I was recently speaking to a new British friend who has been living in Malaysia for a couple of years (let’s just call him John Smith as he wishes to stay anonymous, although I will disclose his age to give you a little detail of the person who is sharing this story – he is in his early 30s) and we were talking about his difficulties with some cultural differences here – especially with making friends, communication style differences at work and leisure, and new ways of life that baffle him.
Now, he has kindly put his musings in writing: he shares his tale on his life as a traveler, why he constantly wonders why he does it himself, and finally, the tough bits about living in a foreign country. – Karen Chin @karenevachin
IT IS NOT EASY being a traveler. I would never describe myself as a ‘backpacker’ because I have never wandered around a dusty Third-World town in the middle of nowhere, living like a turtle with all my worldly belongings on my back. But I’m definitely a traveler.
I lived in Japan for about five years off and on, then back to England for three years before heading out to Malaysia, where I’m currently three and a half years (and then some) deep. I did a month in Seoul somewhere in the middle of all that, as well as countless one- and two-week trips.
So I think I can call myself a traveler.
The question that I keep coming back to is why? Why do I continually pack my bags and leave my precious belongings at my mum’s house before wandering away to some far-flung corner of the world where I don’t actually know anyone? More importantly, why do we do it? I am certainly not alone in all this – there are millions of people each year that set out for a foreign part of the world to set up their stalls and see what comes.
For me, personally, it has always been a work choice. I have generally felt that my talents were better suited to being away from England, especially as I speak fluent Japanese, which explains the Japan portion of my wanderings, but I am not sure why Malaysia or why for so long.
I originally only intended to be here for one year as an English teacher, but when I decided there was no career in English teaching, I ended up getting a job here and have been here much longer than I usually stay in a country.
The funny thing is that as a foreigner living in a strange country, it is actually really hard to get by. If we ignore some of the more superficial things like the food and the weather, establishing a life can be really challenging.
There are work visas to worry about, extortionate ‘foreigner prices’ and often a genuine sense of displacement as we sit for yet another meal with yet another group of people that forget pretty quickly that you don’t actually speak the language. Add to that huge amounts of red tape that seem to surround you everywhere you go and occasionally the necessity to register as a ‘legal alien’ and suddenly the sunny weather doesn’t seem like much compensation, eEspecially when you realise that getting up at seven in the morning to go to work in Malaysia is just as tiring as getting up to go to work at seven in the morning in England.
So why go through it? It does not really seem to make much sense, and this, perhaps, is why I have never stayed the course much longer than about three years. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going! Yet here I am, still in Malaysia, away from family and friends and the world as I know it. We keep coming back to the same question – why?
I will admit that there are many days when I really wonder, hence the title, ‘World Weary’. But I know I wouldn’t have it any other way. For every piece of red tape that makes me want to smash my head against a wall (or someone’s head – no sense wasting a perfectly good one), or every time I have a cultural misunderstanding, or someone asks me to eat some local ‘delicacy’ which is clearly only ever trotted out to see if the foreigner can be grossed out, there is the feeling that this isn’t usual, it is not humdrum and, yes, getting up early for work is still rubbish, and yes, leaving work late is still really crap, but I am not doing it in England and that’s the important thing.
Martin Stevenson’s book ‘More Than Footprints” (please do buy a copy!) repeatedly asks us why we travel and it is hard to know, while easy at the same time!
Even after three years and counting in Malaysia, I am still entranced by the idea that I am writing this at 10pm, sitting outside in my shirtsleeves. I am currently locked out of my house actually, but even that’s not so bad when you can pop to a café and enjoy the evening rather than huddling around a lit cigarette for warmth.
For me it often boils down to one thing – it is better to be depressed and world weary in a hot climate than it is in a cold one! You can even adapt this to – it is better to be depressed and world weary in a foreign country than in England!
So I travel and I move around. Every time I promise myself I will stay, every time I never manage it. Maybe this time will be different, but, if it’s not, then I can still be world weary somewhere else in the world and it will be new again!
(As a brief addendum, I’m watching a Chinese couple argue with an Arab man about their food being delivered to the wrong table, which houses an Indian lady, while I light another cigarette and try not to laugh too loudly in the 32 degree evening. Find that in England, I dare you!)
-John Smith 🙂