20 May 2017

Spirit of my silence, I can hear you

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

In Malaysia, I remember wanting summer to end. We arrived in summer even though it was December and the Christmas tree was still up in the hotel and summer continued on and on, through January, February, on through the real summer and on until autumn. It was summer, only summer. You would wake up to summer and go to sleep to summer. I waited two months for a man to come deliver the aircon, but he never came. We escaped the British winter and returned to the British winter, like it was some wardrobe to Narnia.

It's May now, late May even, and the heater is still on in the house on Victoria Road, the damp one where the sun rises at four thirty. On this side of world, there isn't any feeling of false abundance like there is in Malaysia, cab drivers reminding you again and again that they can. Can what, you ask, and they can anything. In Britain, everything is cannot from the beginning. It is the first thing you say in the morning to each other, that you are tired and miserable and everything has gone a bit pear-shaped. No one is fine, no one is feeling good today. We're all just holding on, aren't we, in quiet desperation, like the song said, you with your smiles and fake American optimism. Look where it's gotten you.

Yoko showed me a picture of a nicer house near us, down the road, with three bedrooms and well-presented. It was £1395 pcm: well over half my take home salary. I was marking something when she showed me and I felt the sort of panic that you mask with anger when you realise you're just pretending, that you can't actually afford to live the life you want to, can you, not in this place, not in Harborne. What are we doing here, who are we kidding. I looked at another house on Hartledon Road, just down from Victoria Road, perfect in location and size, and owned, the realtor told me in the way you tell someone about a black friend, that the house was owned by two men, a fantastic couple who were moving into their other home. I had my three kids with me — Yoko was at church, and we traipsed through it, me thinking, yes, I could afford this thing I need if perhaps I was a gay man with a working partner and three fewer kids. Instead, I gave my card to the realtor, lied about making an offer perhaps, and held Mia's hand as we crossed the road.

All this pretending about competency, telling the kids to clean their bedrooms, and reading pointers online for healthier relationships. Nietzsche blames Jesus, but Jung says we need our myths. I'm far less reasonable, shouting in my mind at my father for fucking this whole thing up, for electing Trump and this crushing shame of unrighteousness. I bought Naomi a book for her 10th birthday, a book that had won some awards in the States and is about this family of three black sisters living in the 60s. Yoko laughed, American, of course. America like I feel about it — foreign and strange and wrong. We've been reading it to each other, Naomi and I — I read a chapter outloud and then she does. Mei is at church and Mia is upstairs doing something and I drink a £1.19 Carling Premier that I bought at the War Lane Cellar. I look out the window into the garden and that huge tree behind the Victoria Road house, listening to my daughter's British accent read African American English. I think about the forty or fifty years I probably have left, and how, when I'm an old man, I hope Naomi will read outloud to me again. I remember when I first held her, as a baby, pretending as you do when you hold your first child that you have any idea what you're doing.

07 May 2017

Dollar signs and Amy Grant


Kent

It’s funny the things you remember. I remember singing a praise song that included the lines ‘Holy Ghost, we appreciate you’ when I was a child and my parents had Bible studies. This was the end of the song, the last verse, after you had appreciated all the members of the godhead, one-by-one, eyes closed and hands raised up. ‘We love you, adore you, we bow down before you.’ I never thought much about this, but I was a child. Now I’m judgemental everyone who wasn’t, but still sang and didn’t think about it.

The last two months have passed with little to comment on. I wanted to write about death and dying for most of April, particularly after I came back from Japan and the kids’ guinea pig died, the blondish one they called ‘Pilly’. Pilly had gone through his life with people always asking, clarifying that his name was in fact ‘Pilly’ and Naomi saying the name again to them like they were stupid for mishearing, Pilly. The day after I came back from Japan, he was suddenly ill and laid in the cage. His brother, the ginger one, crouched down next to him, and then he was dead. Everyone cried and I did too. Ricky, his brother, spent the night with the body and then we buried Pilly with flowers in the garden, before I went to work.

Japan, it turned out, was a kind of trip in a time machine. I walked around feeling like I was 24 again, particularly in Shinjuku when I walked past the Keio Plaza where my family stayed when they came for the wedding and I stayed with them. My parents had money then and I remembered one night going out of the hotel to this plaza that I walked through last month, and talking to Yoko on my phone. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember anything specific. And I remember one other time, my dad staying there at that same hotel and he and I going to Roppongi to eat and argue about Jesus and the church and George W. Bush and war. I don’t remember the specifics.

