fb-pixel Skip to main content

A cultural exchange becomes a bond

Panelists for the opening night of the Balik Kampung installation (from left) Krista Polaschek, host sister Norlidah Abidin, Emily Kearns, and Matthew Nelson.
Panelists for the opening night of the Balik Kampung installation (from left) Krista Polaschek, host sister Norlidah Abidin, Emily Kearns, and Matthew Nelson.Henry Yoshimura

Emily Kearns, a 16-year-old student from Andover, assumed she’d spend a year somewhere in Europe as part of the American Field Service foreign exchange program.

Kearns and her family were surprised to learn she was instead placed in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

So in February of 1977, a Muslim family prepared to host a devout Catholic American teenager for a whole year.

Kearns said her goodbyes to her parents and six siblings and prepared for a year of being immersed in a completely different environment than the one in which she grew up. When she arrived in Malaysia, she was welcomed by the Malay family.


Thus began a formative chapter in their lives — a time when they would exchange their very different cultures, beliefs, and customs. More than four decades later, the enduring friendship they forged is portrayed in a multimedia installation at Merrimack College in North Andover.

“[The Malay family] gave me a Quran in English. I told them Bible stories and they told me Quran stories,” Kearns said. “There was this exchange of religious teachings, and they respected me because I was devout, and I really respected them.”

As Kearns learned Malay, her host brothers and sisters learned colloquial English.

“My grandma is a very fierce lady,” said Norlidah Abidin, one of Kearns’s host sisters. “She really treated Emily as her own grandchild. Once in a while she’d give Emily perspective about life, and Emily was able to see how we are a very close-knit family . . . Whatever we had, we shared.”

Little did both parties know that 40 years later, they’d still be very connected.

Kearns returned to Malaysia five times throughout the years. Most recently, she returned to the village where her host family lives in July of 2018.

This time, however, she came with a camera in her hand, ready to document her relationship with the Malay family.


With the help of a number of individuals — including translator Shahrul Nakim, Abidin, and Abidin’s son, Izzuddin Abdul-Rashid — a multimedia installation was created.

The installation is called “Balik Kampung — A Village Return.” Balik Kampung translates to “returning back to the village.”

“I named the installation Balik Kampung because it’s really a return to what’s important in life, which is this cross-cultural understanding of friendship and love. I look at my installation as an initiative to invite people to return to the heart,” Kearns said.

The installation is a mixture of photos, film, and collages that give life to Kearns’s relationship with the Malay family. It celebrates the importance of cross-cultural experiences and the universality of the human experience.

Kearns said she did not want to exploit or appropriate the Malay family in the installation. This orientalist trope, which is the cultural misrepresentation and exotification of non-Western countries and people, is an issue prevalent across Western media and art.

“I hope in this work, I don’t put [the Malay family] up there as this exotic ‘other.’ I don’t want to use them or appropriate them at all, I want them to be true collaborators,” Kearns said.

However, some of the art pieces in the installation are for sale. The money will fund Kearns’s travels to different locations such as schools, where she says she will promote a dialogue about cross-cultural relationships.

The installation is open for viewing through Sept. 27 at the Thagaste Gallery at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the Merrimack campus . The installation is free and open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit balikkampung.orgor call 978-837-5367.


Maysoon Khan can be reached at maysoon.khan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maysoonkhann.