Penang, 2017-2021

It is so hard to write about these four years. I actually started this in the middle of the night when I found myself writing a blog post as part of a dream that occurred half way between being awake and asleep. I often find myself “writing” during this light sleep state and then I have to get up and write it down before I can go back to sleep. So here goes.

When I moved to Penang in 2017 I was quite a lost soul. When I look back at that time now I realise how unhappy I was. I knew I wasn’t okay at the time and I was desperate for something to happen, which is why I ended up moving across the world on my own. The past four years have easily been the most challenging of my life in so many ways. They’ve been the most life changing, the most fun, the most tragic and the most reflective all at the same time. I’ve had moments of complete and utter happiness and elation mixed with periods of real darkness. I’ve had to grow up really fast and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about myself. I started my journey with Alice, who arrived in Penang on the same day as me. Our friendship has grown into something that I know is rare and intrinsic to who I am today. I wouldn’t be myself in 2021 without Alice. There are countless experiences we’ve shared and I am so grateful.

Living in Penang is really about the friendships for me. Your expat family. Relationships and friendships are intensified when you live away from home and you live and breathe with the same people day in and day out. It’s a small island. It’s even smaller since we got stuck here for 18 months and counting. No one has visited and we haven’t been to see anyone else. I’ve seen the same handful of people and no one else for a really long time. That’s quite intense but it also now gives me weird anxiety as I leave this place not knowing when I’ll see these friends next. I feel strangely alien to my own life back in the UK. I’ve been absent for a long time. I’ve been experiencing the pandemic in a completely different way. It’s hard to explain but I know the experiences of the past two years have changed everyone I know. For me, I’ve been longing for home so badly that I now feel confused about actually re-entering that part of my life after so long. I couldn’t have got through the past 4 years, especially the past 18 months, without incredible friends and a 24/7 support network.

It wouldn’t be a blog about Penang without talking about my small family here. I met Asraf when I was so lonely, mentally and physically unwell that I don’t really understand to this day how we managed to navigate our way to the point of moving to a new country together. I feel the odds were against us for multiple reasons. “Battling” (that sounds dramatic but honestly it’s apt at times) against two very contrasting cultures and belief systems has been exhausting for both of us. I’m stubborn, Asraf is stubborn, but somehow we make a really strong team and we’ve worked incredibly hard to set ourselves up for our future. We have two very strange but incredible cats who we adore and who we’re spending our life savings on moving due the extortionate travel costs of this pandemic. I came to Penang alone and I’m leaving with a family which still blows my mind.

My time in Penang has also been characterised by grief, having experienced the death of Jerry 6 months after moving here. That accident has shaped my life in numerous ways and I’ll always be grateful that I met and loved Jerry. I still, and always will, feel incredibly heartbroken about that day and the months that followed. It’s a loss I’ll always carry with me but I am a stronger person than I’ve ever been because of living through such a difficult time. It really changed who I am and I’m lucky to have great friends here who will still talk to me about him despite them not having been here when this all happened.

OK enough of the deep and meaningful. Penang as a place is beautiful, stifling, boiling hot, sandy, sweaty, infuriating and peaceful combined. Malaysia is a frustrating and entertaining country to live in. It has been both good to me and bad to me. The radio adverts in the car telling me to tell myself in the mirror each day that I am worthy have really helped my self esteem…I’m now a more mindful person since being reminded not to touch fruit in the supermarket and not to blow my nose in public. I realise that when I am driving I am not an aeroplane and need to stick to one lane. I know that if there are bubbles in my urine I should go to the doctor. The radio has taught me so many life lessons.

George Town has helped me get over my fear of rats. I’ve seen how cockroaches emerge from the drains when mosquito fogging is occurring. I’m terrified of monkeys now. I know that as a white person people will talk to you and sometimes this is okay and sometimes it is not. I know that Malaysia is obsessed with plastic bags and wrapping individual apples in plastic. I know people are confused when you ask them not to put your items in plastic. I know that Malaysia is all about who you know and if you know, you can get things done. I know that Malaysia revolves around food and it’s a constant source of conversation. I’ve met many, many wonderful Malaysians. There are many Malaysians who would do anything for you and they are the most generous people I’ve ever met. I have learnt a lot about this culture and I’ve been solely around it for a long time now. I know that the children who go to my school are the best kids and I am really going to miss them.

Up until I spent my life online, I had so much love for my job. The pandemic stole that from me and I’m annoyed about that but I still get laughter, enthusiasm and smiles from (most) of my class every day in spite of the fact we aren’t allowed to go outside at the moment. I’ve been blessed with incredible teams every year but this year my team and I have really been through a lot. Not only are they amazing teachers and great to work with but they’re also really close friends. Year 5- the best team. It can’t be disputed. I had two and a half years of a fun and creative job and that was a great, great time. Working at SCIPS has been a roller-coaster but what a brilliant, brilliant job and such a talented bunch of people to work with.

