After six years of living in Penang, I’m uniquely qualified to write about life as an expat. I’ve been through it, survived, and I’m still here to tell the tale. I’m not going to sugar coat it. But I absolutely love my life in Malaysia, and I am glad we made the move.
Before we left, maybe my head was in the clouds, perhaps I thought it was going to be easy. But let me tell you, I was sorely mistaken. The truth is it all comes down to attitude. I could have left a thousand times. Gone back to Chicago and picked up where I left off, it would have been easier. But I was convinced I needed to embrace the struggle, the challenges, the heartache, instead of calling it quits.
When you move somewhere, every day is an adventure because it is all new. You overcome the daily challenges, and it eventually becomes routine. Driving on the left was scary at first, I could have just taken the bus, but now, it is normal. I could do it with my eyes closed… like most Malaysians 😂.
As challenging as it was, I don’t regret it for one minute. All the lows have brought me to the highs, and that is just part of life. I wouldn’t change a thing.
However, some things would have been good to know when I was just starting out. Here is a little insight as to my life as an expat.
It’s not a vacation; it’s real life.
Yes, I live on a tropical island, and the sun shines every day, but sadly I’m not lounging on the beach with a pina colada. If only. I still have to do the laundry, grocery shop, pretend to work-out, and work.
Bad things still happen here.
We’ve had a significant falling out, a failed business, a friend has died, another battled cancer, a few have lost their jobs; life is real here, and sometimes it sucks.
Making new friends is hard.
You are starting from scratch, so you go out intending to meet new people. When you do find your tribe, they become the family you get to choose. You spend holidays with them, teach them about your traditions, and create new ones.
It seems like friendships grow deeper quickly when you are living abroad. The common thread is that everything is uncommon. They understand what you’re going through because they are going through it too.
And once you find new friends, they move again.
When you find your new besties–they leave. Sometimes their job contract ends, or they just feel it’s time to move on to another adventure, often your time with people is limited.
I started a book club with eight incredible women from around the globe. We got very close, and all but one has moved away. It is hard to find new friendships every time people leave, but it’s part of expat life abroad.
Friends/family from home don’t really understand your expat life.
Not because they aren’t good friends, but because it is difficult to comprehend such a wildly different lifestyle. No one is at fault, but it is difficult to understand something you’ve never seen. It’s almost impossible to imagine life as an expat if you’ve never been one.
The things that were important, no longer have a place in my life.
We used to have fancy cars and beautiful things but now none of that matters. We have a cute 15-year-old local car that looks like an emoji. I can’t remember the last time I went shopping for clothing. What I care about now is sharing quality experiences with the people I love. Priorities change.
You realize how little you need.
Back in Chicago, we had everything we needed, and more. A lifetime of collected stuff; closets full of things we couldn’t part with over the years.
When we left, we sold everything. Every.Damned.Thing!
It was difficult, it was emotional.
Now we have 10 boxes in storage; only photos and my grandma’s china. The rest of our lives were boiled down to two suitcases each. Guess what? I don’t miss a thing, and it was incredibly freeing!
Now, I’m not attached to objects. And I try not to collect anything. But in the last six years, I have nested a bit, mostly when it comes to my kitchen. It is beyond fully stocked with things I do not need. Mostly from my friends who have left and given me their wares. More plates than I know what to do with, and more gadgets than I use. Just writing this makes me want to sell it all.
I like having only two suitcases. That means I can relocate again tomorrow. Stuff makes me feel beholden to a place. I want to be free, lighter, mobile.
If I had to leave tomorrow, I’d leave it all behind. All the kitchen stuff, and even my clothes, because none of it matters. I’d only take the art we’ve picked up in our travels because it brings joy to us. I didn’t feel that way when I lived in Chicago, but that is life as an expat.
Your tastes will change, and you adapt.
There are foods and fruits I would never have tried living in America because they just aren’t readily available–mangosteen, rambutans, dragon fruit, durian. After a short while, I adapted and stopped looking for the things that tasted like Chicago (tasty pizza, craft beer, good vodka) and started craving the stuff I have access to, like durian.
You get to recreate yourself.
Life as an expat is not easy. Moving so far away was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But also the most rewarding. It’s time for serious soul searching, passion following, and dogged determination. In Chicago, I was in the wholesale business. I never thought I could be a travel writer but secretly dreamed of it. I moved to Penang and within one year, was hired by International Living, as a travel writer. Boom!
You have to relearn how to do pretty much everything.
Buying a car, scooter, driving on the other side of the road, shopping for groceries, setting up a bank account, getting insurance. The list goes on. There is a steep learning curve.
You think red tape is troublesome in your home country, think again when it’s in another language.
