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Serial Expat: Sweet Sorrow

by Jo Parfitt 7 Apr 2017
Serial Expat: Sweet Sorrow

There were so many things I did not like about Malaysia when I first arrived. The driving, for one. It terrified me. It took me three months to work up the courage to get behind a wheel, and so to start with I took taxis. Only they terrified me too. I’d heard the horror stories of the expat abducted from outside the supermarket with all her shopping, the erratic drivers, and the rip-off fares.

Until I discovered Grab and Uber I’d text my husband the registration number of every cab I took, just to be on the safe side. And the muggings, the bag snatching, the burglary. Honestly, I was a quivering wreck. It seemed that the month I arrived here every post on Facebook was about yet another KL horror story. And let’s not mention the dengue or the frustration of not being able to get dishwasher salt anywhere.

Looking back, three and a half short years on, I recognise that my antipathy was simply part of culture shock. I’ve seen the graph. I know that the short honeymoon period is soon laid waste to and in its place comes hatred and despair. I know too that over time all this negativity becomes acceptance and later, assimilation and fondness.For me, this fondness has become close to addiction. I can no longer go two weeks without a nasi lemak, crave a teh tarik with my roti canai and my muesli would not taste right without its topping of fresh mango.

I now know to hold my handbag close to me on the non-road side of the pavement. I have come to love the driving here too, likening it to a slow dance or reel as dancers gently weave round each other, rarely raising a fist.

I expect you will have guessed by now that all this eulogy is a sign that I am leaving. Yes, parting is such sweet sorrow. Our time here has been cut short by the spectre of the oil industry and we are away to colder, greyer, more expensive climes. Closer to dear friends and family, independent cinema and warm beer but light years away from the things I have come to love, maybe even need. Things that have now become my normal.

Oh, the joy of AirAsia, Firefly and Malindo and those short hops to exotic beaches. Oh Taj Vivanta on Rebak Island, how I will miss your balmy shores, the clang of sheet against mast in the marina, the call of hornbills in the Bismark palms. We have stayed there more times than I can count and it has become our go-to place for R and R, and it has a view way better than anywhere on Langkawi itself. Oh Penang, Penang, Penang. Your char kway teow lures me to the end of Lebuh Cintra every trip. Penang has everything, from soulwrenching history and architecture to cool hills and long unspoilt beaches.

I may have lived abroad for almost three decades and so for me it is normal to live in an international community, but nowhere is quite like Malaysia for its multicultural infrastructure and nowhere else have I had the privilege to call locals my dearest friends.

Sure, I won’t miss the haze and I won’t miss humidity so intense it makes my glasses constantly grimy from my having to keep pushing them back up the slippery slope of my nose. But how I will miss the sky and the storms, the trees and the birdsong.

By the time you read this Ian and I will be back in The Hague, the delightful city from which we came here in 2013. It’s our first time going back to the site of a previous posting and I fully expect our arrival will be as fraught with ambivalence as our departure from Malaysia is, made worse (or is it better?) by the fact that we are leaving our son behind to work in Penang. Better maybe because it ensures we will definitely be back!

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