Five months have come and gone and as life begins to feel normal, I find I write here less. In some ways it seems like a lifetime, and in others like yesterday. While living abroad may seem a little exotic, I think that where you choose to hang your hat eventually becomes normal. Monday through Friday you trudge to and from work, the weekends are always way too short, and daily life settles in: laundry, groceries, spending time with your kids, and wondering if one should cook or give in and just go out to eat. More and more, however, I find that when I am doing the most mundane things like walking the dogs or driving to the market, my mind keeps returning to the same thought… I really love it here. It is not one monumental specific thing; it’s just a slow accumulation of moments that have turned into a feeling of peace. I truly miss my family and friends each and every day, but I feel such a sense of freedom here to be myself.
For some reason, I continue to look at the news each morning on the Internet to keep up to date with what is happening in the U.S. Most days, it is simply depressing and I am saddened with the state of things. However, that is where it stops. I turn it off and don’t continue to get bombarded with the negativity and inability to agree and get along. The people in my world at the moment are from every continent on the planet (except Antarctica, of course). We acknowledge the shit show occurring in our different homes and then move on to the task of being good to one another, educating children, and enjoying life. It is amazing how not dwelling on the negativity in the world frees up your mind and soul to higher things… like making art, contemplating the universe, and being a positive force in the world.
One thing I think about sometimes is the fact that I never worry about getting shot. I never really thought about it before, but when it is no longer a remote possibility, you realize how nice it is. It is no secret that my teacher professional development last year was how to put on a tourniquet and pack a wound. I could go on a diatribe about guns, but what’s the point? The bottom line is that here, I never worry that I, or anyone I love, will be a victim of gun violence. I must admit that it is truly a nice thing not to have to worry about. Instead, I can focus on worrying about snakes and saltwater crocodiles. Much better.
Malaysia is one of the most diverse places I have ever been. The fact that everyone here speaks some level of English certainly makes life easier, but it is so much more than that. Before we moved here, I was curious about living in a country that was 60% Muslim. I wasn’t sure what life would be like and I worried a bit about things like acceptance of different lifestyles, cultures, and religious beliefs. I am happy to report that with the exception of many places not being extremely dog friendly, this place is the most accepting, diverse place I have ever been. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, East Asians, Indians, Europeans, Africans, North and South Americans… everyone is here. Respectful, kind, accepting, curious – I am floored. Everyone has their own beliefs and ways of doing things, but they also respect everyone else’s beliefs and ways of doing things. Multiple times a day I hear prayers drifting through the air from a local mosque and it’s downright calming and beautiful. I also smell incense wafting from local temples and I have friends who go to church every Sunday. At the staff lunch table on any given day I sit next to women in hijabs and woman wearing short skirts and sleeveless shirts chatting away about normal things. They are curious about my rice cakes and peanut butter and I about their spicy rice dishes wrapped in banana leaves. In a nutshell, I feel free here and it makes me feel at peace with myself. Everyone is so incredibly nice, from our Nepalese security guards to the guys who work at our favorite noodle shop. Everywhere we go, kind and genuine people from all walks of life surround us.
Another plus about Malaysia is the fact that it is crazy affordable. It’s no wonder that Malaysia is the 5th most popular place in the world to retire. It is 88*/70*F 365 days a year, most everyone speaks English, and probably most important… it is insanely cheap to live here.
-renting a relatively new 3000 sq. foot house – $650 a month
– water bill – $6 / month
– phone bill for 4 ppl – $30/ month
– weekly grocery bill 4 ppl – $100
– cab/Grab (uber) ride anywhere in the city – $5
– 18 holes of golf at a fancy course – $30
I could go on. Want more???
-My wonderful maid Josephine comes each week. She washes clothes, sheets, towels, cleans my house spotless, does my dishes, etc.… Wait for it… – $25.
-My vet made a house call last week for Frida who has some weird skin rash. I called him at 10am and he came over after work at 5pm. He stayed about 30 minutes chatting and examining Frida. A shot and 3 different medicines later he left. -$70!
– We found a dog boarder for our island trip last month. She lives in a fancy neighborhood with a nice, big house. The dogs slept inside, lounged on the couch watching TV with her daughter, followed her maid around all day, and received amazing amounts of love and attention. I even received daily updates and pictures. Both dogs for seven days… $85 total!
I mean, honestly, how in the world can I complain about anything? It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, totally lush and green, monkeys in the palm trees that line the highway on our daily seven-minute commute to work, and the weather is always like a mild summer day. There are cheap flights to anywhere in this hemisphere. Example???? For winter break we are going to Nepal. I found four round-trip plane tickets and ten nights hotel for $1500 total.
