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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

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expatriate in kuala lumpur

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.

Missing

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?

 

 

 

In case you were wondering


IMG_0408Getting out of the elevator is still my favorite time of day – stepping into the waft of refrigerator cold air, relishing for the few moments it takes to turn the corner and get a greeting of a hand across the heart from the doorman before the heat sucks me out the door.

On late days, I cut across the street. When I see a flood of motorbikes in the distance, I find my space and dart to the median, switch my purse to the other side of my chest, and dart the final distance to the never-ending construction site on the other side. I walk along with the traffic until I get to the newly completed construction project. Since I have been here they have constructed the buildings that I cut through to get to the five pristine avenues where I work.

On the unusual morning that I have 15 minutes to get to work, I take the skywalk. I walk past the unopened shops while the workers Zamboni the shiny white floors for the first time that day. Leftover wine bottles and cigarettes rest on the tables of bars that closed before the clients left the night before. Baristas bustle behind locked café doors. The faces that I pass all seem the same, but they aren’t. People come and go in this city, nothing stays. Buildings continue to rise, stores close and new ones open. Workers finish their contracts, head home, or move on to another one.

By the time I swipe in at work, I have worked up a sweat. I say good morning to the guard, who is a constant and trudge up the three flights of stairs to my office. Most people take the elevator, but I have to earn the milk and sugar in my tea. On the third floor, I park my shoes with all of the others and check them to see who has arrived before me. After the computer responds to my second card swipe – verified – I complete my trek with another waft of cold air. The office has 10 columns of cubicles. You may think that I would be the last person you would find in a cubicle, but I like it; it fits. I am in the last row by the windows, and I can scan the whole room when I want to give my eyes a break from the computer. I sit with all of the members of the English team, the graphic designers on one side and the subject matter experts on the other. We work well together. Our Instructional Designer, advisor, and the person who knits the loose ends of a module together sits a cubicle-row away within hearing range.IMG_0371

From 8:30 to 10:30 I create modules (lessons) for English language learners. I am learning that e-learning is not a matter of transferring your classroom lessons to a storyboard PowerPoint. I am still learning this detail. . . slowly. I realize how verbose we classroom teachers are. Take away our voices and we tend to flounder. I always claimed that my teaching was not teacher-centered, but the very act of explaining things to students is enough to disengage them. I have had to learn to use graphics, repetition, and other visuals to give direction and to engage the student. It is a challenge that I enjoy.

At around 10:00 in the morning, the tea girls bring in the milk tea and coffee. The tea is meant to be enjoyed at our desks as we work, and usually, it is unless my friend Dito and I get to talking, but we never cross the 15 minutes marked for tea-time. The tea is delightfully sweet and lukewarm. I try not to drink gallons of it, but it is hard to resist.

When we do return to our desks, we either continue with what we were creating, or review it with Jennifer and, in my case,  do some major revisions. Sometimes I get a call to the sixth floor to do the voiceover for Maths. I am Jesse, the young girl who narrates about square roots, and triangles, pi, and all of the most nightmarish math terms you can think of. Sometimes the English team does VO’s together, which is a bit livelier. Doing the voiceover on the sixth floor also gives me a chance to visit with my programming buddies.

My one o’clock lunch hour varies from day to day. I love to sneak back to the pool at my apartment and read. I am reading everything that I can about what I need to do to become an on-line writer (copywriter, blogger, SME, ghost writer). When I don’t isolate myself, where I go depends on who I am going with. Lim likes the cheapest possible Malaysian food he can find. I have learned to ask him where he is going before we leave. We all love to have our 8 ringett (2 USD) lunch at the outdoor Indian/Malay restaurant, where I always get roti and dahl. Otherwise, I find someone to get a Sizzling Hog burger, or some other attempt at western food.

The rest of the day is the same. A module for an SME can take three days to create, maybe more. In my case, more is usual, but I am improving module by module. Currently, my modules have been for English Language Learners at about 14 years old. I created a short story unit, poetry unit, writing process unit, letters and emails, and an essay unit. Once the GD’s do their magic, the presentation is impressive.

My workday ends at six. I return to the Capri happy that I do not own a car. If I was driving home, it would take an hour. Walking it takes 10 minutes. I am at the gym looking down on the traffic within a half an hour. There, I practice yoga and balance before I return home, read by the pool, and go to bed.

It is a solitary life, which I love. On the weekends I hike with the Happy Hikers, who are as intense about hiking as I am, if not more.  I will have to lay low in Malaysia until I get a new passport, which is too full for me to insert my work visa. Then I will travel to Nepal to travel to base camp with the Happy Hikers.

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