There’s no guide in the whole planet that can prepare you for what life is like living in another country. You can read about expat tips, what to expect in the culture and so on, but the actual experience is always subjective and personal.
For my third-quarter stay here in Kuala Lumpur (time flies!), here’s a short rundown of my expectations vs reality of living as an expat!
Exploring the country
Expectation: I’ll spend the weekends strolling across local markets and looking at handicrafts, souvenirs, tasting local cuisine at every turn. I’ll take road trips at least every month. I’ll explore the best beaches in the country.
Reality: I spent the first six months working with weekends staying at home, adapting myself to my new environment. So far, I’d only been to Cameron Highlands and the only sea I’ve managed to dip my toes on is Kapas Island in Kuala Terengganu.
To be honest, living abroad is a drastic change for me that I took my time in settling down. I had anxiety in the first weeks for various reasons, including that I was alone and I could not understand the Chinese English of my colleagues. (A friend of mine from the Philippines eventually gave me a tip, which is to ask them to spell a word if I don’t understand it.) After a while, I began to appreciate the stress-free life here and got so comfortable (and lazy) that I didn’t even plan going to the usual tourist places such as Penang.
Hopefully in my next adventure, the transition for me will be easier and I can push myself to see more and do more.
Making (new) friends
Expectation: I’ll make friends, particularly with locals. I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who embraces change and that includes learning to be friends with other nationalities.
Reality: Nope. Instead, my main circles here revolve around fellow Filipinos.
The thing is I’m an introvert and I’m very particular about whom I can be friends with. I tried to expand my circles, I did. But this picky attitude and my lack of enthusiasm for small talk didn’t help. I also realized it’s easier to make friends with Filipinos because it’s almost automatic… When you’re new in a group, people will welcome you and invite you to eat together during lunch and join activities. We’re known for being persistent and a lot of times won’t take “no” for an answer. Malaysians are friendly in general, even to strangers in fact, but when it comes to making friends, I notice that they keep to their groups (that is, Chinese are friends with other Chinese, etc).
I think there’s an art to making friends that perhaps I still need to learn.
That saying, I do appreciate my friends here and hope you guys won’t think otherwise.
Expectation: Strict policies on dress code and public behavior.
Reality: Kuala Lumpur is actually pretty tolerant.
While majority of the locals in Malaysia are Muslim, the population is also diverse. Muslim Malays mostly wear conservative clothing, the Chinese in particular are more casual in what they wear. Also, Kuala Lumpur is a popular tourist attraction so it has more “Western” influence than other provinces in the country.
So basically it’s okay to wear shorts and skirts, as well as sleeveless tops (although I’ve yet to see low-neckline tops or see-throughs). I haven’t dared wear a top showing a bit of cleavage, as I can casually pull off in the Philippines. With regards to behavior, couples holding hands are okay but other forms of PDA are not. Homosexuality is technically illegal, but I’ve yet read of someone going to prison because of it.
As with other places, the lifestyle and culture sounds worse in news than it does in person. I find the culture more relaxed than expected.
[ Related Read: Expats in Malaysia: What you should know ]
Kuala Lumpur as a place to live in
Expectation: It’s similar to Metro Manila.
Reality: It’s way more convenient and advanced, but it has similar features — lots of shopping malls and airconditioned buildings for weekend entertainment.
Here for me are some notable differences.
- Commute – It’s easy to take a Grab or make use of the interconnected train system in the city. Grab here is very fast and efficient, and most importantly the drivers don’t have the picky attitude of those in Metro Manila. There is traffic during rush hour but at worst it’s slow moving and not the standstill hours-long torture that happens in Metro Manila. I swear it’s worth going abroad just for this.
- Cost of living – It’s relatively lower in Kuala Lumpur. Room rental in a condo and utilities are fairly cheap. Food is also cheap and your P1000 will go a long way here; also, there are wider options of raw ingredients available here and fruits/veggies are everywhere.
- Night life – There are a number of bars in the city, but alcohol is expensive. I haven’t touched a drop since I got here.
- Quality of living – Overall it’s much better in Kuala Lumpur (even though Malaysians are often surprised when you tell them this).
