What do you need to look out for when moving aboard and how does the expat life differ from the nomadic life?
Kirsten from Sand in My Curls shares about her journey of moving from United States to Malaysia. We talk about the ups and downs of expat life, the logistical side of things (i.e. housing, insurance etc) and tips for the transition. In this episode, we also discuss how living abroad is now more feasible than ever with remote work, as well as how the line between digital nomads and expats might start to blur as the similarities between the lifestyles gradually overlap.
- 04:14: Getting out of the rat race
- 10:57: Factors when deciding where to setup base
- 16:43: Travel and health insurance
- 32:09: Digital Nomads vs Expats
- 43:31: Challenges of living abroad
- 47:49: Experiencing and adapting to different cultures
- 53:12: The concept of home for travelers
- 56:37: Different considerations as a long term traveler/expat
- 1:03:13: When is it time to leave/move from a certain place
- 1:07:28: Main tip for moving and living abroad
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FIND KIRSTEN RACCUIA HERE:
The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Please give a brief introduction of yourself.
Hi, I’m Kirsten Raccuia. I am an American girl from Chicago, but in 2013 my husband and I packed up and sold everything and moved to Penang, Malaysia. It’s been quite a fantastic ride. It didn’t go as we planned. We planned to be digital nomads and travel a lot more, but we came to Penang and fell in love with it; we got wrapped up in the lifestyle. We traveled around Southeast Asia, but we didn’t do the digital nomad thing; we rented a place and haven’t moved in eight years. It’s been a different kind of experience. I do a little bit of everything for work. When I came out here, I had sold my business, which was a clothing wholesale business. I came out here with an open idea of what am I going to do; I’m going to have to do something online. I started writing for a magazine; I was lucky enough to write for International Living about moving abroad, so I started writing for them. They sent me all over Southeast Asia to write stuff. I wrote books about Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia for them, which is fantastic. I was able to travel a tonne with them and then live here. It’s easy to travel. I’ve continued writing, and I write for myself on my blog. But I also write for other freelancers, and I’m a Pinterest manager. I do some Twitter work, and I’m an editor for websites. So I do a whole lot of things and wear a lot of hats. It keeps it exciting and keeps me tired.
Have you seen an increase in people considering remote working?
It’s huge. I think remote work has never been so normalized before. It used to be; you can’t live somewhere else and work in Texas; you have to live in Texas. Now it doesn’t matter. I think for anybody wanting to go remote working or being a digital nomad, this is your golden ticket, take it and run.
What was the driving factor for your move to Malaysia in 2013?
We were living the American rat race. We were working to pay the bills, working to pay taxes, not working to enjoy the finer things in life or enjoy life. It’s not a visual balance in America. I know many countries are like this, but I feel it more in America. It’s about having extra things. It’s about all the trappings of having this American lifestyle. We never wanted that. Mark and I worked hard, probably about 80 hours a week each, we never saw each other. I traveled for my work; he traveled for his work, but never together and never to nice or exotic places.
I went to Detroit and Minneapolis, which are very cool places, but I’m not taking a vacation in Detroit. So we never saw each other, and we don’t have children, we said, we don’t have to save up for college. We don’t have to do anything other than paying our bills and have a nice life, food, health, and a roof over our heads. Those are the things that we need to have, so let’s go somewhere else. We talked about that when we met in 2003. I had already lived overseas before. We’ve always said we don’t have to have this lifestyle, so we have it in the back of our minds. But nothing happened until 2013, when he pulled the trigger. We finally said, what are we doing? What are we doing this for? Why are we running ourselves crazy to have money in the bank and pay taxes? Our original plan was to go to Costa Rica. We went there for a decade, looking for our new home to start off and have a base. Then we came to Malaysia and fell in love, and three weeks later, we changed our entire life. We sold everything and came back six months later.
Why did you decide to look into Costa Rica? Is there a particular reason?
