Expatriate in Kuala Lumpur – a woman's walkabout – Elizabeth Goodhue

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros



The Winnowing Fan dilemma

Being an expatriate is my normal.

I have a feeling that I have always been one, even in my own country. It is my normal to feel like a foreigner. Being an American in Asia or Mexico makes my foreignness more obvious, because of the language and the color of my skin. Living in New England makes it easy to hide the foreigner in me.

How small is America?

Living and traveling in Southeast Asia, makes me realize how small America is. While you, we, are grappling with the election of our new president (He Who Shall Not Be Named), he is a passing fancy here. Here in Malaysia, America is no big deal. When locals ask me where I live, I usually say on the New York side or the opposite side from California. Sometimes, I just say I live near Canada. Most of the time people just cannot imagine where that might be.

I’ll admit that as an American I always felt privileged, maybe a step above the rest of the world. Living among expatriates in Kuala Lumpur has made me realize that I am not. Nor am I the center of the universe, which may seem obvious to you, but it took me a while to realize that.


Still, I find myself missing my country. The regularity of starting my car on a cold winter day. Wondering whether I will make it out of the driveway if I get enough traction as I charge our of the garage full bore. I miss going to Twelve Pine for a latte. I miss crashing around the woods with Beth. I miss lunch at Plowshare Farm. I miss clipping on my cross country skis and skiing out of my basement door in a raging snowstorm.

Do I want to come back?

I miss the normalcy of my New England life. The question is can I sustain the personal and emotional growth that I have gained in the past two and a half years, or would I slither back into my old skin again.

Do I want to come back?

Yes. I want to come back and live in a room with a kitchen, a bed, and a bathroom. I want to live in the woods, off the grid and write.

Can I come back?

I certainly have taken risks before. I am capable of doing anything. But I’ll need a car. I’ll need to pay first and last month’s rent. Oh and I’ll need a job. Isn’t it funny how leaving the country was so easy, so dynamic, unpredictable and challenging, but grappling with a possible return stops me dead in my tracks? All of my protectors leap out at me and yell be careful, it’s not the way you think it is, you will fall into a rut again, you can’t teach, you can’t earn a living writing, you will end up right where you started two and a half years ago. But I can keep them at bay. I have taken to propping those voices on my shoulder and telling them to settle down and watch me take care of myself.

Plant the oar

I finally get it when Tiresias gives Odysseus the oar and tells him that after he returns to Ithaka he will have to go somewhere far away and plant the oar in a place where no one has ever seen one before. It’s because Odysseus is not that person anymore. He made it back to Ithaka a different man, and Ithaka was not the same either. Plant the oar, plant your old self somewhere far away and your return will be complete.

So I can go back. I can take my oar with me. And after I have settled into my life there, I can pick up my oar and take it to say, Louisiana or Kansas, and plant it there. Because home is in my heart. I know that it is not in Peterborough, Katonah, or Kuala Lumpur.

It sounds so simple.

Why is it so hard?





Last Day of the Everest Base Camp Trail Trek

I lost my group. As we left the double suspension bridge, double suspension.jpgwe took a different path simply because it went down. The idea of going up was not something any of us was willing to do if we had a choice. Peri had gone ahead at his steadfast pace. Ganesan and I were staying with Danya who was sick with fever, vomiting, and delirium. I went ahead to relieve myself after a yak team passed by us, and that was the last I saw of my group for most of that day.

yaks-on-suspension-bridgeThe trail was empty, which is unheard of, especially this far down when the faint-of-heart have not yet given up. I ran into one more yak team and their driver, which did not surprise me because I was walking in a mire of Yak shit. I ran into an Australian coming from Lukla, so I knew I would eventually end up in the right place.

2016-10-10 10.44.51.jpg

The trail was beautiful and woodsy, interrupted by waterfalls flowing through it. At the next suspension bridge, I looked down at the way I should have come–a bright, flat trail that ran along the river. This was not the first time that I had opted for the more challenging path in my life. Perry was not there, so I assumed I must have fallen quite far behind because of my detour, which seemed much longer than the pleasant river stroll, which I could have opted for. I waited at the bridge for about 20 minutes to confirm my conclusion.


