Written by Wonani Mwanza

Living abroad sounds exciting. It is exciting. I’m Zambian and my home is Zambia. When an opportunity came for me to leave Zambia, I grabbed it with both hands. I currently live in Malaysia and I have been here for the last three years.

When people find out I don’t live in Zambia, they are usually so amused and think I’m living my best life. Everything is rosy and honestly what could go wrong when you practically moved to heaven. That’s not the case though. Of course living abroad is fun and really nice but there are a few downsides that people who live abroad don’t really talk about. That’s what I’m sharing today.

Everything I’m going to share with you is based on my experience in Malaysia. It’s my story and I hope it will be entertaining and eye opening. Moving or living abroad is hard. Especially if you’re on your own. The media really sells a picture of it being easy and beautiful but it’s challenging too. Finding your ground in a new place can tear you apart. So, I’m only telling you the ugly parts of living abroad. Things that they don’t want you to know.

1. This is Not Your Home

I remember every encounter I have had with the police like they happened yesterday. The first time I had an encounter with them, my friends and I were out at night, driving to a restaurant. None of us in the car was Malaysian. We were all black. We drove towards a road block and the flow of cars was fast until we got to the front. The police man turned on his flashlight and looked in the car, saw that all of us were black and asked us to park at the side of the road. I found the whole situation amusing. He asked to see our Visas and so we all produced our icards apart from one of my friends who produced his passport. I found that funny and I couldn’t help myself but laugh. Who moves around with their passport? I should have never laughed. That flashlight was on my face in seconds. He then checked my visa looked at me and then let us go. We were stopped because we were not Malaysian.

Another incident is when my friend and I left our building to go to 7-eleven which was a two minute walk from our apartment. We just carried cash because we were buying bread or something like that. The sun had already gone down. We got what we wanted and then left the store to walk back home. Suddenly, a car started coming up behind us driving really fast with the headlights on. So we stopped walking to let the car go passed us but it stopped right in front of us. We then noticed it was the police. The window was rolled down and the man in the car asked us where we were from. Now, my mind was racing because I didn’t have my purse with me which meant I didn’t have my icard with me. To answer his question, I pointed to our apartment building while coming up with what to say if he asks me for my ID. Then he responded and said, “What country are you from?” How dumb could I be? Obviously that’s what he meant but I was too scared to think. “Zambia.” I responded. Then he looked us up and down and drove off.

This leads me to my first thing about living abroad. You’re constantly reminded that’s not your home. The police bothering you coupled with people calling you a “foreigner” will remind you that you are an outsider. There is no running away from it. I have now come to hate the word “foreigner”. It annoys me and I get so annoyed when people refer to me as that. Either learn my name or nationality or don’t address me at all.

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2. Language Barriers Will Kill You

As I mentioned earlier, I have been in Malaysia for almost three years. Unfortunately, I cannot speak fluent Malay but I know just enough to get by. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and so they have prayer rooms, suraus, almost everywhere. In the library on campus, there is a prayer room right opposite the female toilets. The very first time I went to the library, I asked someone to point me in the direction of the female toilets and they did. So I walked over to where I was directed. I saw a door looked up, saw a ladies sign on the door with something written under the sign which I assumed meant toilet. So I walked in and after taking about five steps, I looked up and saw someone washing their feet. I was confused as to why this person was not wearing shoes in a public bathroom. Her face was shocked as she looked at me and it took me more time than I would have liked to realise that that was in fact, not the toilet. It was the prayer room. I quickly apologised and on my way out, noticed the shoes at the door. I don’t know why I didn’t see those when I first walked in. Embarrassed is an understatement of how I felt. In Islam, you aren’t allowed to step into a holy area with your shoes on so I am very sure the girl I found there felt disrespected because I walked in with my dirty sneakers. What I’m trying to say is, learn the language so that you can read the signs.

Another things I still struggle with is counting in Malay. I can count from 1 to 10. From there I know 20, 30 and 50. That’s it. I don’t know anything in between. It also takes me a long time to count in my head and so when I buy something and someone tells me my bill in Malay, I just try to judge if the number sounds like its less than 10 or more than 10. I almost always end up giving more money than necessary and then wait for the change.

People say the first thing you should learn when learning a new language are the insults. Personally, I don’t swear but it’s always nice to know when someone swears at you or calls you something offensive.

All this sums up the second thing about living abroad. The language barriers will kill you so make it a point to learn the language. Learning a new language is not the easiest thing to do. Especially if it has completely nothing in common with what you are used to. It’s for your own good though so learn it. Also, locals always feel good when I talk to them in Malay. That’s always nice to see.

