Expat Tales: Jen Joslin, American Nomad in Malaysia

Welcome to another edition of Expat Tales, where you meet some of the many interesting expats living around the world, and hear their top tips for life as an expat.

This edition we’re chatting with Jen, an English teacher and travel blogger who’s been living in Asia with her comedian husband for 8 years. Moving around from place to place has given them exposure to so many cities and cultures in Asia, and I for one am looking forward to following along to see where they go next!

Name: Jen Joslin
Originally from: Southern California, USA
Now living in: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (next up: Bali, Indonesia)

What brought you to Kuala Lumpur?

I’ve been living in Kuala Lumpur (KL), the capital of Malaysia, for six weeks with my husband, Stevo. We’ve been slow travelling full-time since August 2018, working online as we go. We move every one to two months. Stevo is a stand-up comedian and was offered headlining gigs here in KL and in Singapore. Since we were heading here for those, we decided to base ourselves in KL for six weeks.

Is this your first expat experience?

We’re coming up on 8 years of living abroad in Asia! We started out in a small city in northeastern China called Mudanjiang in 2011 teaching English at a language center there. Since then, we’ve lived in Yangzhou, China, Shanghai, China, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We worked as teachers and administrators at international schools in all of those cities.

We’ve spent a total of 20 months travelling around Asia during school holidays and between teaching contracts. We would save money during the school year, then go off and travel, start running out of money, get teaching jobs again, and repeat. We did that for 7 years!

After the school year ended in June 2018, we decided to stop teaching and attempt the digital nomad lifestyle. The idea was to work on our travel blog and find freelance work as writers, editors, social media managers and SEO specialists, plus take Stevo’s comedy career to the next level.

Jen Joslin is an expat in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with her husband Stevo

What do you do for a living?

Now, our primary income comes from teaching English online. We work for VIPKID, teaching students ages 4-14 in China. We started working for VIPKID in May 2019 and it has been a serious game changer for our digital nomad journey.

Working on our blog and freelancing full time was pretty inconsistent for us. We never quite struck a balance between travelling, working, Stevo’s comedy, and juggling all the tasks that it takes to run a business on your own. Our income was inconsistent month to month, and while we were definitely making progress in all areas, it just wasn’t sustainable. I think we were a bit too ambitious attempting to take our blog and freelancing full time since we hadn’t built either up very much before we set off and didn’t really have a plan in place.

Now with online teaching, we set our own schedules and have been able to easily earn $2,500+ combined per month working part time hours, which can more than sustain our lifestyle. This past August, when kids in China were on summer break, we decided to take on as many hours as possible and earned over $5,000 just from online teaching that month. We’re still amazed that that’s possible!

Our goal going forward is to use online teaching as a way to make a comfortable base salary. After working on our blog and freelancing for a year we have a better idea of the kind of work we enjoy and can move forward with a plan in place to continue working on those businesses. Stevo’s comedy is going very well too!

How easy is it to live in Kuala Lumpur? Is it easy to get a visa to live in Malaysia?

We love Malaysia! We’ve been here at least a half dozen times before we moved here, and definitely plan to come back again. It’s pretty easy to live in Kuala Lumpur. Americans can stay in Malaysia for up to 90 days at a time without a visa and can stay for 6 months out of a year total.

We were able to rent an apartment with a kitchen on Airbnb in a great neighbourhood called Bukit Bintang. It’s close to public transportation and walking distance from some of the major sites in the city like China Town, Bukit Bintang walking street, the KL Forest Park and KLCC twin towers.

Kuala Lumpur is a big city and a true melting pot of cultures. Malaysia is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian influence. Many other cultures have influenced the country throughout history, including Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and the British. The country is majority Muslim, but you’ll see many other religions here including Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism. Because of this diversity, there are many interesting neighbourhoods to explore and lots of variety when it comes to food.

There are many green spaces and big, old trees within the city. You don’t see that in a lot of major cities in Southeast Asia. I love the KL skyline with the iconic KLCC twin towers, the KL Tower and many big new buildings going up every year. There are also interesting local neighbourhoods. One of my favorites is Kampung Bharu, which is the last remaining Malay village in KL, located very close to downtown.

The city has a good blend of modernity and tradition. There are upscale shopping malls and mom-and-pop shophouses, fancy hotel buffets and exceptional local restaurants, historical architecture and some of the most famous skyscrapers in the world.

There is a growing zero-waste scene in the city and the government has even put a ban on plastic straws and bags in some parts of the city. Don’t get me wrong, the plastic pollution is still pretty bad, but people are becoming more aware about the problem and taking action.

What’s the cost of living like in Kuala Lumpur?

You can find apartments for rent on Airbnb for anywhere from $12 to $100+ per night. Our place is about $23 per night, so it cost us $965 for 6 weeks. It is fully furnished, has high-speed wifi, a washing machine, and a kitchen with pots, pans, and two electric burners. There’s also a pool and a gym on the top floor.

Eating out is extremely cheap and the food in KL is amazing! If you eat in local restaurants you’ll pay anywhere from $1.50 to $5 for a meal. Of course, it’s a big city so there are always opportunities to spend more money. There are fancy brunch places with avocado toast and artisanal coffees where you can spend $10+ per person, but you can just as easily eat local food and drink delicious Malaysian White Coffee and pay under $4. There are so many great restaurants to explore around town. We love using the app Eatigo to find deals around the city.

