Our team lead Tara talks about her year abroad experience in Malaysia and how eye opening it was.
In May this year, I finally left Malaysia for three months of travelling around Southeast Asia, leaving the country I had come to call home over the previous 8 months. Having never lived in a country other than the UK, moving to Malaysia on the other side of the world (not literally, but it feels like it!) has been drastically different to anything I would have experienced in the UK. It’s been great to be able to live here for a year because I’ve found it’s taken about that long to understand this country and its people – especially given how little exposure I had to Malaysian culture and history before I moved.
One of the biggest things I’ve learnt is how massive an impact the weather has on a country. Malaysia is just north of the equator, meaning that it is consistently hot (25-30°C) with a monsoon season and a dry season, although to be honest the difference between those two seasons isn’t that noticeable as I’ve experienced thunderstorms all year round! This means that there is little, if any, variation in the weather throughout the year, so there is no such thing as ‘summer’ or ‘winter’. It also makes it practically impossible to do any sports or activities outside because of the temperature, at least whilst the sun is still up. However, it does mean you always have a good chance of getting a tan, not that this is aspired to by the locals; whitening agents are used in a lot of beauty products in Malaysia to help lighten your natural skin tone.
The hot, and potentially very wet, weather has also resulted in a different architecture in urban areas, with very few pavements or pedestrianised areas because people don’t like being outside or walking in the heat, massive air-conditioned shopping malls to spend your time in on the weekends to keep cool, and plenty of covered walkways outside to protect you from the sun/rain. I’ve found the lack of pavements particularly difficult to adjust to because I like walking, so I tried walking around cities for sightseeing rather than using public transport. However, I have often discovered that a route Google Maps says you can walk tends to involve walking along/across highways or main roads, which hasn’t caused me any injuries so far, but definitely doesn’t feel safe!
Another big change I noticed between the UK and Malaysia was the drinking culture. Given that Malaysia is an Islamic country, I wasn’t expecting much of a drinking scene, which was the right assumption to make. However, what I hadn’t appreciated was how influential the drinking culture is over the British experience of University. Fresher’s week and society socials involved no drinking whatsoever here, and instead focused on ice-breaker type games, which I found horribly cringey, especially given the lack of alcohol! It made it difficult therefore to make friends with locals, as it was often predominantly the international students who you could find in the local bar, and I didn’t know what the alternative ‘hang out’ spot was. The lack of drunken students wandering around campus, however, did generally lead to much quieter evenings and much less vandalism/destruction of public property (at least as far as I noticed). It struck me a few months ago that security left traffic cones in the roads, and these have never been moved/stolen by students, which would almost definitely have happened in a student area in the UK.
Given that it is mostly international students drinking, I noticed when we went out into the city to drink or to go clubbing, there was an obvious targeting of white, particularly female, drinkers by the bar/club promoters. Ladies nights dominated the clubs, with free entry/drinks for all ladies in the group, which sounds like a great idea at first, but felt very weird, and unfair for the guys who came out with us and had to often pay high prices for entry. I was especially put off when I went out with a group of friends, of whom a large proportion were Asian-looking British guys, and only the girls and white guys were allowed to enter the club. Despite the fact that my friends were all British, which I believed was a key reason we were being let in, and that Malaysia defines itself by its multiculturalism and diversity, my friends were being discriminated against for not being white because they didn’t fit the Western stereotype.
I hadn’t expected to find that this was the case in Malaysia, and given that Malaysia achieved independence from Britain over 60 years ago, I assumed the sentiment towards Britain would be more negative than I often discovered. There is still a lot of admiration held for the British, and the West more generally, but I think this is predominantly directed towards Caucasian westerners rather than acknowledging the ethnic diversity that currently exists in the UK and the West. My year abroad has made me challenge my thoughts and feelings on British colonialism, as I found that it is a much more subtle and complex issue than I had previously realised, and I feel like it is often avoided as a topic of conversation in the UK because of its contentious associations, but exploring a country which is a former colony has highlighted to me how little knowledge I even had on the topic.
What I’ve learnt from my year abroad has been pretty different from what I expected to learn, and I felt was distinct from the rosy image that the International Office paints of making friends for life and potentially having the best year of your life or your university life. That’s not to say that I haven’t had an amazing time and made friends that I hope I’ll stay in contact with for years to come, but I think it can become easy to ignore a lot of the challenges and stresses I went through to get to this point and only focus on the positive parts of the adventure. I definitely feel that this year has been instrumental in opening my eyes to the world and made me appreciate what I have and what other countries and cultures have to offer, but it’s been a much more mixed year than I often talked about or showed online. I don’t think I have any regrets about my year abroad, and I’m really glad I did it, but I also couldn’t wait to go back home, go on a nice country walk to the pub, and enjoy relaxing in my comfort zone.
Tara Goatley, Monday 7th January 2019, 11:12 AM