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3. Your Finances Should Be in Order

Malaysia has an insane night life and really good holiday destinations. The thing is, for you to live your best life and really enjoy the country, you need money. I probably should have mentioned it earlier but I will tell you now. I’m a student. That means I depend on an allowance from my parents. However, I like to enjoy life. I enjoy eating out, visiting new places, travelling etc. That’s my kind of thing. I think living abroad as a student is really nice if you come from a wealthy background or your parents work for the government. That way, you can have the full experience. Otherwise, depending on an allowance from your parents to get by is annoying because you can’t really spend recklessly or just enjoy however you want to because deep down you know you just can’t ask for more money whenever you want to. It’s different when it’s your own money. At least for me that’s the case. To top it all off, the Kwacha (Zambian Currency) is playing games that I am not enjoying. The exchange rate is so bad I have to think 4 times before buying a simple meal at KFC. For sure there is rice at home.

My youngest brother thinks I eat out every day and I eat in expensive restaurants only. Good food every day. I will say this again, there is rice at home.

Point number three. I think living abroad is more enjoyable when you’re making your own money and when you have money. Loads of it for that matter.

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4. Don’t Touch My Hair. Don’t Stare at Me.

I’m a black girl. My 4C hair stays in protective styles except for the few times I leave it out to breathe. Being a black girl in a country that doesn’t have a substantial black population means people stare at you so much. When I first moved here, I would get so frustrated because of all the staring. I don’t like attention and I can really do without it. For some people I’ve met, I was the first black person they really had a chance to talk to. For others, I was the first black person they had met completely.

In my very first semester, one of my friends was graduating as he had finished his programme. So some of my other friends and I planned to attend his graduation ceremony. I got dressed and left home to meet the rest of my friends at a faculty near the hall. There were so many people in school that day. People’s grandparents came to congratulate their grandkids. I don’t think I have ever been more uncomfortable than I was that day in the faculty waiting for my friends. Everyone who walked passed me stared at me like I was an alien or something. Obviously not everyone stared but it felt like that. I just wished the ground would open and swallow me. My friends also took their sweet time to get there. This is what happens when you’re the only one who keeps time in a friend group. I just hated all the eyes I almost cried. The kids. Kids were staring at me like I was The Grinch. My mom always told me it was rude to stare but these kids don’t know anything about that. Then again, how can they know if their parents and grandparents are all staring too?

Every time I braid my hair, I have to explain to someone that my hair did not grow an additional 12 inches overnight even though I wish it did. I also have to explain that I do not dye my hair every two months and I have never added colour to my hair.

All I’m trying to say is sometimes living abroad means getting used to people staring at you because of the colour of your skin and people dying to touch my hair. That can be very uncomfortable and frustrating. One time, in a very public place, I felt someone touch my hair and I looked back and that lady just continued running her fingers through my hair. Solange said it best,” Don’t touch my hair.”

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5. Life Goes On

Another not so good thing about living abroad is missing home. Or what used to be home. When you leave the country, life must go on. Your family members and friends don’t stop living because you left the country. They will do exciting things without you. Celebrate milestones without you and even create new memories without you. It’s tough.

What sucks the most, however, is not being there for your friends and family when they need you the most. That is one of the most heart-breaking things about living abroad. Especially if you can’t just pack your things and go when need arises. There is only so much a phone call can do. Sometimes, they need hugs or you need hugs but guess what? That’s not happening because you live abroad.

With that said, when you do go back to your home country, things feel different. That’s because they are different. Things have changed, people have changed and you temporarily feel like a stranger in your own home. Or what should be home.

6. Cultural Shock is a Real Thing

Obviously people do things differently in different place. Adjusting to a new setting can be difficult. Different cultures come with different learning environments, work environments etc. Even just the way people do things can be very annoying but that’s something that you eventually get used to and get over as time goes on. At the end of the day, just accept that people are different and there is nothing wrong with that.

I still get annoyed about certain things that I won’t go into out of respect, but I just have to get used to it.

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7. Time Zones

The last thing I’ll talk mention is the time difference. I’m 3 hours ahead of my best friend, 6 hours away from 90% of my friends and family and 14 hours ahead from one of my favourite relatives.  

Half the time, I’m the one who ends up sacrificing sleep to talk to family and friends and as much as I love them all, I don’t like it one bit. So now I have resorted to scheduling calls with most people. I think that’s helpful. Missing that scheduled time however can result in going weeks without talking to them. I really try to make it work.

To end this, I am enjoying the time spent away from home. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. It just gets hard sometimes and even though the things I’ve mentioned seem like small issues to some, they end up being the ones that affect some people the most. If you ever have the chance to, I recommend taking some time to travel or live abroad for a while. It’s a challenging but interesting experience. Maybe next time I’ll be here to talk about the beautiful part of living abroad. For now, chew on this!

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