Vanessa Workman is a sand-and-sea girl through and through. Moving to the north of Malaysia from a job in Singapore, she found her home and now writes about her experiences as an expat on a tropical island.
People often ask me, “What brought you here?” or “What made you move here?” “Here”, of course, being a tropical island in Malaysia. It’s seemingly a common icebreaker question, because I get asked this a lot. Especially by tourists and other vacationing types.
Are they really curious? Some are, because in their minds I must be either stark raving mad or because perhaps they think I have the perfect life. Swaying palms, balmy breezes, umbrella drinks—the whole tropical island nineyards.
Most of these friendly folks don’t really want to hear the truth about my life history, but some want me to re-affirm their belief that happily-ever-after on a tropical island is a possibility—a possibility that is open to all, including them. As they explore the island’s picturesque sightseeing nooks and crannies, they see us expatriate island dwellers doing our individual island errands; bantering with shop keeps in our very basic Bahasa Melayu, knowing exactly where the popcorn and other treats are hidden at the local grocery store or spending seemingly endless carefree hours on the beach.
They see us living the life they may think they want, based on their successful island vacation choice. They are wearing rosecoloured vacation glasses, so I tell them what they want to hear. Or sometimes I tell them the quick uncomplicated version of how my island nesting technically came to be. “I had a job in Singapore, eventually migrated north and fell in love with the area, blah blah blah.”
Yes, those rose-coloured vacation glasses can sell a lot of future airline tickets and real estate, that’s for sure. Been there done that too. I never, however, tell them the true reason I’m here, because they would most likely immediately glance at their watch and suddenly remember that they are supposed to meet imaginary friends at a phantom location, somewhere far from me and my dreamy eyes.
But the ethereal version is: “I was born to be an island girl.”
You see, my maternal grandmother was born and raised on an island. In Agana, Guam to be exact—an island I’ve not been to yet, but I’ve been to plenty of other islands during my 50-something years. I grew up in Florida, which is close enough to being an island to further imbed the sand and the sea into my particular lifestyle preference.
People move to islands for a myriad of reasons. It’s quite fascinating. The diverse reasons feed the oftentimes eclectic communities that reside in these often isolated locales and can create rather unique subcommunities. But I digress.
I like to believe that I was magically beckoned by my ingrained island roots, because there is always a familiarity about islands that I embrace. The other day I read an article referring to people who decide to move to Hawaii and the phrase ‘mainland mentality’ was used referring to a preconceived notion of the way life should be on that particular tropical island.
The similarities didn’t come as much of a surprise, because regardless of location and culture, island life seems to have its own set of rules and is definitely a lifestyle into its own. But it’s difficult to shake that preconceived notion of life in paradise, especially when it’s based on previous perfect vacation experiences.
Some adapt quickly and are happy to set their watches to the idyllic island time. If they’re lucky, their favourite hobbies include long walks on the beach and monitoring the setting sun on a daily basis. Others may need a bit more mental stimulation than that and are grateful for internet access and the endless possibilities of cyberspace. I would be in the latter category, although my computer and I do have a nice sea view.
These days I still utilise those classic icebreaker questions. Maybe seeking an occasional re-affirmation from the visiting sun-seeking masses that destiny had indeed dealt me a winning hand. I also still wear my rose-coloured vacation glasses and I like to ask people: “What brought you here?”