Journey in Malaysia: a college essay

Daniel Bidikov, Editor-in-Chief

In this issue, The Schreiber Times is launching an “essays that worked” column, in which accepted contributors share the writing that has earned them success in the realm of the college application.  This month’s entry addresses the prompt to which almost every college essay boils down (for upper-middle-class applicants only):

Write about a time in which you like, totally, absolved yourself of your white guilt.  Prove that you are intelligent, interesting, and emotionally mature enough to handle the rejection that awaits you.

Selamat pagi! That’s informal Malay for good morning.  It’s a phrase I picked up this summer in the Kuching district, where I built a school for illiterate children.  Actually, I painted the inside of a school.  Actually, I painted one half of a wall of a classroom—but it took 250 hours and I don’t regret even one of them!

Actually, I regret one of them. In Malaysia, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the local culture.  The native children would invite me to play nature games and eat green things.  Normally, I passed on the latter, but I loved to play games.  Together we ran freely among the wild surroundings, while I cursed my parents for the privilege that they had birthed me into—forever I had been deprived of the primal pleasure of going several days without a shower.  Of course I still took showers, because if I didn’t that would be gross.

Speaking of gross—Malaysia!  It is so much nicer in the pictures.  I guess the overall takeaway here is that life is gross.  There are bugs that give you malaria.  Malaria sounds a lot like Malaysia.  I would chalk it up to coincidence, if so many of the students at the school I painted hadn’t died of the vector-borne illness.

My best friend in Kuching was a boisterous youngster named Aiman.  Aiman is the fourth or fifth or something most popular name in Malaysia.  Aiman and I first became friends when I woke up to him shuffling through my backpack—when I asked him what he was up to, he responded that he was just organizing my money.  Later, he agreed to help me find it when I had lost all of my dollar bills.  He knew where all of them were because of his grasp of the topography of the country.

Sometimes, Aiman’s mastery of the land slipped.  Once he forgot that there was a pit full of snakes underneath a surreptitiously placed formation of leaves, and I slipped into it.  Now my leg is purple!

The concept of friendship in Malaysia is very different.  My friends Stephanie and Sam are not anything like my friend Aiman.  They respond to my expression of feelings differently, most likely because they speak fluent English and Aiman knows only lines of dialogue from 1980s television.  Once Aiman didn’t react to my obvious and obnoxious display of emotion at all.  It frustrated me at first, but then I realized that at college there would likely be a lot of people who didn’t care about anything that I had to say.  I am doubting that you care about what I have to say.  What?  Show, don’t tell—wait a second and I will recount my most emotionally trying experience.

One morning, after we had woken up to the grating croaks of an ugly local pelican, Aiman and I joined the traditional breakfast circle, where the locals gathered every morning to eat their traditionally bizarre foods.

Not really “feelin’ it,” I removed the last energy bar I had brought with me from my pocket and laid it in front of me, wondering if it was worth unraveling or if I should suck it up and finally eat something that wasn’t chicken nuggets.  As I deliberated, Aiman reached out and grabbed the candy, popping it into his mouth wrapper intact.

I was upset but not completely defeated.  Figuring that all hope was not lost, I offered a line that I thought could reach his (admittedly undeveloped) center of reason.  It was a quote from Philip of Macedon, a conquerer of foreign peoples who used brute force to accomplish his most dastardly goals:

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

To which he eventually responded,

“Selamat pagi!”