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The Transition from Lockdown in Malaysia to Freedom in the US

    American flag with the sun setting behind it

    Last Updated on October 7, 2021 by Kirsten Raccuia

    Hey there! It’s been a minute. I’ve been home for about a month now, and I haven’t blogged in a while. Because truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to write about. I’m still not sure. I’ve always been an expat blogger in Malaysia, but I’m not anymore. 

    I’m an expat blogger, temporarily living in the US, with no clue where our future will lead us. And less of a clue where this blog will go. But I’m not letting go of Sand In My Curls. It’s just going to look different. I think. Time will tell. As I’ve said before, We make plans, and God laughs, so I’m going to go with the flow here. 

    Let me catch you up on my life. I’ll walk it back a bit and let you know what it was like traveling home and adjusting for the first few weeks. 

    But let me tell you this right off the bat, traveling is no longer a pleasure-inducing endeavor. Instead, it’s a stress-inducing hassle.

    So, without further ado…


    First, we had to hire a driver from Penang to Kuala Lumpur because the flights between the two kept getting canceled. That was easy to sort out since we had friends who had done the same thing a month prior. No need to do much research. 

    We used Ken, who was not our actual driver but owned the transport company. Our driver, Cheong, was fabulous and totally accommodating when we had to change plans last minute. A company Mark is working with needed him to go to KL early to film a commercial. 

    No pressure. Just come to KL a few hours before your flight out of the country for who knows how long. Not a big ask, right? I thought so. Ok, that’s a fib. I was smidge nerved-out. However, in true Mark fashion, he totally nailed the commercial in less than an hour, and we were off to the airport unscathed. 


    person in full hazmat suit testing for covid

    The bigger hassle was getting a PCR test within 72 hours of your flight. 

    Because we were leaving on Monday at 3 am, we had to plan the test with the precision of a sniper and hope our flight wasn’t delayed. And that we didn’t get a false positive. Or have it asymptomatically and get thrown into a hospital full of sick people. No stress there. I was far more worried about being put into a hospital or health center than actually getting covid. 

    If you leave during the week, the 72-hour rule is no big deal because all the hospitals are supposed to get your results in 24-ish hours. But over the weekend, they can’t guarantee the same 24-hour time frame. 

    We had to get the test on Friday morning. Hope for it back sometime on Saturday, then leave Penang midday on Sunday and fly out Monday early am.

    We did it at Adventist Hospital, and it was around RM300 per person. 


    To prepare myself, I watched videos of the test being administered. It always looked like they were scrambling the testee’s brains. Like they went straight north behind their eyes, leaving them with googly-eyes. 

    Our test was not that bad. A nurse standing in a plexiglass box put his arms through two holes in the glass but into full hazmat suit sleeves, right out of a sci-fi movie. I tilted my head back and waited for the ol’ googly-eyed scramble, but he didn’t tickle my brain at all. 

    He actually went straight back into my sinuses, which is the correct way to administer the test. 

    He also took a throat swab. The whole rigamarole was over in less than 30 seconds. Easy peasy.   

    Thankfully we got our results mid-day Saturday. We were golden as long as they didn’t delay our flight.

    NEW RULES… (maybe)

    So on top of our early drive to KL and PCR requirements, the Malaysian government decided to throw one more curveball into the mix. They thought changing our MM2H visa rules* would be a fantastic idea. 

    No biggie, no pressure. Just leave the country, and maybe you’ll get back in… maybe.

    Can you see where my stress level started piling up? 

    *Since we’ve been in the US, they have canceled most of the proposed changes. However, every day there are reports of different changes, so we are just waiting to see how it all shakes out. 


    inside of a full airplane

    Once we got to the airport in KL, they immediately checked our PCR tests and passports right at the front entrance. 

    Even though the airport was relatively empty, it still felt like a lot of people.

    We were so isolated for so long. Random people made me feel ill at ease. I didn’t even realize how bad it was until we left our Penang bubble. Anyone near me freaked me out a bit. God forbid someone was coughing near me.  

    When we got on the plane, it was like a free for all, I was pretty tense. It was a full plane, which didn’t make me happy. I was hoping for some kind of SOP’s, maybe blocking out the middle seat. Usually, when we fly, I get the window, and Mark gets the aisle. And no one ever sits in between us. 

    But because they canceled our original flight, we were all shoved onto one plane, and it was a pretty full flight. So that meant me moving to the middle seat and having some stranger next to me for 15 hours. Oh, joy.

    When the 6’2 guy sat next to me wearing his mask as beard warmer, I said to him, “For that thing to work, you need to pull it up over your mouth AND your nose.” He apologized and put it on properly, thankfully, or I would have blown a gasket.

    The same can’t be said for the guy across from us with 4 kids and a wife who initially tried to steal our seats. He refused to wear a mask (or sit with his family) for the entire trip. Yet, amazingly, those flight attendants didn’t say a word to him. Although unless they’re armed with a taser and duct tape, who can blame them? Being a flight attendant these days is dangerous. 

    After 15 hours on that flight, we got off only to be surrounded by the masses while waiting for our luggage. I couldn’t wait to get outside, away from the crowds. 

    This last year made me so unsettled and on edge. I’m not usually a skittish or nervous person. I don’t have these kinds of anxieties, and now suddenly, I’m weirded out by strangers. Who am I?

    However, that’s all beginning to change now.


    group of smiling people

    In America, it’s a whole different world. Not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just different.

    There are no rules about quarantining here. You just show up in the US and go about your life. The only thing that is somewhat enforced is wearing a mask inside. The lines are spaced out in some places like grocery stores, but it’s a free-for-all in other places. 

    It has def taken me some time to get used to it, but I am. People are out and about, and they aren’t all wearing masks. They are living and moving on with their life with a freedom I really missed in Penang.

    When we first arrived, I tried to stay away from my mom. As much as it killed me not to run and hug her right off the plane, I also didn’t want to be the one who killed her. I would never forgive myself if I had something that hurt her. 

    Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I had to see mom and my brother. So we sat outside for dinner in what felt like the freezing cold (72 degrees). And all I could do was hope I wasn’t the covid grim reaper. 


    Because of all the isolation, the indoctrination, and the deathwatch, I wasn’t sure how our friends here would feel about seeing us right away. 

    Before we left, we met some friends by their guardhouses for a quick chat and goodbye. But not everyone was comfortable with that. We were so used to not being allowed to be with people, I wasn’t sure how it would be here.

    In Penang, we had to sneak into friends’ houses and hope we wouldn’t get busted and fined. We were constantly looking over our shoulders as we stood by the beach or by the coffee shop chatting with friends. On and off for the last year, Penang felt like such a scary place. And I honestly didn’t get the gravity of what that did to me and the fear it put into me until we were here.  

    The first time we went to a friend’s house for dinner, I took my mask off and looked over both shoulders before slinking inside. When it hit me that I wasn’t going to get into trouble, and I didn’t need to sneak, I cried a little from relief. Or maybe it was freedom. 


    raised bridge in chicago with boats in the river

    Yes, people are concerned about the virus here. But they are living life and not letting it rule them. Unlike in Penang, where we were entirely governed by it, here life goes on. 

    Since we left Malaysia, I have no idea what the stats are. I don’t know how many hospital beds are available in Chicago. How many people got it today. How many people died from it last night. I have no clue. And ya know what. There is freedom in that. 

    There is freedom in knowing it’s out there but still being able to go to the gym, take walks, be with friends, hug people. The first time I hugged someone, I cried. Just writing about it makes me well up. We aren’t supposed to live in solitary confinement. We are social beings. That is more detrimental to our mental health than covid is. 

    Taking our freedoms and doling them back out to us one by one makes us feel free. Unfortunately, however, we are anything but. But that’s a blog for another time.  


    Being here has certainly been an adjustment. But not nearly as monumental as I thought. Other than missing my Penang friends and family, it feels really right. For now, there is no place I’d rather be. 

    32 thoughts on “The Transition from Lockdown in Malaysia to Freedom in the US”

    1. Hello Kirsten,
      It was good to see you posting again, and wow, as usual, you shot it straight.
      I always thought you were one of the best unofficial ambassadors Malaysia ever had, and rightly so.
      And just as it happens, the new “new” government has decided that all existing MM2H visa holders are exempt from the new requirements.
      I don’t know if it’s good news for you and all the others, but at least it does seem our government is beginning to show good sense again.
      Best wishes to you two, and hope to see you again back in Malaysia

      1. Hey Bobby,
        Thank you so much. It def is good news for us existing MM2H holders but I still think people will be looking for plan b. Many people don’t feel safe putting all their eggs in one basket now. But it def gives us more time to figure that all out.

    2. Wow had no idea that the lockdown was that intense in Penang, funny enough we were in Penang evaluating it for a retirement base when all things COVID started to go down in Feb 2020. We made the decision to return to the US since we had family obligations for April that of course never happened. The whole 18 months we wondered if we made the right decision, finally realizing that there was no right decision.

      We leave in 3 weeks for Greece, Italy, and Portugal for 3 months to see just how bad Southern Europe is in the winter. It’s not without a little trepidation that we look forward to our first international trip in 18 months.

      I think we found your blog though IL.

      1. Hi Ian, traveling is def a bit nerve wrecking these days. But what a great tip you have planned. You’ll have to keep me posted on your findings. I’m so used to tropical heat now Europe in winter might be too much for me. However after winter November in CT I’ll hopefully toughen up.

        Stay well and happy travels!

    3. Welcome back Kirsten! I am sorry you had to leave your paradise, but so happy you are home and safe…your mom looks fantastic…you certainly got her genes! Take care! xoxo

        1. Another great read Kirsten! The Malaysian interstate travel bans have been lifted as of yesterday. The problem is, so many people here are soooo scared to leave their homes to slowly return to normal – very sad 😞

          1. Hi Cheryl, Of course, people are scared! The only thing we’ve been told for the last 2 years is to be scared of everyone and everything because they are all disease-ridden! It’s going to take a total mind re-set to change that. I’m glad you guys will be able to travel though!

    4. Hi Kirsten it’s mom. I actually loved your blog this month. I think you You wrote this from your heart. After being virtually locked up for about two years, you are finally feeling the freedom that we here in the states have been able to experience these past six months. Even though you feel the freedom we have here, we all still look over a shoulder and wonder who is standing behind us or next to us. I think all of us are doing the best we can and I applaud you for breaking free from Penang for the present because no one knows what the future holds. I love having you here and would have it no other way.

      1. Hi momma, You are so right. We are still looking over our shoulders to see how close people are and if they are wearing masks or coughing. It’s part of the new normal I guess. We are doing the best we can. I love being here.

    5. Welcome home Kirsten! I like that you write from your heart.. As they say freedom has a price, over 700,000 has died from Covid in the US, please be careful.

    6. I am so glad your back on the blog. I love your authenticity and the humor you throw at life. Looking forward to hearing what’s next.

    7. Hi Kirsten

      First off, I would like to apologise to you and Mark on behalf of the ordinary Malaysian people (not the idiotic Malaysian government) for what you had to go through with the unexpected changes in the MM2H rules. They are totally unwarranted and nothing more than an ill-conceived brain fart from politicians who are playing to a domestic audience to distract from their failures in goiverning the country. I am sorry that you and Mark (and all other MM2H particpants who are affected) have had to pay a price as easy scapegoats for these contempitble excuses of human beings.

      I was a Malaysian born in Penang who migrated to Australia in 2001. Malaysia is a beautiful country with a society that is friendly and accepting of differences in culture. Unfortunately it’s been ruined by unscrupulous politicians who thrive on playing the “divide and rule” game – always blaming the “other” to advance their own interests. The Malaysian people are suffering from their misrule and hopefully they will stand up one day and say to their so-called rulers – enough is enough.

      I have enjoyed your blogs – your personality comes through and you don’t sugarcoat your feelings and experiences. I hope that you will continue to post your thoughts in whatever form and manner that you decide is appropriate for the circumstances that you find yourself in down the road.

      My final hope is that you and Mark get to return to Penang at point in the future should you feel that you both wish to. I guarantee you that you will be welcomed back as long lost friends.

      Keep the faith.


      1. Hi BG,
        No need to apologize. If we had to apologize for everything the politicians did we’d never stop.

        We love Malaysia and can’t wait to return in 2022. No matter what I’ll keep writing and telling it like it is.

        Thanks for all your support.

    8. What you’ve written is exactly how we felt. 5 months on its good to have a life again. We certainly wouldn’t want to go back to so many restrictions again. Who knows what will happen in the future but for now we’re enjoying living again. Enjoy your time with family and friends and hopefully catch up again soon.

    9. It all sounds so familiar. Flying back was like a sci-Fi experience. . When we returned Covid was still raging in the US so we were still very cautious but once people started getting vaccinated there was a huge sigh of relief. Xx

    10. So good to hear from you. Glad all is working out for you both so far. Life is easing in Penang but very slowly with Sops still in place. 88% vaccinated now. 90% and apparently things will change!!! Wait and see.

    11. Great article Kirsten,
      We are a in a similar situation in Australia. Whilst we haven’t had the number of cases that Malaysia has had, Melbourne has the new title of the Most locked down city in the world beating Buenos Aires in the last week. In the past 5 weeks we moved out of Victoria to New South Wales and what a huge difference. Things are what we remember as ‘normal’ Hell…we have been out for dinner in a restaurant the last 3 nights. There are parts of NSW that are still in lockdown. but they have a ‘Freedom” day coming up on October 11th.
      What the lockdown has done in Victoria has cost friendships and turned people against each other. And it’s mainly due to which side of politics you support. In normal times you could have a rational discussion/argument with someone about politics, but Covid has seen real extremes come out. Australia now is like several different countries. It’s now state against state with Political leaders trying to score points off each other. Getting vaccinated has also caused a fair amount of division as well.
      So against all this, and with the MM2H changes that were announced in August, we are still going ahead with our move to Penang. It appears as though some of the original changes that were announced have been modified and current holders will be able to renew under the original conditions.
      The Australian Government has announced that International travel will be resuming in November for people who have had their 2 Covid Vaccinations. At the moment you have to apply to leave Australia so that will be one less hassle to overcome.
      Not looking forward to 14 days quarantine in Penang but if it means we can leave Australia…so be it. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d say that I can’t wait to get out of the country. Most probably more getting out of Victoria where it is a real mess. But there are others who will disagree with me on that point!
      So hopefully we will be in Penang before Christmas and be able to enjoy a Tiger beer at Healy Macs or on the beach at Batu Ferringhi!
      Let’s hope 2022 gets to be as normal as possible after the past 2 years and you can return to Penang.
      Cheers and thanks again for your Blog

      1. Hi John, I’m so glad you moved out of Victoria so you can have some semblance of a normal life. It’s such a shame that any of this pandemic has been politicized. It’s really disgusting but it’s worldwide.

        And thankfully you’ll be able to make it to Penang! That’s super exciting! See you in 2022!

        Until then be safe!

        1. Hi Kirsten, I am so pleased we were two of your friends who spent a lovely hour at our guardhouse chatting to you. A special time seeing as we are now so far apart. I am so pleased you feel comfortable being home, but hope you will return to Penang one day. There is still stress for us not knowing when we can visit Aus, but hopefully early next year things may improve. The thought of what to organize is mind boggling. I agree with John from Australia. We are also from Victoria but could never imagine living in that state again. Keep well my friend, 🥰

          1. Hi Dawn, Even though it was a casual chat at the guardhouse, it meant the world to us. We will def return to Penang in 2022. Hopefully, you’ll be there. I’m so happy to see things are opening up for you guys and fingers crossed for the madness to end in AU.

    12. Thanks for the update Kirsten. Glad things working out as planned. Things easing here & expect more to open over next few weeks. Now that it looks like MM2H watered down, less concern for many. Be interested to hear more in due course. I like Chicago more than NY. Has much the same, but on a quieter scale, plus the lovely lake. Enjoy

      1. Great to hear you made it back to the US safely! thank you for your wonderful articles, I enjoy reading each and every one of them. Will be interesting to hear about your life back in Chicago if you are willing to share😊 I am travelling from Germany to MT on Christmas and I am a very curious to compare Germany vs the US in terms of safety measures…but all in all I agree, it is time for more normality, we cannot constantly live in fear. Take good care, look forward to hearing from you again😊

        1. Hi Kristina, Thank you so much. I’ll def be sharing about life in Chicago. You’re right, we can’t live in fear or we will never leave our homes. Safe travels and I can’t wait to hear about your MT life!

      2. Hi Kerry, I’m so glad things are easing there. And yes, the MM2H situation is better for those of us who are existing holders, however, the burn is still there. The trust feels a little shady now so who knows what the long-term effects of the original announcement will have. I know a lot of people who are looking elsewhere now, regardless that they reverted the proposed rules.

        Chicago is a beautiful city. Between the lake, the river, and the architecture, I think it’s one of the prettiest cities around.

    13. It all resonates so much with me Kirsten. We have been governed by fear for too long. It’s not healthy on a social level. Enjoy your time. You are missed hugely but the US sounds fabulous!

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