No, not an alternate lifestyle… whatever that phrase really means. Here, I’m simply referring to my own recent realization that my life now is quite different from anything I ever imagined it would be.
A fair few locals assume that any Westerner living in Malaysia has been sent here without much choice in the matter or, at best, is here specifically for work. Like people who flock to Dubai for a time, pad their bank account, then leave, Malaysia is sometimes seen in a similar light by its natives. The locals I talk to can’t quite understand why I would have chosen Malaysia of my own free will, but they’re still quite pleased to hear me say that I like living here. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of patriotism and self-loathing: “Why would you pick Malaysia of all places?? … Oh really, you like my country? That’s great! Thanks for saying so!”
I’ve found that with some locals, it’s not quite enough for me to just say that I moved here because I wanted to experience living in a different country, to expand my own personal horizons. They press on, “But I mean, why Malaysia? Expats usually prefer Singapore or Bangkok, I think.” I then dutifully launch into my memorized answer, taking special care to make it seem as if it’s the first time I’ve been asked such a question and so need to think carefully about my response. And I tell them that while Singapore is a bit too sterile and high-strung, and a place like Bangkok or Jakarta is simply too chaotic, KL is – much like Goldilocks’s porridge – just right. (As an aside, this always earns a smile, and I can attest that if you want to endear yourself to almost any Malaysian, slip in a dig at Singapore and they’ll love it. There’s such a sibling like rivalry between KL and Singapore, making a point to say you prefer KL will score you some nice brownie points.)
This all came to me quite recently. I was driving home from work one day, down the tree-lined Jalan Datuk Sulaiman in TTDI, and it just hit me that somehow, my life had skewed from its almost preordained line and proceeded on this tangent to a life here in Malaysia. And that, in some way, I’m now living in this alternate reality of sorts, wholly different than the life I was “supposed” to have lived back home. Like many expats, I assume that one day I’ll rejoin that original line, but who really knows? Some of us are here for a specific timeframe, some of us are here for good, and some of us are just here sort of indefinitely. Perhaps we’ll move on when it stops being interesting here, or when a new opportunity elsewhere presents itself. And that’s when I started thinking about the almost identical line of questions I get from locals here, starting with the question about why I’m in Malaysia and why I chose this country.
The follow-up question tends to be the same, too: “How long will you stay here?” – a challenging question to answer because there’s no preset time limit in my mind. I really don’t know how long my stay in Malaysia will ultimately be. I’ve spoken to several expats who have similar tales to tell, who left their home countries thinking they’d be back in a year or two, then found expat living agreed with them, blinked a couple of times and then, in a flash, ten years had sped by. It’s always interesting for me to talk to other expats here in Malaysia, hearing their stories, and their take on living abroad. Although it’s different for each of us, there seem to be some real commonalities, too… some similar themes that underscore the reality of a life lived away from what’s always been home. And, of course, for some of the folks I’ve talked with, the nomadic life has been part and parcel of their entire life. For them, Malaysia is every bit as much “home” as any of the other places they’ve hung their hats.
I suppose the most telling common thread, though, and one in which Malaysians really can take a bit of pride, is that when I talk to expats about their likes and dislikes about living here, the responses about the positives are all over the place: the food, the people, the travel opportunities, the stability, the local economy, the multicultural tapestry, the cost of living, on and on. Most expats seem to focus in on only one negative though, and of course that’s the traffic and/or Malaysian drivers. Every now and then, someone will mention the high price of alcohol but, for most of us, that pales in comparison to the frustration and wasted time of dealing with KL’s infernal traffic jams. So, lots of positives and few negatives; it says a lot about why some of us come here for a year and wind up staying for ten.
Sometimes I actually wonder what I’d be doing if were still back in Colorado, if I had never made the leap and moved to Malaysia. I wonder about that and then I think that, hey, maybe that life is the “alternate” one, and I slip happily back into my current one here in KL.