongolia, and ended in Beijing. Our trip will be starting in Stockholm, Sweden. We will be traveling from Stockholm to Helsinki, Finland by ferry, then to Tallinn, Estonia by the same method. From there, we will take the bus to St. Petersburg and then the train to Moscow. From Moscow, we will follow basically the same itinerary that last year’s group did. We will play tourist in each stop for a couple days a pop. The trip will start on August 1st and we will arrive in Beijing around August 26th.
Sorry for an even longer email than the previous one, but there had been so much that I wanted to report. I hope all is well and that we continue to stay in touch. Take care.