We were able to take a lovely short holiday to Cambodia at the end of April. It was amazing. That sort of thing is the best part of living here, it’s what makes all this worth it. Before I get into what we saw and what we did, I would like to tell you more about the ex-pat experience now that we have been here almost a year (August will be the year mark).
I feel like we (as in humans) have a tendency to gloss over our lives for social media. We present only the good and beautiful, this is often bull shit. I am guilty of this partly because I am not that open of a person, and partly because I don’t think most things are other people’s business. I also made the decision a long time ago that I was going to live my life with positive attitude. It has worked really well for me, because I have a great life, I think in part because of the positive attitude I try to have. I don’t mean that negative things don’t occur, I just try not to focus on them and try to see them as lessons. Part of my positive thinking campaign is not putting out too much negativity in a place such as Facebook or my blog, I don’t necessarily want a permanent record of a bad day. I try really hard to keep this blog a positive space because I am using it to document all the fun, new, and interesting things that we have gotten to experience while living here. When we move home in a year and half we can look back on the fun and interesting, not the irritations.
It is truly a once and a life time chance to immerse yourself in another culture so fully. Also the Malaysian people are a nice group of people; I in no way want to be offensive to them ever. That being said, I do not want to give the impression that all is easy, and wonderful all the time or that cultural transitions are simple. Interestingly our frustrations have absolutely nothing to do with differences in religion or spirituality at all. The real irritations are those that come a long with daily life. Most things are frustrating simply because they are different than how I think it should work, which is not fair, but that is the reality of the human condition. I have a brand new respect for people that immigrate to America. It is not a temporary situation for them, I imagine it is incredibly frustrating to try to navigate daily life there too, especially while trying to learn English. At least all the signs here are in English, I am not sure what I would do if everything was in a language I couldn’t read.
I want to tell you about a few of these issues because I feel like that is part of this experience. I am not going to get into everything, because I in no way want to come across as I am generalizing an entire group of people. I do not want to gloss over and make it seem like we don’t have any issues like any other normal family. I do this knowing there will be responses such as: You all get this amazing experience, what in the hell are you bitching about? That probably would have been my response to a certain degree before we moved as well. The reality of life is great experiences are often learning experiences, and most learning experiences are not easy while they are happening. They sure do make you confront things about yourself if you are willing to actually take the lesson. I would not trade this whole thing for anything, but it is not always easy. Living somewhere and traveling are two very different things.
One of the unexpected things we have encountered here is a general feeling that we have hit the pause button on our lives. This is not real life, this is only 2 years of our lives. There is a real sense at least for me, to not get too involved or put down a strong foundation for us because this is temporary. That was not something that I expected coming into this, nor do I enjoy this feeling. All the future plans we are making center around Austin, not Penang. We talk about all the things we want in a new house, where that house is going to be, what car Nathan is going to buy when we get home stuff like that. Some days I torture myself by looking at house listing in the Austin area. Sometimes you just want to go home. The other day B told me he wanted to go home and hug Hilda (our dog that is living with my parents at the moment), my only response was tears and a yeah me too buddy. What else can you say to that? He was 18 months old when we moved, I wasn’t even sure he remembered “home”.
Another frustration is the different way things are handled here customer service wise. On the surface it doesn’t seem that different, but it really is. That is not necessarily good or bad it is just different, but it can be very hard to switch my thinking. This is especially true for me considering my entire working life starting with the TCBY in high school, to Disney in College, to my post college career, has been all centered around customer service. I tend to ask a lot of questions, this is not something I knew about myself until living here. I do not get the impression that the question thing is normal, people usually look at me very shocked, and I usually do not get an answer. Also as a true child of the South, I chit chat, that is also not in the norm here. I don’t chit chat anymore, I wonder if Texas and Oklahoma are going to be weird for me when we go back? In my mind, there are many store policies that make little sense, or are way harder than they need to be. In this case there is generally this thought in my head of: why in the world are you doing that this way? I do not understand logically why in the world you would do it that way, when XYZ way is better more efficient and just makes sense. I feel like I have to couch those thoughts all the time, because even in my head I kind of sound like an asshole. I am caught between my expectations as an American, and not really wanting those to go away, to being accepting of how things are here so I don’t irritated by holding them to standards they are unaware of.
Then there is the grocery store. As in previous posts I have expressed my frustrations with the grocery store. Luckily I have now figured out how it all works, there are still major issues with food shopping though. Milk has become such a trial here, I would just forget if it wasn’t one of my 2 years old’s major sources of calories. There is a 30% chance that the milk you buy will already be bad. Some milk just plain tastes weird, especially the Malaysian brands, we generally buy Australian milk .When I say tastes weird I am talking they add sugar, or something to make it undrinkably bad. You can forget about buying organic milk which I started doing long before B was born. There is a good chance the store will be out of the milk that your 2 year old actually likes and that is the least likely to be spoiled. So I take my chances and buy different brands, usually what ever they have, this work sometimes. Other times B throws his cup back at me yelling BAD MILK – this is the bad tasting milk. So that is fun.