The worst thing about leaving Penang is leaving in the current situation. I’ve got some really important friends here that I’ve not been able to spend any time with. There’s lots of people I care about who I won’t get to say goodbye to. I don’t get to revisit my favourite places one last time or do my favourite things before I go. I don’t get to go to school and say goodbye to my class. There’s no closure and that’s tough. Everyone’s mental health is rocky and the pretty dire and seemingly never ending covid situation here has tarnished everyone’s experiences. It feels like we’ve been fighting to stay afloat for months. It’s exhausting honestly. I love Penang and Penang is always going to be a home to me but I’ve never felt more desperate to get off this island at the same time. It’s a weird one.

What will I miss about Penang? I will miss the sunsets, the beach, the weather, the food, the juices, the easy going lifestyle, the jungle, my apartment, my school… there are lots and lots of amazing things about Penang. There’s always a celebration, there’s always new things to discover and there’s a real community here that I’ve relied on for the past four years. There are people I’ve met in Penang who are amongst the best people in my life. This island has given me a lot but now it’s time for us to move on to a new place and a new chapter.

I wrote a poem a few months ago so I’ll finish this rather long and emotional post with that. Every time I think about hugging or even just seeing my mum I cry. Sometimes I spend hours just thinking about how much I miss my family and friends. I last saw them when I was 29 and now I’m 31, old and disheveled by this pandemic. Don’t judge me guys I’ve tried my best. I can’t wait to see everyone. Over and out Penang. You’ve been life changing.

Penang Island

Penang Island you’ve been my home,
The past 4 years, wow I’ve grown,
I started my adventure without a clue,
I wanted a new life so that’s what I’d do.

I liked the flag because of the palm tree,
But where is Malaysia? Don’t ask me.
I was happy to get out and start again,
I never thought about the future at all back then.

When I got to Penang I loved the school,
The weather was hot and the beaches were cool.
I made lots of friends I’ll love forever,
Leave this place? What? No never!

I told my mum I’d not get a cat,
Sorry about not sticking to that.
I have of course ended up with two,
That this would happen, we already knew.

I was so very lucky to meet a guy,
Who had my heart the first time he said hi.
When Jerry died my life became grey,
I struggled to make it through each day.

I thought my only choice was to go back home,
Back to my family and all that I’d known,
By some miracle I met Asraf,
Who helped me remember how to laugh.

It took a lot but I started to heal,
Started to smile and started to feel.
I began to remember why I was here,
I started to fight against all the fear.

Amazing travels until 2020,
Adventures and experiences, I had plenty.
Lombok, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Taiwan,
The Maldives and dare I mention it… Japan.

It wasn’t an easy time for me,
The trauma meant I was never quite free.
I said goodbye to important friends,
I didn’t want that chapter to ever end.

Onwards and upwards life went on,
I felt I could move on from what was gone.
Everything was going pretty swell,
Asraf and I got married as well.

Next Covid hit and everything was rough,
Really dull and really tough.
I haven’t seen my family in well over a year,
I’m well and truly trapped over here.

It was time to really love where you live,
But Malaysia, how much more can I give?
The little things made me mad,
I tried to be happy but I was pretty sad.

I lost the happiness of my job,
Working online and becoming a slob.
We weren’t allowed to go out at all,
Hours spent looking at the same wall.

Entertainment was walking in the car park,
Spending my nights awake in the dark.
Experiences lost and life hit pause,
I know it was the right thing to do, of course.

Out of this my friendships grew,
My expat family were all that I knew.
We were all feeling the same,
What a waste of life and what a shame.

Then came the difficulty of a decision,
Think of the future, what is the vision?
The uncertainty, and the stress,
Could we leave during all this mess?

Call us crazy but we decided yes,
We’ll say we will leave, then deal with the rest.
I got a job in Kazakhstan,
Mountains and skiing, I’m a fan.

Moving in a pandemic is really not fun,
It’s hard to get anything done.
When all the airports become a red zone,
There are days when all you can do is moan.

Somehow we’ve managed to pull this off,
Probably because we’re both pretty tough.
But robbed of goodbyes is not okay,
I’m very emotional on the last day.

I do love Penang and my life here,
I’ve so many memories that I’ll hold dear,
For Asraf and I it’s time to go,
But there’s something we both definitely know.

Penang has our hearts and although it’s small,
We really have been through it all.
We love this place and to say goodbye,
Will make me have a little cry.

So thank you Penang for all you’ve taught me,
The joy, the sadness, the anger, the glee.
I’ll never say “Penang, I’m done”
But I really can’t wait to see my mum.

And so this crazy adventure ends,
I’m leaving behind incredible friends.
It’s amazing and hard to be an expat,
But it’s worth it all, I’ll tell you that.

This is my Penang ❤️

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