Statistics show that we are about 200,000 people. Two hundred thousand expatriates from pretty much all over the world are settled in Malaysia, more or less temporarily.
We bring many aspects of our home countries with us when we arrive — languages, foods, brands, customs and traditions. We carry just about as many peculiarities of our host country out into the world when we leave again.
While most of us stay in Malaysia between two and four years, there are a surprisingly high number of “sticky bottoms” like me — people who come for a few years, who keep finding a good reason to stay on just two more years, then another two more years and then some more.
Whether we are newbies or oldies, whether we are working or trailing, we typically gather in large groups in restaurants. Savvy waiters know better than to ask us where we hail from, as they will have to listen to a never-ending list of provenances.
We mix with absolutely everybody, and many of us carry several passports, and feel at home in even a few more places, Malaysia being one of them.
It is a funny thing to feel at home in a foreign country. You are here and there, in and out, more Malaysian than a foreigner, yet more foreign than a native. It’s a kind of settled restlessness — or is it restless settledness?
While we try to figure out what we feel exactly, we do love to celebrate our roots; not least for the benefit of our children who are, effectively, pretty rootless.
A vast number of associations help us to observe our traditions, from the quite serious ones like the Japan Foundation and the Goethe-Institute, to the more nonchalant American Association and the frolicsome St Patrick’s Society, best known for their annual ball.
A quick Google search turned up more than 17 results for social associations, and even more for business-related ones to help us survive initial or recurrent nostalgia.
Funny how we left our homeland for a reason, yet we proudly parade our national flags on Independence or National Day. We celebrate our native athletes’ Olympic medals and lug back loads of produce from our home leave each year, either to be shared with friends or indulged in all by ourselves.
There are expat magazines, newsletters, websites, info portals and survivor guides to help us answer questions such as where to live, what school to choose, how to buy a car and insurance, where to book Bahasa Malaysia or golf lessons, and where to find our favourite breakfast cereals.
We’ll find radio stations, podcasts, social media outlets, Facebook pages and food festivals to help us appreciate the typical Malaysian uniqueness we experience every day.
Somehow, slowly, this typical Malaysian uniqueness grows on us. Somehow, slowly, we lose the deer in the headlights look on our faces and adopt some of the endearing local quirkiness — as well as some of its worst oddities.
We start ordering satu lagi at the local watering hole without batting an eyelash. We are “on the way” without blushing, even half an hour after the original meeting time.
“Stop here, can? Boleh, boleh”, as we encourage the taxi driver to halt in the middle of the intersection.
We jaywalk in suicidal audaciousness without considering the dreadful role models we become to our children. We avoid making social calls, in person or on the phone, before 11am because, really, the day hasn’t begun as long as the local mall has not opened its doors to the avid shopper.
We join in the general outrage if one of the 20 public holidays each year falls on a Saturday and is therefore wasted, so to speak.
The attentive reader will notice at this point that I have omitted to mention the two big elephants in the room, local driving customs and queuing etiquette.
The former is big enough to warrant an article all by itself, while the latter is one issue at which I personally draw the line and where, in my opinion, cultural immersion ends.
Once we return to our home country, be it for a well-deserved holiday or a generally dreaded repatriation, we become the quirky ones in our own backyard. We are under-whelmed with the local shopping mall, how unappreciative!
We point with our thumb, so strange! We take our shoes off in front of the door, how polite! We complain about the tiny living spaces, so spoiled! We ask about the wet kitchen, the what?
As expats in Malaysia, we constantly walk on a tight rope. We try to perform a balancing act of immersing ourselves in the customs and habits of our host country, while keeping and cherishing our own national identity.
And, at the end of our stay, we leave behind a piece of our heart, and we carry away a piece of Malaysia with us wherever we go next.
Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast — as Goethe’s Dr Faust so eloquently put.
Fanny Bucheli-Rotter is a life-long expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition, and unapologetically insubordinate