Please don’t get me wrong. I miss seasons, Whataburger, Mexican food, and most of all my family and friends. It sincerely pains me on a daily basis that I am not in a place where I can see my parents whenever I want. But, the choice we made to try to give our daughters an experience that would change their lives was one we just couldn’t pass up. The experiences they are having, the people they are meeting, and the education they are getting are simply priceless. No, we haven’t saved for college and our retirement is pretty dismal, but we are spending lots of quality time together (maybe sometimes too much, depending on who you ask). We are having adventures and making memories… and this brings me great joy.
We will be home for 3 weeks in July and we look forward to spending lots of quality time in the hill country with the ones we love, and there are lots of you!
We miss you all and think of you often.
As life begins to fall into routines of work, home, and basic daily life, I resort to writing about the “little things”. You know, those tiny differences that slowly become normal despite their oddness. Perspective is funny, something that at first seems so foreign and strange eventually becomes ordinary and you cease to notice it at all. So, before I pass the point of no return, let me talk about a few of these meaningless things that still feel a bit strange.
In Malaysia you generally have the choice of a western stall or an eastern stall, meaning a sit toilet or a squat toilet, but the lack of toilet paper in the stall itself is what I can’t seem to remember. There is even (as gross as it may seem if you think about it long enough) a water hose located near the toilet for you to clean yourself afterwards. Great idea, sure, but if you forget the paper do you just drip dry??? I know it seems trivial, but it is really the one thing I just can’t seem to overcome. First world problem, I know. Moving right along…
4. Laundry – Doing laundry is something that does not seem to bring most people great joy, and yet having facilities to do one’s laundry is certainly something not to be taken for granted. We learned this in Taiwan when we were schlepping clothes down 12 flights of stairs, across the street, and into the basement of another building… just to schlep it back afterwards to dry them on clotheslines on the roof of our apartment building. And then of course if it was windy, you might find your chones (underwear) in the garden on the ground floor the following day. Having said that, our laundry situation is much better than that here in Malaysia. Our rental house did not have a washing machine when we moved in, so we bought one. Washing machines here are significantly less substantial than those in the U.S., so loads must be smaller. Most people do not own dryers and therefore hang their clothes on foldable racks. We chose (mainly me) to do the same, so every weekend we play the rotating clothes washing game where we fight over hangers and rack space. It takes quite a bit of scientific planning for everyone to make sure his or her clothes are dry before Monday morning. Good times with real world life skills if you ask me!
As far as the cell phone goes, I have zero complaints… it is added to the odd category because it is so wonderful. All four of us have a pay as you go plan… $8 a month for unlimited data and texts. We don’t really call anyone because everyone here uses WhatsApp with his or her unlimited data. It is magical… my family phone bill is $32 a month. How cool is that??? The only slightly odd thing, which is really quite fantastic, is that I pay our phone bills at 7-11. It is called ‘topping up’. You simply pay the cashier the money and say you want to ‘top up’. She gives you a receipt with a code, you enter it into the phone, and ta-da!… you have another month’s worth of service.
Another interesting thing is getting used to Halal vs. non-Halal. The word ‘Halal’ in Muslim culture is roughly defined as ‘permissible’ and generally is used as a term for what is deemed allowable for a practicing Muslim. It is a lot like kosher laws in the Jewish religion and here in Malaysia grocery stores advertise that they are Halal, but often have a separate non-Halal mini-store inside where alcohol and pork products are sold. You even have to pay separately. When we first moved here I was bummed because I thought I would have to go an entire year without bacon. Then one day, I stumbled into the non-Halal section of my grocery store and it was like walking into Disneyland. There were freezers and refrigerators filled with sausages, bacon, pork chops, wine, beer, bottles of liquor, etc… It was like a small hidden side store where all of the people who make unhealthy choices shop… and it brought me a great bit of guilt-laden joy.
Apart from that, life is good.
That about wraps it up.
Until something share-worthy happens… May the force be with you!
Two months… has it only been two months??? School has started and we are in the throws of the beginning of school mayhem. It’s that magical time of the year when you are exhausted pretty much 24 hours a day and you never seem to be able to catch up. I know this time always passes, and once routines are in place life will return to ‘normal’. But for now, my list of things to do just keeps on growing.
My job as a kindergarten teacher has been interesting thus far. The first week was quite a shock to the system and I may have said or done a few things that are questionable. I now have 13 students and two of them speak English, a good 3 to 4 don’t know their names yet, and I’d say at least all but one of them is incredibly well off and just a tad spoiled. I mean come on, their parents (or some large company they work for) are paying 20K a year for kindergarten! To be honest, they are all incredibly sweet and oh so cute. They are all respectful and for the most part very well behaved. The lack of English is quite a challenge, but we shall get there soon enough. You might think it is odd that a few of them don’t know their names yet. Well… they all have Chinese, Korean, or Japanese names, but when they come to an American school, their parents generally choose an ‘American’ name for them. The problem is, they often choose it the night before school starts and the kids have no idea what their new name is. At any given moment last week, I was seen yelling…” LEO!!!! JOEY!!!” and the children were just staring at me like I was insane. Fun times! The lack of English can also be to my advantage though. For example, last week one student was doing something totally insane and in a moment of weakness I looked at him and asked.. “Are you smoking crack????” Luckily he had no idea what I said and on the off chance that he goes home and asks his mom what smoking crack is, she won’t have any idea either! My teacher’s aide, whom I mistakenly complained about before school started, is my new bestie. She is Malaysian-Chinese and saves my butt on an hourly basis. Half of my parents don’t speak a word of English either, so Miss Anne is their go-to gal for communication. She literally does everything for me and this allows me to focus on teaching. I am seriously so very lucky! I am also teaching after school Spanish classes to high school students on Tuesdays and elementary students on Thursdays. Wow!… what a difference that is! The high school kids are amazing! They are so eager to learn and super excited. The elementary students are great too… just a tad more wiggly. I suppose I’ll need to make a few adjustments to my teaching for that one!
