23 July 2015

Strays - when you just can't say no!

We love our pets!  From parrots to pups, my family has adopted an animal in every country we have ever lived in although not all of them have made it out to the next posting.  The parrot (Nigeria) was not given an export permit, the cats (Netherlands, Norway and Nigeria) chose to stay with other families and the lamb (Turkey) and goats (Nigeria) were eaten while the Turkey (Nigeria) was given to a colleague of my father as a Christmas present and ended up founding a dynasty of breeding turkeys on a farm instead of on the table).

Expat life is fraught with pitfalls when it comes to pets.  If you have them you need to deal with the hassle of exporting and importing them.  Expats need to find vets in strange and new surroundings and often communicate the most complex of things through sign language.  If you don't have a pet you will be faced with street animals begging for scraps and adverts from re-homing centres desperate to find a home for an abandoned animal before it has to be put down.

My husband and I are firmly dog people.  We both had a cat (or two) as children but dogs were the family pet of choice and, as soon as we were married, we were joined by our truly wonderful Bessie, still with us 14 years later and enjoying life as an Expat Pet.

Bessie, our loving old girl.
  Almost two years ago, in Kazakhstan, we made the mistake of looking at an advert for a puppy looking for a home.  It was 10 November 2013 and I remember saying to my husband that it was such a shame we could not give this little puppy who looked so like Bessie, a home.  We looked at the picture, we knew we would be leaving Astana in 2014 and that another dog was not a good idea, we looked at the picture again and we made a call to the people who were looking after her.  We see lots of photos of dogs wanting homes and we usually harden our hearts, something about Perdita made us think twice.  I hope she lives a long life with us and I know that, by the time it is over this little street dog will have had more money spent on her in terms of flight costs, quarantine and immigration fees than any prize winning pedigree.  She repays that investment every day of her life.

With a household of two dogs, two children and a baby we thought we were full, we had no room for anything else.  We know that Bessie will not be with us for much longer, 14 is a good age for a dog but we notice that she is getting slower, whiter and wrinklier.  She loves her walks and swims, she adores affection, but her legs are seizing up and she is getting some form of dementia.  On our walk a few days ago we were talking about having to get another pet when that happens, someone to keep Perdie company when we are out of the house.

We couldn't say no!
Not more than 5 minutes later we came across a tiny little kitten, dirty, alone and scared on a footpath near a road.  There are (quite aggressive) monkeys in the area and large monitor lizards in the storm drains, she kept walking into the road and we were worried something would happen to her.  Keeping the dogs out of the way we searched for a mother cat, nothing anywhere.  Petrified that she would be killed we took her home and put her in one of the dog crates before emailing the residents association to see if she was an escaped pet.  No one claimed her and first thing the next morning we took her to the vet to be checked over, she told us that there are some unlicensed kitten farms in the area and a few escape only to be killed on the roads, there are also a lot of feral cats in the local parade of shops, apparently she spends a heartbreaking amount of time neutering strays.  

Look who has come to join the fun!
I put adverts up for re-homing but before anyone asked to take her she had wormed her way into our hearts.  It seems that we now have a baby kitten to add to our family.  She is living in the crate (complete with bed, litter tray, blankets and toys) for the moment when the dogs are in the house and coming out for cuddles when they leave.  Bessie, who hates cats, is disgusted that we have taken her in and is ignoring the situation but Perdie is curious and the two are talking through the mesh door.

We didn't want a cat, we didn't want a new pet at this point in time, we have a full house.  The dogs are not used to cats, we know nothing about raising feline pets.  We have to sort out vaccinations and passports.  When we go away we will have boarding fees for three animals.  When we eventually relocate we will need to travel with three pets instead of two (and two is difficult enough).  Taking her in was, to all intents and purposes a stupid decision.

That said, something put this little kitten in our path and made it impossible to say no.  She was meant to be with us and become our Malaysian pet and so Kismet is now one of us.

