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Interview with Emily – An American expat living in Malaysia

Updated 4 Dec 2019

Emily De Celles is originally from the USA. She travels across Asia with her young family. After living in South Korea for over 5 years, they decided it was time for a new challenge. They now find themselves building a new life in the much warmer Malaysia. Emily currently stays at home raising their young child while her husband works at an international school. To keep up with the family's adventures, follow Emily on Instagram.

Read more about expat life in Malaysia in our Expat Arrivals Malaysia country guide.

About EmilyEmily_Malaysia.jpeg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Federal Way, a suburb of Seattle, WA in the US.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Q: When did you move here?
A: July 2019

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I lived in South Korea for 5.5 years previous to Malaysia.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to Malaysia with my husband and our 2.5-year-old child.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I am currently staying home with my daughter. We moved here for my husband's job. He is a teacher at an international school in JB.

Living in Johor Bahru

Q: What do you enjoy most about Johor Bahru? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I love the food! You can find so much good, and inexpensive, local food that’s a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Quality of life is very good here, housing is MUCH more affordable than in Seattle, we have a large, brand new apartment with amenities for a fraction of what we would pay back home. It’s very safe and everyone we’ve interacted with have been exceptionally kind, especially with our young child.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Our only negatives are very specific to our neighbourhood and not Malaysia as a whole. We are in a very new area, nothing is older than six or seven years, so many of the apartment complexes and shopping centres are still very empty. There just isn’t much to do close by. I think this would be different in any other city in Malaysia. We miss family and friends the most, of course, but since we have been away from the States for so many years we’ve built a large and wonderful expat community who feel like family.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Our biggest adjustment has been getting used to being in a driving culture again. Reliable public transport is not available in our area, most people drive or use Grab. Everyone is shocked when they hear that we ride bicycles! The culture shock hasn’t been too bad since we’d already been away from the States for so long, we’re already used to things like squatty toilets. The one big difference from anywhere we’ve lived is that things happen slowly here, anything from ordering food, to checking out at a grocery store, to people showing up to work on time! No one else seems to mind so I’m definitely learning to have more patience. Things are just done at a slower pace here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Malaysia?
A: The cost of living is great. Local food, housing, cell service are all very cheap. Local people wouldn’t agree necessarily. This is just compared to Western standards. For example, our apartment is large, brand new with three bedrooms and amenities include pools, a playground, golfing green, gym, etc, for the US equivalent of around $400 per month.

I can’t think of anything particularly expensive, Western food will cost you more money but not exorbitant. If you choose to eat only local food it can cost less than grocery shopping for a family.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Johor Bahru? What is your most memorable experience of using your city’s transport system?
A: As I mentioned above, public transport is our biggest complaint. The buses are sporadic, there’s no subway system, there is a local free shuttle but it doesn’t run on schedule. We’ve been to other cities in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur for example, and their MRT system was wonderful, so it may just be specific to our area. We did take the bus to Singapore, we’re about 10 minutes from the border, and that was nice to have a quick way to get there!

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Johor Bahru? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Healthcare is privatized here. So, in terms of payments, it really depends on your own insurance policy. We’ve only been to the doctor once so far and we had a very good experience, my daughter was sick and we were able to walk in, see an English speaking doctor, and pick up prescription medicine on site. We haven’t been to the hospital yet, but we are very lucky to live about 5 minutes from a brand new Gleneagles Hospital. It’s a chain that is also in other parts of Malaysia and Singapore. We’ve only heard good things about the doctors and staff there. 

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Johor Bahru or Malaysia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: We haven’t really dealt with any safety issues. The only crime I’ve heard about from other expats are cars being broken into. I don’t know of any specific areas to avoid. I’m sure there are some dodgy neighbourhoods, but not to name them.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: The housing options are very nice, especially by Western standards. The two options are either an apartment with different levels of amenities or terrace houses which are like row houses on ground level. Terrace houses are usually larger, possibly meant for multigenerational families, 5+ bedrooms, 5+ bathrooms, and still very affordable. 

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: In the suburb of Johor that we live in, most expats live in East Ledang, Puteri Harbour, or Horizon Hills. If you want to be closer to a downtown area and restaurants, the closest area is Bukit Indah, which would be more living with locals.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Johor Bahru?
A: Locals are very kind and accepting of foreigners. We’ve found them to be especially good with our toddler. There is definitely discrimination here, but it seems to be more within the local populations of Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, and not really against the foreigners living here. I have never experienced discrimination, but I have a level of privilege being English speaking and American. It’s possible that others have had a different experience. 

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: We’ve met a lot of people through my husband's work and have been slowly making friends. There are many children’s playgroups and classes that make meeting other parents easy. I’m still trying to find my people but I know it will happen with time. 

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: So far we’ve mainly made friends with other expats. It is a bit suburban here and not many locals live in our area because the prices are more expensive. I’m hoping to expand my friend group to more locals the longer we live here! The advice given to me was to go to free events that happen on weekends, art exhibits, live music, night markets, those are the best places to meet locals with common interests.

Working in Johor Bahru

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: We were incredibly lucky that my husband's job took care of the visa process for us. 

Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate appears to be good. There are a lot of jobs in the area because of its proximity to Singapore. Many people live in JB and commute into Singapore and vice versa. My husband is a teacher, so a couple of websites that he used when job hunting were The International Educator (TIE) and Teacher Horizons.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Malaysia? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: I haven’t had any actual work or business experience. The only thing I can add from what I’ve been told by friends is that locals have a more laid back pace than we are used to in Western countries. 

Family and children

Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I actually am the trailing spouse in our situations. It has been more of an adjustment for me. My husband is able to go to work and make friends and speak with other foreigners. I'm at home with our daughter in an area where there is not much to do and not much public transport. We do have a pool and playground, but it has been more difficult for me to get out and make friends.

Q: Did your daughter settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for her during the move?
A: Our daughter is very adaptable because she’s still so young, nearing three years old. She doesn’t really know what’s going on yet. This move has also been a bit of an upgrade for her, warmer climate, bigger home, etc. I think it’ll be different in a couple of years and she has friends and school. For now, we’ve been very lucky that everything has gone smoothly.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Our favourite spot to go on a Saturday morning is Edible Park. It’s a lovely green space with a coffee shop and all the plants and flowers are used for the meals they make. They offer nature classes for kids and market days for local vendors. Best of all, it’s completely green with zero waste. My daughter would say her favourite spot is Legoland. It’s right next door to us with a waterpark and aquarium. The season pass is very affordable. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A:  There are a lot of international schools in the area, Marlborough College, Raffles American School and Sunway to name a few. They all seem to be fairly large and new. Tuition can be quite expensive though so you’d want to look those up and compare before arriving. We have friends who have enrolled their kids in the local schools and they are very happy with them.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Johor or Malaysia?
A: Just that Malaysia, in general, is a bit of a hidden gem. It’s not on a lot of people’s radar, but once you are here there is so much to explore. You get tropical beaches, jungles, and metropolises all within a few hours of each other. Our particular area feels a bit isolated, but just being in such a beautiful country makes it worth the moving pains.

► Interviewed December 2019

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