As for Party Marty, well, he loves his job as usual. He gets to impart life knowledge to 7thgraders in his life skills class, as well as have a super time teaching P.E. to 6th, 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12thgraders. He says it is completely amazing that these kids never complain, they always try hard, and basically eat up anything and everything he gives them to do. Most of them are incredibly uncoordinated (because sports has never been the focus in most Asian schools), but want to get healthier and just love his enthusiasm. His varsity boy’s soccer team is shaping up nicely and he seems to be blowing their mind with his innovative coaching style. He even seems to have time on the side to pitch mural ideas to the head of the school. Wonder where that might lead???
Carmela and Pilar simply amaze me. They appear to have acclimated so easily to their new lives here and seem very happy. Before school started they met a few people, the daughters of fellow teachers and a few of their friends. This enabled them to start the year off knowing other kids and that made it a lot easier. Because we are at a relatively small school (35 kids in the 10thgrade class) they are taking a few classes they might not have chosen back home… mainly Earth and Space Science, Drama, and Technology. As it turns out, those are some of their favorite classes! At our school, each student in grades 6-12 has their own Apple MacBook and the entire school uses Google classroom. The girls come home most days shocked about how little they knew about computers and technology before and how amazing it is to be in a paperless environment. In their drama class, they are the loudest students and that is a shock in itself if you know our daughters. I think they are finally realizing how shy/quite they were before and are now really coming out of their shells. And… every night at dinner they insist on taking out their notes and teaching us about our universe, black holes, and the incredible sun. Woo-hoo!!!
One of the best things I can see about our new school is the diversity of the student body. The girls have friends from Australia, Ecuador, Malaysia, China, Japan, Korea, the U.S., Singapore, Honduras, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Canada, South Africa, India, etc… I’m not sure if it is because of this diversity, but there are no clicks at our school. Everyone is generally nice to one another and grade levels don’t really matter because it is so small. During their 45-minute lunch, the girls play basketball with 8th– 12thgraders and everyone is a friend. It is really quite refreshing. They are free to be themselves and don’t worry about what others might think. They are reverting back to their quirky, creative selves and that makes me so happy!
As for their girl’s school soccer team, we are learning that there is more to a team than being ‘good’. Meaning, their team is very much like the Bad News Bears, but they are stepping up and becoming leaders, making a lot of new friends, and learning how to deal with the changes. However, to make up for the lack of competition, they are on a boy’s club team and will also play with their father’s varsity boy’s team. They get to kick butt on the weekends and teach others during the weekdays. I suppose it’s a win-win. When my closet soccer mom comes out, as it often does, they remind me that one of the reasons we chose to move here was to focus more on academics and less on sports. Yes, yes, I know… it’s just so ingrained that sometimes I forget.
Last night they had their first team dinner. One of the girls on the soccer team is the daughter of someone very important in the government. She drives an 180,000K car to school and her 10-year-old brother has his own personal driver drive him in his car.
The dinner was to be at her house. Needless to say, Marty and I REALLY wanted to go, but as no other parents expressed interest, we were left off of the list. When the girls came home, we heard stories of the indoor swimming pool, the gold and jade kitchen, and the huge underground garage that stores ALL of the cars. Damn, maybe next time!
All in all, we are settling in nicely and are very happy here. I don’t look at the weather app anymore because the weather is always the same, the dogs seem to be getting used to their new digs and daily excursions…
…and the plethora of food options around here is simply dizzying. We finally got paid yesterday and I have to say I was jumping for joy. We make the same amount take home as we did back home and the cost of living is half. And… We get free healthcare for the entire family and free tuition for both of our girls. Can’t complain about that!
However, we do miss our family and friends… and perhaps a little Friday night lights… and Mexican food…. and Whataburger.
And… we get this on our way to school in the morning! Perk? I think not!
