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This will be my last English class in Asia, and I could not have asked for a nicer group of students to finish out my time at Taylor’s. They were bright, motivated, and kind. They were willing to take chances and push their own boundaries. They were also extremely faithful in their attendance, which is a huge factor when your class comes at the end of what is always a long day in the CPU program.

We did not get off the best start as I was in the States for the first three weeks of the term and the unit had to be covered by a colleague. Fortunately for me, Daniel Layng knows a lot about Critical Approaches to Literature and covered the unit well. I was around long enough at the beginning of the term to get the ISU novels assigned, and get the kids started on a reading schedule, and that was easy enough to pick up when I got back. The ISU essay is always a tricky bit of business, and I decided this time around to divide it up into two parts, rather than tackle the whole monster by itself at the end of the term. This allowed me to block out the essay into digestible parts for kids for whom the whole idea of a research essay in literature is an alien concept.

I have always maintained that the only way to properly edit your own work is to write it and put it away for at least a week. In our case, we researched and wrote the essay and even marked the first half of it, and then we put it away for two months. When we came back later to do the comparative past with a film that had the same thematic interest, the kids had a better perspective on the essay they had written, and a better idea of what movie fit for comparative purposes. I had kids doing Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, Landis’ Trading Places, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, and even one able student doing Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Ii made for some good essays, and even better seminar presentations. In the past, I have found kids had a hard time filling the twenty minutes they had for their ISU presentations. This time around, I was forced to cut some kids off after thirty minutes! It was awesome!

We also had a new novel this year. As much as I love Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, I was frankly getting a little seasick! In my absence, the department had moved on to Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a fitting follow up novel to The Kite Runner that is also set in Hosseini’s native Afghanistan and deals with the issue of the treatment of women in that part of the world. It is an important book for Asian students – especially females – to be studying in a culture that lags at least a generation behind the West in its understanding of the place of women in society.

We also studied Shakespeare’s Othello, again a pleasant change from the melancholy Dane, Hamlet, who quite frankly gets on my wick, despite the soaring soliloquies of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Othello is far more visceral and personal; a devastating examination of the demonic in all of us. Not nearly as accessible as either Hamlet or Macbeth (the latter being the Bard’s best, imho), I was forced to use film to explore the play’s nuances, and found Olivier’s 1965 version, blackface and all, to be a most faithful and useful version; with one glaring exception.

The 1995 version with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh does a much better job of examining the oppressive victimization of women that Shakespeare so eloquently explores in a pivotal scene with Desdemona and her bff Emily. We then had the fun of staging that scene, and the final one where Emily just goes ballistic all over male entrenched privilege and the murderous implications of their ‘ownership’ of women (“Oh, you idiot! You stupid fool! As dumb as dirt!”). Feisty and fascinating to see the young women of my class come to grips with their own issues of oppression in a patriarchal hemisphere through the persona of their characters.

It was exhausting to try and cover this class to the standards I set for myself in thoroughness and comprehension while trying to wrap my responsibilities up as Project Coordinator for CSR. It was also rewarding and enjoyable and deeply satisfying, and pleasant to be back in class with a really nice group of kids. I am looking forward to getting back into a full teaching role in the Caribbean. It is, when all is said and done, the heart of who I am.

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As our time here in Asia comes to an end we get to thinking of what we would like to do one more time. Near the top of that list was one more visit to our favourite city in this part of the world, Singapore, which is always such a welcome treat. One of the nicest places in that very nice city is the Botanical Gardens, a little easier to get to now that Singapore has completed the extension to the Circle Line. We woke up to a cool and rainy Saturday morning but decided not to let that deter us. So we bought some cheap umbrellas and strolled through the Gardens enjoying those fabulous trees and flowers. After an hour, and still only half way through, we stopped and had coffee in a little garden café and listened to the splash of the water in the fountains nearby.