Posted as part of the monthly Expat Life Linky hosted by Life With a Double Buggy

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15 July 2015

Immigrants, Expats and Politics

One thing that pops up on my news feed on various social media platforms on a quite distressingly regular basis are the articles in the UK newspaper The Guardian talking about the difference between Expats and Immigrants.  The gist of the articles is that white people like to characterise themselves as Expats which avoids the social stigma which goes (in most societies) with the word ‘immigrant’ whereas Africans and Asians are almost always characterised as immigrants whatever their level of professionalism.  There seems to be quite a bit of debate on this subject in the press of many different countries.
Is the author an Immigrant...or an Expat?
It depends!
In Malaysia our family are working for a defined contract period as expatriates.   In Kazakhstan the Filipina English teacher at the Kazakh nursery and pre-school that I managed was every bit as expatriate as I was.  Here in Malaysia a lovely Filipina lady helps to clean our home, she is here on a temporary working visa and will go back to the Philippines when her term is up, indeed she cannot wait to be reunited with her children and husband, she is to all intents an Expat.  Nevertheless in the UK and other European countries she would be viewed by many as an immigrant because expats are, to many people’s minds highly skilled and immigrants are not.  I remember my mother telling me that when I was born (in the Hague) she was in a room with lady whose husband was Turkish.  My mother was born Dutch and my father speaks the language better than any other foreigner I know. Putting this together with the never-ending stream of visiting relatives from all over the Netherlands (I was a first baby) meant the nurses had not realised that we were also a foreign family.  She heard the nurses discussing the lady married to the ‘guest worker’, my mother’s immediate response was that she was married to one too and her new baby was an immigrant – they piped down pretty quickly!  To this extent the Guardian articles have it right.  It is true that the term expatriate refers to anyone living out of their country but in reality, in this day and age, I think many host nations can resolve this problem by reference to the intentions of the person who has moved. 

An immigrant in the UK
So what does this make me?  I tend to explain my background to those who ask by saying that I am a perpetual expat but that is just short hand.  When I lived in the UK I was there long term, as an immigrant.  I had made it my home for over 20 years; when my husband and I finish our expatriate life we may return there in which case he will be repatriating and I will be returning as an immigrant (although I do have dreams about retiring in (and therefore immigrating to) Slovenia).  My status in the UK is slightly complicated, unlike other EU citizens I have the same rights as a citizen of Britain by dint of my Irish passport.  This means that, although I am a foreign national I can vote in general elections, I even stood in one as a candidate where I was very upfront and honest about being an immigrant.  

I started thinking about this question because a Malaysian lady approached us a few weeks ago and tried to initiate a political discussion.  We said what we always say in countries in which we are expats – we read the news, we know what is going on and we have opinions but we do not ever voice them.  We take this stance quite deliberately – unless you spend many years in a country, immersing yourself in its culture, its society and its politics you cannot possibly understand all the complex undercurrents that combine to make an issue what it is.  Of course where issues affect someone directly it is a different matter, this is where the difference between an expat and an immigrant becomes more profound.  Expats can leave when their term is up, immigrants are tied into their new society and are, therefore, directly affected by many more domestic issues than expatriates. 

An expat in Malaysia
I could stand as a credible political candidate in the UK precisely because, even though I was not British, I was a part of British society in a way that I am not and could not be of Malaysian, or Kazakh, Turkish or Venezuelan society.  It even comes down to something as simple as knowing the bias of all of the media in the UK (and seeing through the spin that each will put on any given story).  I choose to read the Telegraph but know that its stories are written to appeal to my politics, articles in the Guardian tend to send my blood pressure soaring but I do make an effort to read from a range of sources to prevent confirmation bias.  This is more difficult in other countries, even if we were to move to the US where we share a common language I would find it difficult in the short term that encapsulates an expat posting.  I know, for example, that Fox news is perceived as putting a very right wing spin on things but on topics such as the recent race riots I cannot hope to understand, viscerally, the way an American does, the back issues of race relations. I know the theory, I know the history, I read the full range of papers but I am not immersed in the emotion. 

Of course I have opinions on political issues in other countries and maintain interest in their news cycles.  I find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their life and the pressures that impact on it. I have, for example, heard the same complaints about corruption in the upper echelons of society from taxi drivers in capital cities the world over.  Learning about how different people live their lives and gaining a wider understanding of the world is one of the joys of being an expat. The first thing I do when I hear of a new posting is to start reading the national press and I try to be aware of what is happening in the US, the key European nations and of course the countries in which I have lived in the past although I am often lazy with countries I am not living in and do this through British papers or the Al Jazeera portal rather than read national press. How much attention I give any one country varies, however, depending on what is happening at a particular time.  I am reading a lot of news about Greece at the present time and news about Syria, Tunisia and France is also high on my radar.  I no longer read the Kazakh press as I did a year ago but I keep an ear out for items of interest.  These days, of course, I check the Malaysian headlines most days and I expect to be paying a lot of attention to the US political news next year. The opinions I form on the topics about which I read come from a purely personal angle, however, and are not based on a full societal, cultural, domestic economic or political understanding of the issues. 

