One year in Malaysia: Farewell and reflections

Katherine in Kapas Island

Sometimes a year can be agonizingly slow, and sometimes it flies so fast you’ll hardly notice it come and go.

My one-year stay in Malaysia felt like the latter. A year ago, I was still packing up my luggage, nervous but decided to make the best out of my stay in Malaysia. Here I am now, back in my home country, the Philippines.

As you guys know, last September 2017 I flew from Manila to Kuala Lumpur to work as a software engineer in an IT company. It was a big move on my part because it was my first international flight (not technically, but my last trip was a decade ago), it’s the first time I’d be living away from family and I literally didn’t know anyone in Kuala Lumpur. My friends think I’m brave for moving somewhere else where I didn’t have anyone.

My reason for moving abroad wasn’t solely for money or career, it’s mostly that I needed a change of environment.

My first weeks in Kuala Lumpur weren’t without hiccups. I didn’t know Malay or Mandarin, there were communication problems when I speak in English, and I felt like I lost a bit of that bravery I’m used to when traveling alone. I was the only Filipino in our company then and I’d go to work and eagerly wait for 5 or 6PM so I could go home — so I could chat with Hali and be comforted. As months passed, I eventually settled down. More Filipinos were hired in our company so it’s no longer just me, and I hate to admit — despite my “brave” persona — their presence comforted me.

Overall, my life there was good although not what I initially expected. I thought I’d stay late in bars and make friends with fellow expats and locals, go on road trips on weekends, try out the weirdest foods ever, regularly post about my “amazing life in Kuala Lumpur.” I didn’t realize that when you’re an adult and living abroad it’s a challenge to make friends, that other countries don’t have as much options on weekend trips as the lush and naturally rich country of the Philippines, that trying out new things can be frightening too.

Instead, I eased into an ordinary life. I worked on weekdays, stayed at home in weekends mostly. I guess it was what I needed, in a way. I realized how stressed I was living in the Philippines. There’s the inescapable toxic people, the daily traffic, the slow internet, issues about everything and people complaining about said issues. No wonder I always suffered from stomach cramps when I was living there. It’s a far cry from the life in Kuala Lumpur, no matter how much people say that it’s similar to Manila. Life is easier, and I rarely had physical manifestations of stress. I finally understood why many Filipinos eventually settle for good abroad.

What I learned about all this is that you are who you are wherever you go. I’m an introvert and a homebody and I won’t magically be an adventurous person just because I moved abroad. You always take yourself with you.

Aside from this, there are a few other things I’d realized during that one year in Kuala Lumpur.

I’m that annoying housemate who lives the dishes in the sink overnight. (I’m really sorry.)

It’s easier to make friends with Filipinos not only because of language but because of shared culture, humor, fears and aspirations. You’re all strangers trying to make sense and survive in a foreign land. I remember Hermes telling me, “Tayo-tayo na nga lang andito e.” When I hear about Filipinos sticking to a Filipino community, I used to judge them for not trying hard enough to blend in or getting out of their comfort zones. Apparently it’s more complex than that.

Then and now, I still enjoy the same things, which is to say the slow moments. In Kuala Lumpur, I liked strolling in pasar malams, getting a massage, going outside at midnight to drink teh o limau or teh tarik in the mamak across our condo or ordering a ramly burger, reading a book on a weekend, and meditating. I like the quiet, I’m like an old lady.

Everywhere in the world, there are helpers and Filipinos are usually ready to help other kababayans. But also it pays to be discerning with whom you help. I had a friend who also moved to Kuala Lumpur — so I let her crash in my room, lent her money, gave her free stuff, the works. After some months, it turned out that not only does she love attention and drama, it was a one-sided friendship where she just takes and leech off others. (Note to self: You don’t have to help everyone.)

Life really is what you make of it. For most aspects, the life standard in Kuala Lumpur is higher than that in Metro Manila, but satisfaction still depends on your outlook in life. I met Filipinos who complain about lack of proper-tasting soy sauce and vinegar, about the lack of pork products in halal markets, about the smell of Indians and existence of Indians and the dirty habits and laziness of Malaysians. I met Filipinos whose introduction is a long monologue of complaints. (Hali had noticed this too when he visited me for Christmas.) And I met others who are happy to try out new food, marvel at the cheap and fresh ingredients that are difficult to buy in the Philippines, go out and befriend other locals. There is no perfect country and to expect things to be the same as where you come from is a recipe for dissatisfaction. I’m not saying that these frustrations aren’t valid, but sometimes a frustration is just that — something that you can usually let go of in a moment. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by small frustrations.

Lastly, I’ve learned that despite the challenges I actually like living abroad.

That saying, a year in Kuala Lumpur is enough for me. I feel like I’ve already experienced what I’m meant to experience, seen what I’m meant to be seen. And hence I decided to go home to the Philippines.

To my housemates Joma and Belle in our condo, thank you for the initial dinners and for welcoming me.

To my office mates and especially my senior Harris, thanks for believing I can handle the job.

To my Filipino friends, who are indeed very few but well appreciated — Hermes, Mika, Arjay and Paul (who lives 20 minutes away from me but whose tips and advice saved my life especially when I had just settled in Kuala Lumpur) — see you again sometime! Oh and Eric, my friend living in the Philippines but whose practical knowledge of living in Kuala Lumpur also helped my unprepared ass tremendously.

To Malaysia, who showed me a different aspect of living I didn’t know — and aspects of myself that I had re-discovered, thank you.

I’m back in the Philippines. I’m meeting Hali, my family and nieces and nephews, our cats and dogs. I’m going on food trips for all the dishes I craved while abroad. I’m preparing myself for what I will sign up to next.

Here are some photos of my everyday life from my last days in Kuala Lumpur.

Farewell dinner in Malaysia
Farewell dinner with Filipino officemates. (I’m sorry Hermes that you’re not looking up, but this is legit the only decent photo in my phone.)
Condo in Bukit Jalil, Malaysia
Our condo in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.
Office building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Our office building, surrounded by green growth and which has its own man-made mini-lake.
Fountain near office bldg in Bukit Jalil, Malaysia
Fountain in a man-made lake in our workplace.
Teh panas in mamak
Having teh o limau panas in a 24/7 mamak.

Hey, if you like to read more about my life abroad, you can do so here.

3 Comments

  1. Hello! your blog comforted me! I am 4months in my expat journey here in KL (also from PH) as a marketeer and i can fully relate to all of your experiences above!! I came across your blog as i was searching for what other PH expats have experienced in KL, and your words made me feel im not alone in this journey! Thank you and great to know you are back in ph, no place like home!

    1. Hi Jessa, thanks for leaving a comment! I always appreciate when someone responds in a post like this because people usually just read the travel guides hehe. Yes I think there are very few Pinoys writing about the life in KL, so you pretty much find out everything on your own. I did read about expat life in KL, but it’s different coming from other foreigners because they usually have different requirements in life and higher standard of living overall. 🙂 Anyway, I hope you enjoy your stay in KL.

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