Interview with an Expat

Most people I know are retired expats whose native language is English. But a lot of expats from various nations are employed here too. I thought it would be interesting to interview different expats of different nationalities to garner their opinions on living in Penang / Malaysia. This is the first.

This interview is with JY, a young lady from Korea who is employed in Penang. She kindly agreed to talk to me, but prefers to remain anonymous, as it’s easier to be honest then.

Tropical Expat: What brought you to Malaysia?

JY:    Work. I got a job in Korea and then there was an opportunity to come to Malaysia.  My major at University was Chinese literature, and I learnt a little bit of English while I was in Australia fruit picking. And I learnt the Chinese language at University. I heard that Malaysia was a very good country to learn a lot of languages. So I took the opportunity, and that brought me here.

TE:    How long were you in Australia?

JY:    Just one year, while I was at University. It was a very good experience. While I was young I wanted to experience a lot of things. I want to try everything. I was in every part of Australia, because I had to follow the seasons, the tomato season, the grape season… And a lot of people were doing that. So you can see a lot of people’s arguments, and a lot of people in harmony as well. It was really good to learn about people’s relationships, and people’s fights. Human beings are very strange. We had very hard work there.  Everything is so fair in Australia. As a foreigner, if you are doing fruit picking no matter what kind of job you take it’s the same – you’re a fruit picker.

TE:    Did you have a choice to go to other countries other than Malaysia?

JY:    Not in my company. But in other companies I could. I got an offer from Singapore, from Canada, I got an offer from Mexico. It’s not a lot of countries, but I still had a choice. Especially in Singapore there are a lot of job opportunities for Koreans.

TE:    So, what is your job?

JY:    I work in import – export. As long as you speak a little bit of English, and Korean, and have some knowledge of import-export you can get a job in a trading company. I was in the same position in my company in Korea as I have here. I stayed in China for a while, for one year, as an exchange student, and I had a part time job in import export.

TE:    How long have you been here?

JY:    For more than two years. My plan is three years, and then I move to another country or go back to Korea. But I just planned like that and I am not so sure.  I can stay as long as I like with the company but my visa is not permanent, so if I want to stay I have to let the company know so I can renew the visa. It’s very good – I find Malaysia very very good. The work is very relaxed, and I get a lot of training there, so I can improve my work skill. It’s a very good company.

TE:    What travel experience did you have before coming to Malaysia, apart from China and Australia?

JY:    Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong etc. for short trips.

TE:    Did you get help from the company to adjust to living here?

JY:    Yes, they did. They helped me financially and non-financially. I really appreciate it. That’s why I could get into (the life in) Malaysia.

TE:    How did you find accommodation?

JY:    An agent.

TE:    How easily did you adapt to living here?

JY:    Quite easily. But I wouldn’t say it was easy.

TE:    What were the difficulties in adapting to Malaysia?

JY:    The weather is too hot, alcohol is expensive, and indirect racism. When I mix with Chinese people they criticise the other races here, and I can understand them, so I feel very uncomfortable.  They look like they are harmonised, but underneath it is like, “you Malays, you Indians”. And local Chinese don’t like China’s Chinese people, and Singapore Chinese hate Malaysian Chinese people. Taiwanese Chinese don’t like China Chinese, Singapore Chinese, etc. They all came from China, which was at one stage leading the whole world. And if you tell them their grandfather came from China they deny it. They talk about it a lot – sometimes it really bothers me – maybe because I can understand (Chinese). Younger people are worse.

TE:    What idea did you have of Malaysia before you came, and what do you think now?

JY:    It is more developed than I imagined. But I had little knowledge of Malaysia, because I just checked the GDP and GNP.

TE:    You said you came because Malaysia is good to learn languages. How is that working out?

JY:    My English has improved a lot. My Chinese has got worse. But I learned a little bit of Hokkien. I expected all the Chinese to speak Mandarin – but they are worse than me. They say proudly that they studied at an international school, and that’s why they can’t speak Mandarin. I need to find some Chinese who speak Mandarin to practice my Chinese. And some Chinese can speak, but not read Chinese.

TE:    How is your life different from working in Korea?

