Category Archives: Malaysia

Longing for a List

The irritating, understanding, omniscient they claim that experience is the best teacher.

Newsflash: They’re right.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have a weak spot for lists of ideas, books, movies, sayings, and experiences that will purportedly change my life. You’ve seen them: 100 Places to Visit Before You Die, 50 Ways to Beat Stress, 20 Things You Wish Your Mother Had Told You, etc. Real Simple magazine, which I love dearly for its, well, simplicity, provided a list of 50 Books That Will Change Your Life that is tacked above my desk. I’ve been working my way through them and they’re excellent.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that I wish someone had shoved a list of Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad under my nose and forced me to read it. But deep down, I know that even if they had, there’s no guarantee I would have listened. If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’ve probably gathered that I’m ambitious and adventurous and that I’m bad at risk assessment. (No, I don’t jump off cliffs. I’m adventurous, not stupid.) I am, however, a dreamer and I like to test myself. I get ideas into my head and can be rather single-minded in instances when I should talk less, listen more, and think before I act. If I had put together a list of what I was told and how I was warned before moving to Malaysia, I would have had my very own list of Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad. I wish I’d done that. Instead, I turned what I heard on its head and heard what I wanted to hear.

I heard, but I didn’t listen; I thought, but I didn’t consider.

It’s hiring season now for international schools around the world. Most hiring fairs will be over by the end of February. This is shockingly early in comparison to the US, when talking about “next year” generally waits until after April Break. In light of the 2015 hiring season, a recent Facebook post from a friend considering teaching abroad, and my own reflection of 6 months (6 months!!!!!) worth of experiences, I bring you . . .

12 Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad*
*I take no responsibility for personal happiness, self-fulfilment, or the quality of advice provided. This list is meant to be purely informational based on my (relatively limited) experience, career path, and personal situation. You can’t sue me because you made a poor, uniformed decision tough choice and are unhappy. Capisce?

1. You are not an objective thinker. My friends have always told me that I give good advice because I look at situations from all sides. When you yourself are involved in making a huge decision, you will lose all objectivity. No one considering a career change or huge move is completely impartial.

2. Considering the above, listen to what others have to say. There is a difference between hearing and listening. I heard a lot of people say things like, “Wow, that’s really . . . wow” and “The only way you’ll regret this is if you die.” (Real statement from a real person.) Neither of those are ringing endorsements for the idea of giving up an apartment lease, selling a car and possessions, packing everything else into boxes, quitting a job, saying goodbye to everyone, and moving 12 time zones away.

3. Relatedly, ask people who know you well for advice. Mitch and I asked literally everyone we knew for advice. Those who knew us were much more cautious and concerned when saying what they had to say. The others, the ones who we listened to, ironically, heard words like “travel” and “experience” and told us to go for it. Most of those friends spend about 50% of their waking hours drunk or high; we would never listen to them under normal circumstances, but we made the mistake of listening because they told us what we wanted to hear.

4. If you don’t want a career change, don’t change careers. I really wanted a job in Europe teaching social studies, which is what I taught back in the US (and love teaching and miss teaching). I ended up with a job teaching elementary school in Malaysia. Journalists don’t end up working for NBC, CNN, or anything we’ve ever heard of right out of school; they write weekly columns for local papers about upcoming yard sales, but that’s still journalism. I should have waited for a social studies job. I miss social studies and secondary students every single day and what I’ve found here wasn’t worth changing educational areas.

5. Look for concrete evidence. The school where I teach is brand spanking new. It opened far too early with no resources. The school has a lot of plans and that’s what they advertise. There are no real photos on the website because nothing looks the way management have imagined it to look. Promises are everywhere but evidence is lacking.

6. Pay the $30 membership fee for access to International Schools Review. ISR publishes anonymous reviews of hundreds of schools around the world and even includes a guide of what to look for to make sure the reviewer is telling the truth. Treat this like you would review on Amazon – not everyone has the same preferences and not everyone looks for the same things, but the information is valuable.

7. Buy a guidebook and read it. A quick Google search of the city where I live told me that there’s a Starbucks here, loads of restaurants, and 14 sights on TripAdvisor. I assumed that meant this was a “real place,” by which I meant a place like home where I can walk around, explore different neighborhoods, and have things to do over the weekend. I didn’t learn enough about Malaysia before arriving to know that cities are poorly planned, rarely include sidewalks, traffic is horrendous because roads are narrow, shopping malls are in every city and full of chain restaurants and popular Western stores, and temples listed on TripAdvisor are places of worship, not places to visit. All of the above accurately describes where I live; a description of other places in Malaysia would be very different. I didn’t know enough about where we were going. A quick glance at a Lonely Planet guidebook would have told me exactly what I needed to know – “nothing to detain you here.”

8. Learn about local history and culture and know a few words in the local language before arrival. This is something Mitch honestly did quite well. I didn’t, so thank goodness for him! Knowing the political history of Malaysia helped us make sense of what we saw when we got here and what we have seen in our travels. It also helped us understand what to say, what not to say, and a little bit about the shared histories of different groups of people.

