Friday, January 28, 2011

Adventures in Malaysia

As the airplane made its final descent into the Kuala Lumpur airport, I excitedly lifted the window shade and peered down into the green forest of palm trees a thousand feet beneath me. The land looked lush and beautiful, just as I had expected. For years, Malaysia had been one of the top countries I wanted to visit and finally, my dream had come true. My eyes filled with tears as I took a deep breath and soaked in the thankfulness of being there, along with the anticipation of what was about to take place over the next two weeks.

I was coming to Malaysia to take a couple of classes about Urban Ministry through Golden Gate seminary. But my desire to go to Malaysia and passion for its people took root many years before I was a seminary student. In the late 1950s, my grandparents first came to Malaysia as missionaries. They served there for 10 years and worked among the Tamil speaking Indians. Malaysia is where my dad spent his childhood; so I’ve always felt like part of my heritage is in Malaysia. Though I was thousands of miles away from home, I felt strangely connected to my family as I looked out of my little window and imagined my dad landing on the same runway when he was just a little boy.

I snapped back into reality as the plane came to an abrupt landing and I stepped foot into the hot, humid air. As I made my way through the crowded streets of Kuala Lumpur, I encountered people from all different cultural backgrounds. Not only did I notice the three main people groups of Malaysia (Malay, Chinese and Indian), but I also saw people from Africa, the Middle East, Europe… nearly the whole globe seemed to be represented in this urban city.

The scent of incense weaved in and out of the air while mixing with the smells of sizzling meat from road-side stands and diesel fuel from the busy roads. I heard voices all around me- I couldn’t distinguish the difference between the Tamil, Chinese and Malay languages. They all seemed to blend together into a conglomeration of syllables that were foreign to me. Colorful fabrics were draped along the walls of small shops. The vendors beckoned me to “come have a look.”

I felt like I was in a wonderful dream, only it was real! I was really making my way through the colorful, crowded, chaotic, cultural streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And my journey had only just begun! Over the next two weeks, I would have many eye-opening experiences and be reunited with some of my dearest friends from college. I would learn things through our class activities that I would never learn in a classroom. My eyes would be opened to ways that God is working in cities all around the world and I would be exposed to ways that God could potentially use me in the future. Adventure was beckoning me, and I couldn’t contain my excitement.

Over the course of my trip, my eyes were opened to see the rich, unique culture of the Malaysian people. In my classes, I learned about their customs, their religions, and their lifestyles. As a class exercise one day, we sat at separate tables at a road-side outdoor restaurant. Our task was to observe the people for an hour. We were to record what they looked like (What were they wearing? What language were they speaking? What noises did we hear? What did it smell like?).

So many times I am in such a hurry that I rarely take the time to stop and observe those around me. I walk past people every day without even looking at them. But this particular day, I looked deeply into those people. So much so that I began to feel like I knew them personally. I watched as Chinese women shopped for fruits and vegetables in the market and Indian men cooked roti canai at the restaurant. I saw people offer fruits and candies at the Buddhist temple and my heart ached because they didn’t know the truth of Jesus. Though this wasn’t necessarily a “mission trip,” God was still working in my heart and giving me a passion for his people.

Sometimes when I go on trips, I enjoy myself, but by the time the 10-days is up, I’m ready to come home. But every now and then, I am deeply touched by a place and its people. This happened in Sri Lanka and again in Hawaii. And now I can say Malaysia impacted me in the same way. I guess it’s just one of those places where I feel like I “fit.” I felt totally comfortable there and as I was walking through a busy street in the city one day I thought to myself (or maybe God nudged me), “I could totally live here.”

I can’t predict the future. And I have no idea what God may have in store for me. But if He called me to live in Malaysia, or a place like Malaysia, I would be more than willing to go. My heart was singing the whole time I was there. As I imagined my grandparents serving in that same place decades before, I was filled with awe and thankfulness. God is so faithful. How cool it is that I was able to go to the same place and share the same passion for its people that my grandparents had.

Another highlight of the trip was being reunited with my Malaysian friends who graduated from Campbell. In 2005, when I first arrived at Campbell, I went to the International Student Office and told them that I wanted to meet international students. The first students that I met were five girls from Malaysia. We began a friendship that year that has continued until today. Each year after that, exchange students would come to Campbell and I would always be excited to meet them. By the time I graduated, I had about 20 friends from Malaysia who had come to Campbell. Many of them live in the states now, but I was fortunate to be able to meet up with several of them on my trip.