I happened upon a town five minutes from the bridge and peered into every tea house and café along the way to find my compadres. Then I stopped to take some tea on a wall outside of a little hovel where a woman and her daughter said they would deliver some tea. It was so warm and sunny there that I forgot to think of the yaks.

yaks-drinking-teaYaks have the right of way—always. When a team of them approached me while I sat on the wall drinking milk tea, I dodged into the doorway so as not to be pushed off of my perch. The head yak stopped to take a lick out of the sugar bowl next to my tea. I threw an almond at it to get it to move on with little effect. With a whistle from his master, the yak moved on without getting a sweet taste of my tea.


I still had a residual fear that my group would be angry with me for dashing ahead if I was ahead, so I started telling people if they saw an Indian man and a woman in green coats walking along, they should tell them the American was ahead of them.

High-end toilet

The more I thought about it, I realized that there was no way that Danya could have gotten that far ahead of me in her condition, so I took a pit stop, ordered some potatoes and two cups of tea and waited. I noted where I was: Solukhumba – Riverview Lodge. And waited. And waited for two hours before I saw Perry’s green jacket and Ganesan’s orange pants bobbing down the trail.


We put Danya on a horse to Lukla and continued well behind her on foot.

Bouncing from Namche Bazar to Lukla

2016-10-07-09-18-53It felt good to breathe more easily with each meter that I descended. I danced across suspension bridges without trepidation, managed to piss without hitting my shoes or socks, made way for yaks and porters. I experienced my journey in reverse.


My favorite parts of the trek were below the tree line in the Rhododendron Forest where I could peek through the trees and the clouds to see Everest once on the way up and once on the way down.

On the way down, the sky was the most brilliant and clear it had been on the entire trip. When we got to Tengboche, the sky blew open and free of clouds. I could see the monastery where we had attended a prayer and tea drinking ceremony in a thick fog on our way up. I could see the bakery where we had eaten some of the best apple pie that I have ever tasted. AND I could see Everest in all of its majesty. Everest is almighty because it is Everest, but I found its sister and brother mountains to be just as spectacular. The unpredictable cloud cover made the mountains grander because I never knew if, or when, they would reveal themselves. When they did, they were awe-inspiring.

While I danced down the mountain as people trudged up, I understood the lightness I had seen in people coming down as I had trudged toward base camp. Now I weaved among the yaks knowingly. I plunged through their dung and felt charged by my ever-increasing supply of oxygen.

The end

Have I changed? Of course. Would I ever do it again? NEVER—well, probably never.


The third world continues to overwhelm me, but it is easier to digest in the mountains where beautiful people move in sync with the earth using every resource they can find — the river to wash their clothes, grass to cover the fertile soil, yak dung for warmth, tourists for profit.


Men work as porters bearing burdens exceeding their body weight. Women run tea houses. They also take the time to plant colorful gardens with marigolds and bright red flowers that peer over the stone walls that line the trail. The poverty is clean and quiet, unseemly and home grown. It is a subsistence lifestyle.


In Kathmandu, women and children buzz recklessly in dusty clouds on motorbikes, tooting their horns at nothing, cows amble through the city not knowing which trash heap to lick. At the temple beggars with amputated everything lie twitching in the sun, and I wonder who placed them there so strategically. The beauty of a temple turns into a scam. I didn’t notice any prayer flags flapping in Kathmandu. Is there nothing to pray for in this wretched contrast to where I have been?img_3808

I wonder what the great Buddha thinks. The same Buddha whose eyes scan the peaks of the Himalayas from pale stone shrines along the Everest Base Camp trail watching people from all over the world make their pilgrimage to the great mother mountain.



Trekking the Mt. Everest Base Camp Trail — the week before

This adventure will be told in three or four installments. Stay tuned.

The week before

img_3916The week before I left on my trek to Everest Base Camp, I was banned from going on the trip; my passport was still at immigration; I did not have my visa for Nepal (which was okay, but I wanted it in my hand when I boarded the plane), and finally, I was sure that I was about to lose my job. I was a wreck, ready to come home, give it all up.

As I licked my wounds, I tried to get my passport back. It is a universal truth that when it comes to dealing with anything government, you are speaking another language. Throw in living in a multi-lingual culture (Tamil, Malay, English with a heavy accent, Mandarin…) and you can only imagine how I felt swimming through the system.

