Wild Dogs: Staying Safe Abroad

When I tell people I studied abroad in Malaysia, they often ask, “Were you safe?”

A lot of Americans can’t point Malaysia out on a map, let alone tell you anything about its crime rate, but the sound of a young American woman in a big city in a foreign county suggests danger to them. I’m happy to remind them I’m perfectly capable of getting kidnapped or hit by a bus in Minnesota, thank you very much. In reality, nothing happened in Penang that wouldn’t happen in Minneapolis; I warded off the same amount of cat-callers, prying Uber drivers, and creepily persistent young men that I would have in America. I tell my curious coworkers and family friends I only ever really felt unsafe one time while abroad: The day I got chased by a pack of dogs.


Some context: About 60% of Malaysians practice Islam and most practicing Muslims avoid contact with dogs. The vast majority of dogs in Malaysia are strays or owned by religious and ethnic minority groups as guard dogs. Given that I’m obsessed with dogs to the point of driving my friends to insanity (and my parents had to go and get a PUPPY while I was abroad), I had a hard time adjusting to this new culture of pet-ownership.

Stray dogs avoided me and guard dogs barked from behind fences. But one day, when I was leaving a meditation sanctuary outside of the city and was walking through residential neighborhoods to meet my Uber back on the main road, I heard a flurry of barking. I looked behind me and, like some sort of nightmarish Tom & Jerry cartoon, an entire gang of mutts emerged from an alleyway. About four or five dogs, each around the size of a Labrador retriever, began to stalk after me, growling. I immediately knew I couldn’t run or scream or panic because it might cause them to pounce. I don’t know how I knew this. My mind probably made some weird connection between that situation and the advice my dad gave me about calmly encountering cougars when we went camping in Colorado (Thanks Dad).

So I just power-walked as fast as I could in my beat-up Tevas, declaring “No, no, no”, because obviously these dogs listened to firm and clear boundaries. After crawling along like this for a few blocks, a couple yards always separating the pack and I, the dogs decided they were too far from their den and this scrawny white girl probably tasted like sunscreen anyway, and turned around. As they departed, my meditation teacher ceremoniously showed up on his motorbike and told me to hop on. He safely deposited me at my Uber and no one was mauled by wild dogs that day (that I know of).


I identify with the character Chidi on The Good Place because we both get a stomachache when having to make decisions in even the most remotely stressful situation. I’ve lived in Minnesota pretty much my entire life and went to college less than two hours away from my family and friends, so before I left for Malaysia, I definitely felt a lot of anxiety about my anxiety in a new country. But when I was arguably in the most stressful situation of my life, my emotions shut down and my thought process became mechanical. Only when I was safely in my Uber did I feel the rush of adrenaline from escaping possible danger.

Somehow, despite everyone’s fears, I was levelheaded enough not to die abroad. I keep this memory as a token to be recalled when I need confidence in myself as a traveler and as a person. I use it as a reminder that if I can face a pack of wild dogs, I can face (or at the very least speed-walk away from) just about anything.


Reconnecting the Cucumber: The Strangest Thing I Did While Abroad

From day one of the Qigong class I took while studying abroad in Penang, Malaysia, the instructors told us students that the final exam would consist of “reconnecting the cucumber.” Taken literally, I had little idea what cucumbers had to do with Qigong, a meditative Chinese system involving repetitive physical exercises and breath control. I asked my Malaysian classmate and friend, Wendy, what the phrase meant, thinking maybe it was some metaphor I lacked the cultural and linguistic knowledge to understand. But she seemed equally confused. In fact, the entire class as clueless but curious as I was.

Low and behold, I arrived at our classroom on the day of the final to find a table stacked with actual green cucumbers. After collecting 3 Ringgit (the equivalent of 75 cents in USD) from each student for the supplies, the Qigong instructors sliced the cucumbers in half diagonally and handed each of us the two pieces. They directed us to reconnect the cucumber in reverse (with both tips of the cucumbers pointing downward) using our Qi as a sort of conduit.


What our reconnected cucumber was supposed to look like

Still baffled, I discovered back at my seat that I could make the two ends stick, briefly, by using the moisture of the cucumber. When we succeeded, we gathered at the front of classroom, proudly displaying our completed exams. The instructors then told us to gather around the people who could not get their cucumbers to connect, holding our palms up and channeling our Qi towards them until they succeeded. Eventually, not a cucumber in the room was left unconnected. Then, unlike with my other college finals, I went home to my dorm, chopped up my final exam, and ate it.

To this day, I cannot say exactly what lessons I took away from the experience of reconnecting the cucumber. The whole situation was surreal but after living in another culture for four months, I had learned to roll with whatever situation life offered. Far, far from Minnesota, I had to adapt by taking whatever I encountered with a considerate attitude, a light heart, and an open mind. This was true whether I was eating a whole squid cooked in spicy red curry or camping for a week on a remote island with sea turtles and mouse deer (Google them. They’re cute). Reconnecting the cucumber was the strangest of my experiences abroad, but I hope that it will not be the last.


Left to right: Wendy, me, and another American, holding our completed exams

Traveling to Taiwan: What I Read

Part of what motivated me to apply for the Fulbright grant to Taiwan was the country’s rich literary tradition. Reading the work of Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American writers granted essential insight into the country’s culture and history as I worked on my application. Now, as I prepare to begin my grant and live in Taiwan, I want to share with you what I read.