It’s a funny, random reason. When my husband and I went there for a honeymoon trip, he got off the plane and smelled the earth around him, and he said I think this is my home. I feel like this is home, and we hadn’t been there for 12 seconds. I have no idea why but he just felt connected to this place. He felt like he’d been here before; it’s a weird connection. We couldn’t figure it out, but we went back, and we fell in love with it. That’s how we kept going back to discover different places. When you can only go somewhere for two weeks, you don’t have much time to figure it out. So you go for two weeks and spend time in one town to see if this could be a place for you when you’re going to live somewhere, or stay there for an extended period, maybe as a base. We knew we wanted to leave America and make some other place our base, but we weren’t planning to stay in one place for eight years. So for us, we kept going back to Costa Rica to find which town would be the first place for us to start, and we just loved Costa Rica so much. But we never figured out where the connection came from, maybe past life; I don’t know. So I’m chalking it up to something bigger than we can understand.
Why did it take a decade for you to start your travels?
Well, Mark was ready in 2003; he was ready to go. I was not; I come from a tiny Jewish family. It’s was my grandma, my mom, my brother and me. I couldn’t get my head around leaving them. When I told my grandmother that I wanted to go, she told me, you should wait till I die, and then you can go. So that was a total guilt trip right there. But I just wasn’t ready emotionally to leave my family. I just couldn’t do it. As time went on, I was getting closer, but then Mark’s Mum passed away following a seven-year cancer battle. She told him not to wait for his dreams, and that was in 2012. It was shocking for us because she was not an older woman; she was in her 70s. So she wasn’t a spring chicken, but she wasn’t a woman who’s dying of old age; she had a lot of years left. She told us, you don’t have time, go. That shook us into thinking she’s right; what are we doing? What are we waiting for? There’s no reason to wait. Then my family freaked out because Costa Rica is only a five-hour flight versus Malaysia, which is across the world. It’s a huge difference.
What made you decide to choose Malaysia after spending a decade exploring Costa Rica?
I didn’t think it would have been anywhere in Malaysia, but we fell in love with Penang. We spent three weeks in Penang; we went to Georgetown. I just loved the old and modern infrastructure. It has all the things that you need to have a comfortable life from a western standpoint. It has international grocery stores and stuff like that, which make life easier for an expat. It has a vast expat group here, but it’s also easy to mix with the locals because Malaysians are special people. They are kind and loving and will give you the shirt off their back, and they want to feed you all the time. Penang is this perfect little bubble of an island. It’s not perfect by any means, but when you’re looking at it from the point of where I could live in the world, it’s got all the things you need to be comfortable. It has a great cost of living, and it’s a pretty magical place. So it hit us when we got here; we loved it. I love it.
If you’re a solo female traveler, this is an easy place to come and be safe. You should always be mindful and not wander the streets and three in the morning by yourself and go down dark alleys; that’s just stupid anywhere in the world. But this is a safe place for travelers. That’s why I think it’s part of a big backpacker route. It’s easy, inexpensive, and safe.
What factors do you consider when choosing travel destinations, especially when staying longer as an expat?
Everything that you said, but also healthcare, I think that’s important for us. I’m 47, and my husband’s 56. We’re both in excellent health and take care of ourselves. If you’re going to be somewhere for five months, or six months, especially riding a scooter around town living in Asia. If you lived in a lot of places, health care is critical. You can have travel insurance, but if you go to a hospital and can’t communicate, you can’t explain what’s going on; that’s a scary situation. We do think about health care. We think about the cost of living; it’s probably the number one for us. We need to make sure that everything works for us, so the cost of living has to be low. Health care has to be good. The food has to be good. I don’t want to live anywhere where I’m eating crappy food.
The people have to be kind and safe. I think just the lifestyle in general; I don’t want to be a pioneer. I want to make sure there’s already an established group of people doing what I’m doing there because I don’t want to have to be the one trying to figure all of it out. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’d rather see this as a great place. Digital nomads come here because there are great co-working places; that means there’s good internet and everything we need as online workers.
