Living Abroad Series: Malaysia

Words by Alex Briggs & Image by @seakei

I am a British citizen, but I haven’t really lived in Britain. When I was around one years old, my parents moved to Dubai and at four they split up and I moved with my mum back to her home of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I spent nine more years living in Malaysia until I went to the UK for boarding school but returned to Malaysia for holidays at least twice a year. This continued through university and if it wasn’t for Covid, I’d probably be back in Malaysia now. 

This makes this article a bit difficult for me. It’s supposed to be about a place I lived abroad but considering how long I’ve been in Malaysia, it’s hard to say if it really is ‘abroad’ for me. I honestly consider Malaysia home, more than the UK. 

I moved to Malaysia at such a young age, I was stuck between the West and the East. People in Malaysia spoke Malay, yet my family primarily spoke English, as did my friends. Combined with the amount of American TV I enjoyed watching, figuring out the differences between Malaysia and western countries was a bit tricky. It took me a little while to understand that for countries like the UK, it was normal for the weather to change throughout the year, that people had to put on coats because it would be cold outside and everyone around you spoke one predominant language.

Malaysia was and is a country with many different faces. Kuala Lumpur was a modern city, but it also filled with vibrant plant and wildlife like monkeys climbing across telephone lines. Its shops, and roads were bustling and messy with an assortment of exquisite smells and sounds. It showcases various architectures from large skyscrapers to exquisite places of worship, often found situated right next to one another. One of the shopping malls that I would frequent was built around a Hindu Temple. That’s just how things were. 

And that’s just the capital. George Town, Penang has the feeling of a rustic China town filled with hipster cafés, with quirky interior. Many of the rural areas are still filled with rice fields and small villages and several areas are built up of colonial type buildings like the Cameron Highlands. 

People here celebrated festivals from all over the world. From the Christmas holidays to the Hari Raya, Deepavali, Wesak, Chinese New Year and Hungry Ghost Festivals, there’s too many to count! I think part of the reason I got so interested in mythology and legends was partially because Malaysia is formed of varying cultures that co-exist with one another. 

People likewise came in all shapes and sizes. My Malaysian family were always expressive and loving. Sharp and blunt with their opinions yet compassionate and caring when anyone was in need. I have to thank them for dragging me all over the country, even the more rural, middle of the rainforest areas that I did not care for until after I left. 

As I’ve grown up, I’ve made many lifelong friends in Malaysia. People I would trust with my life and welcomed me whenever I returned with a nice meal and a casual chat about films, anime, how much we hate the government and anything else in between. People who I’ve stayed up with at 1:00 catching Pokémon when Pokémon Go was a thing, because well, why not?! People here are welcoming, happy and warm. That is probably the best way I can describe Malaysia: warm.

The country is warm, the people are warm, and the atmosphere is warm even when it shouldn’t be. I always have a sense of calm when back home in Malaysia. Even when I’m stressed with work or school or the existential dread of not knowing what I’m doing with my life. The sleepy sunlight and quiet buzz of birds, lizards or cars help keep me relatively relaxed. It feels like, no matter how bad things can get, as long as you have roti canai for lunch and some shade from the midday heat, things can’t be too bad. 

This actually made it quite the shock for me when I was forced to go ‘back’ to the UK for boarding school. The weather was freezing. You had to buy sweaters and gloves and under garments when playing sports outside. The sky was constantly grey which always made the atmosphere feel kinda of dismal and gloomy. It definitely took some time to get used to. 

Unfortunately, Malaysia’s not doing so well right now. Since the start of the pandemic, the country has taken the approach of locking down until the virus is wiped out, except it isn’t going away and they’ve recently had even more cases. This likely means that I’m not going to be able to go home and see my mum, sister, family or friends for a while. A thought that is greatly upsetting. 

Even now, while I have grown to like the UK and in particular Cardiff for its own merit, in many ways I still associate it with school or work. Malaysia, for me is home, even if it doesn’t say so on my passport. And I really miss home.