Penang through the Eyes of Young Resident Foreigners


HAILED A RETIREE’S paradise, Penang welcomes expatriates from all over the world to call the state their home. But curiously – and excitingly – it also attracts younger expats. Some arrive by intent, while others discover Penang purely by chance. Penang Monthly chats with four who have come to feel a sense of affinity for the Pearl of the Orient.

A Place for Multilingual Education

“I came here with my family for education reasons. My mum wanted us to study in multiple languages,” says South Korean Oh Seung Woo, 28. Currently a tour guide for Korean tourists and a freelance interpreter, he studied at Tenby International School, and completed his undergraduate programme at DISTED College. “I find studying here to be more laidback. Back in Korea, studies were tough and we had to stay behind at the student centre until late at night. I would only get home at 10pm!”

A love for beaches, Oh's favourite place in Penang is Batu Ferringhi. Photo: Oh Seung Woo.

Having lived in Penang for 11 years, Oh describes the experience as immersive, in that it allows him to learn from many different cultures and to improve his language skills. “If I had stayed in South Korea, where everyone mostly speaks Korean, my English would definitely not be as good as it is right now.”

Read also: Is Penang Truly Inclusive for Person with Disabilities?

Oh’s family have since returned to South Korea, but he plans to stay in Penang for the foreseeable future. “I’ve spent half of my lifetime here, and I’ve grown accustomed to the people and social mores. Plus, I have a Malaysian girlfriend,” he says with a laugh.

Oh ticks off the things he loves about the Island. Penangites’ amiability? Check. The abundance of places to relax in? Check. Delicious food? Double check. “If I ever leave Penang for good, I’d miss the food the most, especially nasi kandar.”

Office by Day, Stage by Night

“As a tropical island, Penang is a place most people dream of living in,” says Karam Tabba, 26. A Syrian, he arrived to Melaka in 2013 to pursue his studies, before leaving again to spend a year in Lebanon. In 2018 he decided to try his luck with Penang and found work in the IT field as a project manager.

When not busy at work, Karam moonlights as an actor, director and writer on various productions at the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac). “From the outside looking in, it may look difficult having to balance an IT job with performing, but I’ve always been interested in the arts. If someone told me I could make a living doing theatre, I’d immediately tender my resignation. But unfortunately, performing arts does not pay the bills, so I have to stick to my job and have performing arts as my outlet for creative expression.”

Karam with his girlfriend Esther. Photo: Karam Tabba.

Though work brought him to Penang, Karam appreciates the opportunities the place has given him. He describes the state as Malaysia’s hub for the arts. “Penang is one of the places that allows me to do theatre professionally, with a big stage and nice lighting. I have never felt more alive than when I’m on stage.”

Despite having only been in Penang for two years, Karam finds comfort here. Often, he can be found enjoying a hearty plate of char koay teow and exploring the Island with his girlfriend. “It feels like home. I’ve never felt at home before outside of Malaysia. Melaka gave me that feeling at first, but Penang augmented it; I feel relaxed and comfortable here. That being said, I’m also quite conflicted knowing that at 26, I’m much too young to think about comfort just yet.”

One of Karam’s main life goals is to buy a house, and he says that if he were able to afford a house, it would be in Penang. But in order to actually purchase one, he would need to go somewhere with better job offers, like KL for example. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities in professional fields like IT and for theatre here. With the arts specifically, there’s definitely a difficulty finding bums to fill seats, and we attract more expats compared to locals, but I hope for that to change. Penang deserves to grow.”

Not Putting Down Roots Just Yet

After spending two years in England for university, Tran Nguyen, 27, who is from Vietnam, came to Penang for her first job after graduation.

Tran enjoys exploring Penang's many cafes, bars and restaurants. Photo: Tran Nguyen.

A research analyst, she documents her time here through vlogs. “I enjoy hanging out with friends at restaurants and mamak stalls, going cafe-hopping and visiting hidden bars with them. I also especially enjoy shopping; Queensbay and Gurney are like my second and third homes,” she laughs.

Throughout her time here, Tran, despite thoroughly enjoying the environment and the tantalising food, is admittedly annoyed and confused by some of the questions she gets. “People would often ask me where I’m from.” This seemingly innocuous question, she says, leads some to blatantly ask if she works at a factory, and others to praise her proficiency in English. “It makes me wonder if Vietnamese people have to be in factories in order to be in Malaysia. Is it uncommon for people like me to be holding a white-collar job?”

Tran, too, believes that she should still challenge herself considering her age. However, unlike Karam, she is confident that Penang is not in her long-term plans and that she will eventually leave her home of the past four years. “I’m still young, so I don’t want to settle in any place permanently for now. I don’t have loved ones here and I don’t have a boyfriend or anything to root me to Penang. I’m sure I’ll miss it when I leave, and I’ll definitely come back as a tourist!” Eager to explore and experience more places and cultures, the travel-loving Tran seeks to see more of what the world has to offer.

A Place Bursting with Character

Coral (right) enjoying roti canai with her best friend in Penang. Photo: Coral-Anne Osborn.

For teacher Coral-Anne Osborn, 31, Penang is a much welcomed change from the claustrophobic skyscrapers of Hong Kong. She became a teacher in order to travel the globe, and have since taught in seven different countries. She had initially planned on being in Penang for two years, but has now lived here for more than five.

“Penangites are welcoming, they want to show you their culture and everyone embraces each other’s diversity. Back in England, celebrations like Christmas are more of a closed family affair. Meanwhile here, for holidays like Hari Raya, people invite others to their house to celebrate with them. It’s lovely how proud people here are of their culture, how willing they are to invite people to experience it.”

Coral recalls with excitement the time when she was a bridesmaid for her local friend’s Chinese wedding, how she helped in setting up the wedding games for the groom. She appreciates the fact that in Penang she can really experience different celebrations and not simply be an outside observer.

Despite the friendliness of Penangites, there is one thing she finds difficult to fathom: the distinction drawn between “expatriates” and “foreign workers”, particularly the negative connotations surrounding the latter term. “I’m from England and my partner is from the Philippines and is an artist, but while I get called an expat, he gets referred to as a foreign worker. We’re both working here on valid visas so the difference is quite interesting.”

Coral with her partner Jose and Bailey, the stray dog they adopted together. Photo: Coral-Anne Osborn.

When asked why young expats like herself come to Penang instead of metropolises like KL, Coral explains, “For me, it’s more about one’s character. I’m someone who dislikes clubbing and prefers hiking and cycling. I’ve been to KL on a few trips, but it reminds me of Hong Kong, whereas Penang is more peaceful in comparison.”

Having adopted a dog, Coral hopes to settle down and eventually start a family here. “Penang has become home to me. With good food, nice people and nature, I really can’t name anywhere better. I want to stay here forever, but of course it’s not that easy. I want to be completely secure job-wise first before I can take the next step.”

She remarks fondly on the open spaces of Nada Farm, where her dog can run around freely, her favourite roti canai place which serves the dish with dal, anchovy dip and spicy curry, and the uncles at her neighbourhood economy rice shop, who would always greet her and strike up a conversation. “There’s a real charm in being in a small place like Penang.”  

Cheah Mi Chelle is a student of English and Related Literature. Caught between the street food-filled streets of Penang and the cobblestoned alleyways of York, she loves volunteering with children and is interested in various topics such as medieval literature, graphic novels, and sentient robot fiction.

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