[ Related Read: What it’s like living in Malaysia ]
Friends back home advised me that I won’t feel much different in Kuala Lumpur, and I suppose in a way, yes, although like I said it’s better in most aspects. I also didn’t see the Filipino community they’d been talking about… One of the reasons probably is that I live 20 minutes away from the city. In fact, when I joined the company I was the only Filipino there. Today we’re about 6-7 in all. So having the comfort of your kababayans is not a guarantee when living even in the capital of Malaysia.
Expectation: Hello new cuisine, goodbye Filipino food.
Reality: I thought I’m pretty adaptable to new flavors and it’s not a secret I’m not a big fan of Filipino food, even though it’s what I grew up in. I did fall in love with Malaysian food and I still am, but after several months I found myself missing home food. This made me re-think about our cuisine, which I believe now is also good when done properly but is not always the case in Filipino restaurants.
Tapsilog. Sisig. Sinigang. Kare-kare. Calamares and those fried crablets with vinegar. Suman with the sweet sauce. Boodle fight. Seafood platters in dampa.
Oh and of course Jollibee.
Learning the language
Expectation: I’ll learn a new language and be a proud multilingual. Apa khabar?
Reality: I learned a few Malay words, particularly those used when going in shops and restaurants… aaand that’s the extent of my Malay vocabulary. Come to think of it, even now, sometimes all I do is point here and there. I can also count in Malay, from 1 to 7… err, 6.
In our workplace, most are Chinese locals and so conversations are held in English. I didn’t see the need to learn conversational Malay. I tried to learn Mandarin actually, but after a week and not learning more than 3 phrases, I’d abandoned the project and accepted that I’m just not interested enough.
I think someday I’ll visit a country and feel some sort of belongingness that I’ll study the language not because I need it, but I really want to.
Expectation: I will cry myself to sleep for months.
Reality: I’m proud to say, like a first-grader who made it to the first day of school without crying, that I survived and felt very little of homesickness. From reading and watching OFW stories, I thought I would suffer it too. Now, I think it’s very little said in the media that there are also Filipinos who are happy in their new homes abroad.
I didn’t expect to like Malaysia so much and I’m grateful to be able to live here.
Expectation: Long-distance relationship will be gut-wrenching.
Reality: As for me and Hali, Facebook video calls and Skype make it seem like our usual Taguig-Alabang romance. Also, Kuala Lumpur is just 4 hours away from the Philippines so it’s actually easy to go here or back, as necessary. Yes, regular-priced flight tickets are expensive, but the thought that we are not that far away from each other is consoling.
(Hali visited me last Christmas, when we vacationed to the nearby Koh Lipe in Thailand.)
Expectation: Low competitiveness at work.
Reality: More than once, I’d been told by fellow Filipinos that Malaysians are lazy and not particularly proficient in IT, which is why there’s a lot of vacancies for expats to fill this gap. This seems to be a common sentiment.
I don’t know what others have experienced, by it’s the opposite in our IT company in Kuala Lumpur. My colleagues at work are competent and highly knowledgeable, the projects are handled and designed well, in fact much better than the ones I’ve done back in the Philippines. The work culture is more laid-back but it has to do more with having work-life balance rather than “laziness”, compared to that in the Philippines where unpaid overtimes are not only normal, but expected.
Here’s another thing that I appreciate. Because of the others-oriented culture in the Philippines, we live to assimilate and are, most of the times, considerate towards others and sometimes this causes issues when setting boundaries. How are you going to say “No”? How can you not feel offended when you were told “No”? How can you accept criticisms or suggestions for improvement about your work without feeling hurt? It’s not a secret that Filipinos are easily offended. It’s the same in the workplace… you’ll meet people who take things personally or get defensive about their work. Well, from what I experienced here in Malaysia, the locals are usually polite and professional and getting butthurt is possibly a strange notion to them.
Point in fact, I’m with an amazing team and learning so much in my field.
I don’t know if I’ve done well considering it’s my first time to work abroad, but I’d like to think so. I did the best I could given all I’m going through.
There was a lot of surprises in living here in Malaysia, but most of it are pleasant. My gut feel to apply for work here was correct, after all, even if I didn’t understand it at that time. I’m grateful to learn more about myself and experience what it’s like to live where I don’t understand anyone and survive it all.
If you’re planning to to live abroad, here’s a useful guide on how to manage culture shock.
Have you been to Malaysia? What’s your story? Let’s hear about it in the comments section. 🙂
P.S. Looking for other posts about living in Malaysia?
Here are some articles I wrote: