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Out of Place, An Expat’s Experience

Posted by on June 17, 2013

For a while, I’ve been thinking about writing more about what it’s like to live in a foreign country, one in which you don’t hold a passport for.

Then, a few weeks ago, whilst I was sitting in the playroom in the complex I live in as my youngest son played, I noticed something I had seen once before. It inspired a poem, which I posted on my Facebook page as a thank you when I reached 100 followers there. This is the perfected version.

Out of Place

The famous stars and stripes,
waving in the wind,
reflected ahead.

Turning around, the white stars are
gone. Replaced by a yellow one,
dominated by a crescent moon.

This new flag, my
substitute reality.

It’s like the glass is taunting me:
through here is your home.
Leave Malaysia behind you.

Is it a trick of the light?
A sign of what’s to come?

Or am I just
stuck between
the place I live
and the place
I belong?

After four years as
an expat;
Nowhere is
home.

© Dominica Malcolm, 2013

I’ve lived in Malaysia for four and a half years now. Though I think the above poem sums up pretty well how I feel sometimes, I thought I’d elaborate a bit about my personal experiences. Maybe other expats can relate, and those who’ve never lived abroad will learn a bit about what it’s like. It can be a unique but challenging experience for those who leave their birth country behind.

My background is that of an Australian, born and raised, but I often flirt with the idea of one day moving to the United States. After all, I am a citizen of both countries. I somehow think that having friends and family over there would affect me differently than moving to Malaysia, where I knew no one. After all, at the time of the move in November 2008, I had only spent an afternoon in Johor Bahru on my honeymoon. That was my entire prior exposure to the country.

By the fourth or fifth month living in Malaysia, I was homesick, lonely, and depressed. I travelled to Melbourne, Australia in April of 2009 (after having already been to visit friends in the US in Jan/Feb, and family in Perth in March) trying to find something that was missing from my life. It was the first time I had been to a comedy festival since 2004 (when I went to the Edinburgh Fringe), and I felt like I was at home again. I had friends there — I have a lot of really good friends in Melbourne, and most of them were able to spend time with me there.

Then I had to come “home” to Malaysia. It certainly didn’t feel like home. As far as I knew, they didn’t have any comedy. It took me a while to find anything on the Internet that related to comedy in Malaysia. It wasn’t until June of that year that I finally discovered and went to see Timeout Comedy Thursday, and met one of the comedians. By October, I was back on stage, performing again. The audience laughed at my material more than they ever had when I performed in Australia, many years before. It was great for a while, having something to work towards. I got invited to perform at other venues, and the other comedians seemed to like me and my set.

Yet, something was still missing. It was great to talk and listen with the guys, and they were all genuinely lovely people, but I only really saw them at shows. I needed friends who wanted to spend more time with me outside of that.

For a while I tried to organise things, inviting people to spend time with me. When people didn’t seem to want to hang out, I lamented that it was because they were from here, they already had so many other friends in their lives that they didn’t have time for me as well. It was probable that my social awkwardness played a part in it, but being a foreigner, I just wanted people to invite me to things to feel included, rather than try to navigate social customs myself.

I was a member of a couple of expat groups for a while, but I liked those even less. Most of the expats I have befriended since living here have moved back home, or on to another country. It’s hard to want to get to know someone when you figure they’re just going to move on soon, especially when you don’t know when you’ll be leaving yourself.

My husband’s contract has been up for renewal every two years. I’ve wanted to leave every time. The first time, my husband was even offered a job in Sydney to move to instead. I don’t quite remember how long I cried my eyes out when it turned out we would stay here instead. Sure, the pay was better here, and the job more substantial, but I felt so alone and wanted to go somewhere that felt more like home. By that point I had already given up stand-up comedy again, because I had become pregnant with my second child and that interfered with my act. On top of that, I had some pretty bad ante-natal depression going on. I retreated to online friendships to cope.

This is not to say there haven’t been positives about living in Malaysia. I did eventually become more comfortable with the idea of living here a little more long term (even if I did think we’d definitely be moving after the last contract was up). The low cost of living, cheap entertainment, and desire to still travel to other countries in the region for less helped keep me here.

I also became friends with someone who was happy to hang out with me outside of comedy nights, too. Considering I’d given up performing, it’s a little surprising that he happened to be a comedian who had never seen me perform, but we connected, both being expats from English speaking countries. It just happened that his was in the only habitable continent I’ve never been to — Africa.

It’s probably a bit strange that I’ve actually found myself finding better connections with people from cultures different from my own (including Malaysians) more often than I have with looking out for Aussies, Brits, or Americans. See, I’m not really someone who can befriend someone purely based on heritage background, or even the fact we both happen to be parents. I need to have something else in common with them, some kind of similar interests. I’m actually more prematurely judgemental toward white English speaking expats because I assume they’re all here being paid a heck of a lot more than my husband is (many Aussie/British/American expats are), and I have a preference for cheap things over classy and expensive. I like to spread money further so I can travel to more countries. It’s why I fly on Air Asia and book flights during their sales more often than flying any other way. So, based on that assumption, I find it hard to even seek out and introduce myself to other white expats.

How do I feel about Malaysia now, four and a half years on? It’s great when I’m happy. I know my way around to a lot of places without a GPS now! Most of what I do (writing, in particular) can be done no matter where I am in the world. But during various bouts of depression, there is a deep-seated longing to be somewhere else, thinking that’s all I need to cure me of the bad feelings.

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

5 Responses to Out of Place, An Expat’s Experience

  1. Augustin Dennis

    I know that feeling…It can be hard to shake-off sometimes..;(

  2. kaye

    Great poem Dom! I really like it! And the prose description of your experience is really moving too! Thanks for sharing it!

  3. climbing bean

    I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it can be to live apart from your culture. Even if you don’t always like your ‘own people’, it’s easy to take for granted stuff like a shared cultural history or language. And I know what you mean about making friends with other ex-pats.

    Love the poem, too.

    • Dominica Malcolm

      I think they do, too. I don’t know if it’s any easier to switch between more similar cultural areas (for example, a move between Australia and Canada, either direction) since I’ve never done it, though I know there are places I did feel more welcome when I visited (Canada is one; Hawaii is another).

      Thank you! And thanks for helping me perfect it :D

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