It still hurts
Not long ago I was chatting with a girl online and she brought up a recently called off long-term engagement. As we made our way through her story I told her I had once been engaged as well. I told her that relationship led to my moving to Malaysia. I told her about my lingering sadness around the chapter involuntarily ending, not so much feeling grief about the engagement but when it comes to the international living side. I often feel like there is a hole in part of my being. While the relationship itself was two people who were probably never a great fit for each other, the fact remains that it opened the door to an incredible journey that changed my life and came to a close before I was ready.
In degrees I have struggled since then. What makes the desire to return to track down another adventure like it is the reality that the life I’ve lived over the past eight years, with friends, family and experiences, has been delightful and enriching in so many ways. The idea of leaving those behind for the sake of another overseas chapter feels short-sighted.
When I feel nostalgic for those days I also am well-served to remember that it was not all fun and games. The apartment we called home was lovely but the price tag for it was a job I think would have overwhelmed most, as it did my partner. I'm also sure at many times I could offered better support to her. The combination of an overwhelming job and being in a business district that mostly “went to sleep” when the work day was over made getting out of the house both emotionally and physically difficult.
The building itself had delightful amenities that were a pleasure to enjoy and look lovely in a brochure but the thing the brochure would not convey and upon visiting one might not consider is how quiet and under-utilized the common spaces were. Like many cosmopolitan international cities, Kuala Lumpur has attracted a great deal of foreign investment, which does wonders for construction and the economy but also results in buildings with high levels of ownership and low levels of occupancy. Meeting people in my building was difficult. I could swim laps in the pool uninterrupted, there was never a wait to use gym equipment and the upstairs reading lounge was almost always unoccupied. This was wonderful at first but made me feel that much more isolated over time.
My job was not all that delightful but I did have some colleagues who I enjoyed spending time with. As we got to know each other we’d sometimes hang out for a good long while after work. The “next step” in a friendship would be to have people over but because our accommodations were likely to be much more opulent than others I worked with, it was suggested we probably not entertain guests.
One route people who relocate from one place to another do is find other people like them. While Americans move to Malaysia for any number of reasons, often people who arrive via a large employer would have insight into where others lived and of course worked near each other. On a couple occasions we came through targeted meetups to meet a few but most lived quite a ways away.
While I missed out on some level of cultural familiarity by not spending much time with them, I wonder what I might have at the same time missed if I had been friends mostly with Americans and western Europeans? While on one level it would have been nice to have people to talk with who understood cultural references and probably longed for many of the same things I did - Mexican food and craft beer - many also felt a bit removed from what I’d call normal life. Many seemed to be living in Malaysia but not really partaking in it.
One of the questions I rhetorically asked myself was, “did I really move to the other end of the globe to hang out with a bunch of people who look like me?” While there was always a bit of a cultural barrier between friends I met who were from Malaysia or India, I learned a lot from those relationships.
Alongside the dream of wanting to go back or elsewhere comes the reminder that I can never move back abroad again for the first time. I think there is something to the reality that whether it be Malaysia, Italy, Chile ro wherever some level of feeling on the edge is probably not possible again because I’ve already done it. There is still plenty of wonder, adventure and meaning to take in but it is something I like to recall.
There is of course also the work of having to reinvent oneself again. Without friends or “the things you do” set in place, comes an opportunity to build a new life but also the incredible amount of work to discover those things and nurture new relationships.
What does one do when you want something at a visceral level but don’t want to make the required sacrifices for it?