From Texas to Penang: Malaysian Meanders
Howdy and Selamat Datang! My name is Michele. I originally hail for Texas but have lived on the tropical island of Penang, Malaysia since the summer of 2011. Before I moved, I was your typical, suburban stay-at-home mom to three kids. Now, I consider myself a jetsetting housewife of mystery. This is the first time my family has lived overseas. My parents are Chinese from the Philippines, but I was born and raised in America. Living in Southeast Asia has been a terrific opportunity to reconnect with my heritage. Our contract here is just for a few years, and we expect to return to our home in Texas when we’re finished.
1. Why did you move abroad?
When I was growing up in the USA, my immigrant parents always imbued in me a sense that America is the best place to be. My mom tells the story of a childhood dream where she made three cartwheels and found herself in America. Getting their immigration papers and moving from the Philippines to California fulfilled a lifelong wish. I was raised hearing about the sacrifices they made so that their kids could live in “The Land of Opportunity” where even poor, immigrant Asians had the chance to succeed. So, I never really considered living anywhere else other than the USA.
Then, my husband’s company offered him a position in Penang, Malaysia about which he was very excited. I was hesitant at first. Was it the right thing to do for my children? After talking to other friends who had done expat stints either as a child or a parent, I decided to make the move. My kids would have a chance to experience another part of the world, not just on vacation, but by actually living there. In an increasingly global economy, I thought this would be advantageous when they became adults. Our expat life is like a Study Abroad program in which the entire family goes, not just the student.
2. How do you make a living?
I’m in Malaysia as a trailing spouse on a Dependent Pass which specifically prohibits me from working. I’ve taken this as free rein to spend my time exploring the city and learning about the culture. My husband works in the technology industry which is a growing part of Penang’s economy.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
We have weekly Skype sessions with my parents and my in-laws. Since moving here, I think we’re actually in closer communication than when we lived a 3-hour drive away from them. The only hard part about Skype is the 13-14 hour time difference between us.
I email a few of my close friends whenever the mood strikes. We were doing this even when I lived in America because we lived in different states. Even though the distance between us has increased, I think we’re still just as close emotionally.
Facebook has truly turned out to be a remarkable way to keep in touch with a large circle of friends and acquaintances. I feel in tune with the town that I’ll be moving back to because I know all the big news and inconsequential details, too.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Malaysia?
I feel like I’m on a perpetual vacation because there is so much to see and explore. I love being able to wander through the historic streets of this former British colony where Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures intertwine. On one famous street, there’s an Anglican church, Chinese clan temple, mosque and Hindu temple all within a half kilometer. It’s a visually rich environment.
Penang also has some of the best street food in all of Asia. It’s a foodie paradise and extraordinarily cheap.
Traveling in Southeast Asia is relatively inexpensive, so we go somewhere like Thailand, Singapore or Borneo every couple of months. We never traveled this much in America!
My other favorite part of expat life in Malaysia is being able to hire a housekeeper. All the industry expats I know have one, and some of them are even live-ins. I could never have afforded this luxury in America. She irons my clothes! I am getting so spoiled. My friends even ask their housekeepers to babysit, grocery shop or cook.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Malaysia?
I get tired of the heat. Year-round, Malaysia is hot and humid with one big rainstorm each day. Since electricity is so expensive, I try to use the room air-conditioners as little as possible, so I end up being sweaty all day. Even when I do turn on my air-conditioning in my kitchen full blast, I can never get it cooler than 85F.
Because I am ethnically Chinese and can pass as a local, I don’t have to deal with standing out as different like my tall, white husband and other Western-looking friends do. Westerners are often charged higher prices here.
Locals also love taking pictures of Westerners. It doesn’t happen to me and my kids since we’re Asian, but I notice that it constantly happens to my expat friends, especially if they have blue eyes or blonde hair. Most of them have become accustomed to it, but I suspect that it would get on my nerves if it happened to me.