9. Don’t rush into a contract. International school contracts are not exactly binding. Breaking contract is really common and really easy. Mid-year hiring occurs when teachers go home for Christmas and don’t come back. International school contracts are also complicated, because sometimes they’re company contracts and not your typical teaching contract. Read carefully and get everything in writing.

10. Unfortunately, we’ve learned over and over don’t trust anyone. I can count on one hand the number of promises that have been fulfilled when and as expected – 1. That was my flight here. Everything else that we were promised has either been brushed aside, changed, altered, or pushed back . . . even though it’s in writing.

11. Watch the signs. The person who hired me and was supposed to be my boss quit, our moving date was changed because the apartments weren’t ready, the school calendar wasn’t finalized until after arrival, and the school couldn’t provide photos of the building’s interior in July when it was supposed to open in September. I should have known.

12. If you still decide to go, travel. I hate living where I’m living, I hate the school and people I work for, I spent four months in a hotel, I’m still working illegally, I have no passion for teaching elementary school, I desperately miss Mitch and my friends and family. However, the travel opportunities and life experiences that we’ve had and the amazing people that we’ve met make me feel that choosing to come out here has not been an utter failure.

Before I left the US, my parents tried on numerous occasions to convince me to stay home, work for another year at my previous school, and take another year to look for social studies jobs in places where I wanted to be. I told my dad that I had to see this fail before I would get teaching abroad out of my system. I don’t want to be here anymore, but I’m not 100% sure I’m ready to go home. Some days, I’m this close to looking at flights. Other days, I just want it all to work.

Chinese New Year Travels

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Horse has gone and we are now in the Year of the Goat. Most countries in Southeast Asia have a day or two off for CNY and because I’m a teacher, I have more. (Don’t be jealous.) I flew to Singapore early Wednesday afternoon and Mitch flew back to Malaysia with me Saturday afternoon. He left today, Monday, and I return to school tomorrow. I feel relaxed and refreshed, though sad to say goodbye to Mitch. We haven’t spent this long together since going to Spain with my family over Christmas. Before, we hadn’t spend that long together since he left Malaysia in October. We are getting rather tired of so much distance.

Going to Singapore over Chinese New Year is a bit like coming to the US over Thanksgiving – for a day or two, everything is closed, streets are quiet, and most people are spending time with their families. Luckily, Singapore has expats, constant tourism, and such a large expat community that there were more than enough places for us to eat and wander around. I’ve been to Singapore four times now and I really enjoy just meandering through different areas and exploring places that real Singaporeans frequent. Having Mitch as a quasi-local is definitely helpful!

Speaking of local experiences, I went to a 24-hour health clinic while in Singapore to get my eye checked out. Last week it was red and swollen for a couple days and got better so I thought everything was fine. It flared up again the first night I was in Singapore so we headed to the doctor in the morning. I have two types of eyedrops that I’m using now, so hopefully that will clear everything up.

One of our impromptu destinations this time, largely because we couldn’t remember the name of the MRT stop for the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, was the Singapore Botanical Gardens. Everyone who wasn’t having a family meal was picnicking under trees, playing Frisbee on open fields, or running on winding paths through the different gardens.


Really cool plants

Big lily pads!

Fun fact: Turtles spend time out of water! Look!


We watched the turle leave its shelter among the tree roots, cross a footpath, and make its way down a small bank. We didn’t wait to see if it made it safely into the water; turtles are slow.

Singapore, like Kuala Lumpur, is home to numerous independent coffee shops and cafes that roast their own beans and are eager to teach their customers about it. We started exploring coffee culture in KL a few months ago and Mitch has done the same in Singapore. This picture from Singapore’s Common Man Coffee Roasters pretty much sums up what we’re looking for:

How can you not love a place that serves coffee like this?
How can you not love a place that serves coffee like this?

One day when both Mitch and I are employed, we’ll treat ourselves to Common Man’s food. Reading the descriptions of some Middle Eastern-inspired brunch items on the menu made my mouth water.

Happily, we did find brunch specials in other parts of the Robertson Quay neighborhood. We walked around hoping for less expensive food than they serve at the Common Man, but honestly didn’t have much hope in finding any. To give you an idea of the neighborhood, consider this: In a city that limits the number of cars allowed at any one time, there’s no MRT station within a 20 minute walk. Still confused? Think about the type of people who don’t need public transit . . . because they have cars . . . In short, Robertson Quay is far from affordable for most people. It sure is pretty, though!

Roberton Quay

A number of the restaurants serve breakfast all day or until mid-afternoon, so that’s definitely the way to go when watching one’s wallet. There’s less of a mark-up on eggs.

Back in Malaysia, however, Mitch and I are able to smile at the prices – they’re often nominally the same in ringgit and dollars, giving us much more purchasing power. Mitch doesn’t have a functional kitchen in his apartment so we shared the cooking at my apartment, which we always enjoyed at home. We made some darn good food, too! You can take a look at the tantalizing lists of ingredients here, here, and here. Some creative substituting was required; there’s no Wegmans here and Cold Storage is in KL 😦

We went up to KL on Sunday to visit Antipodean Coffee in the Bangsar neighborhood. I highly recommend, both for their brunch and the coffee! I’ll probably be back there next weekend, to be honest. Bangsar Village is home to a plethora of unique cafes, boutiques, shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s basically everything I hoped I’d find when moving to Malaysia and it’s everything I miss living in Seremban. There’s even a farmer’s market nearby!