The summer wife has retired, and the school year wife is back. Mind you, I am not necessarily saying this is a positive thing; it just is what it is. Marty and I returned to school last Wednesday as new teachers once again. After 22 years in education, I think I have lost count of how many new teacher orientations I have actually attended. They all involve some sort of formal meetings to go over protocol, taking pictures for photo IDs, and a luncheon of sorts. Our Malaysian new teacher orientation was quite ‘chill’ as far as orientations go, and we were able to walk away with a few fun stories to tell.
The school we are teaching at is relatively new, in that it is only five years old, and this is the third year they have been housed at the new fancy pants facility. This is precisely one of the reasons Marty and I chose to work here, apart from the Olympic-sized pool and two soccer pitches, of course. We knew there would be room for growth, and we liked the idea of having a hand in creating a stellar school. There are roughly 25 newly hired teachers that started the school year with us. The new teachers come from the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa and India. Some of us filled existing positions, and some of us were hired for new positions due to growth. I believe the school year ended with about 350 students last year and it is starting with roughly 500 this year. Of those, 85 are full time boarding students. It has the capacity for 2000, so you can see where the school is headed in terms of growth.
As a getting to know you excursion, we were all taken out to lunch last Friday. We were told we were going to eat at a seafood/venison restaurant in Forest City. First of all, I didn’t even know there were deer in this very tropical “it really feels like a giant island” country, and second of all…. what a bizarre culinary combination. I had heard that Forest City was a massive futuristic ‘city’ built on a man-made island of sorts right across from the Singapore border. When we saw it from the immigration bridge last week, it truly looked like Oz… a gleaming city in the distance, jutting out into the middle of the ocean. I suppose I was expecting a fancy restaurant surrounded by luxurious condos, gigantic malls and glorious coffee shops. We boarded six vans at the school around 11:30 and fifteen minutes later we were meandering down dirt roads lined with shacks. Honestly, I thought it was a bit sketchy when we pulled up to a barren dusty ‘parking lot’ with nothing but a long, rickety pier and a plywood structure in the distance. We proceeded to make our way down the pier and sit under a gigantic covered outdoor patio with large round tables and plastic chairs. There was no inside restaurant, just an enormous covered rectangle on stilts 500 feet out in the middle of the water. I suppressed forming an opinion at that moment, and just followed along and went with the flow. Turns out, it was one of the most amazing meals I have ever had. There were nine people seated at each table and the waiters brought out plate upon plate over the next hour. We had two kinds of fish, venison, calamari, prawns, three different kinds of vegetable dishes, soup, tofu hot pot, and rice. It was a tad mind boggling, and when it was all over the ensuing food comas came on quickly. All I could think about was a nap, but before we could return to the school we had one more stop to make… Duty Free.
A small amount of background info is needed here. Malaysia is a primarily (60%) Muslim country, which means that 60% of the population does not drink alcohol. Therefore, alcohol is heavily taxed. Going to a local restaurant or bar, a local beer equivalent to Budweiser is approximately $8 U.S. dollars. If you buy a six-pack in a local store like Tesco (a British version of Wal-Mart) you pay roughly three times more than you would in the States. Therefore, drinkers (and ex-pats tend to be drinkers) will go out of their way to avoid paying taxes on their alcohol. Enter FOREST CITY. Not only is it a billion dollar planned community/city dreamt up and mostly funded by the Sultan of Johor (the ‘King of sorts’ in the state I live in), but it also has a duty free zone (like you would find in an international airport) where you can purchase alcohol for similar prices like you would find at home. Forest City is an amazing GREEN city (literally green with plants cascading down every building, but in the eco-friendly sense as well), and although 80-90% of the apartments and condos have been purchased, they are only about 10% occupied with human beings. It is impressive and eerily post-apocalyptic at the same time…. It feels a lot like the Will Smith movie ‘I Am Legend’. I imagine in about ten years it will be teeming with life and the investments people made will have paid off immensely, but for now it is a bit odd. The bottom line is that we went to the duty free center, the newly hired teachers bought an amazing amount of alcohol, and we left… interesting field trip if you ask me. I suppose on the list of things new teachers need to know, the duty free zone ranks pretty high.
Another fun start of the year story has to do with my new kindergarten class. Sure, I haven’t taught kinder in 17 years, but insert ‘just like riding a bike’ metaphor here. As a general rule I find that international educators are incredibly spoiled, and no, they don’t realize it. Not only do we often get incredibly amazing benefits that you would never get at home, but more times than not you have shockingly small class sizes and a full time teacher’s aide (TA). I hate to admit it, but at the moment I have nine students and a teacher’s aide (plus two planning periods a day!). Seems like a dream, I know, but wait… there’s more. First of all, when you have a TA you have to find something for them to do all day. Second, they are generally not from a western country. This is great because you learn a lot about other cultures; on the other hand, it’s not so great because they think your ideas are insane. Case in point, over the past two days I have been assigned two different TA’s due to scheduling changes. The first one insisted on rearranging my room because she did not like the way I did it… it was unsafe and having semi-enclosed spaces for children was not a good idea. I nicely explained to her that it was my room and I knew what I was doing. Then today, I went to a meeting and when I came back my new TA had taken the liberty of rearranging my entire room to the way it was last year because obviously I did not know what I was doing. I really try so hard to suppress my “American”, but to be quite honest I think at times I fail miserably. It is one thing to love and be fascinated by other cultures from afar, and something else entirely to find a peaceful way to do what you think is right and function in a place where your ideas are completely different from the norm. I am trying to step outside of my western arrogance and think about things from a different point of view, but man, that is easier said than done. I suppose I’ll add that to the growing list of things to work on!
