Can Malaysians and Expats Ever Really be Friends?

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Just because they smile and nod doesn’t mean they agree or understand. As editor Chad Merchant has found, a nuanced array of cultural differences makes genuine friendship with people from other countries a minefield of conundrums and confusion for the average expat.

Being friends with locals is hard.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not without its rewards, but it can be an occasionally frustrating exercise and sometimes absurdly funny, too. When I first moved to Malaysia, my reasons for doing so were quite clear. I wasn’t posted here for a job assignment nor was I swept along as the trailing half of a couple. I came on my own to experience living in a different country, to expose my distinctly non-expat self to life in a different culture and see if I could expand my own horizons and learn from the experience. It’s safe to say that most Americans have never even travelled internationally, let alone moved overseas on a whim, so I figured it would be a good experience for me, and that after a year or so, I’d move back home.

Well, life has a funny way of making up its own mind at times, and routinely dashes even the best-laid plans (of mice and expats). Nearly six years on, I’m still here, so I suppose it’s safe to say that it indeed has been a good experience for me.

Because I was keen to learn about living in a foreign land, one of my key “rules” upon moving to Malaysia was that I stick to locals for friendships. After all, I reasoned, if I wanted to hang out with Americans (or other Westerners), I could have just stayed put. So I made it a point to meet only locals as my new friends. And so it has largely been, for better or worse. Most of the time, they’re just as curious about my ways as I am about theirs. The one advantage they have – at least a perceived one – is that they have learned all about American culture by watching TV and Hollywood movies. (Naturally, I’ve had to break the sad truth to more than one Malaysian that American life isn’t quite as it’s portrayed on the average sitcom.) Many times, I’ve been hanging out with friends watching TV and been asked to explain some arcane pop culture reference in the show, or to fill in the blanks when the audio abruptly drops out courtesy of the Malaysian censors. This is when the cultural dissimilarities can be fun.

But for all the (often unintentional) humour these differences give rise to, they do also, in a real way, make it challenging to forge true friendships that go beyond casual acquaintances. I have some friends who were born and raised here, but moved away for university or a work assignment, many having spent time in Australia or the UK. Though these friends have been sufficiently Westernized, they still very much “get” the culture here and fit in here in ways expats never will, simply because they grew up here. For me, no matter how many years I live here, I will always be an outsider, always be immediately identifiable as an expat. As I’ve explained to many of my friends here, they could wander the streets of San Francisco or New York and never be given a second glance; they’d blend in, as Americans come in all colours and ethnicities. But no one will ever look at me here and think for a moment that I’m Malaysian!

So can Malaysians and expats ever really be friends? In my experience, absolutely, and these are the friendships that really lend value and meaning to the expat’s life in Malaysia. But the simple truth is, to get beyond the veneer of being mere social pals, or even regular acquaintances – to get to the good stuff, to build those genuine friendships that mean so much – takes a concerted effort… and a lot of patience. Many times, I’ve been misunderstood by my friends, simply because of cultural differences, and I’ve had to make amends for hurt feelings a few times, too. (After all, Americans do tend to be considerably more blunt and straightforward than Malaysians.) I routinely get smiles and knowing nods from friends when I’m saying things, but later find out they really had no idea what I was talking about, and were just being polite. And I’ve had to repeatedly explain and re-explain phrases or colloquialisms which are second nature to me, but completely alien to my friends, such as “Let’s just play it by ear.” That one has caused more curious looks than I can count. So now, I just use its Malaysian counterpart, “We see how, lah.” And if you’ve spent any time with locals, you’ve likely already learned that “I’m on my way” can mean anything from “I’m almost there” to “I’ve just gotten up and am now thinking about taking a shower.”

These days, even apart from what’s required in my job, I’ve relaxed my “locals only” friendship rule, and have expanded my circle to include anyone and everyone, even Canadians. (Just kidding, Canada!) But I still see great value in expats and Malaysians striving towards genuine friendship. It’s rewarding for both parties on many levels, and I still get a little rush of delight at any Malaysian’s amusement and amazement when I throw out a random phrase in Bahasa, or when they find I truly know and understand something of their all-too-often perplexing culture. Then, in that moment, all the effort is worthwhile.

Homepage Highlight Photo credit: amanda.venner / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Source: The Expat Magazine June 2014

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