Humans seem to love dividing things into binaries. Democrats and Republicans. Labour and conservative. “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” And how many times have you heard some grand insight prefaced with, “There are two types of people in this world…” Well, indulge me for a moment, because after a decade of living as an expat in Malaysia, I’ve recently realised that there are (you guessed it) two types of expats – at a minimum! The first is the sort we typically think of as an expat: a working professional on a defined, and usually short-term, assignment in a foreign country.
Whether it’s her first overseas post or just one in a career-long series of them, there’s a preset finish line, and this expat tends to keep her eyes fixed on what’s next, either the subsequent assignment or the return home. Such expats will glance at Malaysia, and may even let their eyes wander and linger here, but in the end, their true gaze is firmly fixed on what lies beyond.
The second type of expat is altogether different. This one has severed ties with his home country, returning “only as a tourist.” as one such expat puts it. He has perhaps married a local, is raising the kids here, knows local politics and sports inside and out, and maybe even owns a business here. He almost certainly owns, rather than rents, his home. For this expat, there is no competing place to cast his gaze. Malaysia is well and truly home in virtually every sense, and it is here that his gaze is fixed and his feet are planted.
But as with most binaries, a greater complexity exists once you dig a little deeper. There are, of course not just two types of expats; there are dozens. And while many of those would neatly fit into the two aforementioned archetypes, plenty more would not. I certainly don’t. Since moving to Malaysia a decade ago, I have generally lived here fairly whole-heartedly. At least that’s how it seems at a glance. But upon closer evaluation, the reality is that I’ve straddled the fence between the two worlds for years. I’ve still kept myself tethered, in one way or another, to my home city back in the US. I still own my house (rented out now), I have a US-based internet phone number, and I still hold a driver’s license from my home state. I have five accounts with three US banks and credit unions, and I still vote in US elections. I get mail there. I travel back regularly and still consider it as “visiting home.”
Am I a hybrid expat? I don’t know. But it’s not lost on me that for years, I’ve lived with one foot in each of these worlds. Sure, I’m pretty committed to my life in Malaysia, but yet, I guess I still haven’t fully let go of the one I left
behind in the US. Part of that recently changed in a significant way, though, as I travelled back to the States to tend to some difficult family matters and also to sell my mother’s home. Though I still own my own house, it’s been rented out for the whole time I’ve lived in Malaysia, so my mom’s place has actually been my “home base” every time I’ve gone back to the US to visit. Now that that’s no longer the case, I confess I feel slightly adrift. I wonder if that will compel me to cling a little more tightly to my life here in Malaysia.
Shortly after I returned to KL, one of my good friends remarked that it seemed I had finally really moved to Malaysia. I wasn’t sure what that meant, since I thought I had moved here in 2008, so I asked. Turns out that it was partly because of a perceived shift in my attitude, but also because I arrived with both my pet parrot and an artificial Christmas tree in tow this time. In my decade of living here, I had never set up a tree during the holidays, and certainly never brought my pet bird back to live with me. With both of those boxes ticked, I guess it seemed I was shifting my weight a bit more towards the Malaysian side of the expat fence. Time will tell, I guess.
So what type of expat are you? Short-term or long-term? Are you fully committed to your Malaysian life in every respect, or just hanging out here until it’s time to go back home? Or are you, like me, a person deftly straddling the line between both worlds, soaking up the languid, tropical days year after year, and only occasionally wondering what events may transpire in the future to urge you to move in one direction or the other? I don’t think any one type is superior, but I do believe that the best thing is that a place like Malaysia seems to make all of them equally possible.