Other than that, life is pretty normal… except for the CROC-O-DILE!
Before we left for Malaysia, my father insisted that I watch some Netflix show called ’72 Dangerous Animals – Asia’. I scoffed at the idea for several weeks, but then finally caved to appease him. Just as I thought, it freaked me out. Now I am here, and basically I live in the middle of a jungle that was demolished to build a futuristic city. From what I can see, in the reclamation fight, the jungle seems to be winning. Seriously, in the mornings when I take the dogs for a walk there is a cacophony of tropical bird sounds all around my neighborhood, an abundance of intimidating insects at every turn, and exotic lichens and plants growing on everything in sight. My neighbors swap stories of vipers, cobras and constrictors seen around the neighborhood, and I have seen at least three monkeys crossing the road outside of our school in the past week. I suppose it should have come as no surprise when we saw the crocodile in the middle of the highway, but I assure you, it did. Marty and I were driving down the highway (and I mean a large three lane highway on either side) when we saw a crocodile lying in the far right lane being run over by a car. It was about five feet long and it was crossing the highway when we saw it get hit. I’m not sure where it was coming from or where it was going to, but we were driving in the middle of a heavily populated area and that was just not what we were expecting to see. I really hate to admit it Dad, but perhaps it was a good idea to watch ‘72’.
Soccer season starts soon and the girls have already joined an area co-ed club team to prepare. During the first practice we attended, only 12 players showed up. The following week, there were 25 players, all but 3 of them boys… I suppose word got out about some American twin girls with mad ball skills. The great thing about practices is that there is an infinity pool with a full restaurant and bar that overlooks the soccer pitch. This adds an entire new dimension to the role of soccer mom… one that I think I could really get in to. Marty and I plan to watch soccer practice tomorrow in the pool sipping on adult beverages and cheering the girls on. Should be rough.
The students show up to school on Thursday and hopefully we will survive. Until then we shall hope for reptile free days and not a single American teacher classroom incident report.
Today is the last day of vacation for Marty and me and I must admit that although I am happy to be starting a routine that does not involve spending so much money, I am super sad to say goodbye to our summer.
Not much has been going on the past two weeks. We have settled in to our daily routine of teashops, sports days, and stumbling upon new and exciting places to eat. We found a fabulous noodle shop where the entire family can eat ‘big’ for $15, as well as bought a blender so we can make our own smoothies and cut back on our bubble tea habit. (When I say we, I am not talking about myself of course.)
This weekend we also went to a Japanese festival in our neighborhood. Live music, food stalls, Japanese stuff!
Last Friday we took a quick trip into Singapore. (Lovingly called the Singapore Swing.) We were initially told not to go into Singapore because we didn’t want to delay the work visa process. We were then told that we had to take a day trip to Singapore to get an exit and entry stamp for our work visas. I learned long ago in Taiwan that after you ask for clarification the third time, it is best to just get in the car and let it go. The border is literally ten minutes from our house and it is super bizarre. I have heard that depending on the time of day, day of week, etc… it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours to cross. The line of cars leading up to a border patrol agent split into about 10 different lines, zigzagging every which way so that quick entry or exit is impossible. Apart from the intimidating signs, it was all quite civil… although I think a few of our new co-workers from South Africa who came with us were genuinely freaked out. Once we got through customs (took roughly 15 minutes) we entered Singapore. All we did was get dropped off at a nearby mall for an hour and a half, and then we were headed back. The mall was fancy, as far as malls go, but we got there so early that the only thing open was Starbucks. Oh well. The mall was empty except for an amazingly long line of elderly people outside of a technology store. Turns out Huawei was running a special for people over 50… 50% off of their newest phone. It was totally like Black Friday at Walmart. When we finally left Starbucks an hour later, the mall was packed and the shopping mania had begun. The trip back took about an hour due to long lines heading across to Malaysia. We will certainly go back once we have our work visas in order (not to the mall!) , but from what I could tell it was all incredibly orderly, there was NO TRASH ANYWHERE, and I sure did see a lot of hidden cameras. CCTV here we come!