The US embassy processed my new passport in a week. A week before my passport was due to be returned, Malaysian immigration said that they had changed their policy (what policy?) and it would take a month more to process my work visa. When I rejected that idea, they claimed that I had not paid my taxes. When I showed them my receipt of payment, they claimed that a holiday had held up the process.

I got messages like your passport is ready. I would go over to get it, and immigration had no idea who I was. Then the message came on Tuesday before it was time to leave: your passport has not been approved; call us back; come get your passport at 4 pm. Yes, I did proofread that sentence. Since I was communicating through four people who spoke several different languages, I decided to go down to HR to see if they could translate this mysterious message for me. She looked up the status of my case on the computer and saw that my passport was ready.

I took an Uber to immigration. It was much easier this time because I knew where it was. On my previous trip, I discovered that the immigration branch that deals with expats is not on the GPS system. When I got there to pick up my passport, they told me to wait in the lobby for some guy whose name I could never pronounce in a million years. Down to the lobby, I went to ask the dudes at the front desk if they knew who this person was. Either they had absolutely no idea, or they couldn’t understand a word that I said, OR I couldn’t understand a word that said or all of the above. At this point, I confirmed my serious problem with anxiety, which did not help the situation.

I sat in the lobby repeating the serenity prayer and waited for the guy with the unpronounceable name to show up. A guy did show up and made some kind of muddled announcement several times before I heard the words Learning Port mingled in a garbled, possibly English, sentence.

My passport had arrived. From what I gathered, telling me to come get the passport was translated into we will drive the passport to Learning Port. As an English Major, a writer, a woman with her master’s degree and a decent command of the English language, the multiple ways of speaking this English astound me. Malaysia may be a country where “everyone speaks English” but that what kind of English that might be is questionable.

It was Tuesday, so I ran to the Nepalese Embassy (I could write a novel about that experience), but they only processed visas from 10:30 to 12:30. I went the next day, to be at the front of the line at 10:30. There are a lot of people from Nepal who work in Malaysia. People ship them in by the planeload for decent and cheap labor. I had plenty of time to talk to several business owners about this while I waited for the two hours it took for the electricity to turn on before I could get in to get my tourist visa.

I was the only person getting a travel visa, the only woman, and the only non-Asian, so I did stand out a bit. The two people behind the desk serving about 150 people trying to renew their work visas beckoned me to plow through the mob. When I got there, the clerk pointed out that I needed a photocopy of my passport. I looked at the photocopy machine sitting next to him, gave him the I-have-been-waiting-on-a-spit-filled-sidewalk-for-two-hours look, and asked him politely to make a copy for me. On Wednesday, the day before our departure, I retrieved my passport from the Nepalese embassy; this time, they had electricity.

img_3847Another glitch in the preparation

Four days before the trip to Everest Base Camp began, the group leader had kicked me off the trip and out of the Happy Hikers. I was guilty of not being a team player, and hiking as if I was trying to catch a plane. I am guilty as charged of both of these crimes. I have always moved too fast. For the sake of my credibility, I will not detail my qualities as a team player.

Also, four days before the trip, my supervisor told me that there was no more work for me to do at my company. My passport was still at immigration for my work visa and I needed to get it back to get my visa for Nepal. (I was planning on going alone at this point.) Things were not going well.

Do I work here anymore?

The undercurrent of all of this chaos was that I was beginning to figure out that my days as a Subject Matter Expert were drawing to a close. I had discussed this feeling I had with a supervisor, but we had not come to any conclusion. Rather that describing this Ring-Around-the-Rosie, let me just say that I did the communicating this time in writing, which is my best medium. I wrote a letter to my boss with a proposal of how I wanted to write a blog for Learning Port that would draw potential buyers to his website. What did I have to lose? I want to be a writer. He agreed and on Monday, I will move up a floor to write and to edit. Unless something has happened while I have been trekking in Nepal, I am looking forward to starting again on Monday.

The short version is that I was allowed back into the group. I got my passport. My work visa was renewed, I had my tourist visa for Nepal, the trip leader allowed me back on the trip, and I gained some humility on the way.


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