Balik Kampung - A Village Return, shares the life-long, cross-cultural love affair between Andover resident and Merrimack alumna, Emily Kearns, and her Malaysian host family, with whom she lived for one year as an exchange student in 1977. 

Their special relationship is brought to life through photos, collage, film, storytelling and artifacts. The installation invites you to join in celebrating the power of cross-cultural experience to impact our lives and generations to come, ultimately reducing fear and stereotypes - reminding us of the universality of our human experience. 

Through this poignant mixed-media rendering, you will experience the richness of a love cultivated over 40 years between a then, 16-year-old Catholic American girl and an extended Muslim, Malay family, who opened their hearts and home as they lived together in a Malay village.  Emily returned to the village in July 2018 and ethnographically celebrated and filmed their love and gratitude through whole-family, multi-generational storytelling, feasting, and more.


Our Beginning

Balik Kampung began when I realized the need to invite others to join me in celebrating and honoring the Malay family who opened their hearts and home to me in 1977, when I lived with them for a full year as an American Field Service (AFS) foreign exchange student. For over forty years we have developed a life-long love affair between two cultures. Through five return visits, letters, phone calls, and social media sharing of photos and conversations, this American Irish Catholic girl from West Andover, Massachusetts and my beloved Muslim Malay host family in Kampung Melayu, Majidi, Johor Bahru have become one - one family joined by love and respect, embracing and celebrating our differences — differences of religions, nationalities, and more.

As an older woman, I am now profoundly aware that this life is but a blink and I feel intense pressure to show my deep appreciation and gratitude directly to those who have chosen to be my family, blessing me with the gift of acceptance and love. I also want to share with the world the power of this, and similar cross-cultural exchanges, to profoundly impact us as individuals, families, and communities. I can no longer wait, especially because of hateful narratives creating misunderstanding and distrust globally between different cultures. I feel a dire need to share the light and love of my Malaysian love exchange, to such darkness.

Through pictures, film, collage, and storytelling, it is my hope that a different story emerges - a counter narrative inviting and inciting us to trust and love as we witness the profound openness, trust, and love that has now spread between me and my Malay family. Indeed, it has now permeated several generations as our children have come to know the story of the Mat Salleh - the white American - whom they welcomed into their family and home and now, call “Sis.” - Founder, Emily Kearns


“Walk together, talk together, all you people of the earth. Then and only then, will we have peace.”

—- AFS Song 1976 - based on an ancient Sanskrt proverb


Balik Kampung - A Village Return, is the first project. This mixed-media installation opens August 16, 2019 with a reception from 4 to 6 PM EST, and runs through September 27, 2019. Join us at Merrimack College’s Rogers Center for the Arts, Thagaste Gallery. From there the installation will travel, including to Malaysia. View Our Projects →


Our Mission

Balik Kampung seeks to grow understanding between people through stories told in mixed-media including photos, film, music, and collage incorporating artifacts of relationship and love. The aim is to invite and incite emotional warmth and connection. The installation asks us to consider how we might continue to create experiences that connect us through laughter, reflection, sadness, joy, and more — experiences that remind us of our commonalities despite, and sometimes because of, our differences.


Get Involved

Balik Kampung is more than an installation. Balik Kampung creates and holds the space for cross-cultural sharing. If you would like to host a Balik Kampung installation, discussion, presentation, or event in your school, workplace, faith community, or other organization, please join us. Donations are also vital to the ability of Balik Kampung to open spaces across the United States, as well as Malaysia, and wherever it is welcome. Learn More →