On another night last week we were sitting around wondering what to eat for dinner when the doorbell rang. It was our ‘foodie’ neighbor and he was hungry. He took us to this small food stall right off of the highway for fried chicken and rice. He assured the girls it was better than Popeye’s. As a matter of fact, he said it was the best chicken and rice he had ever had in Malaysia! We pulled up to this unassuming little food court along the side of the highway and watched our neighbor order. Not having a clue what to expect, he explained that this chicken rice is unlike the local Chinese favorite because it was made with an Indonesian/Malaysian twist. The fresh chicken is dunked in boiling water and then hung up to rest. When you order it, it is then deep-fried with an Indonesian spiced batter and then covered with a crunchy Malaysian inspired topping. It is then served on top of a bed of white rice that has been fried in garlic and chicken fat, and then finished cooking in savory chicken broth. It was absolutely amazing. We sat outside on a picnic bench and listened to the roar of traffic as the sun went down.
This is what people call ‘street food’ and I recently watched a documentary that said it was an endangered culinary art. Older generations have run these shops for years, but their children have no interest in taking them over. We actually met the owner and his family as we were eating. He and his wife work the shop during the day, and his two teenage sons work it at night. They have been so successful that they opened another shop in a different part of town, but have already had to close the doors… not because of a lack of customers, but because of a lack of workers. Just like many places in the world, there are a lot of illegal workers… here they are from the Philippines and Vietnam. They do menial labor jobs that no one else wants to do and they get paid very little. The owner said that he cannot find any Malaysians who want to work and does not want to face a fine for hiring illegal workers; therefore he had to shut the new shop down. He says that the younger generations in Malaysia have no desire to work, much less in a chicken and rice shop. They continue to live for free at home and only work for short periods of time to earn money and then go unemployed until they need money again; this is not a Malaysia specific issue. They were an incredibly nice family and the food was outstanding.
(1 ½ whole chickens, 5 bowls of rice, 5 drinks, and 2 orders of friend tofu and tempeh… $20!!)
In an attempt to work off a bit of the food we are consuming, we have been trying to stay active. Marty has been breaking in his new golf clubs all over town, we have used the school pool a few times, I have been to yoga classes, and the girls are getting ready for soccer season. Here, soccer season is in the fall and tennis is around November. They went to practice with a co-ed team in the area last weekend and were happily surprised at the skill level of the players. Granted, all of the players there were teenaged boys who were a bit intimidated by them, but it looks like they will be able to stay playing at a higher level here, and that is what we wanted.
We have heard that the girls soccer team at our school is a lot like the Bad News Bears, so needless to say the girls have their work cut out for them. If any of you have seen the movie Kicking and Screaming, I imagine it might be a lot like “Pass it to the Italians!” However, if Marty wiggles his way in, like I imagine he will, there is no telling what might happen. I think their main goal now is to beat the British boarding school next door. Should be a fun season!
New school year here we come…wish us luck!
And my new classroom! Talk about a view!!!!!
Every single day we are presented with opportunities. Taking them or not is simply a matter of choice. Sunday morning at 8 am I made myself get out of bed for the obligatory morning dog walk, or dog crawl as the neighbors call it. Not having a yard is somewhat of a challenge as our dogs’ ability to relieve themselves now falls onto our shoulders. I put on their harnesses, walked outside, and was immediately greeted by my neighbors, the Wong’s. They live around the corner, have 4 dogs themselves, and are very friendly. Just like in the U.S., dogs seem to help you meet people. After chatting for a moment about my family’s newly acquired tea and coffee habit, they asked if the family was awake yet and invited us to a ‘real’ local coffee shop in a nearby town. I wasn’t sure if I could coax the family out of bed so early, but I decided it would be a good opportunity to get to know our neighbors and see a less posh side of the area. In about 20 minutes, they were waiting outside of our house ready to go. We followed them for 10 minutes to the oldest town in the area called Galang Patah. The coffee shop we stopped at has been there since 1945 and was literally an open air space filled with plastic chairs and tables.
There was zero air-con, but there was free Wi-Fi. We sat there for about 3 hours drinking amazing iced coffee and eating round after round of food. We came to find out later that they are serious foodies and were more than happy to share such an important part of their culture. We had poached eggs with soy sauce and white pepper, British toast with coconut ‘jelly’, a spicy chicken rice and peanut dish wrapped in banana leaves, wonton soup, fried wonton, barley water, and a couple of different noodle dishes (which were ordered from a different shop across the street and delivered by the cook). It was an absolutely amazing experience, not only because the food was authentic, delicious, and insanely inexpensive, but also because the company was fascinating. One man we sat with was a retired lawyer and high court judge from Singapore, and then our neighbor turned out to be a very well known celebrity photographer from Singapore. It was inspiring to see the girls interact with such interesting people and be inspired by their stories… and all because I agreed to push the family out of bed early for some coffee.
Today we decided to try out Desaru Beach, an easy hour drive from our house. We arrived around 1pm and followed the signs that said ‘public beach’. As we paid the dollar to enter at the guard gate, we were immediately greeted by monkeys that seemed to be eyeing our cell phones.
