The second instalment of my expat interview series! This time I chatted with J.M. Cressman, a Canadian teacher who moved overseas a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. He is now currently living in Malaysia, working as a teacher, with no plans on moving back to North America in the near future.
I met J.M. Cressman back in 2009 when I departed on my first summer overseas working in Spain, teaching English at a summer camp located outside of Salamanca. Actually, despite the fact we worked with a big group of other Canadian’s that summer, for some reason J.M. got stuck flying over with 3 of my best girl friends and myself. He was basically our big brother as he helped navigate us through the airport, metro station, and around Madrid.
I’m so happy that I got to virtually chat with J.M. Cressman to give my readers an idea of what it is like for him living in Southeast Asia and working as a teacher! Here is what he had to say.
What does a day in the life look like for you living and working in Malaysia?
8:30am: Get on my 125cc motorbike and make the 5 min drive to school.
8:32am: Marvel at the power of my crotch rocket.
9:15am: Go out to breakfast with a group of teachers. Pay RM9, or $3 Canadian, for eggs, bacon and coffee. Smile that I’m not in Canada (then crave Tim Horton’s).
9:45am – 1:00pm: Be a teacher.
1:00pm: Head to the mamak stall next to our school for an outdoor, Indian buffet lunch. Repeat teacher duties after.
5:00pm: Workout at the gym, go to the local watering hole “Harry’s Place”, mark assignments, etc.
7:00pm: Go Taj Curry House for Tandoori Chicken and Naan, get cheap take-away or cook.
8:00pm+: Read, do Korean Rosetta Stone, play hockey at the local mall, Skype, watch House of Cards, etc.
How difficult was it for you to find a job in your field in Malaysia?
I got my job through the Teachers Overseas Recruiting Fair at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. It’s a massive job fair for international schools over a weekend in January. I was actually looking for a job at an international school in Korea. However, no school would hire me because I was fresh out of teacher’s college with no experience. I ended up interviewing with schools in Macau, Vietnam, Egypt, China and Columbia.
Malaysia was my top choice because of the job, it was my specific subject (Exercise Science) and older students (17 – 20’s). I interviewed at 9:00am Saturday morning and had my contract signed and a glass of wine in my hand by 4:00pm. So, for me, pretty easy! There are plenty of opportunities for expat professionals in Malaysia. However, you need to secure a job through your respective company first.
What do you find to be the biggest difference with teaching overseas in Malaysia then in North America?
The students. I have never had to discipline a student in class. Malaysian students strongly embody the Asian principles of Confucianism: ambitious, hard-working and very respectful of authority. Canadian students are bright, but are constantly trying to test the teacher (we all remember high school). The problem is quite the opposite here. The first two weeks of class are painfully awkward. I try to spark group discussion with the students but nobody wants to talk. A typical Malaysian high school teacher will lecture for an hour and students are expected to be quiet the entire time. It takes a while to train that out of them. Class is a lot of fun once they loosen up. The Canadian style of interactive, hands-on learning is transformative for a lot of students.
What was the biggest adjustment you experienced when moving to Malaysia?
The division of races. There are three dominant racial groups in Malaysia: Malays, Chinese and Indians. It is a multicultural country, but not in the same way we think of it as Canadians. Things are all very segmented by race. There was a bill called the New Economic Policy passed in 1971 that gave more economic advantages to Malays, and excluded the Chinese and Indians. Malays, Muslim by religion, were given more university opportunities and public-sector jobs. This division has carried through until today. Malays still rule politics and hold power. People are intentionally classified by race. You need to declare your race and religion for any application you do, whether it’s a job, a credit card or joining a club. Despite the differences, things are still civil.
Oh… and on a lighter note, not having a winter is pretty different too. I love year-round summer!
If I was to come to where you live tomorrow what would be on your list of must-do things?
The first place I usually take people is the iconic Petronas Towers downtown Kuala Lumpur. There are a lot of cool rooftop bars to get an awesome sunset view, like SkyBar or Heli Lounge Bar. All trips to Malaysia need to involve a lot of food. There are cheap mamak or outdoor food stalls everywhere. People like to eat late into the night. You go eat char kway teow, nasi lemak or tandoori chicken and naan, then sit around deep into the night drinking a sweet, sweet teh tarik and watching European soccer. The islands of Malaysia are spectacular as well. Go to Langkawi for a cheap, duty-free party. Perhentians or Redang are tougher to get to but have perfect white sand beaches and world-class diving.
Where else have you had the chance to visit while living in Southeast Asia and what was your favourite?
One of the best things about Malaysia is that it is easy to leave Malaysia. I love it here, but it is a great jump-off point for all countries in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is the home of Air Asia, so flights are super cheap. Plus there are a tonne of public holidays.
I’ve visited Thailand, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has been my favourite country so far. It is a diverse, densely-populated and relatively under-explored country. I recently went to a volcanic, fresh water lake in Sumatra and island-hopping in Lombok. There is almost a Caribbean vibe to the place. The people are relaxed, cheery and musical. There’s a lot of Bob Marley played near the beaches. Vietnam and Cambodia are the places that I would like to explore next.
What was your motivation to start your blog?
I started my blog when I was living in Australia in 2011. At first it was a way of sharing news with family and friends. It became an addiction shortly after. I loved the act of writing and the challenge of telling engaging stories. I shied away from making it a daily/weekly update blog. I knew it would get boring after a while. I chose to focus on short stories. The blog is more a celebration of the random events and people you meet while abroad. It started in Australia, then I kept it up in Korea through 2012 and when I moved here (Malaysia) in 2013.
Do you think you will eventually move back to North America, or do you think you’ll always go for the expat life?
That is a question that I still struggle with. My fiancée, Ahyoung, is Korean. We are getting married this summer in Seoul, then she will move here. We have discussed living in Malaysia for a while, then moving to Korea. I would like to get to know her family more and become fluent in Korean. After that, things are open. She is just as willing to live abroad as I am. Being an international couple is pretty exciting. We’ve discussed living in Canada later in our lives. Both an advantage and disadvantage of expat life is that it is fluid. It is easy to move around but does not offer a lot of stability. I could see myself in Canada later in my life. But, deep down, I know the expat/explorer lifestyle will always be a part of me.
P.S. J.M. Cressman and his fiance were recently featured in the National Post for their quest in Indonesia to find the famed Molson Canadian fridge that was used in past Olympic commercials. Click here to read the story.
CatMay 8, 2015 at 9:49 pm
This is an excellent interview! J. M. Cressman is an intriguing person with a unique perspective and great advice for anyone interested in becoming a truly cultured, world-traveler.