Posted in Learning Curve, Overseas, UofI

How to Malaysian at the UofI #3: Food for Thought

Okay, so I’ve had a couple of friends ask me what kind of food they should/should not bring to the US, so here’s a list of common items we Malaysians typically cannot live without, and whether or not US Customs would suddenly decide they need a bottle of belacan.

1. Milo and Nescafe

JUST BRING. LIKE TWO PACKETS. I used up two large packets of Milo 3-in-1 in one semester (but that’s just me lah). Also, if you’re a hardcore Milo fan, invest in a couple of kg’s and take some along because a small tin of Milo can cost up to $7 in the US, depending on the region. If you’re a Nescafe enthusiast , don’t hesitate to invest in one or two packages. The United States simply does not have the variety of pre-mixed coffee that Malaysia does.

2. Maggi

While IndoMee and cup ramen can be found in abundance in the Land of the Mee – I mean Free – there is simply nothing like a good, hot bowl of Maggi Kari to warm you up on an abysmal winter day. Also, you cannot find Maggi Kari here, so do bring your own personal supply along. Mind the chicken-flavored one, though. The rules are pretty blurry on this one, but if the Customs officer had a stressful day, he/she might just confiscate your Maggi Perisa Ayam.

3. Malaysian Spices and Condiments

Image result for babas spices

I would strongly advise bringing a small supply of your own spices and curry powder (Babas, usually) until you can figure out where to buy decent Asian spices on the University campus. While there are at least three Asian marts selling a generous variety of powders and spices, a small stash may help you while you’re figuring out where to buy everything you need to make your Tok Ma’s rendang kambing. Besides that, things like kicap (soy sauce) and oyster sauce are totally fine, as long as you don’t bring along five bottles of each (that looks plain suspicious). Also make sure to wrap all glass bottles securely to prevent any breakage, because your luggage bag is going to be thrown about. ALSO BRING CHILLI SAUCE.

4. Belacan

I have not yet entered an Asian mart on campus that sells belacan. That being said, the admissibility of belacan into the United States is pretty ambiguous. Sometimes it passes right through Customs with no problem, other times it gets confiscated. My opinion? Just bring it along. If it survives Border Protection, you can look forward to a nice plate of nasi lemak. On a side note, shrimp is also okay, as long as it’s dried, and does not come in insanely large quantities.

5. Medicine

I will expand more on this later on, but for starters, make sure you have Panadol, prescription flu pills, Eno, and vitamin C chewables. The change in time zone and weather can affect some people pretty badly, so painkillers and vitamins will definitely help to ease any discomfort that you might be feeling.

With that said, I’d like to add that it’s advisable to label all food items clearly and concisely. I wrapped my medicines and any food products that might cause any confusion for the Customs officers in clear plastic bags, then labelled them with their names. For medicines, I added their purpose. For food, I listed their main ingredients.

The basic rule is just to bring along whatever you feel is necessary to help you acclimatize in a new environment. Don’t be too afraid of what may or may not get taken out of your luggage bag because honestly, it very much depends on your luck. And just in case you still have any doubts, head over here for more information of the US Customs and Border Protection website to find out!

Posted in Learning Curve, Overseas, UofI

How to Malaysian at the UofI #2: Dealing with SAD

Oh, I remember the (literal) dark days: fourteen hours of night, sub-zero temperatures, and consuming an entire bag of Cracker Jack on the dorm linoleum floor while sobbing piteously at the visual masterpiece that is Kimi no Na Wa. Every day I’d trudge to work at the bookstore in the morning, visit the gym for a little, cook tomorrow’s dinner after my bath, then watch some Netflix or Hulu. On the weekends, I’d go over to my friends’ place and cook a little more, maybe watch a movie. I seemed to be running on fine – or was I?

A heaviness seemed to have taken up residence in the recesses of my chest. I felt disinterested and disillusioned most of the time. I began wondering what my purpose in life was. I questioned the reason for my existence and started having some pretty dark thoughts (that I won’t disclose here for reasons that I won’t disclose here). Back then I didn’t realize I was suffering from a mild case of winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD (very aptly named, by the way) is a psychological condition that affects people who exhibit normal mental behavior throughout most of the year. Scientists at the NHS have drawn hypotheses that suggest that the lower levels of sunlight during winter disrupt the production levels of melatonin and serotonin, leading to lethargy and a general feeling of discontent and frustration. The longer nighttime hours may also cause the body’s circadian rhythm to go out of whack. Other symptoms include:

  • Craving carbohydrates
  • A persistent low mood
  • Low self-esteem
  • A loss of interest/pleasure in daily activities
  • Difficulty in waking up/falling asleep
  • Gaining weight

Out of the six symptoms I listed above, five happened to me. There are ways to deal with it though. Human-to-human interaction helps greatly, as working at the bookstore raised my morale during the day. Working out also does a great deal for your serotonin levels. If you’re not a gym sort of person, find some time to bundle up and take a lunchtime walk. Sunlight does wonders. Try to keep to a healthy balanced diet, and use cooking as an excuse to occupy your time.

For my fellow Malaysian students (and international students), the university campus typically gets very quiet during the winter break, so find opportunities to work part-time, or plan a trip out-of-state with friends, or take up winter courses. If you aren’t able to do that, stay over with your friends on campus, and spend more time with them. Call up your family and friends when you need someone to talk to. Try to avoid looking at Instagram pictures of your other friends enjoying themselves in sunnier states. If that is not humanly possible (blame the ubiquitous nature of social media), by all means look, but do your best not to fall into despair comparing your winter break with others’. Distract yourself with reading, or cooking, or apartment redecorating.