Birthday10As it was Steve’s birthday – my they do seem to come thick and fast anymore, don’t they! – we had booked reservations for dinner at the Equinox Restaurant on the 70th floor of the Stamford Hotel. The food was fabulous, much nicer and much more affordable than the pretentious and overpriced fare at the Marina Bay Sands, and the views of the city from this vantage point were spectacular. How pleasant to sit and reminisce about our time together: the walks through the park in the East End, the Christmas we spent at Blossom and McDaniel’s place, the meetings with friends and co-workers in the Lord. After dinner we strolled one more time to the river and walked along Clarke’s Quay just taking in the sights and sounds of the pleasant evening air.

Fullerton We ended up in the lobby of the historic Fullerton Hotel, once the Asian residence of Joseph Conrad, and presently home to a very funky display of scenes from The Little Prince, a book Steve had the joy of teaching to his beginning English students the first semester he was at Taylor’s. Steve had to return to KL mid afternoon on Sunday but before he left we did manage to get in a visit to Wesley Methodist Church for their Sunday morning service.

This is the home church of our friends Su Min and Sing Yu who have been great co-workers, mentors, encouragers and colleagues not only to us but also to our entire TWR team in Cambodia as well. Along with many others we have come to know and love, we will miss these dear servants of God and their warm fellowship. It was fitting that our last time together should be over lunch at one of their favourite restaurants, as during our time over here our best times together have been sharing one of the fabulous Asian meals that we are going to sorely miss! Su Min gave us a keepsake of a book he and his fellow urban sketchers have just published. It will be a treasured remembrance of happy days in Singapore.

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Over the past eight years, I have visited Cambodia many times and have come to love and deeply respect my Khmer co-workers, friends and villagers I have had the privilege to meet. It was not the best time for my last visit, as my first few days here were holidays to celebrate the king’s birthday. However, that did give me an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite haunts and to spend some time with precious friends, Stephen and Beth who are also wrapping up their time in Cambodia. That fact that it was 39 degrees with very high humidity, creating the sensation of 60+ degrees, was also a brutal reminder of the other side of life in Cambodia.

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On Sunday, I made the dreaded seven hour bus trip to Siem Reap to meet up with TWR staff and a team of medical students from Singapore who have been volunteering in our pilot project in Pourk. They will be here for two weeks spending the mornings teaching and doing research in the villages. In the evenings they will be leading educational skits at village gatherings organized by the community leaders. Last night there was a great turnout of both adults and children for two skits; one on the dangers of drinking and driving and the other on the physical damage caused by alcohol abuse. Following the performances, which are largely done by village volunteers who really shine when given the opportunity to take the stage, there is a question and answer time.

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A telling and very poignant moment occurred when a young girl of about ten years of age volunteered to come to the front to answer a question about alcohol abuse. When asked the standard CHE question: “Does this happen in your community?” this sweet little girl had no hesitation in stating “it happens all the time even my own Dad drinks a lot”. At this point, several community members escorted her father, who was decidedly under the influence, to the platform to answer the question. With his beautiful little daughter hugging him, he admitted to his own behaviour in front of his entire community. Alcohol consumption robs this village of at least 40% of their disposable income, leads to ill health, family violence and marital breakdown. It also leads to the loss of productivity, takes young people out of school and keeps people trapped in disempowering life circumstances that rob them of a future. Although not the focus of our project, it is a core and pervasive challenge that must be addressed as it attacks the dignity and identity of our listeners.

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As we rode in a tuk-tuk for the 20 kilometers out to the village for the evening session, we were reminded of just how vulnerable our Khmer brothers and sisters really are. A brief storm that blew through in the afternoon, seemed pretty innocent to us as we rested in our hotel. All the way out to the community; although the sky was brilliant with sunshine and a magnificent double rainbow, we saw trees and signs which had been damaged and destroyed. We later learned that more than fifty homes in our villages had been completely destroyed, leaving families once again having to start over from scratch. The lessons for Tuesday morning were cancelled while our team went with the village leaders to visit some of the families affected.

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There are so many people in our world for whom the reality of day to day life is incredibly difficult. This “minor storm” will never get international coverage because it is just taken for granted that people must just go on dealing with a capricious life and a belief system that offers little hope or comfort. It will not be easy to leave this ministry behind but I know that God is at work in this community and that our TWR staff will continue to build relationships with these leaders who are so keen to find the answers for their people.