How do you navigate health insurance? Are you on a fixed monthly plan?
in Malaysia, we have health insurance because we’re on a ten-year visa. The only way to stay in Malaysia for as long as we have is by getting a long-term visa; with that, you have to chose to have local health care. We have Malaysian healthcare for anything that happens to us in Malaysia; we’ve never used it because everything is so inexpensive here. We pay out of pocket when we go to the doctor because it’s like $12, something silly like that. But when we travel, we don’t usually get health care if we have health insurance or even travel insurance. If we’re traveling to Phuket for the week or anything like that, we won’t bother. Now that we are planning to come to America for a while, we have to get health insurance; we haven’t had it since we left. It’s too expensive to keep even with the Affordable Care Act.
Now we’re looking for insurance to get back to America, and we’re in the process of it right now. We’re looking at two different options; we’re looking at getting just a policy for the four or five months that we’ll be in America through a travel insurance company like IMG. Then a policy from SafetyWing for when we visit Cuba and Mexico. America triples that price on any travel insurance, so we’re looking at international insurance; some of them are stupid money. So it has to be affordable, or we won’t be able to do it; it’s just not possible. So there are global plans that will cover you worldwide. IMG is a pretty good one that will cover you for many places, including America, and it’s not outrageously expensive. But a lot of them, you have to pay cash upfront. So let’s say you’re in an accident; you have to put your credit card down and get reimbursed. If it’s in America, it could be $700,000 on your credit card; that’s not a possibility. There’s a lot of factors to figure out when going to America with longer-term insurance. Many insurance companies will give you three months in America at the most. We’re going to be there for four, so we have to figure out a bit of a different scenario. I’ll write a blog about it when we figure it out.
Is getting local insurance a more cost-effective way of obtaining health insurance?
If we were going to be somewhere long-term, yes, local insurance will always be cheaper. So the problem is a lot of places, you can’t necessarily get an annual plan. We’re looking for travel insurance from a Malaysian company to go to America; that way, we can be covered. If anything happens dramatically or drastically, they’ll repatriate us to Malaysia for health care which is fine because healthcare is fantastic here. In America, we would go bankrupt.
How important is travel insurance?
You want your travel insurance to cover you for the catastrophic stuff. You don’t need it if you have Bali belly, but you need it if you’re in the hospital or in an accident or something like that. You want your health insurance or your travel insurance to cover you for that. So when you are looking at travel insurance, make sure you don’t just get the cheapest one that will cover your baggage if it gets lost. Losing your bag sucks, but being covered for hospital treatment is much more important than losing your clothing. So when we look for travel insurance, we’re looking at coverage for catastrophic stuff. We don’t care about the little stuff. If you want baggage insurance, most of your credit cards will cover you for that. So check your credit card stuff. Chase Sapphire Card is pretty awesome, but it’s not available internationally.
What was your mindset when you got to Penang?
We didn’t have a real plan set out because we wanted to go with the flow and see what life brought us. We’d been living in America with a plan for years, and we wanted it to go and check out the world and see what came our way. So we didn’t say we’re doing three months here and three months there; we just went, let’s wing it and see what happens. I don’t necessarily suggest that, but it’s what we did. For a while, we had a medical tourism business here that kept us here for two years. We traveled whenever we could, and then we realized we didn’t want that kind of business. So we were open to ideas, but we knew that we wished to travel to be part of our life more than in America. Living in Penang, it’s easy to pop over to Singapore, Bali, anywhere in Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand; we can drive across the border and be in Thailand for lunch. So we knew that we could travel more here. And we did at the beginning, mainly because we only had three-month leases. So for the first year, we were on a tourist visa every three months, we were traveling, and we love that. So we wanted to make Penang our home base and use it as we did other things and traveled to other countries.
