Chukwudi Barrah, a Nigerian expat who has been based in Malaysia for ten years, saw a gap in the Malaysian expat scene, which tended to exclude the voices and visibility of non-white expats. As a way of addressing this gap, Chukwudi formed Other Expats in June 2016. Since then the platform has provided a much-needed space for Malaysia’s growing non-white expat community to connect and share their experiences in the country as well as tips for settling as a non-white expat. Anike Bello spoke with Chukwudi to discuss his experiences in Malaysia, his thoughts on the expat community and taking ownership of the narrative of blackness in the Asian country.
What brought you to Malaysia?
Like a lot of other expats in Malaysia, studying brought me here. Back in the early 2000s Malaysia was building its educational reputation; it was advertised as a cheaper alternative to studying in the UK. There are a few international universities here and students can get UK-level education for a similar price. However, cost of living is much lower than in the UK – that is what caught my parents’ attention and how I ended up here.
Name one thing you love about Malaysia and one challenge about living there?
One thing that I love about living here is the comparative freedom, which sounds odd seeing as the country is not so friendly to Black people. The freedom is in the infrastructure. Back home in Nigeria there are lots of restrictions on where you can go and when. Here, I can go out at three am and go from one place to the other and be almost sure of arriving unharmed compared to if I were back home. Back home, there are many safety issues you have to consider such as getting robbed or even the police shooting you down. Being in Malaysia removes the stress of doing something even as minor as travelling or commuting. Also, the food is good, but I still love my Naija food!
With regards to challenges, being Black does not help with finding a job; in fact it feels detrimental. Even if there are less restrictions in Malaysia than in Nigeria, the police are not the best part of being here. You can be walking down the road or even sitting down and get stopped; as long as you are in sight, that can be an offense.
Having read your post on Sabah about Nigerians being prohibited from entering the region for the purpose of tourism, how would you describe the way you are received throughout Malaysia?
The experience is not always bad; sometimes you meet people who have never met Black people before and they are super nice, other times you get a few people who treat you badly. It goes both ways.
The country is not very friendly to foreigners in general, but Black people especially have not had the best times here, which sometimes is not the fault of Malaysians. Nigerians have a way of creating a horrible reputation for ourselves wherever we go for scamming or drug dealing, which people see first when they see you. They do not see you as a human being, they see you as that Black guy who is very likely a scam artist. Some Malaysians have met Nigerians, Black people and other foreigners and they know that we are not like that, but the majority of people do not. What they know about Black people is what they read in newspapers or what they see on TV and usually those are not good representations. That is where Other Expats comes in: we are trying to create a positive narrative for Black people in the country.
What has been your experience navigating the expat scene in Malaysia? Would you say that more space is given to a particular type of expat?
In most cases, when expat groups define ‘expat’ the information and resources provided are for white expats. The truth is that in many countries around the world, including Malaysia, increasingly a lot of the expats or skilled immigrants who contribute to the economy are Black people and non-white people. The tendency though, is that whatever information is being relayed is targeted at white expats.
Once I saw an advert for a credit card for expats, but when I arrived at the bank to apply the staff passed my passport around and I was met with thirty minutes of questioning about why I wanted to open an account. I was then informed that “this is not for people from your country.”
The expat scene here is very uneven. Usually in expat groups it is mostly white people with a few Black people here and there. If you go online and check out expat communities, the people interviewed as expats are mainly white European or American, which gives you an idea of who is considered as an expat. Even though there is a growing population of non-white expats in the country the focus is still on white expats. Hopefully, things are going to change. That is why Other Expats is here – so that people know Black expats here are contributing to society as well.
Which group of people fall under the category of ‘other expats’?
The idea of Other Expats is twofold: to change the perception many Malaysians have of Black people and create a community of majority non-white expats, which includes Arabs, Black people and Asians who are not represented. Essentially, it is for minority groups who are not usually seen as expats.
There is a growing discussion about ‘other expats’, exploring the discrepancy in treatment and labels of white versus non-white expats. There is a clear distinction made between white ‘expats’ and non-white ‘immigrants’. Why do you think this distinction exists and how does it impact you as a Black expat?
I am not sure how it came about. ‘Expat’ is a term that does not stipulate which country a person has to come from to be considered as one – it is anyone who leaves their country to settle somewhere else. Black people do not gain from being considered anything other than expats: expats usually have benefits like better access in the job markets, et cetera. The term ‘immigrant’ suggests that you are running away from your country or from suffering or war and going to settle somewhere else. Whilst in some cases this may be true, in a lot of ways we are contributing the same way that white expats are, and at times maybe even more. Many Black expats may work harder because we know that we do not have the same privilege as white expats; we work extra to prove that we are worth keeping around.
Describe your experience connecting with the African Diaspora in Malaysia.
So far it has been good; a lot of people have been excited about having a community like Other Expats that they can relate to and where they can find other people like them to share experiences with. A group of us went to see the movie Black Panther, and after the movie we hung out outside the theatre. There was a Jamaican guy who walked past and said something to a lady who was in the group and once he realized she was also Jamaican he screamed for like ten minutes! He was so excited to have finally met a fellow Jamaican after being in Malaysia for a year and a half. These kinds of experiences and connections make the work of Other Expats worth it.
What do you think Nigerians can do to take ownership of the narrative of blackness in Malaysia and counter the negative perceptions that still exist?
In many African countries, people go through hard times and resort to hustling, but because everyone strives extra hard to make the continent great, these efforts can be appreciated. In some cases, however, a lot of people cross the line, creating a terrible impression, such as the case with Nigerian scams.
Looking forward, we as a people should focus on being the best and highlighting what we do very well. The current generation of Nigerians should be role models for the upcoming generation in terms of portraying a better image, to be known for doing good things. Instead of putting the hustle mentality to scamming people, it would be a lot more profitable if we do something that everyone can be proud of. Outside of the continent, you are not Nigerian, you are African, you are Black, which means your behavior represents a whole continent.
Following your personal experiences in Malaysia, what three tips would you give to a newly arrived non-white expat?
First, I would say integrate. This is not your home country; experience a different culture and how other people do things. Go out and find people who are not from your country, mix up with other people.
Second, do not force your culture on anyone else. It is respectful that if you go somewhere you respect the people who own the land. Three, have fun! It is a different culture, so go explore and find new things to do.
Looking at the year ahead, are there any exciting ventures planned for the Other Expats in the coming months?
We are looking at getting together more often and having more group events so people can connect and share their experiences. In terms of content, we will have more Black expats, other non-white expats, and even locals to come on the platform and share their experiences with the Other Expats audience.