Again, I was reminded of God’s faithfulness. When I said goodbye to these friends 3 or 4 years ago, I wondered if I would ever see them again. But here I was, years later, in their home country, sharing a meal with them. And now I was the international student! We sat around the table late at night, laughing and reminiscing on our memories from our time at Campbell. We talked about the first time I met each of them, and I’m just surprised I didn’t scare anyone off! One guy said, “You just showed up in my apartment my very first morning in America and I had no idea who you were but you were so excited.” Another girl said, “I was in a car and you ran after me and introduced yourself because you knew I was Malaysian.” Thank goodness they weren’t too afraid of this crazy American girl!

My good friend Jamie is from Malaysia and though she’s still in North Carolina, I was able to spend a day with her family. I had talked to them before and heard all about them for years, but had never met them. It was such a joy to go to Jamie’s hometown and sit in her house with her family. Her dad brought out his guitar and as we sang praise and worship songs, my eyes filled up with tears. I was flooded with memories of my time at Campbell with my sweet Malaysian friends. Part of my heart ached to go back to that time when we were all together. But then another part of me was just extremely joyful and thankful for how God has been at work in all of our lives over the past few years. Being in Malaysia was a great reminder that even though my friends are scattered all over the world, God is just as real over there as He is in America. He’s working all the time, even when I can’t see it. But I’m so thankful that for those two weeks in Malaysia, He allowed me to see a small glimpse of His plan for my dear friends there. What an incredible journey.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Real life Tower of Terror

The Tower of Terror is one of my favorite rides at Disney World. The ride takes place in an elevator in a haunted hotel. Once you get up to the 13th story, the doors open up, revealing to the passengers the height of which they are about to fall. Then without warning, the elevator drops. Everyone screams as their stomachs go through the roof. But after a few seconds, the ride is over. No one is actually ‘terrorized” by the experience, and most walk away thrilled rather than traumatized. It’s a fun ride.

I learned the other day, however- that real life elevator mishaps are not so thrilling. Though it’s a comical story to tell now, I was scared out of my mind at the time. It all started when I went with my class to the Kuala Lumpur communication tower in Malaysia. This is the 5th largest communication tower in the world. Its 260+ floors offer an impressive (yet overpriced) view of the city.

Our elevator ride up the tower was great and took exactly 58 seconds. After spending some time up top, Dr. Pate, Michael, Bekah, Alan and I got on the elevator along with 3 Chinese Malaysians. It was 3:00 in the afternoon. As the doors closed we were all laughing and Alan joked about how he was going to jump and make the elevator stop. We went down, down, down, until all of the sudden we heard what sounded like emergency breaks. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” The elevator shook and I gripped the handle as it came to a sudden, unexpected stop. We were all still laughing and I was having a flashback of my childhood memories at Disney World.

As the laughter died down, reality began to sink in. The doors were still closed, there was no “ding” to tell us we had arrived at the ground level, and worst of all- there was no airflow. We hit the intercom button several times and finally a voice came through the speakers.

Yes! A connection to the outside world! Unfortunately that connection was not very comforting or helpful. In broken English, he asked how many people were in the elevator and how many of us were foreigners. I’m still not really sure why that mattered. Do they rescue one nationality more quickly than another? We told him there were 8 of us and 5 were American. The voice told us “Rescue coming” and then disappeared, leaving us alone in our confined little box.

At this point, we’re in high spirits thinking that if rescue is coming, it will be soon. But as minute after minute ticks away, my imagination gets the worst of me and I begin to picture every scenario that could take place. We realize that there are no vents in the elevator and it is HOT. Very hot. In my mind I’m thinking “There are eight of us in this confined space. We are going to use up all of the air and I’m going to suffocate!”

Sometimes I think about the way I want to go out. If I don’t die in my sleep, I guess I’d at least like to go out while doing something admirable or exciting. Suffocating in an elevator is not the way I imagined leaving the earth at the age of 23. Everyone is still talking and laughing. I, on the other hand, am sitting on the floor, knees glued to my chest, eyes squeezed shut, all the while thinking, “They need to stop laughing…they are using up valuable oxygen and we need to conserve it!” (pretty sure it doesn’t even work like that…but still).