After having a business here, we realized we couldn’t travel because we were busy. So we decided to stop and figure out how to be completely remote and online. We just got stuck in here, and we just never left because life is easy here. So taking this time right now and going okay, we’re picking up and leaving is enormous for us because we’ve been here for so long, and we’re so settled; this is like our only home. We don’t have any other condo or apartment, and everything we own is here. So leaving here is a big emotional decision. I’ve cried a lot this week because we’re saying goodbye to friends that have been our family for the last eight years. But we will be back; we don’t know when. We’re not sure when we’re allowed to come back in due to COVID, it could be six months, it could be eight months, so again we have no plan. What’s the point of planning right now when countries are closing and opening all the time? The intention was never to stay somewhere for nine years or eight years.
Do you think that digital nomads and expats are becoming a very similar group of people?
Yes, now more than ever. When Mark and I moved here, I was 39. We had sold our businesses in America, and everyone questioned what we were doing. They thought we were crazy for wanted to leave. They thought the time to do it was when you’re young and out of college or before college or in college or when you’re retired. We’re the first people we knew who had left the country to go somewhere else, and we knew we weren’t planning to come back. We just wanted a new life somewhere else. It’s more common now, especially with COVID and people working remotely. People can be expat at 22. They can choose to work online as a social media manager from anywhere in the world. There are loads of options that we didn’t have eight years ago. Or maybe they were there, but we didn’t know about them.
The difference is that it’s becoming more commonplace and the norm to pack up and move and not stay within your country. I think that’s something that we didn’t see happening back then. There was no digital nomad; there was no such thing. People were doing it, but the digital nomad term was not around. So for us, we just got to go and see what happens. There’s a massive opportunity for people who don’t want to live the everyday life we’re supposed to live and do the things you’re expected to do. You have a little more freedom, and I think the world is changing in that respect. I think COVID has played a massive part in that.
Do governments prefer backpackers or digital nomads to boost their tourism economy?
They’re happy to have backpackers come and go. But they want somebody who’s going to stay for a few months with these digital nomad visas, benefit society, benefit the locals, and put money back into the economy. I think having these digital nomad visas is a fantastic way to draw people to different countries. There’s nothing wrong with traveling and backpacking. I did all those things, and I think it’s essential that everybody should do it. I think if you’re looking at something more long-term, it’s almost an evolution from being the traveler to the digital nomad to the expat.
Not in our case; we did it backward. But generally, when we get that travel bug, or you’re traveling around and loving life. If you have a job that allows you to do it online, you become a digital nomad. Then you find a place you want to stay and put down roots somewhere or places with multiple options for different residences. I think countries are opening their minds to having foreigners come in and get visas or a permanent residency like Mexico or Portugal. It’s about spending enough time there, spending money, and investing in the community. I’m so excited for people doing it because you can always go home and go back to your original country. If you live in another country, why not do it right and establish a residency so that when you are 80 years old, you have a choice where to live. Some are expensive to get, but some are easy to get by showing that you’re getting $2,000 a month from work. Then they’re open to having you come and stay for a while, which is pretty awesome.
What are some of the challenges that you have seen when trying to move or leave abroad?
I was pleasantly surprised with how easy life was here for us right at the beginning because it’s such an expat haven. I could put one question on the Facebook group, and 100 people would answer it. I don’t believe that exists everywhere. I think there’s a pretty unique group of expats here, from what I’ve learned. I’ve talked to many other expats, and I also do an expat interview series, and a lot of them are surprised at how easy it is here. It’s like you have a built-in group of friends, which makes life easier. There are always communication issues, but most people speak English. It’s one of the things that attracted us to Penang because we thought it would be easier not to have to worry about communicating.
We had to learn how to adjust our fast American speak; we had to slow things down. They would never tell us if they didn’t understand what we were saying, as Asias need to save face. They would be embarrassed. It’s because they don’t know what we’re asking for because we use many words. I think that’s probably the most challenging thing for us to get around, but now we’re used to it, and we just get it. It’s pretty endearing.
Have you observed many cultural differences as you travel?
