Blood Sweat and Tears: What I Learned about Friendship in Penang

Friendships. Whether you are going to stay in Penang for a few months or have been around for years, you WILL need to be part of the local society at some point. I have learned the hard way that in Penang, making and keeping friendships can be quite a pain in the a**.

Penang friendship

I have been living in Penang since 2009, and I visited for the first time in 2008. In a decade on the island, I got to know it pretty well, I think I have seen quite a lot of changes, and have certainly build up my idea of how friendship works in Penang. So yes, this post may end up being a bit of a personal opinion, and maybe win me some enemies. But trust me: in my experience trying to build up and maintain relationships on the island I noticed clear friendship patterns that rarely seem to change.

To start with, I am what Malaysians call a caucasian, a foreigner, an ang moh (’red haired monkey’, that is…), a kwai loh, a mat salleh. To sum it all up, I am an outsider. This is a double edged sword, because on one side, white foreigners are considered as mythical, semi-superior creatures, and on the other, it is clear that as a foreigner, one will never be like Penang locals.

It’s not important that by now I have a Penang-born partner, I know the island better than most Penangites, or I can eat as spicy as them: as an ang moh, the bottom line is that I will never be one of them. I learned to live with it, and you should do it, too, if you want to make real and lasting friendships on the island.

Still, there are things that — as a human, not as a foreigner — I will never come to grips with.

You always have to make the first move

I come from Italy, yeah, and I may have hotter blood than most Brits and Americans living on the island. Stereotypes are all true: we have strong bonds with family and the Mafia, we can’t have a conversation if you tie our hands, and if there’s a pizza thrown in to make everything look more like a scene from an episode of the Sopranos, the better. We are even able to cry when discussing our deepest emotions. It’s also true that in Italy, we like to stand on cliff sides, reciting soul-stirring poetry. And when a woman refuses us, we jump down and fall to our deaths — or even set the girl on fire, as it seems to happen these days and age.

Whatever it is that we have different from other ang mohs, at least, is that we take friendship bonds very seriously. In Pasta Land, it’s very common practice to call people and go out, share stories, have a drink on the weekends, talk shit until the wee hours just for the hell of it. But this rarely happens in Penang when locals are involved. In ten years on the island, I may have received three invitations to go out for a casual meal or drinks. I may be the target of random hate, but don’t sweat over it: just make the first move, or nobody will call you out.

The ‘Bro’ Culture

OK, being friendly is great, and Malaysians are a very friendly bunch. But if you have never seen me before — really, we have just met and shaken hands a minute ago — don’t call me ‘Bro’. It really drives me nuts, as I know very well from years of experience that you will never call back. You will never even consider sending me a message unless you need something from me. Don’t call me ‘Bro’, because it makes you look stupid, dear ‘Bro’. We don’t live in the Detroit ghetto, and my real ‘Bro’ is called Diego and works as a doctor in Piacenza, Italy. Got the gist, ‘Bro’? Thank you.

“as a foreigner, one will never be like Penang locals. I learned to live with it, and you should do it, too, if you want to make friendships on the Island”

Problems are Solved on Facebook

I could — and probably will — write a separate post on this topic in the future. For now, it is very important to understand from your day one on Penang that locals will never tell you what they really think of you, or what they think may offend you, in person.
Yes, this is a real cultural thing, the very complex concept of ’Face’.  When in Penang, and in Asia, one should better learn how to cope with this aspect of local culture to avoid friendships to fall from grace into the burning pits of Hell. For this reason, and because Malaysians are constantly glued to their devices, learn to talk digitally: use Facebook, their favourite social media. It really works.

I know well: that’s how I was recently kicked out of the local band I played in for 5 years. Except for one bad will ambassador, the other members only voiced their opinions on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. I haven’t seen or heard from them ever since, and I would have much preferred to talk problems and find a resolution in person. But this is Penang style.

Again, learn to read between the lines, and if something feels wrong in person… ask your Penang friends what’s wrong by Facebook Messenger. If they don’t answer even there, you can be sure that you have certainly pissed them off beyond redemption.

People Come and Go, All the Time

It’s surprising that a place as small and traditional as Penang is crisscrossed by so many meteors. There are travelling foreigners, expats, digital nomads, sexpats bound for Thailand, and very understandably, Malaysians coming to work or study in George Town from other parts of the country. Eventually, most of these people will leave. And it’s always hard to keep friendships going when friends relocate to other cities, let alone to foreign countries.

I am guilty of this moving around too, as the peripatetic nature of my job forces me to travel abroad most of the time. Like it or not, constant change is another thing to take into consideration when pondering the idea of settling down in Penang for short or long term. You will make and lose friends, continuously — and it will be up to you to decide how much of yourself you will be willing to open to passing meteors.

In Conclusion

I haven’t written this article to complain, or to talk bad about Penangites. Really, that wasn’t the intention: my main goal was to highlight and share some of my own concerns, hoping that they could spur some reflection among locals and visitors. Friendships are what make or break the Penang experience, especially for people coming to the island for the first time.

What was your experience of friendships in Penang? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Marco Ferrarese has lived in Penang since 2009 and is an expert on Malaysia and Borneo. He authored chapters on Malaysia and Brunei for the Rough Guides and published several books. He has written on travel, culture and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications and shares his Penang intelligence on the Penang Insider.
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4 COMMENTS

  1. It’s nice to know that you know quite a lot about Penang,Mr.Ferrarese. A decade in Pg. is long time for a foreigner. We must not forget understanding human beings is a difficult subject.A break can happened within partners or husband & wife even after making a promise in church. I’m confident anyone can find friendship out there, perhaps not up to her or his expectations.Borned and breed in Pg. and living in northern europe for 50 yrs.We had good Italian friends working for us in the early eighties.I’m lucky to have Germans,British,Dutch and Scandinavians as good reliable friends.I still called Penang home.”Bella” Penang.

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