When I was a few months shy of turning 18, my parents decided that it was best for our family to leave our desert of a home (Dubai, UAE) and reside in the forest (Malaysia, our home country). It wasn’t that we wanted to move here; it was due to my dad’s lack of job and because the United Arab Emirates has a high living cost, it was impossible to survive without a career or visa. At least, in our own country, we had more advantages to help us with our situation.
Or so we thought.
Several weeks after settling in Malaysia, I enrolled in a preparatory program for my foundation year. The idea was to score well then, get a scholarship from private entities or the government, and complete my degree in the US. Having lived in a multicultural setting my entire life, I was desperate to escape what seemed to me “one body with the same mindset”.
I hated the idea of never being able to meet people from various backgrounds again had I stayed for my higher education (private universities with a decent percentage of international students are super expensive for the average Malaysian). And so I steered away from local institutions.
I still remember the first day of starting class in that preparatory program. From studying in a segregated school for years in Dubai, it shocked me to see people of opposite genders sharing the same spoon as well as students openly dating (even lecturers talked about their love life! What?!). Not that the UAE is strict on who you hang out with. Not at all! It just depends on which culture you grew up with. Mine was girls with girls, guys with guys on most occasions.
A family friend who also came from Dubai to do her A Levels at the same college would come back to our dorm after the day ended and we’d both say things like, “People here do that! We never eat sweet corn with condensed milk!” It brings a giggle to my mouth now that I think about it. Visiting Malaysia every year during summer is definitely NOT the same as living in Malaysia.
The toughest thing I experienced during foundation year would probably be academic obstacles. Because I never took formal lessons on the national language in school, I can only converse in it and text using everyday phrases mixed with English. Now, imagine finding out two of the classes you’re taking are fully taught in the language you’re only a beginner in. I was so confused! One of those classes was taught by a lecturer whose English wasn’t very strong so I spent a whole day locked in, translating his notes to English using Google translate. At least it made my housemate smile.
Another subject, pre-calculus, (I get goosebumps even thinking about it!) was hell for everyone. Since I had zero background in addmath unlike the other students who had already studied it under their high school syllabus, pre calc was especially tough on me. I was always left behind in class and had to meet the lecturer at the end of the day for a one-to-one lesson. The saddest note on this is that math went from being my ultra favorite subject for more than a decade to something I really disliked. Fortunately, with a lot of practice and sleepless nights, I raised my grade from an F in midterms to an A- in finals. Most. Rewarding. Comeback. Ever.
I’d say the last negative thing about moving to Malaysia after almost two decades of living abroad is that it can be quite a challenge to fit in with the locals. That’s right, even when I’m a local myself. Although my passport might label me as a Malaysian, our experiences say otherwise. There was no denying feeling a bit left out and lonely in college. To name a few:
Times when someone made a joke and I couldn’t understand why everyone was laughing.
Or looking at other students form friendships and you not feeling as close to them as they are with one another.
It always went back to our background difference.
We just could not relate and no matter in how good terms I was with someone, I always felt as if there was a barrier stopping us from dissolving into one. When things got too rough, I was more comfortable with letting it all out to my friends in Dubai, even with the nuisance of time difference. It’s like I didn’t have an identity – feeling too out of place in my own country but not enough in my host country.
However, I also cannot turn a blind eye to the wonderful support I got from friends and lecturers at that college. None of them made fun of me not being fluent in Malay. In fact, they were very patient and understanding in explaining things I didn’t understand. I had a roommate who would sing me songs that I requested (she was a great singer) and countless people who would lend me their company for meals, their ears for me to vent, and their shoulders for me to cry on.
Other notable findings in Malaysia (that weren’t experienced personally in UAE) include witnessing respectful students volunteering to hold the students standing in the bus’ belongings for them, thanking the driver every time a student gets off the bus (almost everyone does it on a daily basis!), people being rather adventurous and outdoorsy (always hiking!) in comparative to – not all but most – worldly UAE citizens, and how big the number of young entrepreneurs is solely because of economic downfall. I was most flabbergasted when I found out the elders at the local mosque would cook a significant amount of meal for free for anyone coming (usually it’s a big number of students as well as people from around the neighborhood) during the month of fasting. And they did this every day for 30 days, just to earn reward from God.
Dubai and Kuala Lumpur are so different from each other, they are practically opposites. While one is a city of luxurious life, the other is more down to earth. While one stimulates dry climate, the other stimulates very humid/tropical weather. And while one makes a person feel more relaxed living in it, the other is more hectic.
This month, November 2016, marks a year and a half since my family and I moved to Malaysia.
Reflecting on our moments cultivated here stirs mixed feelings inside of me.
I admit there are nights when I wish I were back in Dubai with my closest friends bowling at our local mall or dipping our feet in the desert sand, not giving a damn about politics and the state of the economy. But had my parents not made this move, I would have been oblivious to the world my blood relatives live in and what it feels like to live more humbly. I would not know any Malaysian slang or how teenagers here love taking hipster photos (seriously, they’re actually stylish) or the potential I have in overcoming challenges.
If you are ever in a situation similar to mine, just keep in mind that life may be at its peak with an awesome view of the sunset one day, and a pit of spikes the other. It happens to all of us at sometimes. The trick is to charge it with all the power you have and just soar. Because if you can’t change your route, at least enjoy the flight.
The author is still in Malaysia due to economic shortcomings but she sees it as a new adventure/place to grow. She enjoys cheap thrills such as scented candles, reading, traveling to scenic places, and watching talent shows.