I found different cultural things here, like Asians are very blunt, particularly when shopping for clothes; so shocking. Another thing that’s shocking for us is being asked how much you pay for rent. But that’s a normal thing here; everybody wants to know how much rent you pay.
How do you integrate into cultures, and what makes a home for you?
So as far as what my concept of home is, I think I will always think of Chicago as my home. I think it’s we’re brought up thinking you only have one home. But when you leave your original home and find another place that you love so much and settle in, you create a family because when you move to another country, you have no family, so you choose friends who become family. So they’re my chosen family. You have your chosen family, apartment, and things, and you make that home because you’re living there. It’s different when you’re somewhere for three months, but it becomes your home when you’re somewhere for eight years. When we sold everything out of America, we had a four-foot storage place with pictures and my grandma’s antiques and stuff that I couldn’t get rid of. But that’s all we have in America; you don’t have a place to live, we don’t have anything other than a storage unit and family. So I think home is where you make it. I know that’s cheesy, but home is a feeling for us now.
Every vacation we’ve ever taken has been, can we live in this place? What will it be like if we choose to live here? It is about exploring real estate, looking at the grocery stores, and the lifestyle. In a lot of places, I immediately know this is not a place I could live. There is no feeling of it. So I think for me, I’m going to have homes around the world, and it’s going to be where my heart is happiest. Chicago has always been my home, even though my heart hasn’t always been happy there. But I have good memories, and that is part of that will be my home forever, even in 20 years when I’m not living here.
When you go to a new place, do you subconsciously evaluate and analyze whether this particular city could potentially be a base?
I don’t think it’s subconscious; I believe we are very aware of it. I guess that could also come from working for International Living; my job was to find everything. When I was a correspondent for them, they sent me to Bali for a month, and I had to go and learn everything about Bali. I had to meet with expats, learn about real estate, go to the grocery stores, figure out the prices, cost of living, how much it costs to buy a car, things like that. That started in 2014, and I did that for quite a few years. Now I still write for them, but they don’t send me to do these things. I think part of that was ingrained in me; I’ve always had one foot in a suitcase ready to go somewhere else.
Not because I don’t love where I am, but because I have a little bit of a grass is always greener mindset. I’m that girl who’s in a happy bubble. What’s the next adventure? It’s a curse and a blessing, especially for my husband, who’s loves real estate. We look at apartments to figure the prices because we’re curious and want to see if a place is for us. There are certain places we have gone that didn’t feel like it could be home for us. So we didn’t go through and do everything that we usually would do, like go to the grocery stores and find out the pricing and all that stuff. But we do pretty much do that everywhere else, just for curiosity, but also for my blog and for expats who want to know more about our people or who are interested in being an expat.
What other countries have you considered living in?
All of them, so many of them. We’ve always loved Thailand, and we love the islands; there are many amazing things. We’ve always loved Phuket, and we are very intrigued about living in Thailand. I’m an ocean girl, so I want to live by the ocean. Penang oceans are pretty gross, so there’s no beach lifestyle here. The Andaman Sea is not very nice, it’s beautiful to look at, but it’s not like you want to go swimming in it. We thought about some of the islands in Thailand, specifically Phuket, because it’s less than an hour’s flight from here. Before COVID, we would check it out for a few days. We thought about whether we wanted to live on an island that was hard to get to the mainland or too expensive; even though they’re dirt cheap to live on, it is costly to get stuff sent to the islands.
Will you be spending time backpacking around Southeast Asia?
If we’re going to live in Asia, yes. But our thoughts at the minute are Mexico for part-time. I think through all this COVID stuff; I realized I don’t want to live in Penang for 12 months out of the year, so far away from my family, because it’s just too much. So ideally, I would live here for a part of the year and then go to the states for a couple of months and then travel to a new country every year for three to four months. That would be a beautiful life.
When do you know it’s time to leave?