Your fruits and veggies will spoil very quickly so you have to go shopping a lot more. If you don’t keep your flour and such in the freezer or fridge, you will get bugs in them. The coffee selection at the grocery store is terrible, I mean drinking swill. I have to buy it by the bag at Starbucks, to be able to drink it. Do NOT let them grind it for you though, it will be so course you might as well be drinking burnt water with some brown tint by the time you brew it in your drip coffee maker. They do not drink coffee the same way we do. They love coffee, but it is the instant stuff (think International Delights from the 1980s) they call it White Coffee, it is very weak and very sweet. I am not a fan. I get very strange looks when I don’t want to add sugar to my latte. They think I am nuts for my strong, unsweetened loveliness in a cup. You can also forget about half and half, it doesn’t exist here which often makes me sad.
There is a 50/50 chance that if you buy chicken at the grocery store that it will be bad. I hate my kitchen, it has a horrible layout, with terrible appliances. The wet kitchen set up is not for me, I cannot cook in there and watch B at the same time, it just doesn’t work. I don’t cook as much as I would like here, I really like to cook in a well functioning kitchen. When I do cook it is the most maddening thing in the world to open a package of chicken and have it smell bad. Just like that dinner is ruined again, and we are once again ordering take away. To help mitigate this we began to get our chicken at the wet market, which I will get around to telling you about at some point. The chicken at the wet market was literally alive that morning, there is still a 5% chance that it might be bad when you take it from the freezer. You have to make sure to wash the chicken before you cook it or freeze it. My Amah showed me how to do this with salt and lime juice. It is necessary, the wet market is not the most sanitary of places. You MUST wash the chicken. But at least the chicken is not spoiled, most of the time anyway. The climate is brutal here, and there are not as many regulations. I have become a big fan of food and safety regulations, and am thankful it is something I don’t even have to think about at home. If I bought spoiled milk or chicken at my HEB in Austin, they would be horrified and take it back no questions asked. Here you get a shrug and they say, we don’t take returns. Seriously, I’m not kidding.
You always have to cash with you as a back up. There is a fair to middling chance that either the credit card machines will be down, or it randomly won’t read your card that day. This is not a huge deal until the day all the ATMs are out of money from the weekend, and so are you and you need to buy milk and bananas. Which I always need to buy milk and bananas.
We are sick all the time here. I have been sick more times in the last 8 months than I have in my entire adult life. I am not exaggerating, stomach bugs, colds, viruses you name it and it has ripped through this house. I fear that B is going to go through it all again when we get back to TX and he starts school there. He has great immunity now against Asian bugs though.
The hardest part of being here is the isolation you feel being away from family and friends that are like family. B not having access to his Grandparents is really tough. Being away from the dog, makes us all really sad at times. Not being there when things are rough for people you love, not being able to help when words aren’t enough can be excruciating. It’s the middle of the night here while it’s the middle of the day at home. That can be tough at times because you have to carefully schedule your phone calls and FaceTimes with people to make sure everyone is awake or home. It leaves mainly weekend mornings for B to talk to his Grandparents because there is usually not enough time before school, and he is in bed asleep before America is up and and ready to talk in the morning. We are those crazy early bedtime for the kid types, we don’t really like to waver on that too much since it makes for a much more pleasant 2 year old, so weekend mornings are really it. For sure the hardest part is the people you miss. We are so fortunate to have a wonderful and supportive network of family and friends, we miss them a lot.
Holidays that we celebrate in the States are either not celebrated or not celebrated in the same way here. I had not really thought about the comfort that comes from holiday rituals. They might seem like a total pain, but they are ours and their is comfort in that. It can feel very empty here when you know it is a holiday at home, but no one here is celebrating with you. Thanksgiving and Christmas were horribly depressing, I am glad we will only have to do two here. I tried my best to stay positive, it was really difficult not to be a bit melancholy, especially on Thanksgiving which is just another day here. On Christmas Eve here on the plaza down stairs they did a count down at midnight like it was New Years F#@ing Eve. I was not pleased, as Santa had come, we were trying to settle down for our not so winter nap. For the first time in my entire life I was indifferent to taking the Christmas Tree down. No post holiday let down for me, I was relieved when it was all over.
Even with these frustrations, which I will admit are fairly trivial in the grand scheme of life, I would not trade this experience for the world. Individually I have grown as a human being. Collectively we have grown as a family, it was a strain on all of us at first. Now that we are more in the swing of things, I think we like each other even more now. We genuinely like spending our time together as family unit. We have made friends here which is great, but for the most part all we have is each other. B is thriving here, which honestly is all we can ask. He loves school, he loves traveling, he loves life. His exuberance is contagious. We have gotten to see some amazing things that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see. We have more exciting stuff and trips planned, because we would be stupid to be presented with an opportunity like this and not travel. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity and know that I am changed as a person. I am not going to lie though, I will be pretty pumped the first time I get to hug all the people we miss, oh and the first time I walk into an HEB to buy milk and turkey again.