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I love drama. Some would say that is because I am a ham and crave attention. Well, all teachers have to have some sense of timing and teachable moment or they cannot be effective. But limelight? Actually I am painfully shy at heart and spent maybe the first 20 years as a teacher with painful sore throats that would often lead to strep for the first two months of every school year in absolute dread of having to stand in front of people and let them see how little I know. I have learned how to manage that stress, but limelight I leave to others. They are plenty of prima dons and donnas in this profession. Some of them are actually quite talented. Some of them simply have an inflated sense of self. Unfortunately, Drama Festival can bring out the worst in my colleagues as some of them cannot resist the spell of the spotlight. That is not what I love.

20150508_142904What I love about drama is how it brings a class together. Drama is more effective at doing this than almost anything else you can name. You can teach your class about working cooperatively together until you are blue in the face. You can design modules, and construct space, invent clever strategies, and provide endless examples. You can have literature circles and reading groups, you can plan seminars and workshops, but if your students have come from a restrictive and repressive education system – as Asians have by and large – then it will take months of patience and effort to bring them to the place where they begin to work together as a team. And even at that it may still not happen. Or you can let your class do drama and bring all that and much more about in a few short weeks. And have fun doing it!

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Drama has the power to take us out of ourselves and teach us in a very practical and unforgiving way the absolute necessity of working together as a group. You don’t show up on time? Everyone on your team has to wait until you get there. You forget your lines? Everyone in that scene suffers from your failure. You have to work together on where you stand in relation to everyone else on the stage. You have to work together to move the props about and organize your costumes around a theme or time period. You have to work together on script and accent, on gesture and response. Everything everyone else does affects you, and everything you do affects everyone else.

20150508_143957As for the performance itself? That is just the icing on the cake. It is fun to see and especially fun to witness those who are shy like me come out of their shells and lose themselves in their characters. There were many notable performances that day in other classes. There were individuals who clearly have greasepaint in their veins, whose performances who outstanding. There were those who commanded the audience’s attention and compelled their admiration and respect. I commend them for their performances and the characters they created. But I was trying to do something else. I was trying to create a caring community through drama. And that is something both much harder to do, and more enduring.

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I wanted my students to enjoy what others in their class were doing as they brought their characters to life. I wanted them to come up with their own suggestions on character and staging and share them with others. I wanted them to work together on their plan and then plan for little details. I wanted them to feel the rush of anxiety and anticipation and the absolute thrill of experiencing all of what you have planned take place in front of a live audience who laughs and applauds with approval at what you have created for their enjoyment. I love seeing the transformation in my students as they move from a sense of individuality to a sense of the unity of the group and the importance of depending on others for your own individual success. If you are thoughtful, if you are careful to allow the students to take responsibility for what they are doing, then what you build through drama is a community, instead of a class.

That is what I love about drama.

