The ice-cold blast of the AC makes the air in the room incredibly dry. I am sitting on a metal seat with a torn leather cushion that creaks and squeaks every time I shift around. People either side of me are looking at their watches over and over again, their faces a shade of what can be described as ‘sluggish grey’. A few people are huffing in frustration.
There’s a buzz of voices speaking in a hushed tone. The gentle buzz of conversation is interrupted every so often by the noise of a stamp being slammed down onto pages of a passport. To the side, one of the female immigration officers is monotonously reading out the names on the pile of passports in her hands. She does not look happy to be here.
Just a few moments ago a mother and her preteen daughter were forcefully pulled apart from each other. Both of them were wailing and screaming at the top of their lungs and grasping on to each other as one officer tried to shove the mother into the questioning room.
This is something you’d see on the Discovery Channel about illegal border crossing, I think to myself.
I’ve been sitting in this same spot for about four and a half hours now, and I still don’t know how much longer I will be here. And all because my passport wasn’t stamped properly when I entered Malaysia the first time.
The first few weeks in Malaysia have been an absolute rollercoaster.
I’ve experienced everything from feeling content, to feeling incredibly happy, to being frustrated and getting completely overwhelmed – all in the first two weeks!
Being exposed to a different language, and new sights, smells, people and an entirely new culture can be an exhilarating and overwhelming experience. But where there are downs, there are ups. And luckily for me, there have been quite a few ups.
The social programs organized by the student buddies during the orientation program at the University of Malaya has been one of them. They organized for us to showcase the different nationalities that were represented in this year’s exchange student group, and ensured that we all got the chance to have at least one short conversation with every other exchange student present.
Besides this, they also proudly presented the Malaysian culture through art, song and dance. One of my favorite moments was learning a K-Pop dance routine that the buddies had choreographed. Looking silly with approximately 500 other students from around the world has this magical effect of making you forget how far away from home you are.
One of the biggest hurdles during my first few weeks in Malaysia that, to some extent, has slightly dampened my first encounter with the new culture is the visa process here.
The way that the student visa system works here is that you are given a ‘special pass stamp’ upon entering the country, which is a temporary indication that you are a student. After this, you have to spend the first few days undergoing medical screenings at one of the clinics organized by the university.
Then you have to purchase insurance from them, pay an admin fee to a local bank and then file several copies of your offer letter and other documents presented by the university. And after all that, you have to collect all of the above and present it together with your original passport (note: NOT a copy!) which you then surrender.
The process is such that the university collects it all, then hands it over to immigration, which then places a student visa sticker into the passport and hands it back to you after approximately one month. So essentially, you are in a whole new foreign country for a month, with your passport in the hands of someone sitting somewhere behind a desk in the immigration department. That in itself is a scary thought! It’s a long and crazy complicated and bureaucratic process.
On top of that, the other Danish student here from SDU and I had an additional problem which is that we were not given our Visa on Arrival stamp in our passports when we entered the country. This is a stamp that we should have automatically received upon entering the country as a Danish citizen.
The immigration officers hadn’t quite got this when we first landed in Malaysia and forgot to give us one, hence the insane experience at the beginning of this piece. I know I really shouldn’t, but it’s moments like those that make it difficult for me not to compare my first impressions here with the experiences I had on my previous exchange to Australia.
On the bright side, not having a passport with you does not stop you from starting to explore the beautiful islands, hill stations and coastal towns of this country. And that’s exactly what we did.
On one of the weekends, a group of us headed to the Cameron Highlands District. This is Malaysia’s largest hill-station area and is famous for its tea plantations and hiking trails. So naturally the weekend was spent hiking around and drinking lots of local tea.
Looking for a change of scenery the weekend after, a few of us headed to the Perhentian Islands for a weekend of sunbathing on white sandy beaches and snorkeling in crystal blue waters. I would highly recommend both these places if you’re looking to travel around Kuala Lumpur.
One of the high points throughout all of this has definitely been the people. Reflecting on it all, they have made all the difference.
The Malaysian people are so warm, welcoming and willing to go out of their way to help you out. For instance, two of the staff working at the University of Malaya, one from the visa unit and the other from the international office, stayed with us on the day of the visa stamp havoc – way beyond their work hours – to make sure it was all settled. They even dropped us all the way home after that!
In the exhilaration of a new culture and the many long-winded processes, this is truly a blessing.
The local Malaysians I have encountered so far have all been incredibly supportive and always ready to assist in any way with a huge smile on their faces. And this goes for the other exchange students too. We all had similar procedures to endure during our first few weeks here and it is incredible to have a support person who you know is going through the same things as you.
I have met an incredible bunch of people, some I have moved in with, others I have traveled with and all of whom I have experienced this new culture with – and I couldn’t be more excited to have many more months of experiences with them here in Malaysia.
All in all, whilst there have been a few administrative hurdles I hadn’t quite anticipated when I had previously day-dreamed about exchange, the fear of facing unfamiliarity and experiencing a different culture is what I signed up for in the first place, and this is just part of it all. The people here and the wonderful places in Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding areas have really played their part in making me feel excited about embarking on this Malaysian adventure and seeing what the next few months will bring.
In the words of Ronan Keating: (Exchange) is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it. 😀