At home around the world

When friends ask me why, at my age, I want to move overseas for the fourth time in my life, I think back to my first day in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I was a high school sophomore, and had never seen my dad - an unflappable former B-24 pilot - so rattled.

We were trying to find our way home after buying a used car. In the sweltering tropical heat he was adjusting to driving on the left side of the road and working the gearshift with his left hand while dodging swerving trucks, honking taxis, swarms of motorcyclists, and slow-moving ox carts.

I had no time to look at the exotic sights. My job was to find our location on the map as my dad called out the streets. All we knew was that "jalan" meant street.

"Jalan Sehala!" my dad called out.

"I can't find it," I responded after frantically looking at the map.

"Jalan Sehala!" he cried moments later, as we continued on the same route.

"Still can't find it, Dad!"

"It's gotta be on the map! It's a big street! Keep looking!"

Not many months earlier, we'd been living in suburban Detroit. I'd never heard of Malaysia, let alone Jalan Sehala.

But one day my dad had come home and announced that, because of his job, we were moving to Kuala Lumpur for a year. My mother, younger sister, and I figured he was joking, but he plopped a book about Malaysia onto the kitchen table and I began to read:

"Malayan pythons can grow up to 30 feet in length and weigh up to 280 pounds. Stories of them dropping off trees onto human beings and devouring them are very rarely true."

"Rarely true!" I gasped.

We survived our drive down Jalan Sehala and even made it through the entire year without being devoured by a python. And I often think of the excitement of that first day in Malaysia. Life abroad can be frustrating, but it's seldom boring.

The fun had begun before we arrived in Malaysia, during an overnight stay in Tokyo. My sister had turned on the hotel TV and we dissolved into giggles: Felix the Cat was speaking Japanese!

Living in Malaysia, we quickly became accustomed to new sights, sounds, and smells: Sikhs in their turbans, Indian women in saris, loudspeakers calling Muslims to prayer, and incense wafting from Chinese Buddhist temples.

My sister, who was 9, and I attended an international school with children from 17 countries. The school was in a ramshackle wooden building that had once served as a sultan's palace. Our vacations were spent visiting the royal palace in Thailand or Victoria Peak in Hong Kong - quite different from Mackinac Island or Traverse City, Mich.

The year overseas set me on course to major in Asian studies in college, work as a journalist in Asia and Europe, and marry a kindred spirit who had spent part of her childhood in Japan.

When we were overseas, some or our friends back home were envious of our "exotic" lifestyle. Others thought we were strange.

"Don't you miss baseball?" asked one. (Yes.) "Do you think other countries are better than ours?" asked another. (In some respects, yes; in many, no.)

Living abroad certainly had moments of frustration. Like the time a Taiwanese postal clerk refused to give me a package sent by my mother because it was addressed to "Mike," while my passport clearly said "Michael." Or that first sweltering day in Taipei, when I heard an approaching truck playing a jolly tune. I'd rushed out, expecting to buy ice cream - only to find that Taiwan's garbage trucks play music to let you know they're coming.

But I was always glad that I was not just passing through a country on a whirlwind tour. This was brought home to me one day in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. I saw a busload of American tourists pull up.

"OK, people," called the tour guide. "You have 20 minutes." This, to weary travelers who had come halfway around the world.

Not everyone who spends part of their childhood overseas ends up going back overseas. My sister is content to live in Wyoming, where she married a rancher and works as a nurse. (For a doctor who, ironically, is from Malaysia.)

She once got a call from her son's elementary school teacher, who said he had treated a class assignment as a joke.

"What did he do?" my sister asked.

"I asked the children to point out on a map all the places their parents had lived," she said. "He pointed to Kuala Lumpur!"

It's been 13 years since my wife and I last lived overseas. We moved home when our son, born when we were living in Germany, was 2. But we've tried to instill in him our interest in other cultures, and we hope he'll get a chance to spend part of his life abroad.

And if I could impart only one bit of knowledge to him from all that I learned overseas, it would be this:

In Malay, "Jalan Sehala" means "one-way street."

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