Finding a place to live overseas is usually pretty easy. When my family and I moved to Penang, Malaysia, we were spoilt for choice—there were so many great apartments and terraces available for rent. Our first home was a furnished three-storey terrace in a large complex with a resort-style pool. Pleasant enough, but not “homey”.
Home for us meant having our feet on the ground, and being able to walk out the back door into a garden. At the end of our first year our search for a “real” house led us to an ex-RAAF house in a Chinese neighbourhood which had everything we love—a huge kitchen, open-plan living area and a garden. We furnished it with an eclectic mix of pieces; some new, some second-hand. We transformed the barren yard into a leafy, tropical oasis. It was the sort of place that, when I walked in the front door after a long day, I’d sigh with relief as I headed to put the kettle on (or pour a gin and tonic, depending on my mood).
But the key to feeling at home overseas is not about a physical residence—although that is important. If you focus only on setting up four walls and a roof, you risk duplicating what you left behind—the routines, the boredom, the restlessness.
Moving overseas is an unparalleled opportunity to rediscover and reinvent yourself. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe—you feel free to create new boundaries and to explore new possibilities. Take every chance to try something new, whether it’s a sport, a craft, voluntary work or paid work in a new field. Indulge in pursuing interests and passions, which you put aside for “one day” in your old life. You’ll feel you belong; that you have a meaningful place in your new country.
Volunteering is a great way to start. I joined the IWA (International Women’s Association) and helped edit its monthly magazine. My husband, John, volunteered for a local charity during the Thaipusam festival—he sat with his legs straddling a huge black cauldron of vegetable curry, ladling out free meals for five hours straight. Not only did he get a ringside seat to view the festival, he made an enduring friendship with the Indian family managing the event. I rediscovered my love of writing, and began writing travel and lifestyle articles for International Living Australia and a couple of local expat publications.
As you get out and about, you’ll meet people, both expat and local, through whom you’ll find further opportunities for integrating with your new community. It took a little effort, but that’s why we were there—to meet new people, broaden our experiences, take on new challenges and adventures and develop new skills. It wasn’t long before we couldn’t go anywhere without running into people we knew. We belonged.
Our first year in Penang felt like an extended holiday. Every day revealed something new and exotic. Our treks through the congested streets and lanes of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed capital of George Town revealed endless delights—curio shops, intricately detailed kongsi (clan houses and temples), the raucous riot of Little India and a mind-boggling selection of new food to try. We delighted in the cornucopia of fresh, and often unfamiliar, foods at the morning wet market in Pulau Tikus.
Gradually, our exploration took us beyond the tourist trail, and we began acquiring insider knowledge. We drank ice-cold beer with seasoned expats at “secret” beach bars, and we bought bootleg booze in black plastic garbage bags from our local Indian café (“fish curry, roti jala and one litre of Bombay Sapphire, please”). We knew where to buy the best meat (buffalo meat from Bombay makes the best rendang), the best coffee and the most delicious, hot-from-the-oven trishaw egg tarts (I’d kill for one of those right now, or maybe two). Slowly, we began feeling more local than foreign.
Like Peter Allen, we still called Australia home, but Penang was home too. We looked forward to trips back to Australia to visit family and friends, but we loved heading home to Penang at the end. On one occasion, I arrived back in Penang at the height of the durian season. Malaysians go crazy for the huge spiky fruit, which smells like a teenage boy’s dirty, damp football socks left under the bed for a week. The cloying stink of durian wafted through the taxi windows on the way home from the airport. Normally it repulses me but I breathed it in, thinking, “Aah, I’m home.”
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