Bush2 We arrived in Malaysia with several married or soon to be married friends. Chief among them were Bill and Kim, a couple about our age with whom we shared many evening meals. Our circle of married friends expanded to include several Malaysian couples as well, such as Rowena and John, with whom we spent our first Malaysian Christmas. But since then, married couples have been pretty much outnumbered by the younger staff, who are not only more mobile, but less inclined to while away the evening lingering over a meal or just sitting and visiting. Bush5 But the longer the younger staff stick around, the more likely they are to get married themselves. Some of these marriages, like Yuri and Easton’s, have been pretty lavish affairs, with several course meals and lots of changes of outfits. At a recent wedding of one of Pam’s colleagues in Phnom Penh, we got to witness a traditional Khmer ceremony that featured eight changes of dress! We love these elaborate cultural affairs, and always look forward to learning about Asian customs and traditions. Bush4 This past weekend we got to attend the wedding of Anusha and Colin, with whom I have worked in the English department for several years. Anusha’s family are Hindu, and her father took a little while to warm up to Colin, although he is fine man and will make a good husband. The wedding took place in a Hindu temple, with all the attendant rites and rituals. So on the weekend we got to go and see a real Hindu wedding. Bush8 It came complete with two holy men performing the ceremony in a little canopy inside the temple, while two others played traditional Indian music. There was some parading around the icons, and some washing of faces with fire and some anointing with paint and oil, none of which we understood at all. Then we got to throw some rice at the newly married couple and adjoined for pictures on the beach at Port Dickson, where the ceremony took place. After a very pleasant afternoon sipping drinks at the Thistle Resort and Golf Course, we returned for the reception. Bush9 If you know anything about Indian culture, you know that it all centers around food, so we were looking forward to the buffet. We were not disappointed. In a Chinese meal, the dishes are all brought out separately, as they are in proper Italian cuisine. With all due deference to one fifth of the human race, this drives us both nuts. Oh boy, I get to eat a big bowl of kale? Okay. What else? Just kale? Until it is all gone? Indians on the other hand like the mix of flavours that you get when you pile your plate with all kinds of things and the flavours all get mixed up and interact with each other like sensory chemical fusion in your mouth. Love it! Went back three times! Bush7 Then there were the obligatory speeches, and the drinks and toasts, the mingling with the guests and some weak attempt at dancing. Honestly, aside from Bollywood dancers, can anyone do anything with those complex rhythms? We did get in one Cha-Cha, but the rest of it did not go so well. Oh well, small beans in such a wonderful, colourful, tasty and heart-warming wedding. All the best to the lovely couple!

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I came onboard to my present position as Project Coordinator for corporate social responsibility after hearing about Taylor’s CEO Dato’ Loy’s desire to see a hostel built in the remote Kelabit Highlands. I had no idea where Bario was, or who the Kelabit people were, but the Spirit spoke to my heart and urged me to get involved. I responded to that ‘still small voice’ and found myself in charge! God will do that, if you are not careful. For two years, I have labored to bring the work in Bario to the attention of the Taylor’s community. I have built an entire website grouped around this one project – which in the process expanded into 90 projects. I have arranged for others to visit and conduct projects there, and visited Sarawak three times in the process. But this is going to be the last trip.

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It is the last because the project is nearing completion. My friend Evan Horsnell, the project manager for this and many other construction projects for Taylor’s, travelled with me to Bario to have one final inspection of the work there. I went to arrange for the construction of the bunks and lockers, and to begin the process of planning for the ribbon cutting ceremony to take place. I met with the principal, Dora Tigan, and with one of the elders, Laju Balang, who will supervise the construction of the furnishings for the hostel. They gave me a tour of their respective longhouses, which was an education in itself. They graciously hosted me with tea and fresh fruit gathered from the forest. Then they told me the stories of the salvation of the village by English and Australian missionaries, and their part in the liberation of Borneo from the occupying Japanese forces.

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During WWII, when Japan occupied Borneo, it became the site of a guerrilla offensive, launched by Australian special forces, who trained and armed the locals to attack the back lines of the occupying Japanese army. The offensive provided to be more than an annoyance for the Japanese, as several thousand Japanese soldiers died in the jungle on unfamiliar trails at the hands of the Kelabit, Penan and Kayan, who were not opposed to removing the heads of their victims for personal use. Forced to redeploy their troops from the coast to handle the insurgency, the Japanese were ill prepared to meet the Australian troops landing not far from Miri when that offensive began later in the year.

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Those bloodier days of their history are well in the past now, as Bario promotes its culture and natural beauty, becoming a local centre for education and eco-tourism. The new meeting hall and dormitory will help to ensure that continued growth and draw children from the surrounding villages who will be able to stay in Bario during the term and benefit from the growth in their education and understanding of the modern world.

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I spoke to the elders in a meeting arranged and translated for me by Dora, and urged them to consider planning for an event which will celebrate an historic moment for Bario when both the hostel and the accompanying meeting hall will be completed. I have heard in recent contacts with the village that the best date for this is July 3 of this year. It is a bittersweet pill. On the one hand the elders have found a time that suits both the village and the CEO of Taylor’s. On the other hand, I will not be able to attend, as I will be back in Canada at that time.