Farmer's market
You pick your produce, put it in baskets, give the baskets to the farmers, and then pay by weight!
Lots of leafy greens
Lots of leafy greens

Food, coffee, greenery, relaxation made for a  happy Chinese New Year for me. Happy Year of the Goat!

A Little Secret

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I am very shy and very bad at making friends.

The thing is, you’d probably never know. Most of my friends probably don’t even know. It is a huge effort for me to introduce myself to someone new if I am by myself. If I’m with someone else, I’m comfortable, I’m happy, and I’m excited to meet new people. That’s when I make friends. Alone, I shrink into myself, bury my face in a book, avoid making eye contact, and try to pretend that I’m calm and cool and satisfied being alone. Most of the time, I’m feeling the exact opposite. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I don’t know why taking a chance is so hard. What’s the worst that could happen? Worst is, we have an awkward conversation. So what?

This past week at work showed me what it feels like to be isolated in a building full of people. My last remaining comrade in primary left Malaysia last weekend and I had the privilege of helping her make the arrangements during her last week at school. It’s the least I could do for someone with whom I have the shared experience of being bullied by our boss; every time I mention something that our boss has done, I wonder if the person I’m talking to actually believes me. It’s usually that ridiculous. Thankfully, my friend and her family are back in their home country now. I’ve never seen her and her children as happy as they were when we came back from the airport holding the tickets that had been paid for in cash! I miss her terribly but it’s definitely better for them to be back home.

Without her, I’m definitely lost at work. I rebel, and that’s not going to change, but now I’m rebelling on my own. My remaining friends are in secondary and I don’t see them at all during the day. My other friends are lower primary teachers so we don’t have the same recess and lunch times. Long story short, I am completely alone at work and I hate it. It’s hard to tell what “side” people are on so I can’t say what I’m thinking most of the time. The walls have ears in that building, anyway. Up to this point, I have been incredibly lucky to work in a very tight-knit social studies department. The people in that department were my closest friends at work and having them as colleagues was a wonderful part of my job.

With my friends here, we’ve starting talking recently about our social lives. A very difficult part of that is that they’re limited. The staff at school is quite small and we don’t live in a vibrant, cosmopolitan area with a plethora of opportunities to meet people outside of school. We live in a very small town where everything one would want to do is about an hour away in KL or Melaka. An hour might not be far to travel, but it’s far to go to find somewhere livable, especially since I’m used to Rochester where literally everything is within 20 minutes and I strategically positioned myself in the middle of all of it. While I love my friends here, we all agree that we miss having multiple social groups and social opportunities.

Friends have not been hard to come by here, despite my shyness, because everyone showed up looking for friends. I do feel alone, however, because it’s my first time without a roommate, because my boyfriend lives in another country, and because my closest friends here are a couple. Mitch and I never minded – and honestly really liked – when another friend joined us for a meal or an outing but that’s not the same for everyone and I’m not brave enough to ask. If I were braver, I’d attempt to include myself more often. I’m not braver.

I had a similar experience my first year teaching. I moved back home and started work and graduate school while my friends from undergrad did the same. My friends from high school were finishing their senior years of university. My friends in graduate school had attended the same school as undergraduates and most of them had friends still in the area. I never felt like I fit into that group of people, also because many of them had known each other since undergrad. They never made me feel that way; I made myself feel that way. I don’t know why.

I was very lonely until some my friends moved home the following year. That loneliness led to a series of terrible choices because I was looking for a “go-to” person. My roommates had always been my go-to people and now I was living with my parents. I didn’t feel comfortable enough (why, why?) with any of my new friends to call them up on a Saturday night and make plans, so I just didn’t make plans. I was alone a lot.

Life definitely got better when some high school friends returned to town and I moved in with one of them. We had a social life! We had friends! Most of the new hires at Mitch’s company were our age and because Mitch is great at making friends, I also had new friends! In at least two of our groups, I had the job of Planner, so we always had plans on weekend evenings. Sometimes we’d be with this group, sometimes with that group, and sometimes we’d be with a new group entirely. With at least one person who I know in a room full of people, I’m quite social. I think it’s because I know that I can always join another conversation or wave at the one person that I know. Mitch and I usually spent our nights talking with different people and recapped our experiences to each other on the way home. When Mitch spent months at a time studying for the CFA and people were busy, I’d call my mum. I like being alone for finite periods of time, usually weekday evenings. Otherwise, I prefer to be around people.

Here in Seremban, I’m alone very often and I find it very hard. I’ve never felt isolated before because there has always been someone to call, and sometimes I chose not to. Here, I feel isolated, lonely, and sad much more often that I used to. No one has done anything to make me feel that way, so it’s probably self-imposed. I just don’t know how to fix it.