Photo Credit: Pier Garcia
Black Expat: After Living In Five Countries, I Chose Malaysia For Its Blend Of Cultures
Before settling in Penang, Malaysia, English teacher Pier Garcia lived in five other countries. Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, the 36-year-old moved to London when she was 14, and considers the two countries her home, along with her current home, Malaysia. Her first move from Trinidad to London came when her mother asked her if she wanted to live with her there.
“My mum had been working for some years in Saudi Arabia while I grew up with my grandparents in Trinidad. Finishing her work in Saudi, she’d planned to return to London and I agreed to move there to live with her. Fast forward through the completion of secondary school and nearing the end of university, I could feel that I was in need of a change of scenery.”
This need for change was temporarily quelled as Pier went abroad to Peru with a volunteer program, which she decided to participate in after months of unsuccessful job hunting in her then field of psychology and sociology during the recession.
When Pier returned to London, that feeling of wanting a change soon began to bubble up once again. She wanted to travel abroad, but limited finances posed an obstacle. Finally, Pier decided to take on teaching abroad. She completed a course in London and then began applying for teaching positions that would take her overseas.
“Japan was on my radar, but I landed my first teaching job in South Korea. I stayed there for two years working in a small hagwon (a common kind of language center there) in a town on the west coast, almost three hours south of Seoul. At work, I was blessed with a great boss and some wonderful co-workers.”
Pier’s experience in South Korea was, overall, a positive one. However, she did face some challenges there. It was the first place where she had ever traveled solo. Being new to the country and not yet speaking or reading any of the language made it difficult to get acclimated. Then there was the struggle of learning how to be comfortable alone.
“That was tough, but it was sink or swim. It was the most valuable lesson I took with me from Korea and since then, I have valued my alone time more than anything. Despite the initial difficulties, my time in South Korea turned out amazingly. I absolutely loved it and I wanted more.”
For her next solo trip, Pier took a bigger leap, heading over to Vietnam. It was another rollercoaster ride, but it taught her so much about herself and about the many facets of solo travel. After the very limited time off she had during those two years, Pier was eager to explore other parts of the world. She embarked on a six-month adventure which began in Zambia and ended in New York. Pier spent a third of this time home in Trinidad and Tobago.
It was soon time for Pier to head back to work. After a short stint teaching in the south of England, she was off to Brno, Czech Republic. In addition to having the opportunity to explore her new home, she took advantage of her time there by visiting nearby countries, such as Poland and Austria.
“The highlights there were the amazing architecture, the cheap but fantastic wine and beer, and the discovery of vinotekas! The struggles were being in another very homogenous setting, and stares paired with resting bitch face. They’re lovely people, but that resting bitch face is strong, especially coming from a stranger intensely staring at you. It can come across as very aggressive.”
“There was a time a complete stranger got into an elevator with me and touched my hair. That was a first. I also experienced some racism there. Although the negative experiences were not work related, my boss was very understanding and let me know that if I wanted to leave, it wouldn’t be held against me, and that I would still get positive references from them. I decided to stick it out and take the learnings that came with it.”
Overall, Pier views her time in the Czech Republic in a positive light. She has since returned and was also scheduled to visit last year to be a bridesmaid in her best friend’s wedding before the pandemic occurred. As her time there was coming to an end, Pier once again began job hunting. She knew she wanted to return to Asia, and her research in travel groups yielded lots of positive reviews about Penang, Malaysia.
“Once I learned how multicultural Penang was, it made me think of Trinidad and Tobago and that excited me. I soon secured a position there. It was my third time moving to a place I had never been to before, but it turned out to be a great choice. I have now been here in Malaysia for six years. It’s the longest I’ve ever stayed anywhere!”
Pier says there are many benefits of living in Malaysia. There she enjoys a great quality of life, affordable first-class healthcare, a healthy work-life balance, and incredible food that includes many delicious international options.
Despite learning that things are not as unified among the various ethnicities as she had once thought, she still loves how multicultural the country is. With that also comes the added bonus of a lot of public holidays, during which Pier enjoys taking advantage of Malaysia’s convenient geographic location to explore nearby countries.
“Malaysia is an excellent location to be in for exploring the region, and because of the various low cost airlines, it’s very affordable. Since living here, I have traveled to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Maldives, and Hong Kong, to name a few. Even closer to home, there is Borneo and the islands along the east coast to explore. Luckily, I’ve been here long enough to have explored many of the local highlights, with just a few remaining. I’d also love to return to Borneo to see more of it. I can’t get enough of that place!”
Of course nowhere is without its negatives. As a Black person in Asia, Pier has endured the inevitable stares and intrusive photographing, which she has dealt with in a variety of ways. She has found that confrontation and asking why is usually met with denial.
“I have asked in a more curious way as well, so it’s an open discussion and a chance to share what it feels like for me. I had also taken to straight up turning my camera to them to take their photos. Funny how they really dislike that one! I think once I decided to give those occurrences less energy, they started happening less. That, or I just stopped noticing as much. Either way, it equals more peace, so I’m happy about that.”
Another aspect of life in Penang that was difficult to get accustomed to was the way people drive there. Pier admits she still sometimes finds herself in a rage over the dangerous, careless, and often inconsiderate things people do on the roads, although she has gotten much better at managing those feelings. One thing she hasn’t quite gotten used to yet, however, is the rigidity when it comes to services.
“If it’s outside of what has been in their training, it’s almost impossible to get. Can I pay extra to add X? No. Can I swap the scrambled eggs for fried eggs? No. Can I get some hot water and lemon? No. Okay, then can I have a glass of hot water and can I also have an extra lemon wedge for my meal? Sure! I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I definitely don’t mean every single place is like this, but it is a very common thing to encounter.”
Having recently renewed her employment contract, Pier will remain in Malaysia for another year, at least. With Malaysia’s ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and the country back in its stricter version of lockdown, Pier is unsure exactly where she will be traveling to next.
“Right now it is a waiting game, which is quite a challenge for someone full of wanderlust. I would love to head to New Zealand or Taiwan next. But as an ocean loving beach bunny who is currently deprived, a return to Thailand or Indonesia just might put those on the back burner.”
You can follow Pier at @thewanderingpier.