JY:    It’s very relaxed here. Korea is much harder. You have to be the best, you have to be very competitive, for nothing, sometimes. Sometimes it is very good because I have the opportunity to improve myself. But I have to exercise to have a better shape; I have to make up all the time, not because I want to look pretty, but because I have to do it. You have to speak English very well, even though you can’t use English at work. The environment gives you a lot of stress – you have to be the best – you have to be the best. But you know that not everybody can be the best. There is a lot of stress for nothing. I wish people would give up – realise that they are the best at this point, but not at that point.  But they can’t do that as society never allows them to do that. Suicide is a problem in Korea now. In the 1990’s it was a problem in Japan, but they have kind of calmed down now. But in Korea it is really common now. They feel stress for nothing and they have to train themselves very hard for nothing. So it is one reason for leaving Korea. I want to learn when I want to learn, I want to dress up when I want to dress up. Of course I have to care a bit about other people, but I want to care about myself more.

Here I can use my energy on things I like. So at the moment I don’t want to go back.

TE:    What do you miss about Korea?

JY:    Food – local dishes, so I can’t name them. And the stressful life. Can you believe it? The motivation that people have.  When you have a project here people look kind of lazy; they don’t have a hungry spirit, they don’t really try. And I miss the alcohol culture. People here say, “you’re red, you’re red”, and just spoil the mood, when you’re just enjoying yourself.

TE:    What do you like and dislike about Malaysia?

JY:    I like a lot of things here. It’s comfortable, free, relaxed, good food. The beach is near everywhere. It’s a beautiful island.  And the diversity, and the people of different races harmonise with each other, and consider each other. For example, at work the Chinese don’t bring pork to eat, in consideration of the many Malays in the company. So in some ways they are racist, and in other ways considerate of each other. But it can be too relaxed – they don’t have strong energy to finish something, which makes my projects more difficult. They are relaxed and very slow, especially when I go to the tax office or bank. No matter how many people are waiting they just work at their own speed and don’t try to make it faster. There are so many cars here, and it’s not good for people who don’t have a car. Public transportation is really bad. If I can take a bus I would every time. And if you don’t have a car you can’t cross the road sometimes. Cars are more important than humans. Penang is getting better for the rich people, but not really for the poorer people.

TE:    Where would you take a visitor to Penang?

JY:    Batu Ferringhi, George Town heritage area, Straits Quays – to see the yachts.

TE:    What do you typically do in your free time?

JY:    Drink, play with my dog, read, Facebook – which is very important to keep in contact with friends; and email friends.

I try to travel once a month in Malaysia. I’ve been to Ipoh – for the food, Malacca, Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands, and rafting. Ipoh is a very fun place for me. And Taiping Zoo. And Taiping is interesting, although I have only been there once. I don’t like KL. I have been there so many times, but I didn’t try hard to understand it. I just don’t like it – it’s so messy, so developed, but messy.

TE:    What is your favourite food here?

JY:    Laksa, Hokkienmee, Char Keoy Teoh

TE:    What is your favourite restaurant in Penang?

JY:    I like coffee shops.

TE:    What three things do you like most about living in Malaysia?

JY:    Diversity, good location for travelling, relaxed.

TE:    What three things do you dislike about living here?

JY:    Bad traffic; property investment so people have two or more properties and increase the cost of living; bad public transport.

TE:    Are most of your friends locals or expats?

JY:    Both – local Chinese especially since there are a lot of Chinese in my office, and Indians, but it is frustrating with locals sometimes, and sometimes good.

TE:    Are your expat friends’ opinions the same as yours?

JY:    Not really, but they agree about property prices and traffic. And because I speak Chinese and they don’t understand it, their opinion is different too.

TE:    Thank you very much.



  1. Very true about the Chinese community always criticizing other races. I’ve associated with many Malaysia and Indonesian Chinese students and I feel as if they really despise the Indians and native Malays. They often stress how they are the only hard working ones there. They view the Malaysians as lazy savages who are corrupt and incapable. Quite saddening considering that the Chinese are the newcomers and yet they continue to bash the native people’s and their ways.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Daniel. I think there are problems on all sides, and manypoliticians also follow the millenia old divide-and-rule procedure, which doesn’t help. Nevertheless, fortunately it remains a largely peaceful country.

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