Expats and International Students Share What Life is Like in Malaysia

Ah, Merdeka Day. The day we remember the countless struggles our forefathers faced to gain Malayan independence from the British all those many years ago. While we usually celebrate the occasion with a grand parade, this year is very much different. Because of the pandemic, celebrations won’t be as lively. 

However, that doesn’t mean that Merdeka Day this year is any less meaningful. After all, our beloved country has earned international recognition for our battle against COVID-19. Malaysians can also hold their heads high for banding together during the many months of the MCO! 

Admittedly, as Malaysians, there are probably certain things about our country that we’ve taken for granted. However, what does living in our country actually feel like for those who AREN’T Malaysian? We interviewed eight foreign expats and ex-students to find out a little bit more about what life is like as a foreigner living in Malaysia. And these are their answers. Enjoy!  

1. Marco Kim from South Korea

Marco considers himself an honorary Penangite, having lived several years in Malaysia’s famous island city. He was a student in Malaysia throughout most of his high school life and later also completed his tertiary education here.  He has since moved back to South Korea. However, he still regularly keeps in touch with all his kawan-kawan baik and even follows news about Malaysia occasionally.

On the struggles of settling in

For Marco, one of the earliest challenges about living in Malaysia was overcoming the language barrier. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know a word of Bahasa and I wasn’t all that comfortable with English either. So in the early years, it was hard communicating with the locals.” These days however, Marco can order at a mamak stall like a real Malaysian bos

Because of the language barrier, Marco felt that there was always an inkling of insecurity being a foreigner. Because of a lack of friends and acquaintances early on, he felt that he was alone and had no one to count on but himself should anything unexpected happen. Thankfully, his family was with him so he didn’t really feel homesick even though he missed his old friends. 

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

“Even after nearly a decade, Malaysia never ceases to amaze me in many ways,” said Marco as he recalled his time in Malaysia. When we asked him what struck him most about Malaysia, he confessed that he considered Malaysia his home just as much as Korea, and that the two have more or less blended together. 

However, he fondly remembers the unique cultural diversity of Malaysia. “I made many friends from different racial and religious backgrounds in Malaysia. If I hadn’t moved to Malaysia, I don’t think my circle of friends would be as diverse as it is now.” Marco remembers his Malaysian friends as “pretty chill and amiable” . As such, for Marco, it was easier to be friends with Malaysians than his fellow Koreans. 

Marco was unable to settle on his favourite Malaysian food. “It will take some time to list them all!” he joked. The concept of “yumcha/lepak” was also something that Marco found really unique and thoroughly enjoyed. “Some of my best memories in Malaysia happened during late night mamak sessions or at kopitiams.”  

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

One essential tip that Marco has for those coming to Malaysia is to brace for the heat and humidity. “I cannot stress enough how hot the weather can get here.”. Spoken like a true Malaysian, Marco! 

In addition, Marco also recommends would-be expats to simply embrace the lifestyle. “When the going gets tough, treat yourself to a late night teh tarik session!” 

2. German Olivares Merlos from Spain

German was a student at the University of Nottingham, U.K., and was always curious about life in Asia. In 2014, he convinced his parents to let him complete his studies in the university’s Malaysia campus. Initially, German had planned to stay just for a year but, as fate would have it, he’d decided to stay on. Fast forward to 2020 and German is now approaching his sixth year in Malaysia and currently works in a local Fintech company. 

On the struggles of settling in

Despite being a generally positive person, German admits to struggling to settle in initially. “I didn’t know anybody here so I felt completely alone,” he recalled about his first few days here. Thankfully, German quickly became friends with other students in the university. “Malaysians, and also the other international students, welcomed me with open arms. And I think that helped me a lot.” 

On a more jovial note, German also remarked how he was completely unprepared for the heavy rains Malaysia experiences during the monsoon season. “I never knew that it rained so much in Malaysia! I remember the first time I experienced heavy rain here. It was so bad! I thought my accommodation hall was going to flood!” 

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

As German got on with life in Malaysia, the cultural diversity really struck him. The multiracial society that Malaysians are used to was a surprise for him as he had not expected there to be so many different ethnicities in our country. He also remembers hearing the Muslim call to prayer (Azan Subuh) for the first time. “I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t know much about Malaysia before moving here. It was my first time hearing it and it was quite fascinating to learn about it later on.”

What’s more, the fact that most people spoke English also intrigued German. “I think that it’s easy for expats to settle in Malaysia because most people use English in daily conversation. So, it’s easy for us to communicate with the locals.” Add to that the relatively low cost of living, and German soon grew to love living in Malaysia. 

