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2010 Expatriate Writing Contest Runner-up Winner

Expatriate Living in Kuala Lumpur as a “Traveling Spouse”

Night view of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Night view of the Petronas Towers, tallest twin buildings in the world.

“I like Chinese New Year” I said to my husband. “It’s like Christmas back in the U.S. You tell people you wish them wealth and happiness.” The radio had just run the hourly Happy Chinese New Year spot, and it had me smiling despite the crowded car park.

“It‘s also like Christmas because even the weekend before the holiday you can’t find parking at the mall” Jack muttered.

“Don’t try to tell me you don’t like all the free mandarin oranges,” I jibed. It was clear to see that the locals had found parking even after the spaces filled up. There were MVP minis and Protons angled oddly into yellow-painted corners and even alongside the throughways, making 2-way arteries into battlegrounds over right-of-way. Outside the Pavilion, one of Kuala Lumpur’s two upscale malls in the city center, cars had parked along the road blocking two of Sultan Ismail’s five lanes; everyone knows that the parking tickets issued on this side of town are the ones you don’t have to pay since the city Polis has no method of collecting on them. But this knowledge does not make us Malaysian enough to follow suit with the other haphazardly parked vehicles, so we return our car home and hail a teksi to the mall.

My husband and I have lived in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur for two years and have one more year on his contract as a petroleum engineer. I am a “traveling spouse,” and that means that while Jack learns the Asian corporate world, I navigate it socially. Doing business in Malaysia is difficult for Westerners who expect the same rules of market to apply. Here people are slow to change, so if there is a job that is taking bids, having the lowest bid price does not ensure that a particular company will get the work, and because it is considered rude to say “no,” a potential client with no interest in a company’s offerings might allow himself to be courted for months. If a foreign business person knows these important details, then local customs can be navigated so that it will be apparent when the opportunities are real, rather than feigned.

As for the social sphere, the Malay people are Islamic, and many of the women choose to wear head coverings and dress modestly. Because Malaysia is an Islamic state, albeit a moderate one, many Middle Easterners vacation here, so it’s also common to see women in Burkhas carrying Jimmy Choo bags. On the other hand, those of Chinese descent are the second largest ethnic group, and they wear whatever western fashions they like. Citizens of Indian descent make up the third local group, and they often wear contemporary versions of the sari or western clothes. Although ethnicities and customs differ between these groups, during a festive season everyone takes notice. At Christmas the servers and shop keepers say “Merry Christmas” to me, and I say “Hari Raya” during Ramadan, and “Gong Xi Fa Cai” for Chinese New Year.

Expatriates, or expats as we call ourselves, are common in this former British colony, so Malaysians and other expats aren‘t necessarily curious about newcomers, making developing friendships difficult. After being here for two years I have become a regular at my hairdresser’s and the dry cleaners notice when I’ve away for a week or two and ask where I‘ve been. My favorite shop, BCBG, even invited me to model for their Max’s Mavens campaign featuring real women. We have favorite restaurants at which the servers shake our hands and serve us complimentary drinks, and this past Christmas we filled our condo with friends. Only a handful of our guests were Malaysians, the rest were expats representing six countries, so that “Joy to the World” felt particularly meaningful in global terms.

Author at show in Kuala Lumpur

Author at BCBG fashion show with local women who were invited to model.

I hate to sound like a well-kept cat, but the biggest perks to living her are the maids and the prevalence of English, as well as imported goods from home. Most expatriate families and upper-to-middle class Malaysians employ maids, including my friends who are school teachers. Lots of expat families take advantage of this lifestyle and have children abroad because nannies are affordable. The maids mostly come from Indonesia and the Philippines because they cannot find work at home. The people in Malaysia generally speak at least some English. Signs, radio and television programs, and even performing arts are often in English. At first I thought locals didn’t speak as much as English as Lonely Planet claimed because my questions would often elicit confused stares, but once I began to asked a price by holding an item and saying “Price?,” understood that a response of “Finished-lah” means there are no more of a certain item, and tried five ways to tell taxi drivers where I live, language has been no problem.

Kuala Lumpur practically has a mall on every corner, many with Western stores like Gap and MAC, in addition to luxury brands such as Tiffany and Co and Prada. I like the Japanese department store, Isetan, where the best sushi making ingredients can be found, as well as Parkson, which carries mostly Singaporean and British fashion. We were surprised when we got here at how expensive furniture is since imports into the U.S. from China and Indonesia are so cheap; most of our furnishings came from IKEA, then, and we limited the purchase of small electronics to the essentials. Grocery stores range from supermarket chains to Hock Chun and Ampang Mini Mart, both of which specialize in imports like name-brand detergent and foods familiar to Americans. But be careful because a coveted can of soda can cost as much as a beer. Average Malaysians don’t do the bulk of their shopping at these kinds of places, though.

Open food markets still thrive in this metropolitan city. At Pudu Market, less than a mile from Pavilion, customers can choose a live chicken or lamb, select vegetables at a fraction of the super market prices, and negotiate the “best price” for designer handbag copies. When I was making a shrimp etouffee, a friend brought me to an open market market for what was supposed to be the best shrimp. As a vegetarian I was disturbed by the live food choices and watching customers handle raw chicken breasts and prawns at one stall, then go to the next one and finger through bell peppers and apples without washing hands. My friend, also an American, laughed at my queasiness and reinforced that this is why they sell so much Detol for washing fresh produce.

There is a darker side to the city, though. Petty crime, like purse snatchings and muggings, happen often, and women are especially targets. I was mugged in broad daylight and know several local and expat friends with similar stories. Losing a cell phone, money, and credit cards is always inconvenient, but having it violently wrenched from me not 1/8 of a mile from the American embassy reinforced that like parking and speaking, safety is different here. Pedestrians will be well-advised to keep the most valuable items inside pockets or don’t carry them, and be aware that there aren’t safe and dangerous areas of town for this kind of crime. Upscale areas with sidewalks are just as vulnerable as those close to the subways and bus stops, but that‘s not to say that a person is never safe, but rather than it‘s helpful to always be on guard.

Despite the need for caution, we have found much to love about living in Kuala Lumpur with its mixture of kampung and cosmopolitan. Wild macaques will be digging through dumpsters outside high rise condominiums, and lunch can cost as little as $0.90 or as much as $75. The call to prayer will be sounded from a nearby mosque, interrupting Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” playing in a convenience store. And yes, on occasion people will be double parking below the city’s most posh mall.

Mother and baby Macaque at Batu Caves
Mother and baby Macaque at Batu Caves

For More Information on Living in Kuala Lumpur

Expat KL, www.expatkl.com, offers a monthly magazine and yearly updated driving and travel guides free to expats, as well as organizing nights out each month to mingle.

Importing a pet into Malaysia is easy because the quarantine is only seven day: www.petrelocation.com/resources/international-regulations/malaysia. Our expat cats got here safely.

Prince Court Medical Centre, www.princecourt.com, is the newest hospital and one of several that boasts state-of-the-art facilities and affordability which make it a medical tourism destination.

Check out the Malaysia, Truly Asia, www.tourism.gov.my, campaign for descriptions and links to parks and recreation, museums, cultural events, and fun facts because there’s always something new to explore.

Malaysia has more federal holidays than any other country, allowing for long weekend trips to other Asian countries and travel within Malaysia, which can be very affordable with Air Asia, www.airasia.com.

The ethnic composition of the Malaysian population.