Rocking it in Cheras

Click to view Gallery

Retirees are the target market for the “Malaysia My Second Home” programme, but there’s no saying why the same welcome cannot be experienced by other 'markets,' (the educational experience as a commerce).

Clare traded in the dancing, parties and music of her childhood for the life of a foreign student: four years long, seven thousand kilometers away. It was also awfully quiet. Then, she found her voice.

Clare is celebrating the end of a seven-hour Immigration debacle with a brief round of shoe shopping in Mid Valley. We were meeting for first time. The only thing I knew about her was that she was 24, like me.

I called to ask where she was exactly. “Look for the girl in purple!” her voice rang out bright and happy over the phone. “I’m in lime green hippie pants,” I replied, and she laughs like she likes me already. Clare’s younger sister Noela was in bright pink, so I found them pretty easily. Since I wasn’t sure how to begin the only meeting we were ever likely to have — she was leaving for Kampala that same night — I asked her how her day was.

“Maybe everybody at Immigration hates their job,” she says with a frustrated laugh. “They don’t care. There are long queues. There are people from different walks of life.” We brisk-walked into the nearest coffee franchise. “I’m sure you’re being paid to reject and maybe accept, but if someone is old and frail, you shouldn’t treat them like crap. They deserve a bit of respect from younger people which I feel is what Immigration lacks.”

I wanted to ask her more about this, but we were already ordering our coffee, and I only had a few hours to catch up on four years of her life as a foreign student in Malaysia.

According to our Higher Education Deputy Minister, as of March 2011, there were 86,000 foreign students studying in Malaysia (6,000 more than last year) from 150 countries. I guess in perspective if you were to invite them all to meet, they would equal the stadium crowd of the recent Harimau vs Singa match in July – with faces hailing mostly from Indonesia, China, Iran, and various parts of Africa.

The Malaysian Ugandan Consulate approximates that 500 of these students are Ugandan: certainly a long way from the initial 30 students registered when the Consulate first opened eight years ago. Uganda’s Education Ministry entered into a partnership with Malaysian universities due to an increasing influx of high school leavers who could not be admitted to local universities over there.

Clare’s parents got her admitted into a university in Malaysia at about the same time, trading in the dancing, parties and music of her childhood for the life of a foreign student: four years long, seven thousand kilometers away. It was also awfully quiet.

“The first year we all come doe eyed…but well, in a nutshell? We were shut down. The Middle Eastern students try really hard to integrate, but the rest of us— and I can speak for the East Africans at least— it’s not easy being obviously foreign.

“You’re shut down. So most of the time you huddle and wait for this to pass, do the thing that my parents sent me here to do, and move out. That’s all.”

In Uganda, people constantly surrounded Clare. As she puts it, “being lonely didn’t exist much.” She liked solitude whenever she could find it. But what she found in Malaysia was either too much quiet or awkward.

“Everyone treated me like a token buddy, so I acted like one. By token buddy I mean… Like, the only black girl in the group so we looked cool, from an inter-racial point of view, but we’d never really be friends five years from now.”

Clare also pointed out that local students didn’t really want to get into groups with foreign students, something I also see in my university. “They think we’re lazy. So most of the time I did my work alone.”

In spite (or because) of that, Clare adopted the most communal of Malaysian habits — eating her way through the day.

“Ugandans aren’t as keen on eating as much as Malaysians are. We have three straightforward meals a day, heavy food so you don’t have to eat all the time. Malaysians eat, WHENEVER. Every hour of the day is eating time for you guys.”


She tried out garlic naan and tandoori chicken. She had satay and Chinese food. She ate Indian briyani when she craved Indian briyani back home. And of course, she tried nasi lemak.

“For some reason, I was by myself, ‘80% of the time’. I had way too much time to myself; it was swallowing me whole.”

Eventually, Clare couldn’t bear to have more than one meal out a day by herself. She had to turn to healthy snacking to remedy the fact that she was losing weight.

She stayed in her room for the first two years.

Audio: How Summertime came to Malaysia for Clare | Duration: 4:30

‘Then, life looked brighter’


Music: Itzhak Perlman with Modern Jazz Quartet – Summertime | Duration: 3:46


1     continue reading on Page 2 ›     3