We quickly rolled up the windows and drove off to park. Being a Tuesday afternoon, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. There were a few surfers and one family, but other than that we were all alone. We swam, played soccer, and soaked up a little sun. This is by no means the most beautiful beach in Malaysia, but it was not too shabby at all. As we left, we learned from the guard that dogs are allowed, so I am sure we will be back in a few days.
On our way home we pulled off of the road to try our luck at a little café. It turned out to be pretty delicious and as we were leaving two tiny kittens emerged from somewhere in the back. The girls went gaga over those kitties and as we were leaving I heard them say it was the highlight of their day. What???? They insisted that the beach was amazing, yes, but these were kittens. Never underestimate the power of cute furry creatures, I suppose.
It seems to me that the biggest difference between traveling and living abroad are the day-to-day experiences and interactions that you just don’t have when you are merely visiting a new country. For example, Thursday I had to do something that I was truly dreading. Although we had to get medical exams before we arrived, I was instructed that per Malaysian government work visa rules, we had to do it again now that we were here. I must admit I was quite peeved at first, simply because I generally dislike going to the doctor and also because the exams in the U.S. not only took a chunk of our time, it set us back $300. When it became clear that it was just something we had to do, I sucked it up and went. We were picked up at home at 7:30 am by our school shuttle and were surprised to see a full van of new teachers. Turns out, I was not the only one dismayed with the trip to the DR, as they all had done it before arriving as well. However, as I sat in the clinic getting to know my new co-workers, I came to the realization that I was actually having fun. We were laughing, exchanging medical horror stories about not being able to communicate with our doctors, and encouraging each other to fill up the urine sample cup… despite having fasted for 12 hours prior. One of the new teachers from South Africa, Jaime, had the best time of all. Apparently as she was having her exam with the young Chinese doctor, the conversation went something like this…
Doctor: Are you married?
Doctor: Are you single?
Doctor: Are you available?
Doctor: Well, I am not married. I am single. And I am very available.
Luckily for Jaime, she couldn’t produce a sufficient amount of ‘wee’ (South African term for pee), so it looks like she will be visiting our doctor friend again soon.
After the routine medical exam that involved giving blood, a very strange color test for the eyes, and an old school EKG with suction cups, we were off to the hospital for chest x-rays. Going to local hospitals always serves as a telling glimpse into a society, and from what I could tell it was all quite first worldly. Of course, I was later informed that it was a private hospital and not a public one, which I take to mean that it was the nice one.
The big take away lesson from that experience was that as in everything in life, if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and try new things, you will never grow. I don’t know why this always still surprises me. After all of my wacky experiences, I still sometimes have to force myself to do something I don’t really want to do… and then in retrospect I am always so glad that I did. Even if things suck, I always come out a better person. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
As another example of trying new things, Marty and the girls attended their first aerial yoga class. It was apparently much more difficult than any of them expected, but great nonetheless. I opted to go upstairs and work out while they attended their first class… I didn’t want to steal their thunder, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of new experiences, the doggies were vaccinated today. I got the name and number of a vet from a family who lives here and when I called to make an appointment I was shocked when he said, “Can I come to your house tomorrow?” Vet house calls???? What???? When I found out the complete exam and vaccinations was only to be $25 a dog, I said heck yes! Doctor Ben showed up at our door at 10am this morning and it was incredible. He was the nicest guy, super knowledgeable, and genuinely concerned about our dogs. He administered their vaccinations, answered all of our questions, and stayed about 45 minutes just chatting with us. He checked their dog food to make sure it was good for them, as well as their flea meds and told me to use them sparingly because they can cause liver failure in dogs. He even offered to deliver us dog food whenever we needed it, free of charge. Seriously, this country is amazing!
In keeping with trying new things, we decided we would continue the streak and take a family trip to the dentist. I opted to wait to get our teeth cleaned until we arrived here because I heard it was incredibly affordable. It certainly was an experience.
The dentist office was modern and the equipment was top of the line. Marty went first and got a full cleaning and exam. Next went Carmela and Pilar. Carmela came out and said that he did not really clean her teeth; he just put something on a tooth for a small spot of decay. Strange, I thought. Then it was Pilar’s turn. I knew things were awry when Pilar came out after five minutes and said she was done. No teeth cleaning, nada. My ‘American’ began to peek out when I sort of forced my way into the examination room to make sure that nothing was lost in translation. The dentist proceeded to tell me that she had great oral hygiene and that nothing more was needed.
Me: What about the plaque? Her teeth are yellow.
Dentist: That is the normal color of teeth. She has good oral hygiene.
Me: But in the U.S we get our teeth cleaned every six months.
Dentist: That is not necessary.
Me: But… (Repeat the above conversation about 3 more times.)
Dentist: She has good oral hygiene. She does not need anything else.