I start wondering how they are going to get my body all the way back to America. Should I scribble a farewell not to my loved ones on the back of my receipt? It doesn’t help that my jokester professor is recording a message to his sons on his flip. He starts out by saying, “Boys, if you’re watching this alone, that probably means it ended up poorly for all of us.” Awesome. Thanks for the encouragement, Dr. Pate.

About 30 minutes have passed now and there’s still no sign of rescue. I’m really sweating now, but I’m trying to save the last few gulps of water I have in my water bottle in case times get worse. Someone makes the comment, “Do you think we’re on a Malaysian game show?” Maybe they will open up the doors and have a camera crew filming us, waiting to see how we interacted as a team. If only it was a joke. We put our brains together and think that there must be a way to crawl out of the top. I mean, that’s how they do it on the movies, right? But alas, there’s no secret escape up top. We are closed in from every angle. At about 3:35, Michael has the brilliant idea none of us had thought of before. We can manually push the door open! Without much effort, the door opens and my spirits soar. It doesn’t matter that we are against a concrete wall and still have no way of getting out…we now have airflow!

I make a comment that now the worst case scenario is that we’re trapped a few more hours, but now at least they could lower us some water in through the door. Dr. Pate bites his tongue thinking that there are much worse scenarios (aka plummeting to our deaths- I didn’t think about that one).

The voice enters the box we’ve come to call “the sauna” again. It’s been over an hour now. To our surprise, instead of giving us an update, asks again, “How many people are in the elevator?” Seriously? Did you forget this already? And why does it matter? Or is he checking to see if anyone has died since he last checked in on us? We are getting frustrated with the voice now. He says, “Rescue coming from outside.” He tells us we need to keep the door closed. Dr. Pate informs the voice that if the door is closed we can’t breathe and we are going to die. In hopes of speeding up the process he adds, “We have four ladies lying on the ground fainting. You need to hurry.” I cup my hand over my mouth so the voice won’t hear me laughing at my professor’s exaggeration.

After an hour and a half, I start looking for entertainment. Bekah and I play a few rounds of tic-tac-toe. We get to know our Chinese neighbors (Yap, Tan and May). I’m trying to do anything to get my mind off of the obvious. I’m no longer worried about suffocating. Now my mind is on the more pressing matter…the fact that I most definitely have got to go to the bathroom.

You know, through my travels, I’ve had some unique bathroom experiences. In China, I used a hole in the ground with no stalls separating me from the strangers beside me. In Sri Lanka, it was a wooden shack on the side of the road with mud and bugs. Either one of those options now seemed great compared to the predicament I was in. Not only was I in mixed company, I was also in a very confined space.

I began weighing my options. “Maybe if I move around a lot, I can sweat it all off.” Not likely. I suppose I could use my water bottle- but that would mean sacrificing the sacred final drops of water- not sure I want to do that. Then I had the most brilliant idea of all…the shaft! I was already sitting closest to the door, so if I told everyone to turn the other way, I could position myself directly over the shaft and hope that the inside of the elevator stayed clean. At least I was wearing a skirt.

I’m already preparing myself for the utter humiliation that I’m about to experience when, as if from heaven, we move an inch down. Everyone starts cheering! The voice was right- after 2 hours and 15 minutes, rescue had finally come. Slowly but surely, we are lowered down inch by inch. As I peer down the shaft I still see nothing but concrete. But then, I see it- an eyeball looking up at me from a hole in the wall! It was the most beautiful eye ball I had ever seen. It represented hope and freedom.

Soon we saw light coming in from the 4th floor and heard clapping and cheering. They lowered us until we had enough room to jump out of the elevator into safety. I have never been so relieved in my life. It was like waking up from a really terrible nightmare.

Everyone was laughing and hugging each other. They greeted us with bottles of water. I raced to the bathroom before I could do anything else and kept thanking Jesus for getting me out of that trap! Once my bladder was relieved, I could truly join the celebration. I took deep breaths- appreciating the endless supply of fresh air around me.

They treated us to smoothies and gave us a full refund. They also said we could go up for free the next time we came back. I smiled and thanked them, but was really thinking, “Now way, Jose! I have no desire to ever go up that tube of death again!” The view from the bottom will be just fine for me. I think I’ll stay on the ground where there is plenty of life’s 3 essentials: Water, Oxygen, and toilets.