As an avid traveller, German often spends his free time exploring Malaysia’s famous destinations. Of all the places he’s visited, German was most smitten by our beautiful beaches, with Pulau Perhentian being his favourite. In his words, “Perhentian’s beaches are probably the cleanest and have the clearest water I’ve ever seen!”. 

Having sampled food from almost every corner of Malaysia, German’s favourite Malaysian dishes are Penang Char Koay Teow (our editor agrees!) and satay. In addition, German confesses that he has a real sweet tooth, so he also enjoys cendol and kuih dadar! 

Image credit: Alpha

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

One tip that German has for those who might want to move to Malaysia is to always have a jacket in hand when going shopping! “It’s quite amazing how it can be so hot outside but then be freezing cold in the malls! If you’re going shopping or to the cinema, make sure to bring along a jacket!” 

Crazy-cold shopping malls aside, German sincerely believes that Malaysia is the best country to move to in Southeast Asia. “Frankly, I love it here” he ends with a laugh.  

3. Eiman Mirghani, currently working in Qatar

Eiman is an independent filmmaker based in Doha, Qatar. To date, her films have been screened in several film festivals across the world, such as in Doha, Napoli (Italy), Malmo (Sweden), Beirut (Lebanon), and more! Before she started on her career in filmmaking though, she was a student here in Malaysia for four years with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. 

On the struggles of settling in

By the time Eiman moved to Malaysia, she was ready to leave home to experience different parts of the world. As such, while she admits that Malaysia was very different from where she grew up in, it was a generally positive experience. 

That being said, it took awhile for Eiman to get used to Malaysian food. Being Sudanese-Egyptian, Malaysian cuisine was something that was totally new to Eiman. But, with Malaysia being one of the best foodie destinations in the world, we eventually won her over!  

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

Once Eiman warmed up to Malaysian food, it quickly became her favourite thing about the country! Despite the huge variety of delicious dishes, Eiman had no problem at all confessing that her favourite dish was the famous satay in Kajang! 

Apart from the food, Eiman also thoroughly enjoyed exploring the many travel gems in Malaysia, especially the glitzy cities and pristine beaches. During her time off, she’d often hang out in KL with her friends, shopping, savouring a good meal, and also occasionally enjoy some bar hopping. However, her favourite destination in Malaysia is Pulau Tioman. “Tioman is my favourite,”she said, “because it is a lush and beautiful island that is nearly untouched, which made visiting it a very rare experience.” We hear you, Eiman! 

In addition, Eiman also enjoyed the lifestyle in Malaysia. In particular, she loved that people in Malaysia were far more easy-going and humble. 

Image credit: Marufish

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

For those visiting Malaysia, Eiman advises them to “keep an open mind when trying new things!” We’re glad you enjoyed your time here, Eiman! And we hope that we’ll be able to enjoy your awesome films soon! 

4. Shirley from…South Korea(?)

Out of all the people we interviewed, Shirley is indisputably the champion of Malaysian expats. After all, she’s been living in Malaysia for 18 years! That’s more than double the amount of time she’s spent in Korea! 

Having moved to Malaysia as a young girl with her family from Korea, Shirley is currently pursuing her Masters degree. Before this though, she had worked for three and a half years as an ELS teacher in KL. 

On the struggles of settling in

Shirley and her family didn’t really have any trouble settling in because most of the Malaysians they met spoke English fluently. Her parents were also able to communicate in basic Bahasa, something which Shirley herself has since picked up. The only real challenge they encountered was in immigration and visa renewal as there were certain changes to the rules and regulations over time. 

On a personal note, Shirley said that she didn’t feel any homesickness. “I grew up in Malaysia and my memories of my childhood are in Malaysia. So, instead of missing my home country, I think I will miss Malaysia even more when I leave one day.”  

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

Because South Korea is largely monocultural, Shirley feels that growing up in Malaysia has definitely helped her shape a unique perspective about cultural diversity.  “I was surprised by the way these different ethnic groups respect and celebrate each other’s culture even though they have their own cultural identities. Even during festivals, they’ll invite each other to their homes, which was really, really nice to experience.” 

Image credit: Mw12310

As such, Shirley’s favourite thing about Malaysia is the people. Be it friends, neighbours or colleagues, Shirley feels that Malaysians are super friendly, honest, and caring. “In my experience, they would help you when you have troubles and they accept others even though their cultures are different.” 

Of course, Shirley also LOVES Malaysian food. Having been here for so long, she’s gotten accustomed to our herbs, spices, and rich flavours. Her favourite food is nasi lemak ayam goreng paired with iced Milo. Wait a minute, that’s exactly what locals order! 