Now, some ten years later, there I was again in the heat and walking up towards that park in the shadow of the metropolitan government offices, seeing the families and thinking about some parallel universe in which I live there and we are happy and Yoko doesn’t have to learn English. There is no Brexit and no Life in the UK test. No house on Victoria Road that is too small and lacks sufficient shelf space. None of it.

29 April 2017

A crow looked at me

Jyozankei Onsen was empty. When I went to the hotel with my ticket to enter the baths, there was no one in the the lobby but me. I put my shoes in the locker and traded them for slippers and key, and there was no one as I walked through the back to the changing rooms and then no one as I pulled off all my clothes and stuffed them in the locker.

We don't know what you remember. I came up through a department store in Sapporo station and there were bikes for sale and the smell of rubber and I thought, of course, yes, you would buy a bike here, wouldn't you and I remembered buying my first bike — I remembered the store and crisp 10,000 yen bills.

On the bridge, there was no one around and it was snowing. I looked down into the valley, where the river was coming down there the mountains and there was a crow, and I thought, a crow.

12 March 2017

Chained to the rhythm

Wat

The sun is starting to come up earlier behind the house on Victoria Road. I’ve been sleeping better, without waking up to wander around in the middle of the night like I had been in January. This morning though at five fifteen, I woke up naturally, shut off the alarm and looked out into the darkness from our back window, thinking about spring, and the frame of the neighbours old green house that fell down in the storm a couple of weeks ago. There is now no fence between us either — the storm took that as well. I would have been concerned about that when I was thinking of buying this house earlier last month.

On Friday morning, after I dropped Theron off at New Street, I stopped at the Esso station by the university, needing to buy something, although I wasn’t quite sure what. I’d fallen into the trap of eating bread and sugar, and I went in feeling guilty. It was just after five in the morning, and the whole place was full of drunk students. I bought a hobnobs breakfast bar, and a chilled coffee and went to the front, where they have pulled out the self-service machine and forced everyone to interact with the woman behind the till. A drunk student and his girlfriend were buying something and speaking loudly to the cashier: How can you work all night long, I’m so impressed. They were both white, and the cashier was not —  she smiled wearily at them. The back of the leg of the kid's jean had a rip — he went on and on about how amazing it was that this cashier could work all night long.

With some petty Foucauldian archaeology, you can trace back to moments of diversion if you try. For me, the moment of diversion, when that thing became this thing happened in 2008, in March, nine years ago now. I was in Vientiane, in Laos. I had bought a sickle and hammer t-shirt in a market as a joke, after riding over the border from Thailand in a tuk-tuk with some well meaning university-aged backpackers. I was sitting in the back of a van, and someone was driving us to the Lao-American College. We were talking, a bunch of men from the West who were teaching English in Japan and were married to Japanese women. I was talking about the future, about what I was doing and where I might go, moving on to the UK to do my PhD or staying in Japan, teaching and studying by distance. That was the plan that I upended, those three or four weeks in August of 2008 where we packed everything up and just left Shibata and that little job I had at that little university. When Yoko made more money than me and I didn’t worry about much of anything but the future.

I drove home from the Esso station and thought I would do some work, but fell asleep back in our bed, with Yoko and the girls sleeping in the front room. The alarm went off at some point and I kept sleeping, while Yoko and the girls got up and got ready. 

26 February 2017

A fever dream


After avoiding alcohol for a month mostly in service of an attempt to get my body back, this last week I have been wandering to and from pubs in Harborne, finding myself buying naan on the walk home for 80p at the takeaway just past that old blown out roller skate rink. On Monday, this stop involved having a chat with a police officer about corruption in the UK police force compared to the US, me trying very hard to not appear like I had just been out drinking and this man, excited to have a bit of culture in his otherwise cultureless night. I turned over my one pound coin and wished him and the man behind the counter good luck awkwardly. Good luck with what.

