Striking the balance as an expat in Malaysia

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Some expats live in a bubble of expat housing, food, and friends while others go “native”. Frances Wilks draws on her long experience of expat life to find a way of striking a balance.

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Some expats live in the bubble of expat housing, food and friends while others “go native”, so whole-heartedly embracing the local culture that they forget their roots. Frances Wilks draws on her long experience of expat life to find a way of striking a balance.

In Nancy Mitford’s comic novel, The Blessing, Grace takes her little boy and his nanny to live in the south of France in the late 1940s. Grace adores the gorgeous French cuisine after years of basic food rations in war-torn Britain, while the nanny sniffs at the “horrible foreign food” and makes the little boy some “proper Bird’s custard.” I have to admit, just between ourselves, that there have been times when I have had a sneaking sympathy with the nanny.

The occasional desire for something homelike and comforting is pretty universal, but those of us who have left our own countries, familes, friends, and culture have a spirit of adventure which always calls us to seek out something new. Finding the “sweet spot” between familiarity and novelty is a delicate task, but one which will add immeasurably to your well-being.

The first thing to understand is that there are phases in expat life, just as there are in any change, such as a relationship or a new job. At first, you either love it or loathe it. People tend to have a strong emotional reaction to the new country when they first arrive, and it’s important to recognise this is a phase because, if you don’t, you can risk becoming stuck at this stage.

Read more: Expat organisations in Malaysia

A friend told me of some American servicemen’s wives that she had known when she was living in Turkey who were afraid to go “off base” because they were terrified of the land they would find beyond the confines of the US Air Force. I am happy to say that my friend swept the nervous wives into her people carrier and initiated them into Turkish hospitality in the form of stuffed vine leaves and doner kebabs.

Some of us go the other way and become totally at one with the locals. Diana, another friend of mine, spent her first year in Sri Lanka swathed in saris cooking curries and speaking only Singhalese.


If you become involved with or marry a local you will, of course, get swept into the culture more quickly. This has its pros and cons because, by the end of the first year, your feelings about your new life are probably going to change. Just as you start seeing the flaws in a loved one, you will start to see the drawbacks in a new country.

Things that seemed charming, quaint, or amusing become tiresome, irritating, and irksome. You can risk your relationship as well as your residence in a new land if you don’t realise that this is normal. One of the key indicators of this stage is complaining: the traffic, the weather, the service, the noise etc.

I am sad to say that Diana’s relationship didn’t stand the test of time and she is now back in the UK. Whether or not it would have been the same story had she gone more gradually into the culture, learning about its complexities as she kept some links with her own, isn’t possible to say, but those who have succeeded in making cross-cultural relationships work often talk about the importance of give and take.

Whether in a relationship with a local or just happily single and enjoying the country, every person will find their own solution to the adjustments that expat life demands. Here are some things that have helped me to settle and find homes in several places in the world:

Find sources of support

For most of us this involves making good friendships, but even networks, such as women’s organisations or other networking groups, will work well in offering support. There are many common interest clubs, from running to classic cars, from embroidery to film appreciation, and these are excellent places to find people of like mind.

Cultivate a variety of acquaintances, both expat and local.

Learn the language

If you can learn even a little of the local language it will go a long way to make you feel at home. I was always puzzled by the question “Have you had your lunch yet?” until I realised it was a form of greeting, because one of the most important things in the past was to have had enough to eat (it’s hard to imagine that now!).

When I reply “Sudah makan,” which means “I’ve eaten already,” there is usually an appreciative smile and a feeling of common understanding.

Stay connected

It is crucial to maintain links with your own heritage and background. I was lucky enough to be invited as a guest to a meeting of the South African community in Penang recently.

They don’t have a formal setup – they meet three or four times a year for Braai and Boerewors (barbecue and sausages), exchange news, and then return to their busy lives – but the sense of connection, the shorthand of speaking to other people with a common cultural heritage, is obviously important to them.

There are many such groups in KL and increasingly in Penang, and if you don’t find the one that suits you, why not set up an informal one yourself?

Making and keeping friends

We all remember those friends who breezed in to your life for a few months – you became very close to them but suddenly they were gone onto the next posting, leaving you with an email address and a sense of loss. These fleeting friendships are inevitable but you can balance them by creating long-term friendships with locals or expats who will be staying here a long time.

As one man who has been here with his family for thirty years told me: “I don’t really know who’s an expat and who’s local anymore. I just find people whose values I respect and whose sense of humour I share. It seems to work.”

Source: The Expat magazine




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