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This then will be my last visit with people I have come to care for and seek to serve. The blessing is that as brothers and sisters in Christ, there will be a future time for all of us to meet again and share how the Lord has blessed in the completion of a project which will impact the children of that region for years to come. It was my good fortune to be a small part of His greater design for the Kelabit people that He loves.

We love to have company. Pam is a great cook, and clearly has the gift of hospitality. In the early days in Malaysia, we would have company over all the time. With two jobs, two Master’s degrees, and enough responsibilities to burden folks half our age, we have slowed down a little. It was great to have Matt and Kate here on the way back from missions work in Cambodia, and our dear friends Al and Shelley, with whom we shared a great island holiday in the middle of a typhoon! But lately, the company has been a little thin on the ground.

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So it was very nice to hear that my old colleague and our dear friend Shelley would be dropping by to visit for a couple of days. This was especially true since Shelley now lives in Bali, Indonesia, so for her to come all the way to Kuala Lumpur was a great delight. She has just taken a job in Macao, and I have just taken a job in the Cayman’s, so we had a lot to talk about the job hunt for those of us who are rapidly approaching their ‘best-before-date’ as far as getting a shot at international teaching jobs is concerned. Gender barriers may be falling all over the place, but ageism is alive and well, and is probably being practiced in your own country, no matter where you live.

Unfortunately, Shelley got very ill on her last two days – nothing we fed her, we’re pretty sure – and was unable to come out for dinner with us to Oasis. In her honour, and on her nickel, we went out ourselves to Foley’s and had a very pleasant evening. Shelley is going to be across Hong Kong harbor from some other ex-CPU staff, so she will be in good company, and we wish her all the best in her new adventure.

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Shortly after Shelley left, we had the pleasure of hosting some other dear friends from Phnom Penh, Beth and Stephen Lauer, who like us left Southwestern Ontario to come to Southeast Asia to minister. Phnom Penh is not an easy city to live in. It is noisy and increasingly crowded, and it is not only hot, but it is dusty and dry as well, with a fine, red dust that floats up and hangs in the air with the diesel exhaust, making it difficult to breath and impossible to escape. At least in Malaysia there is plenty of vegetation to soak up the carbon. But not so in Cambodia, whose forests have been razed for farmland and bombed into oblivion. It is a tough field in which to minister, and Beth and Stephen have persevered in difficult circumstances for many years. We were happy to be able to give them a a break from the heat and chance to unwind with those who understand the pressures of ministry.

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We didn’t give them long to rest, heading out for Malacca on our first full day to do some sight-seeing and souvenir shopping. Then with our trusty iPhone and Google map we set out across country on the back roads to a place just south of Port Dickson called Avillion, where we stayed the night in little cabanas on stilts over the Straits of Malacca.

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Pam had packed an entire picnic basket of goodies, so we all curled up in the little sitting area overlooking the water and chatted happily for half the night. No, we never did run out of things to talk about. More cross country trekking the next day brought us to Putra Jaya and some iconic pictures before we headed back to our little condo in Subang Jaya. The next day Pam led our still-game company downtown for the Cook’s tour of KL, and I joined them after work so we could go up to the top of Trader’s for a drink and a look at the fabulous view of the Twin Towers as they lit up at night. Sunway Pyramid for shopping and lunch was on the menu for the next day, with some very nice home cooking awaiting me at the end of my day. Wednesday was Stephen’s birthday, so we did the Las Carretas Mexican meal, and nobody was disappointed.

It is impossible to measure the importance of visits such as these. Our lives are rich in work, study, and experiences. But friends are among our greatest treasures, and to have an opportunity to demonstrate that importance to those we care about is especially sweet. We didn’t get to all the places we wanted to go, or all the restaurants we had in mind. There are nine places that serve food in the nearest strip mall of 12 shops. Multiply that across 5 million people and that is a mess of restaurants. But we did have a fabulous visit with some very fine people, and that is the important thing. It is also likely to be the last bit of company we have until we get home ourselves. If so, it was a nice way to bring our ministry of hospitality to a close.

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