An Expat's Diary on Penang

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This post was written by Pamela Nowicka

Pinkie is purring on my lap. I’ve had porridge and coffee on the balcony. Birds cheep and call. A neighbour’s dog barks, interrupting the quiet. A pale blue sky with wispy clouds is reflected in a roadside puddle.The air has a morning coolness that makes me appreciate Pinkie’s warm, comforting weight.

Yellow-flowered climbers, rescued from the garden of a neighbour who left, sprawl across the fence.The garden is full of plants – gifts from friends, acquaintances, neighbours; a green testimony to generosity and kindness. I’m grateful because it’s daunting starting again in a new place, a new country, a new social setting.Will I fi t in? Will they like me? Will I make friends? Will it work?

India, where I lived before, was… challenging. Neighbours who didn’t speak English couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get their heads around my halting attempts at Tamil. I thought we’d be friends. I’d help the kids with their English and they’d teach me Tamil. Not quite.

On good days, the street was a clan, kids screaming outside my windows, staring as I made tea in the kitchen, commenting every time I left the house.They were particularly fascinated by my bicycle light. For months someone would mumble “light, light” whenever they saw it, and then they’d have a conversation about it.

On bad days, such as when they tore up the plants outside my house and I remonstrated with them, they became a yelling mob, shouting and threatening me with sticks and stones the size of a grapefruit. Men jabbing their fingers inches from my face, sari-clad women with speculative eyes surrounding me. I stayed because I thought I could help. It took years to realise that I was wrong.

Here, my neighbours talk to me. Sometimes we smile and wave.The girl from across the street shows me her kitten, Melody. Her mum lends me a ladder. Nobody is interested whether or not my bike has lights.We chat about cat collars.

As I try to set up home on a shoestring, I am inundated by gifts from neighbours, strangers, and friends: curtains, a mattress, glasses, a toaster oven, sheets, towels and bamboo furniture. Bare rooms and empty balconies are transformed into comfy living spaces.

I have become a regular at the Salvation Army store (sofa, carpets, mirrors, woven mats) and the Kawin shop (skirts, tops, carpets). The fl ea market provides a cat clock with ears, cat ornaments, and various other items of cute Sino cat ephemera. I become a regular attendee at leaving sales (display cabinet, shoe cupboard, fan, dinner service).


When I optimistically planned on catching the 104 bus, a friend gave me an old-fashioned look, suggesting that I am indeed a neophyte in understanding the mysterious ways of Rapid Penang. Another new acquaintance praises the 101, and she is right.

The learning curve continues. Cold Storage and Bread Story are currently neck and neck leaders on loaves of seedy, nutty deliciousness. I’m starting to navigate the choppy seas of various kinds of milk (soya or cow) with various kinds of tastes, some so strangely hideous that I have to chuck the offending liquid down the sink.

The cats are trialling various kinds of cat food. Friskies and Whiskas are fi nally deemed less acceptable to the cat tasting committee than Snappy Toms.They like the tiny whole fish; I like the picture of the perky, footballing cat.

Naturally keen on all things green, eco, and/or recyclable, I have discovered I am in found-object heaven. Beautiful carved Chinese god statues are spotted by an eagle-eyed friend on Pearl Hill, a treasure trove of unwanted goodies, slung out by wealthy locals. A pile of sprouting coconuts I found on the street have been lugged into my large, empty garden and planted. I have planted coconut trees. I find this somehow thrilling.

I plant other things: twigs and sprigs of mint, curry leaf, orange flowers, blue flowers. A neighbour gives me orchids; I have no idea how to look after them, so I Google “orchids.” Someone says one of my plants is edible: pandan leaves. I find pineapple stumps in the street and I plant them, too.Who knows? Yesterday, I put papaya seeds, passion fruit, apple seeds and a mango core into a space of cleared soil. Will any of them sprout and grow? Who knows? Nothing is certain.


Source: Penang International February 2013 -March 2013

Read more:

What are your thoughts on this article? Let us know by commenting below.No registration needed.

"ExpatGo welcomes and encourages comments, input, and divergent opinions. However, we kindly request that you use suitable language in your comments, and refrain from any sort of personal attack, hate speech, or disparaging rhetoric. Comments not in line with this are subject to removal from the site. "


Click to comment

Most Popular

To Top