I think that we’re leaving right now because the COVID situation is not great here and because we have been in lockdown for months. We’ve been in a severe lockdown for the last two whole months. We’re not allowed out of your house. We can go to the grocery store, the bank, the pharmacy. We’re pretty much not allowed to have a life. We can pick up and move because we are remote; we don’t have to be here. We are going home temporarily so we can spend time with family because our parents are getting older. Mark’s dad is 91, my mom’s 76; it’s been almost two and a half years since we’ve seen them. You don’t have a lot of time when people are 91; you have to take advantage of that. The timing is right to go home because we’re locked inside and have no life and because of the aging of our family. Usually, we would go home every year for two months, but we haven’t since 2019. So that is the impetus of us leaving at this point.
I also feel like I’m ready for something new. I feel like we’ve been here for a long time, and I feel like I need a challenge. I need some adventure. I need some craziness in my life because right now, it feels too easy to stay here. It’s very easy to say; it’s a much harder decision to pack up and go. I’m not going to lie; there’s a part of me that it’s like, oh shit, I’m doing this again. But we’re going to get to go to Mexico or Costa Rica, and there are huge possibilities, but then we’ll come back. I want it all, and I think I should be able to have it. If I want it, I’m planning on making it happen. But I think once you get settled and you cozy up into your place, and you realize how happy you are. It’s hard to leave. It’s way harder to leave than it is to stay.
What are the main tips that you have for people moving or living abroad? What are things to take note of?
It’s going to suck at times; it’s going to be challenging a lot. You may feel guilty leaving your family; I had a tough time. Even eight years later, I still have bouts of significant guilt for leaving; it can be emotional. You will go through times when it’s tough, especially if you have a close-knit family. You’re going to go through times when it’s incredible. You’re going to have a rollercoaster ride, be prepared and buckle up. When we got here, I cried because I couldn’t believe what we’d done and how I was going to do it.
Then you start finding things that make you happy, and you start settling in. But you will always second guess yourself so prepare for that emotionally. You need to be prepared that you’re going to miss many things, but you’re also going to have the best time of your life. I have amazing friends in Chicago, but when you move somewhere else and have no family, you connect with people on an intense level very quickly. When you find your people, they are your people for life. All my friends in Malaysia have moved away, and that’s another thing with expat life, people come and go; it’s a very temporary thing.
If you’re planning to be somewhere, know that you’re going to lose friends because they will move away during that time. It’s very emotional so prepare for the ups and the downs. Know that you’re going to have this balance of questioning yourself and then loving every second of it and having the best connections, the best time, and the best adventures. It’ll be challenging, but it’ll be worth it.
How do you cope with that doubt?
You just ride the wave, like you do during any other emotional time in your life. It’s not something that lasts for days on end, it’s an hour here or in the middle of cooking something, and the song comes on that reminds me of my best friend, and it makes me sad, or something reminds me of my grandmother who’s no longer on this earth. You have those moments, but they’re fleeting, and for me, they are not overwhelming. So I ride the wave and move on, knowing that tomorrow is another day and I always feel better. I know for some people, it’s a lot harder than that. I have a lot of people who reach out to me on my website. If you can find a way that works for you, whether it’s meditation, reading a book, taking a walk, or just getting out of the situation, find a routine that works for you. But know that it will not last; you will get over it. Even if you’re homesick or upset, you will get through it. It’s always the hardest at the beginning because you don’t know anything yet. You’re still trying to figure out where you’re at and what you’re doing. But those moments of what am I doing will get farther and fewer in between the guilt stuff. The guilt for me comes and goes. When I think about my mom being alone, it’s a massive factor of guilt for me. That’s still hitting me, but then I call her, and we talk, and then it’s fine. So that’s how I cope, by connecting what I’m feeling like crap. I reconnect with people. But it will pass, and you will get through it. You’re not alone because every expat or digital nomad has had those moments, but they’re fleeting.
Where can people find you to follow your adventures and the information you have collected for different cities?
My blog is Sand In My Curls, and my handles across Facebook and Instagram are the same. My blog is the best place.