Another aspect of Malaysian life Shirley enjoys is the many public holidays we have, especially the cultural ones. With so many holidays, Shirley has been able to visit many, many wonderful attractions in Sarawak, Penang, KL, and many of our famous beaches. 

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

Having lived in Malaysia almost all her life, Shirley advises visitors to always be aware of their surroundings and to keep their belongings close in crowded spaces. Other than that, the only real thing to prepare for is the unpredictable weather! 

5. Soufia from Mauritius 

Soufia studied in Malaysia for three years before heading home to her native Mauritius. Although she no longer lives here, she continues to be invested in news about Malaysia, particularly about our political news. 

On the struggles of settling in

When Soufia first arrived in Malaysia in September, she remembers calling her mother to tell her that she wanted to go home for Christmas. Having come from Mauritius, she REALLY missed the sight and sound of the sea. “Coming from a small island, I was used to being around the sea a lot or at least being able to see it from the window.”

However, as time went on, Soufia quickly started to settle in. One paradoxical issue she faced was new-found convenience. “Where I lived, everything was quite inaccessible and our public transport was severely limited and unreliable. I was used to doing things a certain way. So, when I first got here, it was a little bit challenging to establish a new daily routine.” 

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

Another aspect of Malaysian life that differed from Soufia’s home country that struck her was the lifestyle. “You can just go out for a meal at 3 a.m. and there will be plenty of people doing just the same!” she mused. For Soufia, this was an incredible experience. 

In addition, Soufia loved the endless possibilities one can explore in Malaysia. From rock climbing to global cuisine, Soufia feels that the diverse experiences in Malaysia make it a unique country unlike any other. During the weekends, Soufia would often hang out with her friends and, when time permitted, she also traveled a little around Malaysia. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her favourite destination was Pulau Perhentian. “As an islander, it fulfilled my expectations and even more, I really enjoyed the quiet and the laid back vibe.” On the Malaysian food front, Soufia is a fan of kuih lapis, char koay teow and putu buluh! Given enough time, she’d have liked to try everything at least once! 

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

Soufia has an extremely practical tip for first-time visitors: get a Touch N Go card! She also highly recommends a visit to Pulau Perhentian despite the numerous bus rides it may take to get there! 

6. Sadat Osman from Singapore

Our brother from across the border, Sadat lived in Malaysia for two years as he studied at Monash (Sunway) University. While he has since returned to Singapore where he is now working, Sadat confesses that studying in Malaysia was a no-brainer for him due to the low cost of living and affordable school fees. 

On the struggles of settling in

Due to the fact that Singapore and Malaysia are so similar in so many aspects, Sadat never once felt homesick. In fact, Sadat claimed that he didn’t even return to Singapore during his term breaks because he’d settled in so well! “The only problem,” he joked, “was that I didn’t have my family with me so I couldn’t enjoy home food. And I had to do my own laundry!”. 

It’s safe to say that Sadat settled in really quickly, especially after meeting his first couple of friends during orientation! We’re glad that you adapted well! 

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

Speaking of his friends, Sadat felt that a big reason he enjoyed his life in Malaysia was because of his social circle. “They were all pretty laid back. Maybe because we were students and didn’t have any REAL responsibilities yet. But it was nice, nonetheless.” Sadat was also impressed that young Malaysians were so independent and could travel to other states when they wanted to. Eh, Singapore cannot ah? Don’t have other states is it? Ah sorry sorry, we couldn’t resist :p 

Given the many different activities in Malaysia, for Sadat, every off day was a chance to try something new. The fact that everything was affordable for him meant that Sadat had the time of his life exploring new things in Malaysia, especially the food! “This may sound a little strange, but the first meal I’m gonna order when I’m back in Malaysia is maggi goreng double with telur mata and sausage.” 

While Sadat was in Malaysia, he was able to visit some of our country’s most iconic destinations like KL, Genting, Malacca and Langkawi. Like Soufia and German though, his favourite was Pulau Perhentian! Hmm…maybe it’s time we went there for a weekend getaway too! 

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

For Sadat, the main thing to prepare for in Malaysia is the change of lifestyle. “Expect the pace of life to slow down, and enjoy it! Also, having a car doesn’t hurt!” 

7. Cristina Quintana from Spain

A lecturer at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, Cristina has been living in Malaysia for 10 years. She first moved when her partner received a job offer in Malaysia before quickly finding employment here as well. 

