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!
Expectations vs Reality
Exploring the country
Expectation: I’ll spend the weekends strolling across local markets and looking at handicrafts & souvenirs and 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 ocean 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. One is that I was alone — I was literally the only Filipino employed by our company at that time. The other is that 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. This helped me a lot.)
After a while, I began to appreciate the stress-free life here and got so comfortable (and lazy) that I didn’t even plan on going to tourist spots, even super cliche ones such as Penang which is famous for its mural art.
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, Filipinos 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. On the other hand, 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 still 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 has similar features including proliferation of shopping malls and airconditioned buildings for weekend entertainment — but it’s also more advanced and convenient to live in.
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).
I have written another post about life in Malaysia here: 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 that is true, although like I said it’s better in most aspects.
One notable thing is that there wasn’t a big Filipino community in my area, which is something I didn’t expect given how Filipinos often talk about the number of Filipino workers in the country. One of the possible reasons is that I live 20 minutes away from the city. As I mentioned above, when I joined the company I was the only Filipino there. Today we’re about 6-7 employees 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 used to think is bad. Now I believe that we have a lot of good dishes — it’s just the cooking it’s done that needs to be improved.
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… Well, up to 6 actually.
In our workplace, most are Chinese locals 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 there’s very little said in the media about how 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. In my experience, Filipinos oftentimes take things personally or get defensive even in the workplace. So if I get in touch with an in-house or third-party support of a client, the person will likely act defensively, blame our side or do other things that are completely unnecessary. In here, if I tell the other team, “Hey, there seems to be an issue on your side”, they will respond with, “Okay, I’ll take a look at it.” I am completely blown away that it’s possible to communicate and work with other people without the drama. Malaysians are polite and professional — I admire 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. 🙂
What to read next:
Here are the posts about my life in Kuala Lumpur:
- What It’s Like Living in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
- Living in Kuala Lumpur: Expectations vs Reality
- My Favorite Foods in Malaysia
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Katherine Cortes is a long-time backpacker and a freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).