There was another conversation on Friday with Tom, after two beers and a peaty, smokey whisky that turned into me recounting all the people I had touched that day, and how meaningful all that physical contact had been. I had patted a colleague on the back in the Sanctuary, the University's religious-sounding cafeteria where Justin Bieber and the BBC news are projected on a screen, and another colleague had hugged me in her office. They meant a lot, I was saying, feeling suddenly nostalgic about everything in my life. Tom left for the toilet and a woman at the other table asked me where my accent was from – she had been listening to our conversation and I answered the typical sorts of questions that you answer, feeling like my moment with my smartphone was being taken away from me unjustly. She asked me about my partner, who I said was Japanese and she responded, Oh you mean like Chinese, and I said, No, I mean like Japanese. And she looked confused and said, Yeah, but she looks like a Chinese, right?

And then last night, the church had a variety show, something that felt very British with vaguely colonial moments, and Yoko gave me five pounds to buy a bottle of white wine. I drank it over the two hours of the performance, the whole thing fading moment by moment into a surreal fever dream of 17 year-old me, thinking about England and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath somewhere up in the Yorkshire Moors before she stuck her head in that oven. At the end, the lights came on and everyone belted out God Save the Queen, me included, full of cheap wine and irony, thinking, well, this is fitting. I tried to sober up enough to say goodbye to the Vicar, and thank him, Give me a passport now, I said. I'm British. Of course, I'm not British.

The Pihlajas of Harborne is an imaginary iteration of our family that I've been toying with while thinking again about my relative value in the community — am I just residing here for my own benefit, my beautiful children leeching off the welfare state with our free education and healthcare and Mia's free hot lunches. To be fair, very few British people seem to think this about me, the friendly white American man with the beautiful children and Chinese-looking wife. A mortgage advisor said to me several weeks ago when I was thinking I might buy a house, If we're getting rid of people like you, then we're really lost. Sure, I thought, but you don't know much about immigration policy in this country. It's not supposed to make sense. That's the point.

Despite my Tier 2 status, I want to believe I have something to offer. Surely Harborne benefits from this splash of colour. Today, in McDonalds, where I had taken the children in spite of Yoko's objection, I was drinking espresso from a paper cup. A younger mother, with a boy and two little girls in highchairs, yelled over to me, Can I use your phone, mate? I didn't know what to say, I hesitated. It's fine, she said, I just need it to call someone to pick me up, I'm here with my kids, I'll give you a pound. I didn't know what to say, It's not about the money, it's just that- and I realised I had nothing to say, so I pulled my phone and gave it to her with all the Protestant judgement I could muster. Call your meth dealer on my phone, I thought, I've been feeling like I have nothing to lose anyway.

She was thankful and had a short angry conversation on the phone before saying she needed to send a text. I had eased into the situation thinking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, which I had taught earlier in the week in a metaphor class and felt increasingly like this might be a freebie: do whatever you need to do. She lightened up, Where are you from? she asked, and I said, Chicago, and she smiled happily and pointed at the girls, And them? Mia said, Japan! just as I was saying, America too, and it felt disjointed and awkward. Well, you're from America too, I said to Mia, which is, of course, a lie.

The woman thanked me and went back to her table and I got back to nicking fries off the children and feeling bad about myself.  The woman stood up and signalled to me that she needed to take a call on her own phone, which appeared, and left her kids. The boy was focused on me, It's hot in Chicago, right? And I said, well, no, not really. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught his sister in the high chair starting to get up to try and get a balloon she had dropped. I sprung up to stop her, suddenly holding this little girl saying, no, no sweetheart, you have to sit here, you can't get up. She sat back down, and I pulled my chair over. The woman came back, asking to use the phone again, starting up with some explanation but I waved her off, just use it, don't worry. She had another angry conversation, and then gave the phone back again, thanking me, and asking, Texas – is Texas in America? I was confused: Yeah? I said realising she wasn't joking, yeah, it is. The little boy looked like he had seen a celebrity and that maybe somewhere in one of my pockets, there were tickets to America, to some different life free from all the drama of the Birmingham Ring Road McDonald's.

We packed up our stuff and I threw away the rubbish. I held Mia's hand as we walked out and the woman thanked me again as we passed. I said, Good luck, and she smiled at me. In the car park, Naomi asked about her, and I gave some boilerplate liberal platitude about privilege and what we had been given. If caring for the poor is the pathway to heaven, I have no chance of getting in. I avoid eye contact with people on the street. I left this woman and her kids before it cost me anything more than a few phone calls. I voted for Bernie, isn't that enough. I made sure that Naomi and Mia were strapped into their seats and we drove home, an American family caught up in some fever dream.
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