The other day, my friend sent me a text asking me to send him pictures of things around Kuala Lumpur that were different from home. I walked around my neighbourhood for a while, going into stores, stopping at different stalls along the street, and walking down alleys. But I didn’t take any pictures. I know that KL is really different from my little world in Canada – I remember thinking so when I stepped out of the airport on my first day here. But after five months, everything here has become normal to me; I have a hard time seeing anything so out of the ordinary that it warrants a picture. 

Looking back, I think this is a decent indication of my sense of feeling like I ‘belong’ here: belonging to the country, to the community, to the neighbourhood. Things don’t really feel out of place or strange anymore because I feel like I’ve finally settled into all the ‘strangeness’ – ‘newness’ – that I’d experienced when I first got here. I’ve found my community, my people. I’ve settled into habits that I enjoy, and I’ve found my routine. 

There’s even Tim Hortons in SE Asia! – not that different from Canada after all, right?

The road to navigating belonging has been a long one, and it was one which I knew would be a large part – and definitely one of the more challenging parts – of my self-learning experience throughout this internship. It was also something that we interns were prepared for, having been forewarned that it would probably be decently hard at the start to feel like we actually belonged to and had roots in our host cities.

Belonging to a place, settling into a new home in a foreign country – these aren’t things that can just happen overnight and, for me at least, it takes a significant amount of work to really settle. It takes effort to step out of your shell, to say yes to offers even when you don’t super want to and even when it feels impossible. You need to really, really actively pursue friendships and plans.

I’m someone who does really well with my community close by. I know that I would have struggled a lot more with belonging here if I hadn’t been able to form connections and if I hadn’t created a support network here. Before this internship, I’d always lived with roommates or partners or family – never completely on my own. I’d become (probably way too) accustomed to having my support network super close by. So to come here essentially on my own and to be so incredibly isolated from my people – or to any people really, because I was now also living alone – was a real challenge, and one which I wasn’t expecting to be so hard. I think that’s one of the reasons that the first few weeks – maybe even the first couple of months – were so challenging. I remember one phone call with my friend where I – rather dramatically, I’ll admit – claimed that this internship was just a big experiment in loneliness. 

I did a lot of self-reflection in the first few months, but especially in the first few weeks. I turned to journaling to process my feelings and to unpack my experiences. And let me tell you, for someone who hated journaling before, I spent a lot of time doing it. It helped me unpack what I was feeling and see what I needed to change. It showed me that there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. It also helped me see the positives in all of the strangeness, in all of the newness that KL offered. 

To counter the loneliness, I worked hard to build a friend group here. I heard about the idea of having “friend targets” – people who you’ve identified that you want to make friends with – and I engaged hard with this concept when I first arrived. It feels really weird to write down and to acknowledge, but every young person in my office became my friend targets. It makes sense though; I think that the majority of my friends in Canada were once either coworkers or classmates. Shared connections help you connect in other capacities, no matter where you are. And now, 5 months down the road, most of my targets (the kids, i.e. young-ish adults) at work have all become my best friends. Targets accomplished. 

I also slowly found the joy in living alone. Not having to clean up after and deal with a gross or rude roommate? Amazing. Getting to sit in silence without anyone talking to you for hours on end? Um yes please. 

At some point, I began to feel a sense of belonging to the community and to the country. It didn’t happen passively; it took effort and a massive amount of reflection and self-awareness. I really, really think that in any circumstance, if you can’t understand your place and accept and adjust to differences – in this case, especially to the religious and cultural differences – you’re going to feel ‘othered’, meaning you’ll feel like an outsider. That’s not to say that you have to agree with everything. But you do have to accept that the dominant customs and ideas are part of the way of life in your new host country, and that it’s not something you can or need to change. If you can’t accept the way of life in a place, you’ll probably have a pretty hard time living there. Without reflecting on my experience and accepting that I needed to check myself and do things differently, I would probably still feel like I don’t quite belong here.

Over the months, I settled into my life and I’ve found comforts and my community here. I’ve been able to normalize the differences by asking questions and by being curious to understand different cultural and religious points of view than those which I’d grown up with. 

Some local mosques (masjids) have informational tours to teach about Islam. Guides can answer any questions you have about traditions and customs. While my Muslim friends taught me oodles about Islam and let me ask tougher questions, tours helped fill gaps on Islamic history and the relationship between religious branches.

And now, with just over one week left before I hop on my return flight to Canada, I’m having a hard time accepting that I’ll have to leave my life and my people. I feel so lucky to have found such incredible friends here, and to have been able to experience life and new adventures on this side of the world. I’m proud of the ways that I’ve grown over the past five – almost six – months. I’m thankful for my connections. And while I feel immensely sad, I also know that I’ve poured so much into this internship and into my self-learning. In a couple short weeks, I’ll have to move onto the next experience of navigating belonging, this time to my new life back in Canada.  

A photo from explorations of Bangkok alleyways with GAATW interns Jennifer and Charlotte.