However, there are loads of people who have done it before you, so reach out and ask them. Bonus when you make a great friend from an experienced expat who is happy to show you the ropes.
You become resourceful.
If you can’t find bread that you like, you learn to bake. Want good pizza? Make it yourself. Can’t find a broiler pan, improvise. You learn to be creative in a place where you can’t buy everything you’ve ever wanted. It stretches you.
Your mindset will be broadened by your life as an expat.
When you live in America, you only see one point of view. If you watch enough news, you’ll hear 1-minute snippets about the world. But that’s not enough. Living overseas expands your horizons and opens up your eyes to a world of possibilities.
You never hear about the realities of life on the other side of the globe. Have you heard about the Rohingya crisis? The landslides in Malaysia? The building collapse in Cambodia? I doubt it.
I love being an American. I am thankful I was born there and will never give up my American passport. But believe it or not, the world isn’t centered around America.
Travel opens your mind; changes the way you think. Imagine what living abroad can do for you.
Don’t compare your new country to your home country.
It’s not the same, so don’t expect your life to look like it did. That is why you moved.
Don’t bitch about something because it’s not like it is in your home country. Don’t get annoyed when a local can’t understand your English. No one wants to hear you whine about buying unrefrigerated eggs and how gross that is. People have been eating eggs that way for centuries, so just get over it.
You are in their country, if you don’t like it, you can move on. It may sound harsh, but why should their country be like yours? Is yours better? No, it’s not. It’s just different.
Accept the differences, embrace them, you’ll be a better person for it when you do.
You’ll have a lot of highs and lows.
Some days will just suck-and that’s ok. Nothing will go as planned. It will take three hours at the phone store setting up your plan when it should have taken 20 minutes. It will be maddening.
But then you’ll see cows crossing a four-lane thoroughfare, into the parking lot of a Buddhist temple, and you’ll realize you are exactly where you need to be. And it will make you smile. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, so just put on your seatbelt and hold on.
It will show you who your real friends are.
It can be hard on your relationships, and you learn to appreciate who is really there. Our absence and time difference make it challenging but shows us who is committed to our friendship. Some reach out consistently. While others have proven the old adage that out of sight is out of mind.
Sometimes I feel disconnected and like no one cares about my life. But I also realize that people come and go, and that is life.
We know it’s not easy, but with the advent of free facetime/skype/WhatsApp, we can talk at any time we are awake. Make a weekly date for a video call so you can connect to those that are important.
You will miss people, things, events.
Of course, you will miss people, that goes without saying.
But you will miss other things. I miss food: oysters, bubbly, martinis, steak, good vodka, seasons.
I miss the ease of life, the one-stop shops.
Moving away from family means you will miss significant events back home. I will not be there for emergencies, weddings, new babies, and deaths. It’s not possible. My gramma is 102, and it is unlikely I will be there for her last breaths. It is a hard pill to swallow. One that I have to accept.
I didn’t move to Ohio, I moved to Southeast Asia, and it was my choice.
You’ll make new favorites.
No, I can’t eat weekly at Avec, our fave restaurant in Chicago. But I do get to eat my new favorite sizzling fish every week. If Mark doesn’t eat chicken rice with spicy garlicky-ginger sauce at least once a week, he goes into withdrawals. Those are our new favorites, and when we leave Penang, we miss those too.
You’ll have friends from all over the world.
Before I left, all my friends were from Chicago. And that’s fine. But now I have friends from across the globe. At any given dinner party there are people from Canada, Australia, Germany, Scotland, UK, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Philippines and of course the US. It enriches my life by learning about their cultures, politics, food, and beliefs.
The word “home” changes its meaning for expats.
I still call Chicago home, but I say Penang is my home as well. And maybe both are. Each time we go back to Chicago, I feel less like I belong there. I love visiting, but I feel like a tourist.
This quote by Erin McBrayer sums it up perfectly…
“But while I love arriving back in the US, where I understand the customs (and the language), it doesn’t feel 100% comfortable to me. It’s like putting on a dress from years ago that still technically fits but isn’t quite my style.”
When I return to Chicago, not much has changed. My friends still live in the same places, have the same jobs, eat at the same restaurants, and that is totally ok. If I hadn’t moved, I would be doing the same things as well. But I have changed. My world is bigger. I have grown exponentially, and for me, everything has changed.
The bottom line.
Life as an expat is one big adventure. If you think that learning to buy groceries is exciting, rather than a pain, you’ll enjoy life overseas. If you are up for the challenge, then, by all means, move abroad. But if you are a person who thrives on routine, just take a vacation.
Moving overseas was one of the most challenging decisions I’ve ever made. But it was also one of the best. I’ll never be the same person I was, I’m better.