Great Expectations, Greater Lessons

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. The school I attended for a good portion of my time in Wisconsin, The Prairie School (the land it was built on used to be a prairie—terrible, I know), was a “college preparatory school.” As part of its philosophy, Prairie prided itself on unique approaches to primary and secondary education. One such method was that we didn’t receive real grades, well, until high school. Rather than traditional letter grades based on a numeric system, we were placed into one of three categories: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, fails to meet expectations.

In many ways, this system was great. Although one could argue that it is subjective, one could say the same about a numeric grading system for particular subjects. With the expectation-based system, the goals could be clearly laid out and a student would simply have to try to achieve those goals. Perhaps this is where my goal-oriented nature came from, but, as a student, I found it easy to understand what my teachers wanted of me and what would allow me to be an excellent student. I still learned a lot, but I also felt the reward of “exceeding.”

However, expectations can also be very bad. Setting up an image in our head before we are even exposed to what we are judging, we often create a situation for ourselves to be let down or disappointed. Many times, though, it is not that the subject did not meet expectations, but that the expectations we selected were not an appropriate method to measure success or achievement. I’m sure this happened with many students at Prairie, as it happens in many other aspects of life.

 Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

When I was planning my time in Kuala Lumpur, I worried about my high expectations. I had decided a few weeks ahead that I wanted to spend a good amount of time there, rather than the couple of days that I had been spending in cities. Throughout my Asia travels, I had met dozens of other travelers who all raved about Kuala Lumpur, many exclaiming that it was their favorite city in Asia. Thus, upon the statements of others and the expectations I had created as a result, I found a WorkAway job in the city so I could spend a longer period of time there, while also keeping myself busy and having a different experience.

It would be a lie if I said I did not have expectations. I knew that the largest Sikh community in Southeast Asia was in Kuala Lumpur, and that the city boasted a diverse community overall. Because of this, I anticipated increased awareness of other identities and communities, beautiful examples of unity and diversity, and an insight into how to successfully create a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. I certainly saw a lot of this, but I also learned about many problems which taught me even more. (I’ll talk about these more in my next blog post.)

I also had many expectations of what my WorkAway experience would be like. As a side note, WorkAway is a cool website that allows travelers like me to work with organizations, communities, or other entities in exchange for room and board. Thus, it allows travelers to save on the necessities while providing much-needed groundwork to the hosts. I found a social enterprise to work with, Earth Heir, and I anticipated doing a lot of blogging and writing for them. Although I did some of this, I also did a lot of things I didn't expect. Like going to a live taping of a Malaysian morning show, meeting with women from an indigenous tribe outside of Kuala Lumpur, and going to a regional conference on micro-finance. Certainly well outside my usual experiences, but it’s been a fascinating experience that I’ve really enjoyed (largely because of my super cool & inspiring boss).

But, the one thing that I’ve had, by far, the most expectations for has been my Bonderman Fellowship. I remember the shock when I initially found out I was a recipient, and the disbelief that followed for many days after. Next came the terror and fear. Would I be able to do this? Could I, of all people, really travel all by myself for eight months? I doubted it. And yet, here I am, almost five months in, and doing completely fine.

 Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

The trip has been essentially nothing like what I expected. It’s been a lot easier in some ways and a lot harder in others. There have been days where I wanted to go home and many days where I wished I could make these months last forever. Luckily the latter has largely outnumbered the former.

In many ways, the trip is much calmer than what I expected. I haven’t had to outrun violent riots or bargain for my life in back alleys, I haven’t lost all my belongings with no idea where the nearest embassy is located, and I haven’t met anyone who wants to do me any harm. Basically, it’s everything Western media doesn’t tell you about the rest of the world (surprise, surprise). I’ve met good-hearted, kind, and giving people. I’ve fallen in love with cities and then been heartbroken when I had to move on, only to fall in love again.

That’s the problem with expectations, though. We often think that things need to be a lot grander and outrageous than they are for it to impress us, but it’s been the simplicity of everything that has been the most unexpected and the most beautiful.

Through everything, I’ve been reminded that, a lot of the time, expectations aren’t that great. They may set clear outlines, but they also create a box, limiting what I, what we, can expect of the world around us. Through our expectations, we say that this is what we want and all that we can see happening. Our vision becomes narrower and smaller, allowing for less surprises and learning. So even though these last few months have been nothing like my expectations, they have exceeded anything I could have imagined, and that has been the greatest gift of all. I’m feeling incredibly thankful for all that I’ve learned and even more excited for all that I have yet to see. Most of all, I’m trying to do it with an open mind and no expectations.