Tag Archives: expat life

Monkeying Around Penang

Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.

paradeAs seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.

Continue reading

Sunday Brunch

Normally avoiding Sundays like the plague, being retired means never having to go anywhere when the rest of the population is enjoying their day off. Applying even more in the developing world where six-day work weeks are the norm, Diane and I rarely shop, eat out, visit major attractions or engage in any “working world” weekend morning activities like breakfast at popular eateries. But sometimes time sneaks up on you so the other day we broke tradition after a visit to our local supermarket reminded us of some inevitable merchandising realities in Malaysia. With public holidays occurring at the rate of one per week through the next 17 days, expats who cook a lot should take heed and get to the store while there’s still any supplies. Possessing possibly the world’s worst supply chain, Penang literally gets everything delivered by truck from Kuala Lumpur. Although that’s only a four-hour drive on a modern four lane superhighway, it often feels like living on a remote Pacific island with no airport that gets deliveries via passing cargo ships every three months or so.

This is Chicken Ass. No, really.

This is Chicken Ass with a funny name

Studying supply patterns of everyday products like veggies, pasta sauce and canned tuna leads to a frustrating conclusion that Malaysian store supermarket managers don’t understand anything about merchandising. Every time you find an imported product you like, it’s almost guaranteed to be gone the next time you visit and not replaced for at least a few months. Or not at all if it’s something you really like. Constantly bombarded by mostly foreign expats that buy up all the European, American and Australian products before most island residents even know they’re in the store, if you blink and change aisles, it’s gone. Perpetually stocking items that are already nearing their expiry dates, the other thing they love to do is order products nobody buys and then put them on “promosi” (sale) at ridiculously low prices. While this seems like a good thing, I’d rather not buy something that came out of the factory in 2014 for 2 ringgit (50 cents) because it arrives in Penang just shy of its second anniversary date. Buying fresh food is a different animal altogether with stores sometimes going months between certain cuts of meat or lamb and beef that varies in price from inexpensive to insane.

Continue reading

Inglorious Expats

Usually marking anniversaries with celebratory posts, I’ll start this post by stating that today is exactly one year since Diane and I handed over our passports and received our MM2H stamps. Arriving only six weeks earlier, everything went according to plan and despite never having visited Penang, we established ourselves quickly. Before receiving our approval notifications and traveling back to Kuala Lumpur for the last steps, we secured a lease, bought new phones, established service and set up all relevant utilities like electric and internet. Since that time, I’ve written many posts about our expat experiences other than travel and they’ve usually been well received. Given I’m not part of today’s young generation deriving a paycheck from “online income“, I’ve tried to write fairly entertaining stories with my own slightly sarcastic but relatively realistic slant. But noticing a decline in the number of likes despite an increase in readership, it appears I’m beating a dead horse and my post the other day about our first negative infrastructure experience took dubious honors as my first post with no likes two days after writing it.

Out with friends

Out with friends

Having written about topics like establishing ourselves in a foreign nation, learning about the local cuisine, taking off the beaten path day trips and living through the annual haze season, I’ve shared a bit of expat life as seen through the eyes of two average middle class people (one American and one Canadian) that chose an experimental early retirement over daily cubicle life after an unexpected layoff. Also including detailed stories about the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H), I’ve received lots of comments and emails thanking me for providing valuable information about Southeast Asia’s best retirement program. Retiring at a rather awkward age, it’s not always thrilling, often financially challenging and sometimes downright unexciting. Unable to always churn out really exciting content, I’d be lying if I said each day is filled with a new adventure so perhaps the blog’s almost run its course. The pictures on this post feature scenes from our life in Penang and part of the blog was to illustrate all parts of expat life, not just the best days.

Continue reading

Cool Breezes

Eventually it had to happen. Residing in Penang for over a year now, sometimes Diane and I forget we’re on the other side of the world. Strangely resembling western nations, Malaysia’s infrastructure is surprisingly good and up until last week, we’ve had no bad experiences with the power grid, internet service, landlords, phone, noise or public transit. Often forgetting we live 7,000 miles from home, we listen to internet radio from San Francisco, use Viber for phone calls to U.S, companies at ridiculously low rates and stream almost anything we want from U.S. TV including pay TV series’, network comedies and the entire two months of NHL playoffs. Once concerned about paying for local cable with channels we don’t care about, we don’t subscribe to anything and even get twelve channels of uninterrupted commercial free Olympic coverage free as part of basic internet service. Enjoying sports we never even knew existed, Asian coverage includes weightlifting, archery, shooting, field hockey, water polo, badminton, table tennis, cycling, and the few things they show on NBC like swimming.

Olympic Handball coverage; never seen on NBC

Olympic Handball coverage; never seen on NBC

But ultimately, expats living in developing countries are bound to run into some typically “developing world” issues that can frustrate, annoy and test an anal “type A” personality’s patience. (Me, not Diane). And when it rains, it pours (Literally and metaphorically). After a trouble-free thirteen months of condo living, in the course of one week we had a broken air conditioner/landlord repair issue, three nights of overnight street drilling that kept the entire condo awake and the first power outage we’ve experienced in Asia. Ironically, some incidents that seem bad on the surface ultimately lead to fast resolutions that blow away anything you’d ever get in North America. Here in Malaysia, the relationship you establish with a property agent becomes important one because unlike back home, you gain a contact that helps you with any issues throughout the entire term of your lease. Acting as a third-party liaison between the tenant and owner, the property agent is your first course of action when something goes wrong. Professionalism and help varies depending on who your agent is so make sure you find a good one before signing a lease. Using a two-part post for easy readability, today I’ll share the best example of the three blunders and explain why bad situations often lead to fast resolutions.