In some ways that makes expats the perfect disinterested observer, unfettered by preconceptions but it comes with its own dangers.  Politics and political issues are always the product of the society and personalities involved and therefore absent an intrinsic understanding of these issues you comment at your peril.  And this comes back to the immigrant/expat debates in the Guardian.  Expats in Britain might not understand how an article of the type mentioned fits in to the paper’s agenda or the currently (highly charged) debates on immigration and its impact on British society.  What the paper is saying is not necessarily wrong but it is saying it for a very particular political reason and one that not all short term expats in the UK might understand or even, necessarily agree with and find their genuine and heartfelt comments taken outside of the context in which they were intended.  This neatly demonstrates the potential pitfalls of commentary and is why we do not discuss host country politics except between ourselves.

Of course, as expats there are also host nations where it would be unwise to make any comment, not because of a personal inability to truly understand the issues but because the regime in that nation does not invite or permit such comments.  That is not the case for us here of course but expats in postings where this applies know it and (if they are wise) avoid it all together.  

Posted as part of the monthly Expat Life blog link up - click the link to read some of the best Expat blogs out there.

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9 July 2015

Tyres, Motorways and the Kindness of Strangers

Two weekends ago, in order to cheer the children up after my husband being away for a week and pass the time to his return, I drove them up to the former state administrative centre of Taiping.  This is about an hour north of Ipoh on the road and has some beautiful water gardens, old colonial buildings and, most importantly from the children’s point of view, a zoo with, much to our older daughter’s joy, a clouded leopard (her favourite animal).  Following the wander round the zoo in scorching temperatures and the inevitable stops for people to hug the baby (I think she was the most popular exhibit in the zoo that day) we popped over to the local mall for a sandwich and then drove home. 

Water gardens in Taiping
Coming out of the mall I could hardly turn the car – my power steering seemed to have gone.  It was too late to find a local garage so I managed to wrestle the rather weighty car around the car park, onto the motorway and back home following which we stayed in the house the next day and arranged to put the car in for a check up first thing on Monday.   I have never been so happy to get a car into service as I was that morning, driving an unresponsive car, with a baby in the back, through rush hour traffic is not the most pleasant of experiences.  I wimped out old fashioned ‘little woman’ style and let my much stronger husband drive the school run and in to town as far as his office before taking over for the last ½ hour of the drive.  Even then the drive home on Saturday and trip through town destroyed my back and sent me to the doctors in agony.

By Friday, we had the family car back, steering fixed and all well – it turned out there was a nick in the lines that caused the fluid to leak out, not quite sure how that happened but thank goodness it was not more serious.  So, to celebrate the return of the comfortable car we decided to explore the coast on the Sunday with my husband driving to give me a break.  We enjoyed looking at the coastal town for Lumut and got the timetables for the ferries to Pulau Pangkor.  After that we drove up the coast looking for a deserted beach to which we could take the dogs in the future.  Out of luck with that we decided to drive up to Taiping so my husband could see the water gardens.  Following that back to the same mall to grab a sandwich and then home. 

Enjoying the Zoo
We left the car park ok this time but just after getting on the motorway the car started to judder very badly.  We slowed it right down with the hazards on and lucky we did because the next thing we knew we heard a big bang and the car was dragging along on its rear nearside rim.  Lucky again we were in the slow lane with nothing behind us and my husband was able to stop the car without us going off the road (in a similar situation on a much slower road in the UK we went off road and into a tree writing off the car).  We had  all the children on the verge behind the barrier in record time. Our middle daughter was very frightened but our son, who had been sitting right over the wheel and had been convinced the car was going to flip took charge of the two girls so we could start to look at the car.  A local man had seen the accident from the parallel road and came straight up to help, it turned out that we were less than 1km from a service station and, just as we were deciding to drive the car there the road police turned up.  They put the children in their car while my husband drove and I walked to the station. 

They were very good natured and incredibly helpful but rather bemused at the fact that we had taken the kids out of the car – being conditioned to English roads with the heavy weight of HGV traffic the last thing we would do is stay in the vehicle but they said it was more than ok to do that here.  When I got to the service station another driver had picked up the baby and was fussing her while our son was cheering up our daughter.  I sent him off to get some fruit and the pair of them were able to sit down close to us and munch on mango and watermelon while we set about changing the tyre.  Unfortunately this was the one time we left home with only my keys and it turned out the release for the locking nuts was on my husband’s key ring.  We were just about to call a taxi when the man with our baby said he was driving our way and gave us all a lift and, brooking no argument, took us straight to our front door.

