Kits first adventure, 1 year, 3 villages, 2 schools. Malaysia.
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Today in the manner of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs I was whistling while I worked cleaning the house, Charlie my dog is a messy little fur baby... I am neither messy or furry.
As I swept then microfibre mopped the white tiles of my Bali home (why oh why??) I was reminded of that time when my host mother asked my host sister to tell me not to whistle because it will attract snakes into the house, I had a giggle & kept whistling, other memories flooding back. Flash back to the house ei the village in Malaysia, of course I ceased and desisted with any further whistling.
What is a Host Sister? Why did I have a Host Mother? Why was I in Malaysia?. In 1988 Three months after I finished high school, I was one of 26 students chosen to live in Malaysia on Student Exchange for twelve months by AFS Intercultural Programs , I was 17. How on earth did I manage/ swindle that???
This all stemmed from not really knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up. At the private girls school I attended in North Sydney, Australia, there was the expectation that you became a doctor, lawyer or high-powered executive breaker of glass ceilings kind of 80s power woman complete with shoulder pads. Or you marry a man that did the man version of that because you were destined to become the child barer, or as my mum would say "chief cook and bottle wash"
I never really felt that I fitted in at school. There is a long list of stories such as "Kitty gets suspended", "Kitty gets expelled, but is magically re enrolled", "Kitty Rebels", "Kitty in the Principals Office Again" "Kitty tells teachers to 'go get fucked'" Yeah lots of stories from those six years and honestly I wasn't even the worst one in my form by a long shot. I just wanted to challenge what they told me was gospel, I was always asking why. "Why?" is apparently not a good private school girl question. I see all the amazing women that we are now thanks to FaceBook, we are all rebels in our own way, forging our own paths. Its empowering & surprising to be privy to the life stories of all the amazing women I went to school with.
I wanted to be a ballerina when I never grew up, and when my parents decided for me that this wasn't proper career.... I had to figure out something else, in what I recognise now as a depressed, donut eating state. I just took more shifts at work and mindlessly filled out university applications to become a geography teacher. I love geography, but I would have been the worst teacher of kids ever. Miss Kitty would have encouraged all of their rebellious streaks, and found heaps of reasons to eat foreign foods and snacks in class. Meaning I would still be being called to the principals office!! Yeah, Nah.
One day there was a speech in the school auditorium from some AFS returnees, they are students that have come back from their exchange, I went. I liked that they didn't run the usual path they were adventurers, some went for 3 months & some went for 12 months. Many spoke a second language and had seen parts of the world. I took that application home where I nervously, secretly filled it out and posted it off, never in a million years thinking that I had a chance.
Becoming a member of this exclusive change student club required interviews, tests, panels and the making of origami (seriously I made origami I was bad at it... I was never much better at creating napkins folds either... no patience) I didn't stand a chance. So I forgot all about it and got on with the depression donuts, university applications and grape vining off the fatty treats alongside my anger at 6am aerobics classes before school. I remember writing on my AFS application form that I wanted to go to India because thats where my grandfather was from, I wanted to see where he lived and visit the Taj Mahal, I also wrote that I loved curries.
I let it go, there were a hundred hungrier girls than me. I was still disappointed that aerobics & dance were not school subjects back then. Maybe those hungry girls made the mistake of telling their parents, maybe those parents said to those hungry girls "Exchange student, no way, you are going to uni". Rebellious, yet savvy kitty made no such mistake, she bought that stamp and posted it her self.
We got a letter in the mail, sweaty palms I read the words where I had made round one, I was on the short list. Me!! I got the call back!!, buggeration the parental units needed to be advised. My parents were divorced, so I got to pick one to sign off on it. Pretty sure I made dad sign the form, he was so busy with work and the messy life of three daughters that he probably had no idea what he was signing off on. Sneaky or smart? I think both.
The interview process began: I met with returnees, I did psyche tests, I looked at and tried to match up pictures and patterns, I did puzzles chatted with older, serious people and held my ground. After all my training had been all those trips to the principals office and I did crap origami. I told stories, I vaguely remember making people laugh. I had nothing to loose except getting on the university treadmill which was never ever really on my vision board.
Somewhere dad had to be involved, pretty sure they spoke to mum too. Lord knows what either of them said... but a year without me would probably be slightly more peaceful. I wanted to go to India, when they asked that was the ONLY place I wanted to be sent.
They picked me, out of all of the smart boys and the hungry girls, I was the the chosen one to go for 12 months. AFS head office said Malaysia, I said but why not India?? They said they just couldn't send a 17 year old girl to India by herself. But my grandfather, I might have family, I wanted to argue but I didn't not want to loose my place. Malaysia they said, it was a lively, colourful, tasty combination of Indian, Chinese and Malay.... the best of 3 very different worlds. no way I was saying no, I didn't not say no. This was my adventure and I was mentally packed already.
AFS sent me a letter along with photos of my host family. I didn't earn a lot of money & it was the 80's my hourly rate was $5.41 So I better get me some more shifts and stash some cash. I was leaving for Malaysia in 3 months. One of 26 students from around the world, the smallest group of AFS'ers allocated to any country. We were to leave at the end of February 1988. Those three months went so slowly, it was agonising. The only saving grace was the minuscule weekly growth of my bank account. Every Thursday I walked over to Westpac with my yellow pay packet, where emptied it on the counter kept out $50 for aerobics and donuts, putting the remaining balance of that envelope in the bank.
Three agonising months later, I was at Sydney Airport. Mum made me a shirt, she also embroidered my name on a bath towel and a face washer. I still travel with that face washer today. I had my Sony Sports Walkman for the plane and my friends from school had made me a mixed tape. I bought a small bottle of Cacharel Lou Lou which was the fragrance de jour, I was after all an international jet setter.
I must have had to apply for a passport, surely there were visa forms filled out.... I don't remember. I do remember feeling very stressed that both parents would be at the airport, I vaguely remember an aunt & uncle being there... maybe they were more like security detail. It wasn't pretty, it was layers upon layer of anxiety while I attempted to appear nonchalant and maintain steadiness and ease in a possible parental war zone. Immigration appeared to be a safe space behind the "Departures Only" screen, 10 steps and I was behind that screen, gone, separated from parents and eventually country as my passport was stamped and I was in no mans land until I boarded my flight. I was literally alone in the world.
Planes in the late 80's were not a smoke free zones! The back half of the plane was designated for washing in the armrests, to get to the toilets you had to walk through the cloud of smoke & ash.... honestly it was like a volcano back there. To avoid Dantes Peak I calculated 2 pee trips in the 8 hours to Singapore, then none in the 2 hours to Kuala Lumpur. I was a non smoker but I may as well have packed a packet & joined the eruption party with the puffers down the back.
This flying experience imprinted the desire for me to always be seated at the very front (or upstairs) of a plane. I was to meet the other 25 winners of the magic ticket to Malaysia in Singapore.
Life as I know it would never be the same, I would do a lot of washing, talk to chickens and count coconuts. I would deal with death alone in a foreign country. I would feel alone really alone with only me to rely on. I would feel free but at the same time trapped. I would experience racism and be expected to accept it as normal.
the second chapter of this story is on its way
BTW thats me top right in the cover snap looking like I have an 80's perm, I think it was my one and only annual hairdresser visit where they layered my locks, definitely should have stayed home that day.