On the struggles of settling in

To make the move to Malaysia, Cristina had no choice but to leave behind a few things from her life in Spain. While she occasionally misses the weather and food, the thing that Cristina misses the most is being with her family and friends back home. “Being in Malaysia prevented me from participating in some important moments in the lives of my relatives and friends, so that makes me sad sometimes.” 

Apart from that, Cristina was also taken aback by some of the aspects of life in Malaysia when she first arrived. For one, she was surprised by our use of Asian-style (squat) toilets and how it was challenging to walk around because there were no proper sidewalks. That and also having to deal with the perpetual heat!

While she did not have much trouble communicating (Cristina picked up basic Malay soon after she arrived), she does remember the stress of having to negotiate with taxi drivers (as most Malaysians will also attest to!) before services like Grab became widely available. However, Cristina now looks back on her early struggles with a smile as she no longer minds any of the things above!  

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

Having lived in Malaysia for so long, Cristina has come to develop a fondness for the people here and the traditional values we uphold, such as respect for the elderly, honouring our family and an eagerness and humility to learn and innovate creatively. What’s more, she is also enamoured with the wonderful natural beauty in our country. 

“The fact that Borneo has the oldest rainforests on Earth is mind-blowing,” she muses. “ It has been a privilege to learn first-hand about the number and qualities of animal species that Malaysia has, and realizing that we are sharing our living spaces with them has become eye-opening to me.” It should come as no surprise then that, on her days off, Cristina enjoys camping and travelling! Of course, she also loves cooking, connecting with her family and spending time with loved ones. 

In terms of travel style, Cristina prefers underrated gems over crowded mainstream destinations. While she finds it impossible to choose a favourite, she has a soft spot for Ipoh because of the delicious food, cultural activities and intriguing colonial history. She also enjoys the lesser-known islands like Perhentian (again, Perhentian!), Tioman, Kapas, and Redang. However, her most memorable trip in Malaysia so far was visiting Sipadan (Sabah) where she went diving with turtles and sharks! That’s awesome! 

When Cristina first arrived in Malaysia, she couldn’t get accustomed to our spicy food. Nowadays, however, she considers it one of the best additions to her life! Cristina now professes a love for sambal and enjoys it when paired with nasi lemak. She also likes rendang, pan mee, and thosai. Now that’s a truly diverse palette! 

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

Cristina advises those who want to visit Malaysia to do so with an open mind and they’ll surely be rewarded! 

8. Jessica Suhyeon Yeo from South Korea

Another member of the 10-years-in-Malaysia club, Jessica was a student here before moving back to South Korea. These days, she works in a Fintech company but continues to keep in touch with her BFFs from Malaysia on a regular basis. 

On the struggles of settling in

For Jessica, one of the toughest hurdles to overcome was the language barrier. She found it difficult to mingle with the locals and was too shy to even say hi at first. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that she made her first Malaysian friend and started to come out of her shell. 

However, despite this, she still sometimes missed home. This was especially true during Korean national holidays like Seollal and Chuseok. “During those festive seasons, I missed my grandparents a lot and really wanted to spend time with them.” 

On what is most attractive about Malaysia 

One of the things that Jessica appreciated the most of her time here in Malaysia was how it shaped her perspective about cultural diversity. Now that she is back in South Korea, she admits that she sees a stark difference between herself (who spent a large part of her life here) and other Koreans who’ve spent their whole lives in their own country. She feels that there is less discrimination among races in Malaysia than in South Korea, something which she finds amazingly beautiful. 

Jessica also has a deep fondness for “mamak food” and her close friends from university. As she reflects fondly on their time together, Jessica says that they changed her a lot and helped her to find her self-esteem. What’s more, she also enjoyed travelling around Malaysia and exploring the various cities. And among all of these, her favourite/most memorable destination was Penang (again, our editor agrees wholeheartedly!). 

For her, the charm of Penang lies in the food (her favourite is Char Koay Teow) and the mesmerising night view from Penang Hill. 

Any tips for those planning to visit Malaysia?

Like many of our interviewees before her, Jessica also advises visitors to be prepared for the weather, saying that “it’s much hotter and more humid than you think”. In addition, learning some basic Bahasa is also worthwhile even though it’s perfectly fine to speak in English or Mandarain too. Finally, she encourages people to make friends with the locals. “After all,” she says, “some of my closest and best friends are Malaysians!” 

Happy Merdeka Day!

And there you have it, Malaysians, some insight into the lives of our foreign friends and their experiences living in our beloved country. Hopefully reading their account of life here has given you some fresh perspective about life in Bolehland! And finally, Happy Merdeka Day everyone! 

By Darren

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