6. What do you miss most?
Friends and family are at the top of the list, but I guess that’s a given. I miss central air-conditioning and drinkable tap water. Sometimes, the strangest food cravings hit me – everything from Texas barbecue to Tex-Mex to processed foods. I miss the vast selection at American grocery stores, and I miss Target. My bank account, though, is enjoying my break from Target.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
Meeting people and making new friends was at the top of my Worry List when I considered moving to Malaysia. After all, my husband had work and my kids had school where they could meet people. How was I going to make friends?
We were really fortunate to move here at the same time as many other families from my husband’s company. Before we left Texas, we dined together a few times just to get acquainted. Landing here and immediately knowing people (who were just as lost as I was) was very comforting. I realize that this situation is a rarity for expats, though.
My residential tower complex and my children’s international school are the primary places where I meet new people. There are so many expats in Penang, and they all remember what it was like when they first arrived. The people are friendly and often introduce themselves if you’re an unfamiliar face. A brief chat with someone in my tower’s elevator evolved into an invitation to join a book club, for instance. At our school, I’ve also had a chance to meet many Malaysian families.
Another great place where I’ve met people and learned more about Penang is through the Spiral Synergy events. I’ve toured The Street of Harmony, tried my hand at batik, and enjoyed a tasting menu at delicious Italian restaurant. I always enjoy the activities this company hosts.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Service at stores and restaurants in Malaysia are the opposite of what they are in the United States. When I browse a store, a sales lady always follows close to me. At first, I thought they were worried I’d shoplift or break something, but I’ve come to realize that shadowing is just typical Malaysian customer service at shops.
On the other hand, waiters at restaurants are not very attentive. I am accustomed to servers in America often stopping by the table to check on how I am doing, refilling my water, and bringing me the bill. In Malaysia, I have to call them over whenever I need something, including the final bill, and it’s usually hard to catch someone’s attention. At least tipping isn’t customary!
The other thing which I think I will never, ever get used to is Malaysian public toilets. The seat and floor are often drenched, and the stalls typically lack toilet paper. In Penang, you can usually find a Western-style toilet, but sometimes a squatty potty is your only option.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
To tell you the truth, Malaysia was a blank slate for me before we moved here. I knew nothing about the country and had no preconceptions. American’s don’t know much about Malaysia, and hence, we have no stereotypes or expectations of what it’s like.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
The cost of living in Malaysia is definitely lower than in America. I can go to a hawker stall and get a plate of delicious noodles for less than US$2. If I don’t buy imported Western food, my weekly grocery bill is half of what I paid in Texas.
The healthcare is amazingly cheap but still up to Western standards. In fact, Penang promotes itself for medical tourism, People specifically come to this island to have necessary procedures such as heart bypass that they can’t afford in their home country. When I took my child to the pediatrician for strep throat, the total bill (not just my out-of-pocket expense) including antibiotics was about US$40.
There’s also the housekeeper that I mentioned as one of the things I love about expat life here in Malaysia. In Texas, I could never afford to have someone clean my house for 12 hours a week. I am definitely going to miss this perk when I return to America.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
My top bit of advice is to figure out what will make living abroad meaningful for you (e.g. travel, volunteerism, cuisine, shopping, interacting with locals) and then make it happen.
Also, keep a good attitude. Learn to revel in the differences between your home country and your new one instead of despairing in them. Focus on the positive. Face your worries and proactively address anything that you have control over. Strive to accept with serenity the things you cannot change.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I originally started my blog right before we left Texas as a way to keep my friends and family up-to-date with all over our overseas adventures. I wrote my first blog post immediately after our going away party. It was an FAQ since most friends were asking the same questions about our move. I also thought it would be a great way to chronicle and remember our time in Malaysia.
Since then, the blog has blossomed into a way to educate others, not just my friends and family, about what living in Malaysia is like. Americans know so little about Malaysia that I wanted to introduce them to what a fascinating place it is. In addition to daily expat life, I also write about my travels because that has become a big part of our overseas experience.
Michele's blog, Malaysian Meanders
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