Most expats have to travel a few hours to visit family back home, others, like Ming Lim, have to fly half around the globe and spend a full day and night on the plane to get there. She’s a Malaysian expat and blogger living in Washington, D.C.
I had the pleasure to ask her a few questions about her journey and experience in America.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Malaysia, a multiracial country in Southeast Asia.
How long have you been living in the U.S. and what do you do?
I came to the States as a media studies student, back in 2003. I currently work in the non-profit sector in the Washington D.C. region.
Why did you decide to move to America and how did you pick your destination?
The first American town I experienced was State College in Pennsylvania. That’s where I went to university. I chose to go there because of the school’s reputation, and their media studies program is excellent as well. State College is a really small town with a lot of farmland all around – totally different from the big city vibe I was used to in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. But I really started to enjoy the student life there once I got used to my new surroundings.
How did you get your visa?
I’m not gonna lie. For someone in a non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field, the toughest part of getting a work visa is persuading an employer that you’ll be an asset to the company. Often, they will look for a specialised skill that you might have, like language or cultural competence in dealing with a group of their clients.
What was the most difficult part of your immigration?
The hardest thing is the impermanence of one’s work visa. It gets worrying when it comes time to switch from student to work visa, or when it’s time to renew. You have to be very mindful not to miss deadlines, and have all your paperwork perfect before you submit, or your visa may get delayed.
Other challenges are daily life interactions, where differences in communication style can trip things up. But if you keep a mindset of willingness to adapt, you’ll be fine.
What do you enjoy most about living in America?
The diversity in practically every aspect of life – and I thought Malaysia was diverse, ha! Here, when you have a group of businesses and social organizations that serve a specific ethnic community, that tells you there are enough immigrants from one country to make up a community. I see a lot of this all around D.C., Maryland and Virginia. This means there’ll be lots of festivals celebrating different cultures and holidays, different restaurants to try, different dances to learn, and a whole lot of new friends from all over.
Also, I like the independence. Public transport is very convenient here. If you don’t live in a town or city with a train system, you can always buy a reasonably priced used car. Not only will that help you get around easily, you can plan weekend road trips – an essential American experience!
Is there anything that you miss from home other than family?
Food. Despite what I just said above, the Malaysian community is a bit scattered about in the States. There are some decent options in California, but in D.C., my Malaysian restaurant choices are pretty limited unfortunately. And sometimes, clothes. I’m often finding that S or small sizes are still too big for me, and jeans are too long.
Have you found a good source to buy Malaysian food in America?
There’s a website called AsianSupermarket365, run by a Malaysian based out of New Jersey. That’s a very useful site for those of you who live in smaller towns that don’t have ethnic grocery stores. I’m lucky that D.C. is surrounded by the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, which have many Asian supermarkets. The Chinese ones often stock made in Malaysia products.
What are the biggest differences between every day life in Malaysia and America?
Traffic is not as bad. Checking the weather before going out is essential (In Malaysia, it’s hot all year around, and you keep an umbrella with you always in case it rains.) Food is more expensive, and you have to pay a premium price for high quality fresh produce in the city. Malaysians love pets, but here, they go the extra mile for their fur babies. People go to the gym more. Obesity is often highlighted as an American problem, and that’s probably true. But ironically, I learned everything I know about fitness and health here.
In your own expat blog you share your everyday impressions of your life in America. Tell us a little bit about it.
My blog, DCExpat.com is primarily about living in the Washington D.C. region. I introduce readers to my favourite places, festivals and spaces that make the city unique. My everyday impressions are broken down into a) living in the D.C. area and b) a general idea of living in America, because Washington D.C. living is a unique experience in itself. I also share my travels to other states and cities.
What were the most shocking or surprising experiences you’ve had since you’re here?
If I had to pick, I think it would be the number of homeless people I see all over town. A foreigner’s first thoughts about America are never about the homeless. In State College, there were just two “town bums” and everyone knew them. In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, they are everywhere. They stand on the concrete dividers along busy roads with traffic lights holding a sign that often says: Please help, homeless Vietnam veteran. Or they stand on street corners in the city. And people often do give them something. It’s such a stark reminder that poverty exists in America.
Are there any dark sides of an expat life?
Sure. After many years of living abroad, you may have a desire to move back home and reconnect with your roots, or choose to stay abroad and fully embrace your expat life. One has to consider factors like family, career path and financial stability carefully before making any moves, since relocating from country to country isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But whatever the choice, you’ll always be missing your home country or your expat home. It’s one of those downsides to being a traveller, but I’ll take it over not being able to live abroad and experience different ways of living.
How can other expats break out of their comfort zone faster and get to know new people?
Find social groups you’re interested in, like sports, book club, hiking or perhaps church. New friends will not come to you unless you put yourself out there. Don’t be shy, just be yourself and enjoy meeting new people. Eventually you’ll find a group of individuals you enjoy hanging out with.
Please share your best advice for Living, Working and Traveling in the US. Anything in particular for other Malaysians?
Keep close ties with the Malaysian community if there is one in your area. But it’s important to also make friends outside your community, as that will help you learn about the culture here. The more you know, the more it helps you navigate work, social and daily life.
I remember how it was for me when I first moved here, and there are things I wish I’d known before or had some kind of guideline before I got here. On that front Dan, you’ve done a great job creating LiveWorkTravelUSA as a resource for visitors and expats to the States! Thank you for letting me share my thoughts here!