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan


Photo from Good Reads

I best understand and absorb history through narratives. Ryan’s characters take the reader through over five decades of Taiwanese history, from Japanese colonial rule to the era of martial law to the country’s present-day democracy. Focusing on a doctor imprisoned for political opposition and his daughter who later immigrates to the United States, Green Island creates a story that is both informatively historical and deeply emotional.

Orphan of Asia by Zhuoliu Wu


Photo from Columbia University Press

Another example of Taiwanese history told through fiction, the protagonist of this semi-autobiographical novel finds himself struggling with an identity crisis unique to postwar Taiwan. He is both entangled in and estranged from Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese culture, and cannot find where exactly he belongs. Orphan of Asia is considered a classic of modern Asian literature and Zhuoliu Wu one of Taiwan’s most important writers.

Taiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese, edited by Shyu-Tu Lee & Jack F. Williams


Photo from Amazon.com

The best way to understand a nation is to listen to people living in it. Unfortunately, much of the English-language commentary on modern Taiwan is written by outside observers. That’s why Taiwan’s Struggle was vital for me in understanding modern Taiwanese politics. Covering societal identity, international status, and economic and environmental issues, this book offers a broad portrait of Taiwan painted by the Taiwanese themselves.

Currently Reading

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi


Photo from Good Reads

I didn’t read this book during the application process because the English translation was not yet available. Now I’m halfway through and enjoying the story of one man searching for his missing father’s stolen bicycle, a mystery that involves Taiwan’s antique bicycle collectors, butterfly handicraft makers, jungle military operations, and the world’s oldest elephant (I’m not yet to the part with the elephant, but I’m intrigued). Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The Stolen Bicycle is a unique look into Taiwan and its culture.

To Read

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan


Photo from Amazon.com

I saw this Young Adult novel mentioned several times on Twitter before I realized it was set in Taiwan. In The Astonishing Color of After, American teenager Leigh Chen Sanders travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents after the death of her mother. Oh, and Sanders is convinced that when her mother died, she turned into a bird. I currently have this book reserved at the library and intend to read it this summer before I begin my grant.

BONUS: What I Watched

A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi by Edward Yang


A Brighter Summer Day, Photo from Amazon.com


Yi Yi, Photo from bigother.com

Taiwan’s impressive cultural output is not limited to literature. Movie fanatics consider director Edward Yang to be not only essential viewing for Taiwanese cinema but for film history in general. I watched two of his most well-known films, A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi, while working on my application. While both movies are quite an undertaking (Yi Yi is 173 minutes long; Day is almost 4 hours), Yang artfully captures the beauty and drama of his nation through the everyday struggles and cataclysmic conflicts of his characters.

How Two One-Page Essays Earned Me the Grant of a Lifetime

At first, it sounds easy. It’s only two pages. Then, when one begins writing, reality sets in. It’s only two pages. Two pages to explain why you, out of tens of thousands of applicants, deserve one of the top government scholarships in the United States. Applying for the Fulbright grant involved 15 drafts and 10 months of obsession over every point, word, and comma. Somehow, all that work paid off with a yearlong federal grant to teach English in Taiwan. Recently, I’ve been looking back on the process to see what pieces of advice I can extract not only about applying to the Fulbright, but about writing in general. Here is what I learned.

Your final draft should look nothing like your first draft. Having studied writing in college, I knew the first draft of my Fulbright essays would be far from perfect, but I didn’t predict just how different my final draft would be from the first. From general ideas to specific syntax and word choice, nothing survived revision. I’ve no doubt my essays succeeded because of this transformation. Don’t be sentimental with your drafts. Don’t hold onto any sentence or idea if it’s not working. It’s important to begin, to get that first draft on the page, but the real work is in the revision.

The more readers, the better, and those readers should not be your friends. Throughout the application process, I received invaluable help from my college’s fellowship coordinator. One of the greatest services she did was sending out my essays to anyone and everyone who could offer critique. Though suddenly getting emails from strangers filled with comments on my personal writing proved a little terrifying, strangers were exactly who I needed as readers. The Fulbright board wouldn’t be made up of my friends and wouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to my essays’ inconsistencies or imperfections. Sifting through the comments of over 10 people on multiple drafts, deciding if and how I apply their suggestions, ultimately transformed my essays into their successful finished product.

Finally, it’s not over, till it’s over. The night I submitted my essays, I read them aloud to my boyfriend over the phone. Even then, I was still finding sentences that I could improve, words that would work better. There’s always changes to be made in a piece of writing, and you should use all the time you possibly can before the deadline. But once that deadline passes, that time is gone, and you have to move on. After the 2017 deadline, the online Fulbright forums were full of applicants combing through their submitted essays and lamenting over the mistakes they found. Often these findings didn’t predict the end results of the grant and the applicants couldn’t do anything about them anyway. Submit and let go. This is easier than it sounds, and I blessedly had an undergraduate thesis to distract me. I don’t know what I’m going to do the next time I face an important deadline or how other writers distract themselves, but one has to find the willpower to work up until the deadline and then move on completely.

Applying for the Fulbright was a long, stressful exercise in obsessing over just two pages of writing, and then sending those pages out into the abyss and praying that something incredible comes back. My hope in writing this post is that the advice I gleamed from this process might help you, whether you’re applying for the Fulbright or writing anything else. Either way, I wish you luck.