Our poor tyre....
The next day, once the children were in school we went back up to collect the car and change the wheel.  Our friend from the night before who had been first on the scene was there and came straight over to help.  Another couple also popped over when they saw me helping to release the nuts and jack the car.  Malaysian service stations usually have an array of fresh fruit stalls so I was able to get some hampers put together by way of thanks.  Tyres swapped my husband went to collect the children while I drove the car back to Ipoh and straight into our local tyre shop, two hours later and we had a full set of (rather expensive but brand new) tyres.

We still do not know what caused our tyre to blow like that – perhaps whatever nicked the power steering lines caught the side wall of the tyre and it showed up the first time we drove the car at motorway speeds.  Following our English accident all those years ago I am red hot on tyre safety – always buy as close to top of the range as I can, check the pressure once a month and before all long journeys, do regular visual checks and change them a long time before they reach their minimum.  In any event we were very lucky that we were going as slowly as we were and that the motorways were reasonably empty.  We were also so touched by the kindness shown to us by so many complete strangers.  We always stop and help people but not everyone does (I remember being stranded by the side of the road age 4 when my 8 month pregnant mother was ignored by all passers-by and left to change a tyre by herself and get it back to a garage for tightening, the country shall remain nameless but it was a typical experience of the posting).  On Sunday night we saw Malaysia at its best. 

I do know, however, that if and when we go back to Taiping again we will absolutely not be going to the Subway at Aeon Mall, trips there seem to be cursed for me!

Written as part of the My Expat Family monthly blog link up.

Seychelles Mama

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Ersatz Expat

5 July 2015

Kellie's Castle

One of the good things about having visitors is that it inspires us to do more at the weekend.  Ipoh is home to some interesting places to see and things to do.  The other day we decided to explore the famous ‘Kellie’s Castle’. 
Kellie, the Scot

Kellie's Castle, the folly he built outside Ipoh
The ‘castle’ was built by a Scot, William Kellie Smith as a home for his family.  He had come to the British Colony of Malaya in 1890, after some early successes he started a rubber plantation and a tin mining industry.  In 1903 he married a young Scottish lady and brought her back to Malaya.  They lived, initially, in a wooden bungalow called Kellas House after his birthplace.  This was replaced with a new mansion in 1909.

Kellas House, the second mansion, built in 1909

Traces of marble from the bathrooms are still visible
William and his wife Agnes were part of the colonial social scene and wanted very much to be respected and seen as the leaders of local society.  William loved cars and had 4, a huge and expensive luxury at the time.  In 1915 his son was born and William wanted to build him a house that would cement his place in society. 

The 'castle' was built next to the old house (foundations for the original
bungalow can still be seen).
The castle was never lived in but would have been furnished somewhat like this
The house was something else, built next door to the Kellas House mansion it was to have boasted a 6 story tower, a wine cellar with storage for 3,000 bottles, escape tunnels, a family altar, an indoor tennis court  and the first ever lift in Malaya.  It was built in an eclectic fusion of styles combining Scottish and Indian architecture.  70 men were brought over from India to build the house, William allowed them to build a temple near to the house where they erected a statue of William on the roof of their temple as thanks.  William died on a trip back to Europe to buy the lift before the house could be completed and his wife and children left Malaya never to return. 

The rooms are unfinished, only bats, birds and plants live here
Kellas House started to decay, these days the roof has fallen in and the walls have to be propped up to prevent them from collapsing.  Vestiges of former comfort such as the tiles in the bathroom are still visible. The ‘castle’ is in much better condition but it was never completed.  Many of the rooms are no more than bare bricks while others have some plaster and finishing touches in place.  The lift was never installed.  The windows frame spectacular views over the local countryside and it is possible to see the foundations of the original wooden bungalow next to the remains of Kellas House. 

The windows frame beautiful views across the countryside
The whole site is incredibly melancholy and very sad.  It is said that William’s ghost walks the halls but of course he never lived in the house and did not die there.  If there are ghosts they are more likely to be of the poor souls who are rumoured to have been massacred in the tunnels under the property during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War.
The whole site is rather sombre 
Crowds of tourists enjoy the roof terrace designed to host elegant
society soirées 
All that aside the ‘castle’ is an interesting piece of local history and an enjoyable afternoon out and about.  

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Ersatz Expat