Me: Fine. (Oh how I hate picking my battles)
I was up next and low and behold I needed a complete teeth cleaning and a Google image tutorial on the dangers and repercussions of brushing too hard. Needless to say, Pilar was very pleased with her exam and did not hesitate to inform me that she could continue with sugary snacks because obviously she had good oral hygiene!
After that exciting adventure, we walked to the mall across the street to return an adapter that somehow exploded when Marty tried to plug in the X-Box and we tried yet another coffee place. I think I can safely say that I have had my fill of malls. Sure, the free air con and dizzying array of coffee and tea cafes are nice, but shopping is just not my thing.
Marty has been scoping out nearby beaches and golf courses, so I suppose that is what we have in store for the coming week. With only a couple of weeks left before we go back to work there is just so much left to explore and so little time.
Until something exciting happens…
We have officially been in Malaysia for 2 weeks and we all seem to be settling in nicely. After our “Jurassic Park” house hunting fiasco last Monday, we met with Piz, a rental agent who works with the school. She was absolutely amazing: Efficient, to the point, and very knowledgeable. Within an hour we had a house, put in an offer, and were at Starbucks drinking Frappes. She got us a lower price than listed and had the house ready to move in within 24 hours. We met with her Tuesday, drove back to Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, exchanged rental vehicles, broke the dogs out of quarantine, and were back in Johor by Thursday at 2 pm moving into our new house. It was definitely a whirlwind trip!
Our new home is pretty great. It is WAY more space than we need, or are accustomed to, but what’s a family to do? I’d say its about 2500 square feet, 4 bedrooms + a maid’s quarters, and 6 bathrooms!!! Yes, 6 bathrooms. Needless to say, the girls are quite satisfied having their own rooms equipped with queen sized beds, large bathrooms, and a balcony. I am a little freaky trying to figure out how to live in a space this big and not have a crazy electric bill. Luckily, each room has it’s own A/C unit, so we can close rooms off and only cool the ones we are in at the time. Now instead of constantly asking the girls if they hung their towel up, I can ask if they turned their A/C off. Hooray!! In case you are curious, the rent on this house is $600 a month ($75K if we bought it). I suppose this is why Malaysia is #5 on the list of places to retire worldwide.
Friday we took the obligatory trip to IKEA for a FEW necessities. When you move in to a furnished house here, that means couches, beds, and appliances. Imagine having to stock a kitchen so you can cook, a desk do your kid can study, a washing machine (no dryer… sorry kids you’ll have to hang up your clothes to dry!), and trashcans. We have been here roughly a week now and I think I can finally stop buying things for the house.
We also bought a car! A couple moving back to the States sold us their 2-year-old car and now we are officially mobile. We hired some woman for about $20 to walk us through the entire “DMV” process. It was amazing! She met us at the “DMV”, took our passports and money, skipped all of the lines, and in about 10 minutes we had signed some document and were done. The next day, she met me at the school, took a bit more money, and I had car insurance for an entire year. Piece of cake! When in doubt… pay the $20 and get someone who speaks the language to do it for you!
The dogs seem to be happy here. We live in a gated community with extensive walking trails and parks on every corner. People walk their dogs constantly because only the houses on the corners have yards, so they are meeting all sorts of new friends. It makes me wonder if dogs are bilingual too. You know, they understand the language their owner speaks, but is there a universal dog language too? Deep, I know.
So, let me be honest about our new home. When we first arrived, we didn’t seem to experience any big culture shock because after living in Taiwan for 2 years we knew what to expect as far as Asian culture goes. This place, however, is so very different from Taiwan. It is almost like a completely equal mix of China, India, and the Middle East. Before coming, I had read that it is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. It really does seem like this odd fusion of the three, and from what I can tell from just 2 weeks, it seems to work.
Malaysia seems to have an equal balance of the old world and the new. You can find old parts of town and ancient sites, but then you have these luxury high-rise neighborhoods right down the street. We live in what feels like a futuristic ghost town city about 30 minutes outside of Johor Bahru. The area is called Iskandar Puteri and fancy is an understatement. For example, last night we were sitting next to Puteri Harbor eating burgers at a sports bar. We were literally overlooking the bay with large yachts in the foreground and Singapore in the background. The phrase “If you build it, they will come” comes to mind. There are luxury high rises, fancy shops, etc… but most of them are only about a quarter occupied. Apparently, since we are so close to Singapore (which is a terribly expensive to live) Malaysia is anticipating a large influx of Singaporean residents in the near future, as soon as they agree on and build a faster way to cross the border. I told Marty last night that we sort of hit the jackpot as far as places to live. I feel a bit guilty, but he told me to just enjoy it for the moment… it certainly won’t be our reality forever.
Marty and I only have about 2 weeks before we start back to work. We are joining a gym down the street where the girls are excited about their new aerial yoga class (doing yoga while suspended from the ceiling), and I am excited to work out in a gym where multiple TVs showing nerve-racking news are not getting in the way of my stress relief. We shall also be checking out the beaches near us soon.