It’s been more than a year now since I’ve lived here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Prior to moving here for work, I have been to Malaysia a number of times on business trips. I was even quite familiar with some of its countryside, having once travelled to Club Med Malaysia from Singapore, during one trip. And of course, I’ve seen its most famous landmark before, the Petronas Towers. But other than the business travels that lasted a week at most, I haven’t really stayed in Malaysia or any of its cities before.
Unlike the move to Guam where I had my children with me, I moved to Kuala Lumpur alone. Hence, my mindset coming into Kuala Lumpur was quite different. I didn’t need to check out any of the schools, for example, and opted to live in a condominium that’s accessible to work and the airport vs living in a house in a secure suburban village. I also opted to not have a car.
-Here’s my single expat female’s view of living in Malaysia for a year:
1. It’s truly Asia. I don’t know why there are even discussions of changing its tagline (or maybe it has already been changed) but I feel that ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ encapsulates what the country represents. It’s a culturally diverse country with at least three main groups – Muslim Malays, Chinese Malays, and Indian Malays. Add to that the sub-cultures and religions within the main ones and you’ll probably end up with more than a hundred languages, religions, cultural traditions. And yet, they all live in harmony together while remaining distinct. It’s also more than just those three main groups as I know there are also a lot of work force immigrants also rest of Asia as well as Europe. If you want a quick study on expat living around the world, make Malaysia your first stop and you can become quite familiar with various cultures in one place.
2. There is an expat bubble. Unlike my Guam experience where the community embraced me almost on day one, the Malaysian welcome was a little bit more reserved. I think it’s more typical Asian behavior – you’re welcome but it takes a bit more time to get closer. Hence, most expats while having business relationships with the locals tend to socialize more with fellow expats. I became one of those. I have my running group** and the Internations*** organization to thank for letting me have a little bit of life outside of work.
3. It is a city. A very livable city. KLCC, KL Sentral and MidValley (and Cyberjaya) are the city’s primary centers for business. And in those hubs, the development is quite good, in fact impressive and can rival the top cities in Asia.
The traffic is bearable (full disclosure, I lived in Metro Manila and the survived its 2-4hour traffic commute every day for so many years) – a 10 to 30-minute commute to and from work has been my daily experience. Uber and Grab works, train system works, and when in a bind, I sometimes use the blue taxis, but never the red ones (used the red taxi once and will never do so again, details are for another story).
There are enough malls and night spots for entertainment and other destress activities. The cost of services is quite affordable so getting my beauty fix is now an almost weekly ritual. Food choices are aplenty affordable too. There are grocery and restaurant apps that make my life so much more efficient as items get delivered straight to my doorstep whenever I wanted.
4. It is a city and I miss my island! For some strange reason, the sky tends to be gloomy in KL. It also almost rains every day, and the seasons just change the time of day it rains. But there’s never a typhoon so it’s a blessing still. I had a huge withdrawal from Guam's sunshiny weather, vivid skies, and close proximity to nature and the beach.
But I’ve found my way to nature! The city is well developed with parks all around. By weekday, I’m a concrete slave going from condominium to office tower and back to condominium. But weekends, I spend running in many of its beautiful parks within the city. I’ve gone to quick trips outside of KL and have seen rain forests, historical towns like Melaka. I also rediscovered my love for hiking. I regularly go on weekend hikes now with an Internations group. Not only do I commune with nature, get a good sweat, and destress, I also meet new interesting people from all over the world who love nature and challenging themselves like me. I call myself the weekend tourist since for the most part, I use the weekend to explore new parts of KL or its adjacent cities and towns.
5. Holidays! Oh boy, there are holidays. I never thought holiday planning can be so diverse and complicated. Since it’s multi-cultural, I had to learn all the religious holidays of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, plus the national and regional holidays. There are also changes in the holidays, based on adjustments needed given conflicts with other holidays (for example, the King postponed his birthday holiday because it coincided with the Ramadan season).
6. Food is crazyyyy. I already mentioned earlier that food variety is good and affordable, but did I mentioned crazy good? I think it deserves another mention here. The range of the cuisines available is wide, the price quite cheap if you compare vs metropolitan areas. The locals may not agree with me on this – but a good meal costing less than MYR15 (<USD4) in a mall is a steal. The locals won’t agree because there are hawker places wherein a good meal can be savored for maybe a quarter of the mall price. And everything is quite delish! I have never tried so many different curries and spices in my life. I have never enjoyed trying so many new dishes – some similar to Filipino delicacies, some more akin to European or Chinese cuisines. Whatever the influence, my palate has become more sophisticated because of Malaysia. My only caveat is the lack of Filipino restaurants and pork dishes (most restaurants are halal) but over time, I have found some local spots that serve that purpose and I remain a happy foodie.
7. I can't seem to learn the colloquial language. This is frustrating for me. For the most part, it’s been easy for me to pick-up key words almost immediately to make me feel more at home wherever I travel. The problem with living in such a culturally diverse city as KL is that the colloquial language is a mix of so many languages. While there are a lot of Filipino and Spanish influences, which makes it easy for me to understand certain words, the combination of these words with Chinese, Malay and Hindi influences make the colloquial language so complex. Not to forget the English influence too! A full sentence is a combination of all. And the locals constantly shift from one dialect to another. Even my Indonesian friends (who also speak Bahasa) can sometimes get into a rut since the meaning of what they said can completely be different when taken in the Malay Bahasa context. But I remain a diligent learner and hopefully one day I can say a full sentence instead of just fragments.
8. I admire the pride they have. I made the mistake (please don’t!) a few times of comparing Malaysia with Singapore (“Oh, this looks like Singaporean Laksa!” and I’m quickly rebutted with, “No it doesn’t, this is from Penang and Malaysia has so many other types of laksa. Singapore just has one or few!”). They have their own identity and they pride themselves with it. I’ve also witnessed the SEA Games**** hosted by Malaysia last August 2017 and I was amazed by their facilities and how well organized the whole event was.
The pride they have and the one nation thinking is something developing countries need to espouse. The urban development is quite vibrant with constant infrastructures being made to make sure the city continues to thrive. I have not seen the rest of the country much, but I am hoping the same goes true in its developments.
The net of it is, it's been a wonderful experience. Live in Malaysia? I can can lah!
* Can can Lah: A Malaysian expression of consent, meaning I surely can! Or easy! Or an emphatic yes!
** Guam welcome: Any newcomer is welcomed extensively as tourism is the primary industry aside from the federal spending/military. Guam is a US territory in the Pacific, the largest island in the Marianas.
*** Running Group: I belong to Tao of Running, a program designed to promote overall well-being while running thru proper running form, meditation/mindfulness, and nutrition. Check out website for details http://tao-of-running.com/
**** Internations: the largest global expat network operating in 390 cities worldwide
***** SEA Games: South East Asian Games, a biennial multi-sport event participated in by South East Asian countries
About this post: Wrote this towards end of October 2017, shortly after I reached a year of living in Kuala Lumpur, as I evaluated whether or not to continue living there.