Public transportation is fairly easy to navigate and inexpensive as well. The train lines run all over the city and most rides cost between $0.50 to $1. I highly recommend downloading the app Grab Taxi, which is similar to Uber. Since KL is so spread out it’s often easier to reach places by car, and Grab is pretty cheap. Most rides are between $2-$6, even if you’re going all the way across town.

What are your favourite spots in KL and Malaysia? Where do you always take visitors?

Whenever we travelled to KL in the past we stayed in the China Town area near MRT Pasar Seni, which is close to many interesting sites in the city. If you stay in that area you’ll be walking distance from Petaling Street Market, the Central Market, and lots of interesting historic architecture including old shophouses, a Hindu temple called Sri Mahamariamm and a Chinese Taoist shrine.

One of our favourite restaurants in that area is Poh’s Tau Fu Fah where a lovely couple, Jasmin and Simon, serve the best Peranakan food we’ve had in the city. Another favorite is the Old China Cafe, which is inside a historic shophouse. I love their butter coffee!

Some of my favourite places and areas to visit are the National Mosque and the nearby Islamic Museum. There is a huge park just behind both of those with the Perdana Botanical Gardens and the KL Bird Park and Butterfly Park inside. Another great park is the KL Forest Park, located just below the KL Tower. You might even spot monkeys there!

As I mentioned earlier, I love the Kampung Bharu neighbourhood and can spend hours just walking around there admiring the architecture of the homes in the village and eating. Another interesting neighbourhood is Brickfields, which is home to Little India.

The KLCC twin towers are somehow even more impressive up close, with a massive shopping mall inside. There is a park surrounding them with fountains and lovely paths to stroll on. There are also lots of rooftop bars nearby where you can have drinks with amazing views of the skyline. One of my favorites is the Heli Lounge Bar, which is on one of KL’s only active helipads. Tables are set up right on the helipad and you have 360-degree views of the city, including the KLCC twin towers!

There are plenty of amazing rooftop bars in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to discover by expats and locals alike

Is there anything you don’t like about living in KL?

I don’t feel as safe walking around alone at night here as I do in some other cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. That’s been a bit frustrating since I’m used to heading out in the evenings when Stevo is at comedy shows, and I haven’t felt as comfortable doing that here.

The air quality also hasn’t been great while we’ve been here. Apparently it’s burning season in Indonesia right now (we’re here in August-September) and farmers there are burning palm oil farms. The smoke travels all the way up to Malaysia and it’s been pretty gross some days. It’s a shame because we were hoping to do some hiking just outside the city, but it hasn’t been possible in these conditions.

Any advice for anyone considering living in KL/Malaysia?

KL is a huge city so it may take some time to adjust to living there and getting a feel for the geography of the city. I would suggest basing yourself in the Bukit Bintang or Bangsar neighbourhoods, which are both fairly central and popular with expats. That said, there are many great neighbourhoods all around the city – it just depends what you are looking for.

If you want to meet people there are plenty of events on every week that you can attend. Facebook is one of the best places to find out about what’s going on in the city. The recently opened REXKL, a historic movie theatre that’s now a community event space, has events on all the time.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as an expat?

We love expat life because it gives us time to get to know a place better and become a part of the community, things you can’t do as easily as a traveller. As an expat you’re able to maintain your traveller’s curiosity and explore frequently but also develop routines that make you feel at home. For example, I love the feeling of finding a good local market, visiting the same sellers regularly, and practicing the local language with them.

We’ve learned that pretty much everywhere we’ve lived there are people doing things we love to do, and new activities to try too. From sports to creative arts, outdoor activities, yoga, comedy, pretty much anything you’re interested in, there are likely people doing it. And if not, it’s easy to form a new group and invite people to join you on Facebook. Expats are usually active and curious people, and everyone is in the same boat trying to make new friends.

From expat life we’ve learned that we can figure anything out. You definitely develop confidence as an expat as you navigate different, sometimes challenging, scenarios. Even simple things like grocery shopping and trying local foods can feel exciting as you get to know a new place. That sense of discovery is totally addicting. 

Learning about a new culture and different foods is one of the best things about being an expat in Malaysia

What’s the best thing about being an expat?

The best thing about expat life is the people you meet along the way. As an expat there are so many opportunities to get out and discover new things from your environment and the people you meet that teach you things about yourself too.

It’s a chance to expand what you thought was possible, and for me it’s really inspiring. There are so many ways to live, and expat life exposes you to so many new things and unique points of view

What do you miss most about home?

Definitely my family and friends. That said, they’re all pretty spread out now and don’t even see each other all that frequently. It feels like when we come home for a visit it creates an excuse for people to get together, and sometimes people won’t even have seen each other since the last time we visited! We go back to the U.S. about once every 18 months.

Where can people find you?

If you have any questions about teaching abroad or teaching online feel free to reach out [email protected] Our blog is TwoCanTravel.com. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we’re up to. If you like stand-up comedy check out Stevo’s Facebook page and give him a follow.

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