Former exchange student makes 15,000km trip to express gratitude and relive love she recieved as teenage visitor in 1977

JOHOR BAHRU: An American woman who came to Malaysia as an exchange student in 1977 is thrilled to have been reunited with her Malaysian family.

Emily Kearns said her return to Malaysia, especially during Ramadan, was a golden opportunity to express her gratitude to the family that looked after her as a teenager during her previous visit to the country.

Kearns, now 63, was only 16 when she came to Malaysia as part of the American Field Service Club exchange student programme and attended Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar in Johor Bahru.

“When the club asked if any of us wanted to apply to go abroad, my parents declined because of our financial struggles. But I was fortunate to receive a scholarship,” she said.

The 15,000km journey from Boston in Massachusetts to Kampung Melayu Majidee in Johor Bahru was an experience that left an indelible mark on Kearns’ life.

She lived with Zainal Abidin Mohd Zin’s (Abah) family, who welcomed her with open arms.

“They treated me like their own family and I loved every minute of my stay with them.”

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Over the years, her thoughts often drifted to her time in Malaysia, during which she experienced the country’s rich multiracial and cultural tapestry and traditions.

“I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by my friends as we indulged in the most delicious Aidilfitri dishes like chicken rendang, lemang and ketupat.”

Kearns said during her year-long stay, one of her fondest memories was helping the family make and sell “putu piring” at the Kampung Melayu Majidee night market.

“The experience allowed me to interact with members of the local community. We forged connections and friendships that transcended cultural barriers.”

Her visit during Ramadan this year was also tinged with sadness as it might be her last opportunity to see Abah, who is now 84 and battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

“It was a bittersweet visit but also an opportunity for me to express my heartfelt thanks to my Malay host parents.

“Playing with their grandchildren brought me so much joy. It was heartwarming to see the next generation growing up surrounded by the same love that I experienced with the family.”

Kearns earned her PhD in Sociology from Boston College and taught Sociology courses at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, as well as various courses at Emerson College in Boston, where she specialised in performance and ritual studies.

However, following the experience of witnessing her parents living with dementia before passing away, she made a career change from academia to ageing and dementia-related services.

The third sibling in the Abah family, Mohd Nor Azman, 51, said they had the most wonderful time during Kearns’ stay in Malaysia.

“The programme was quite rare for families in Malaysia at the time and it was a wonderful experience for us to welcome and embrace a foreign teenager as one of our family member.”

Mohd Nor Azman said although they are from different backgrounds, their cultural and religious differences did not hinder their bond.

“Although I was young at the time, my other siblings and I interacted with Kearns with utmost respect and closeness.

“Our conversations were like ‘a chicken talking to a duck’ as our English wasn’t good and she could hardly speak Bahasa Melayu.”

Mohd Nor Azman said it was not just a beautiful memory that Kearns left behind.

“Her stay here had a greater significance for us as a family. We realised that no matter which part of the world one comes from, we are just human after all and need to respect one another.

“She will always remain a member of our family and we will always pray for her well-being.”

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