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The Expat Diaries Part I: Adapting to the Malaysian Hierarchy

Belinda Chisholm
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Recently, a large compilation of e-mails have found their way into my possession. They are a collection of e-mails which my mother and grandmother exchanged while we lived overseas. I have affectionately come to call them The Expat Diaries. In them, my family’s incredible journey of exploration, struggle and familial bond unfolds.

 

Throughout the seven years we lived abroad, my mother and grandmother exchanged these e-mails much like the pioneers did with their families as they wagon-trained out west to find their new homes in the great unknown.

 

My mother’s descriptions of Malaysia open up long forgotten memories and trigger loud bouts of laughter. But they also illuminate my mother’s struggles, which I was completely unaware of at the time.

 

As children we often see but we do not yet understand. Hierarchy and politics are complex ideas, which take experience and careful observation to grasp. My mother is an American national nomad, so she has always adapted well to change. But my mother is a very strong, independent, honest, and ornery, western woman. She has always looked men in the eye and has never groveled before a superior.

 

It was a hard struggle for her to adapt to the hierarchy of Malaysia where the company owner has been titled Malaysian Royalty, and where she had to learn to bite her tongue. In her e-mails to my grandmother she expressed that she only made it through her first dinner with the royals because of her high school theatre experience. She created a character in her mind and convinced herself that she only had to play the part.

 

Being the wife of a businessman in Malaysia meant something very different than being the wife of a businessman in America. There were societal expectations that she had to follow. And they were very different from her experiences in the United States.

 

There were the above cultural changes and there were expectations such as attending company functions and dinner parties, maintaining her home by hiring a local live-in maid and nanny combination called an Amah, and remaining silent as many unfaithful husbands fooled around with the local women while their wives were away.

 

But there were easier changes too. Grocery shopping and cooking were a large change, but in a way it took her back to her roots. My mother grew up in a trailer park in Fort Collins Colorado and was quite poor. When my mother turned seven it became her responsibility to bake the bread each week.

 

In Malaysia she had to bake bread, clean the bugs out of the rice, fix the butchers cuts for cooking and eating, wash all fruits and vegetables, and make fresh yogurt. And that was just the groceries. Other household needs included maintaining all parts of the house, including our plumbing, which was constantly backing up our toilets because we lived at the end of the street. She also had to supervise the maintenance of all gas and electrical parts to the house. And every few years the walls had to be replaced because the termites would eat through them.

 

All of that sounds overwhelming, but my mother did it all with grace and patience. We only found out after three years that she had been de-bugging our rice, sheltering us from the realities of the kitchen. But my mother was never afraid of these changes; she had always known where food came from. The wet markets in Miri, that sometimes made incoming families turn vegetarian, did not shock her.

 

My mother has always been a stay at home mom, she has always wanted to be a stay at home mom, but being an expat wife is something a little different. As an expat wife you become a bit of a chess piece mover, part of your social life is connected to the corporate ladder. This was very foreign to my mother, it was a very old fashioned idea to think that a dinner party or two could effect whether or not your husband gets that bonus at the end of the year.

 

Sucking up is not a familiar behavior to my mother; she doesn’t like to take shit from anyone. She was raised to be independent and strong, she was taught to stand on her own and to have her opinions. Sometimes I think that my mother had the opposite problems from many of the other wives.

 

She watched many women struggle with going to the market, or resigning to make the amah so the shopping and cooking just to avoid the reality of where food comes from. But, my mother never struggled with this. My mother struggled with playing the expat games, and fluffing egos for social benefit.

 

Four years she succeeded gracefully in Malaysia, until my father came home with the news of our next posting; Egypt.

To read the second part to this three part series, click here.

 

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3 comments

  1. What an amazing tribute to me!  As you step further and further away from your child’s view of the world I am continually surprised and deeply touched by your perception and wisdom.  I still want to be more like you when I grow up.  I love you!  Mama

  2. I loved reading this from the perspective of an expat to Malaysia. Your mom seems like such a strong woman. I grew up in Malaysia from an English dad and Malay mum, and moved to Australia for six years. Since returning home to Malaysia, I found the reverse culture shock to be quite severe, so I can only imagine what it would be like for a complete foreigner!

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