Continue reading

Culture Clash

Although you’d never know it based on the current political and social degradation of anything non-white, those married to people of other cultures, races or religions understand first hand what an ignorant viewpoint that is. Enriching the lives of all those who’ve embraced multi-cultural marriages, there’s nothing more interesting and fulfilling than learning about and becoming part of a culture other than the one you’re born into. Having married into a second generation Canadian Chinese family, I’ve been exposed to a world very different from my caucasian New York roots and always jump at a chance to learn something new about Chinese civilization. Clearly the most uneducated interview given in the joke known as The Republican National Convention, some moron asked CNN this beauty:  “What has anyone other than European whites really contributed to the world”?
Sadly, the xenophobic idiot was an elected official and the fact they even allow such a comment on the air speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the nation.

imageHad I been asked the question, I’d counter the sadly uninformed racist legislator and delve into a long-winded response detailing the amazingly storied and fascinating history of Chinese civilization. Ruling over territory ten times larger than Europe, Chinese people are the world’s most successful group of emigrants and communities ranging from 9 million to a few hundred live in dozens of nations on every habitable continent. Choosing Southeast Asia as a retirement destination allows expats interested in things other than border walls and isolationism a great opportunity to discover more about eastern civilization, Chinese history and Asian contributions to humanity. Having explored Chinese museums and exhibitions in Singapore and Penang, I’ve gained a plethora of knowledge about Chinese integration into different societies around Asia and always try to learn more when visiting other countries. Having already done the major tourist attractions of Bangkok on an exploratory vacation that included Borneo and Singapore in 2009, our recent trip presented a perfect chance to learn about Thai Chinese culture. Comprising one sixth of Thailand’s entire population, more ethnic Chinese live in Thailand than anywhere on earth making Bangkok’s Chinatown a perfect place to start our trip after a harrowing start the night before at Dun Mueung Airport.

Continue reading

Time Well Spent

And just like that, it’s exactly one year since Diane and I stepped off the plane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Looking back, the one word that comes to mind more than anything is “interesting“. Experiencing a totally different lifestyle without the added pressures of raising kids and commuting to work, the year went by faster than we’d imagined and tallying up the totals, we’re almost exactly on budget. Keeping careful financial records of every transaction, withdrawal, credit card charge and foreign exchange transfer, I’d say it’s indeed possible to live a similar lifestyle including moderate travel in Southeast Asia for about 80% of your pre-retirement net salary. Of course, we lived very frugally to get here and my unexpected layoff pushed us into this experiment five years earlier than planned. But with the tumultuous events unfolding back home, there’s no better time to retire in Asia for westerners tired of all the violence, political rhetoric and elitism that’s causing social upheaval not seen since the 1960’s.

imageGranted Malaysia isn’t the least expensive Southeast Asian nation but it doers have many benefits including an English-speaking population, above average infrastructure and inexpensive but excellent healthcare featuring many physicians and specialists that are U.S. or European Board Certified. While Penang isn’t exactly the most convenient airport for connections around the region, it does have daily non-stop service to Hong Kong allowing for a quick connection back to the homeland as well as direct flights to Bangkok, Ho Chi MInh City and many destinations in China. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, our not so little island has mountains, trails, national parks and serene parks. Despite the unprecedented and ridiculous over-development of million dollar luxury condos designed for wealthy foreign investors, you can still lose yourself in Penang. Spending many days hanging out with friendly monkeys or kicking back on a not so beautiful beach that’s mostly deserted over 40 weeks a year, I don’t miss the chaos of long commutes or the daily dose of intolerance that’s hijacked the homeland. Thanking every reader that’s followed my stories detailing our relatively unexciting life, I’ve written a chronological summary of the first six months in Penang with links to old posts for those looking to catch up or read more.

Continue reading

Our Quiet Time

Where does the time go? Approaching the last few weeks of spring, it’s almost one year since Diane and I stepped off the airplane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Already in full swing, Ramadan began a few weeks earlier this year and coincides with the second week of Malaysian School Holidays. Commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islāmic belief, Muslims began fasting for 30 days and although it’s less noticeable in Penang due to the large Chinese population, some of our favorite Nasi Campur and other Malay style food courts won’t serve lunch for a month. Not really understanding why the island seemed so quiet last year, we now know that after school starts next week, it’s the best three weeks of the year for vehicle challenged expats like us. With more room on the buses, we’re not totally clear why it’s so much less crowded but if I had to exist on no water and food from sunrise to sunset in such a hot and humid environment, I’d probably be hospitalized quickly from dehydration so maybe those who observe the fast simply have less energy to travel around.

promo15-ramadanIronically, the word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramida, meaning scorching heat and dryness. Knowing I’d make a lousy Muslim since fasting is almost physically impossible for those who engage in cardio training almost daily, Diane and I happily hopped on the empty bus the other day and headed for our favorite food court in Penang. After one year, we find ourselves gravitating mostly to the same food courts and haven’t really found all that many restaurants worth the extra cash. Granted our point of view is probably in the minority because we disagree with Penang’s claim to be Southeast Asia’s best food, but after watching a slew of culinary series’ featuring chefs, restauranteurs and average folks traveling and discovering food all over Southeast Asia, we’re convinced Malaysia’s food is the least interesting of all ASEAN nations. Having said that, there’s a few places we consider above and beyond the others like Chang Sern Enterprises Hawker Center in Palau Tikas. Probably the standard by which all food courts should be judged, this gem is clean as a whistle, has friendly attentive vendors and staff and some of the best local food on the island.

Continue reading