It gets pretty rough for people used to tropical climates here in Illinois, especially first-timers. Educate yourself and prepare for the possibility of winter depression. It’s real yo.

Bloody hell. What kind of ending is that? Anyways, you can find more on the symptoms and treatment for SAD on the NHS website.

Posted in Learning Curve, Overseas, UofI

How to Malaysian at the UofI #1: Prepping for the ice-pocalypse

This one is specially dedicated to my friends bound for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this coming Fall, or anyone in particular looking to learn how to survive subzero temperatures four months a year. It’s gonna be sort of a mini-series, so I’ll be starting off with learning how to avoid death by freeze-nap.

So, I don’t know about you guys, but before coming to the UofI, I had this picturesque image of the Main Quad in my head that kinda looked like this:

Image result for uiuc main quad

But the university websites forgot to mention a couple of itsy bitsy things like:

Image result for uiuc rain
Image result for uiuc snow day
Image result for illinois strong winds

And hence this little PSA. So here are a few things that helped me (your friendly neighborhood Equatorial-country native) survive my first Winter (and late Fall).

Woolen inner wear

These include long johns, socks, and leggings. They essentially function like a second skin, and can be very comfortable if you buy the right one. Woolen ones are harder to come by in Malaysia, but synthetic ones work just the same. Synthetic material also tends to be more water resistant, which is something you’d want for your socks (especially during Fall of the Perpetual Rain). However, you’d have to wash synthetic inner wear more often than woolen ones, because they tend to develop an iffy smell if you don’t clean them for more than a week.

Invest in good-quality innerwear, though. If possible, don’t be stingy about it. A  good set of long johns can mean the difference between comfort and ants in your pants.

A down coat

A down coat is (duh) a coat stuffed with down, a material typically made of goose or duck feathers, or synthetic fibers. They come in all styles, colors, sizes, and fashions, but I would personally recommend getting one of those Michelin-man ones that extend below your knees. Reason being that those coats are designed to increase surface area to trap more warm air. Also, a long coat is better at preventing the winds from riding up your gluteus  maximus. Some of them even come with an inner layer that you can zip on and off, depending on how cold the weather is. Also, get one with a large hood (preferably with synthetic feathers) to prevent the wind from getting at your face.

Mine kinda looks like this:

Image result for guess winter coat black women

It’s not fashionable, but it works amazingly well.

A sturdy scarf.

No, one of those flimsy cotton ones isn’t going to work. Neither is a soft fluffy one. Get serious, heavy-duty scarves that can stay upright on your face, even when the wind is blowing at 70km/h. Knitted woolen scarves are really good (my friend made one for me and it helped me survive November and December). But in January, when things start to get bad, you’ll want a stiffer, thicker scarf. I bought mine at Target, and it’s the green one in the picture below:

And since I’ve shown you this picture, I’ll talk about leather gloves.

I bought them at Target, too. They double as half-mittens, and have an inner synthetic lining. I wore them throughout the entire winter. They helped me stand -20C weather, piercing winds, and torrential rain. I am not exaggerating one bit. And as I am cursed with perpetually cold hands, these gloves are a $39 blessing. I’ve tried mittens, woolen gloves, touchscreen gloves – but nothing worked as well as the leather ones I now swear by.

BOOTS. Mustn’t forget boots.

 There are two kinds of boots that you will need if you’re studying at the UofI: rain boots and snow boots. The former because it rains non-stop during the later Fall months, and cold, wet feet is the last thing you want to have on a day with five consecutive classes. The latter is absolutely necessary. I have these pair:

Image result for columbia black winter boots

They are huge, chunky, and rather ugly in an endearing way, but they are also warm, waterproof, and non-slip. Do not skimp on these. I repeat: DO. NOT. SKIMP. ON. WINTER. BOOTS. You will live, miserably, to regret it when you cannot walk to class without slipping on ice at least seven times and arriving home at 5pm with damp, wrinkly feet.

Jean Valjeans

Jeans. Mankind’s savior in all weather conditions. I would advise getting a few pairs of reasonably baggy jeans for winter wear. Baggy because you’d be wearing layers of inner wear underneath it, and I would not recommend walking around like an overstuffed bratwurst. You can also survive Fall if you have a couple of good-quality pairs without any inner wear.

Flappy hats and beanies

I got a one of those flappy-eared hats for warmth, and BOY does it work well. It looks terrible, though, so I don’t wear it unless the wind is blowing and my hood will be rendered null and void. I also got a floppy beanie, and that works fine, too. The basic principle is to get something that covers your ears, because that’s where you lose a lot of heat.

Image result for floppy ear hat
Flappy ear hat, otherwise known as a woodchuck hat.


Layer your clothes. I made the mistake of buying the thickest of everything that I could get when I got here, and wasted some money. The trick isn’t to buy the thickest jacket or scarf on the market, but to wear your clothes in layers. Each layer of clothing traps a separate layer of warm air, and that’s what actually keeps you warm. So basically, more layers = more warm air = more comfy. Here’s an example of what would typically pass of as ‘warm’ for me in the winter.

  1. Camisole
  2. Long-sleeved blouse
  3. Thin inner jacket
  4. Down coat
  5. Woolen leggings
  6. Jeans
  7. Long socks
  8. Snow boots
  9. Beanie
  10. Big scarf

I get cold easily, so it might be overkill for some of you.

You can also find some things that really helped me here and here. 

There you go. That’s all I can think of for now. Whoever you are, I hope this helps you, and please feel free to ask me questions in the comments below!