A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE
My husband, Larry, was a professor at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany for thirty-five years. In the fall of 1987, he came home and asked if I would like to live in Malaysia for a year. (If you can remember, this was a time when very few people had a home computer, cell phones had not been introduced, and most people had very limited geographical knowledge about our world.) To be honest, I told him I had no idea where Malaysia was, but because he had been given this opportunity and was excited about it, I was willing to move there with our three boys. We had recently sold our house, had been unable to find another one, and had moved a rental home. Not having a house to worry about while we were gone made our decision to go a lot easier.
We knew nothing about Malaysia except that it was close to the equator, which meant it would be hot. We didn’t know what the school situation would be for our boys, the medical environment, living conditions, and overall safety. An orientation held in Bloomington for the 30+ families that would be leaving answered a lot of our questions and put our minds at ease.
Most important (for me), English was spoken by nearly everyone, even though Bahasa Malaysia was the national language. The Malaysian government would pay to store our furniture, provide us with round-trip airfare, pay tuition for our two older boys to attend The International School of Kuala Lumpur, provide us with housing of our choosing, give us money to purchase a car, provide van pick-up for Larry each morning, and pay our Malaysian taxes. The International School of Kuala Lumpur followed the American educational system. The medical doctors were mostly trained in the United Kingdom and the hospitals were up to date. Malaysia was a safe Muslim country.
The next couple of months were quite busy. I was an elementary school teacher and had to request a leave of absence from my principal and the school board, lesson plans had to be made for the teacher replacing me, preparation had to be made for moving our furniture into storage, many immunization shots had to be taken, and deciding what items (besides clothing) to take with us. Having so much to do made the departure time come all too quickly.
We left freezing Louisville on the last day of 1986 wearing winter clothes and coats. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur 27 hours later and walked into what felt like an oven wearing those same clothes.
All the American families were housed in a local hotel. The next morning found our older two boys, David and Jonathan, catching the air-conditioned school bus (which resembled a tour bus rather than an American school bus) to their school located 18 kilometers away. Vans were sent to pick up the arriving professors to be taken to the campus. Non-working spouses and non-school-age children met with realtors to find a house.
Because we had been told the homes would be furnished, we had brought very little with us in the way of kitchen utensils, dishware, pots and pans, linens, etc. Houses shown to us did not include any of these items, and I was in a panic. Family after family found suitable living conditions except us. We were the last family sitting beside the pool when an already established professor in the program stopped by and asked if we had found a place to live. His Chinese Malaysian neighbor had come to him that morning in a panic, asking if there were any American families needing a place to live. A renter of hers had moved out unexpectedly, leaving her without that income. I called her immediately and set up an appointment for the next morning. My first step into her house found me saying, “We’ll take it.” It was a beautiful home with Italian marble floors, antique rosewood furniture, Waterford crystal bowls setting out, three recently renovated full baths with western bathtubs, and a room full of unopened boxes of Legos, a bicycle, and other toys her son did not use. This was the home where she was living, and she was willing to let us move in with everything included while she moved into her rental house. What a deal this was!
We moved in and quickly adjusted to our new environment. Our boys lost no time in opening the boxes of Legos, laying claim to the toys left behind, and fighting over one bicycle for three kids.
Like most Malaysian homes, our yard was surrounded with a tall iron fence with a locked gate, bars were on the windows and doors, no air conditioning except in the bedrooms, a heater that had to be turned on for hot water, no microwave, a small stove heated by propane gas, but we were lucky to have an American size refrigerator.
Living in a country with three ethnic groups (Chinese, Indians, and Malays) meant we were always having a holiday celebration from one of these groups! The Christian Christmas vacation continued, but our Thanksgiving found the boys going to school. There were no fireworks on the 4th of July, but we celebrated Chinese New Year for two weeks!
Our Chinese Malaysian landlady, Mag, and her 11-year-old son, Marcus, quickly became part of our family. She was able to help us acclimate to our new living conditions much easier, showing us places of interest to visit, introducing us to foods we would never have tried, teaching me the language of the wet market, and introducing us to her friends. Looking back, she pretty much told us what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Whenever we had a question, it was Mag who answered it.
Larry’s teaching lifestyle allowed us a great deal of time to travel and we took advantage of it by traveling to Thailand, Hong Kong, Bali, Australia, India, Nepal, and often visiting Singapore on weekends.
Our time living there was truly a wonderful experience. Friendships were made and visits back to Malaysia have been many, as well as trips from Malaysian friends to visit us. We attended Mag’s son’s graduation from Raffles Institute in Singapore, Oxford University in England, and a master’s degree from Yale in New Haven, CT. We are godparents to his 6-year-old daughter and keep in touch with everyone regularly.
Our lives were changed forever in the best possible way. It’s been wonderful to have a home and friends halfway around the world!