Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Expat Luxury and Expat Slums

Many expats who are moved to Penang by their corporations find themselves suddenly living the grand life. Instead of a middle class house, they are now in a deluxe apartment in the sky. When my friends and I got together for breakfast a few weeks after arriving on the island, we were all still in awe of our new homes. We simply could not believe our opulent, high-rise lifestyle.

"I live in a place with Palace in its name. I have my own private elevator lobby, a view of the water out one side, and the gold stupa of a Thai temple out the other side," said one gal.

In fact, a ton of my friends have their own private elevator lobbies.

As for me, my condo is a whopping 6,000 square feet. Texas-sized! It also has a single-person sauna in the master bathroom. This is a totally frivolous feature. If you spend any time outdoors in Penang, you will become drenched in sweat and tell everyone that it's like a sauna out there. Why in the world would you need an actual sauna inside your home? Best of all is the view of the sunrise and the water from my balcony. It's the first thing I fell in love with in Penang. There have been some school days where breakfast gets on the table a little late because I can't help enjoying (and photographing) the scenery.

The fabulous view from my balcony across the water to the hilly mainland.

We middle class, American expats sometimes feel weird getting suddenly upgraded to living the Life of the 1%.  We're not rich. We're just average folks. We feel a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies in our luxury condos. Expat life is like being Cinderella at the ball, and we know it's all over when the clock strikes midnight, our contracts are over, and we move back to our home country.

Tall towers of supercondos are all over the island. Oddly enough, they seem half empty, yet more continue being built. Most of the occupants are expats, rich locals and foreign investors who keep units as holiday homes.

A 41-story, residential building started going up next door right about the time that we moved into our home. It's advertised as "sky bungalows," not boring ole condos. A couple times a day, an extremely loud siren would go off for ten minutes followed by a loud explosion. Even plugging our ears and running to the opposite side of the unit didn't help us escape the noise. They were blasting the bedrock to set the foundation for the highrise. The progress was fun to watch in the beginning as the floors began to go up. If my son had been a few years younger, I'm sure he would have spent all his time with his nose pressed to the window fascinated by the busy construction activity below. I've been trying to catch the tall crane at the very moment when it gets a few stories higher but haven't lucked out, yet.

Watching them build bungalows in the sky.

After a while, though, all the construction noise really began to wear on me. The constant jackhammering went on from morning until evening six days a week. Any time I saw a concrete truck on the site, I knew that they would be working until 11 p.m. because they don't stop pouring until they are done with a floor. They lashed together a bunch of bins to act as a rubbish chute from the top floors down to the ground. The first time I heard the rumble of it being used, I seriously thought it was one of the fighter jets that sometimes fly by. My friend nicknamed it The World's Largest Rainstick.

Construction continues late into the night.

Before we moved, I had imagined myself sitting out on the waterfront balcony relaxing and reading a book. I tried it a few times but had to go back inside and close the windows or risk hearing loss from the loud decibel noise. Once, I tried my noise cancelling headphones, but I feared that I'd fry the electronics with the rivulets of sweat that poured off my head in the sauna-like weather. Sometimes, we have to shout when we are out by the pool to be heard over the construction racket.

The work lights on the crane are so bright that I could use it as a reading light if I wanted to. It generates so much light pollution that it's extremely rare for me to see stars at night. How I miss a star-filled sky!

Plus, the unfinished building is really ugly. It lends a post-apocalyptic feel to the scenery.

In other words, the construction really annoys me! Worst of all, my gorgeous, panoramic view is blocked by the new building. I could weep. This is karmic payback for my residential tower because locals tell me that they considered where I live to be a blight on the landscape when it first went up, too. Apparently, my building was one of the first highrises to be built on this part of the island, and it basically ruined a ton of other homes' views.

Bye bye beautiful sunrise. This is taken from the same angle as the first photo.

Then, I give myself a kick in the behind and knock myself off my little diva pedestal. Yes, I am living in the lap of luxury. I have a visa that clearly states "Prohibited from Working" so I find little ways to amuse myself throughout the day. I have a maid who comes 12 hours a week, so I'm certainly not spending all my time cleaning the condo.

What about the laborers on the construction site? People tell me that they are foreign workers, usually from Indonesia. They are expats, too. They are the ones who are toiling away from morning until night while I sit in my cushy condo. They don't even stop when the wind starts blowing and the sky starts pouring.

Waiting on a ledge for an elevator to take them 25-stories down to the ground.

I'm so accustomed to safety-conscious America and their OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) laws and regulations that seeing these worker on a ladder perched on a ledge without a harness in sight gives me the heebee jeebies. I can't bear to look at them for fear that I'll witness someone falling to their death.

See they guy on the ladder by the window at the top?
It's a looooooong way down.

The thing that really gets me is the huge difference in our living accommodations even though we are right next to each other. These men live in shacks on the construction site. As the crew size grew, they've had to build more. Of course, all this is done late at night after they've spent the entire day on rich people's homes.

Where the workers live

These shacks have plywood sides and corrugated metal roofs. I cannot imagine how roaring loud it must be during a Penang storm. This is the Expat Slums. I don't know how it compares to what they were living in when in their home country. Perhaps it is a step up? Perhaps they're just happy to have a job and money to send home.

These toilets are a far cry from my luxury bathroom with a sauna and bidet.

When the second building started going up, they tore down a few of the rows of shacks, and the men moved into the lower floors of the unfinished towers. Plywood still serves to shield them from the weather since some of the walls aren't up, yet. At least the commute is short.

So whenever I get cranky from how much the construction is bugging me, I stop and say a little prayer of thanks. Living next to this site reminds me of how fortunate I am. It gives me a sense of perspective. Even though I'm living in a developing country, most of what I complain about can be classified under the popular "First World Problems" meme. The expats next door are not as lucky.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Michele. I think it's easy to forget how lucky we are living here in our "palaces" (I wonder whose quote that was??)

  2. I so relate to your expat life Michelle, and although we are back in reality now and enjoying it, there were so many great things about living away from 'home'. All the good stuff - Cinderella and all that - and the bad stuff - feeling guilty. So many mixed emotions. But we had some wonderful years and wouldn't swap them ... thanks for brining back memories, and for offering some new insights about Penang too :)

  3. The number of people who fall from tall buildings scare me. In Singapore, it's usually maids who are cleaning the outside of windows in high-rises. Really not necessary.

    1. The first day my maid worked for me, I found her hanging most of the way out the window to clean the outside of the pane. Yikes! I immediately told her it wasn't necessary and that she never had to clean the outsides of them.

  4. wow private elevator lobbies!!! I had to laugh at the sauna though. I can't understand why that seemed like a good idea!

  5. At first I'm thinking, what a wonderful opportunity to live in such opulent style. Then the down side of living there is very sad to see. So do you ever use your sauna? Will the new high rises have saunas too or did they figure out this is a dumb idea. How about a hot tub? No?

  6. I'll be staying in Penang for a few months next year and am starting to look at apartments. Thanks for giving me a reality check that my pleasure inevitably comes from someone else's toil. I will make sure I am grateful every single second I live there.


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