I’ll be honest, I was a little intimidated to start full-fledged blogging, so I’ve held off. I’ve had both too much to say and too little to say at the same time over the last month or so, which is weird, but true. It’s been crazy, really crazy. Anyone that has been in touch with me recently would know that this move has been nothing short of overwhelming but I’ve had a hard time explaining to people what exactly felt so challenging to me. I think mostly I was just trying to make sense of it all myself.. let me attempt to articulate.
I knew that the change would be drastic, but I guess I more so focused on the ” fun-adventure” element of it all instead of the lonely, sad or stressful bits. See, I’m always up for trying new things, going to new places, eating new foods, meeting new people, so on and so forth. Moving to Malaysia encompassed so much newness it almost felt paralyzing. Being here was so exciting and so uncomfortable at the same time, that the simultaneous existence of such extreme feelings can sometimes leave you just feeling stuck. It didn’t help that our long to-do list filled was filled with so many tedious, yet necessary, tasks, it was hard to move past all of it into the real job of figuring out how to live. Maybe that was part of the problem, there’s no figuring out, there’s just doing. Yeah, right, tell that to Annie from one month ago!
From what I’ve seen so far, Malaysa is beautiful and from what I gather of the places I haven’t yet seen, it gets even better. We flew into the vibrant, colorful city of Kuala Lumpur in early June and spent a week right in the heart of the city, engrossed in the sensory overload the city had to offer. It reminded me of Bangkok in some ways, cleaner and more developed, with a wider spectrum of ethnic groups from all over Asia. The intermixing of the Chinese and Indian settlers in Malaysia make for a really unique culture, language and food – oh the food! In KL, we were were in full tourist mode and obediently followed TripAdvisor’s recommendations. The week felt more like a vacation, interspersed with moments of “did we just move here?” panic. For the most part, we were distracted by everything around us – the bustling city center, the night markets, the unique neighborhoods, endless shopping options, and of course the humidity. Regardless of the fact that my hair was fried to frizzy perfection and you could probably find your reflection on the surface of my face, I was thrilled to be on a “vacation” I didn’t have to think about leaving.
Let’s go back to that panic I mentioned – it was the first move abroad for both my husband and I (I don’t count moves before age 5, or within North America), and so, we had our moments of sheer panic and confusion – of feeling completely displaced – of feeling out of rhythm with life around us – of wondering when we were going “home”. But, like I said, KL was stimulating enough to make us forget that for a sweet minute and allow us to just be the tourists we wanted to be. After all, that’s a necessary step in the process of settling in. The real challenge was leaving the bustling city of KL to a small, sleepy town on the east coast in the province of Terengganu. “Welcome home!” said the many shanty buildings in what we felt at the time to be a very run-down town upon first glance. Open-air stalls for restaurants, fishing villages, huts, and cows slowly pacing the sides of the streets were the images burned into our minds. Having driven through the city core just described, we kept waiting for a magical turn that would bring us into the real city core, which would hopefully be more filled with life and familiar comforts – nope. That never happened.
Soon after, my husband was offshore and I found myself feeling completely alone, completely displaced, and completely confused as to where to go from here. How would I start the hard task of building a life while still living out of a suitcase in a hotel (ok fine, beachfront resort). At the same time, trying to deal with all of these menial, yet important, tasks that just ended up being more exhausting than ever. For example, just going to the store seemed like climbing Mt. Everest – arranging for a ride into the town, where to go among so many unfamiliar buildings, store signs, roads, and neighborhoods. Ordering food proved difficult when many local eateries only had Malay menus – how was I going to try all the new food I couldn’t wait to get my hands on if I have no idea what anything is except Nasi (“rice”). I figured if it comes with rice, it can’t be that bad right? The answer is two-fold, and I’ll save it for another blog post.
For those that have moved abroad, you may agree with me when I say that it feels almost like you’re recovering from a brain injury. You have find a whole new way of understanding and relating to the world around you. You have to re-learn how to get basic errands done and of course, a new way of communicating. I may take it upon myself to teach myself Malay but for now, I’ve had to learn how to communicate with as little words as possible. You end up eliminating most of your vocabulary in favor of some key words that will get the job done – this takes much trial and error, and mostly error in my case. English is widely spoken in Malaysia but being so remote, it definitely can be a struggle in Kemaman. Soon you realize that you’re not the only frustrated one with the language barrier but it is probably harder on you than it is on the native speaker: a moment of crossed signaled communication with you is probably one of the only struggles in their day, while for you, it always feels like the last thing you want to deal with. You look at everyone around you breezing through their days, while you feel completely stuck in yours. You see and hear people laughing and want to know what’s so funny, except what if it’s you?, says the paranoid voice in your brain. You want to be a part of your surroundings rather than an estranged observer. For the first time in your life, you feel different. And you want to explain this to the well-meaning friends and family who keep asking how things are, and there are really no words to describe the complexity of the experience except, “yeah it’s fine”.
Thankfully, I made a friend or two, other expat wives that had already gone through what I was going through, and one unnamed, lovely new friend took me into the town, showed me an amazing fruit and wet market, and made me feel like I would maybe end up like her: who also had to figure it out on her own and turned into a confident navigator of this small town, grabbing on to every opportunity to explore and enjoy this totally unique, totally transient period in her life. Yes, there was hope for me! So, I have to say that I am feeling better. I enjoy the times I do go out into the town and as well as exploring nearby bigger cities. The east coast is gorgeous and the beaches are beautiful. I love the tropical climate, that comes with its beautiful, luscious array of tropical fruits. I’ve already made a list of the places in Southeast Asia I want to explore, not to mention the world-renowned Malaysian islands that dot the coastlines. My favorite part is that my brain feels alive and active again. It sounds bad but I think it fell promptly asleep right after grad school whereas here, I feel like with all that there is around me to learn and absorb, it’s hard to get it to slow down. Although we still don’t have our house, or car, or any of our belongings, I know that when things get settled, my anxiety will too. I’ve got a neat little list of things I plan to do to keep myself feeling useful and creative, and I fully intend to take this year or two, and make them fabulous. While I wait this strange moment of time out before I find myself back into some normal pace of life, you can find me gorging on mangosteens, the only fruit that managed to cheer me up when I discovered it. Who knew mangosteens could be so friendly?!