02 August 2015

At what point

Some time in July, I woke up on a Thursday morning at 5:30, the light streaming into the bedroom. British summer is not summer, strictly speaking — it is an elongation of the day. The sun comes up and because it is so early, there is a kind of bright silence that I imagine just intensifies the further north you go. Then, at night, even if it is cold or cool, you can open the window, get under the duvet and look up out the window at the orange sky behind the red brick terrace houses on the other side of Victoria Road. You fall asleep and wake up in the light.

The Thursday I woke up, there was an e-mail, sent late at night by our landlord, saying she was happy for us to stay another year and she only wanted a little more money a month. I quickly agreed, even with other things left undone, because Yoko and the girls want to stay here. Victoria Road and St Peter's school; the Waitrose within walking distance; Queen's Park; Grove Park. I cut back the bushes in the garden in the front and the back. I moved more furniture into the attic and, when the girls and Yoko had gone to sleep, I sat in the garden and smoked my pipe, listening to the bells chime from St Peter's.

Finding where to live, and being able to stay in that place for more than a year, is a treat for our family, I feel. When I think about this, and the lack of security I have managed to engineer around our lives, I feel ashamed, like given another opportunity, I would have made another choice. Where, at what junction, I'm not sure. Was it when I first left for Japan, the year I chose to go rather than stay. Was it the night Yoko and I had our first proper date, and we walked together through that rice field from Meikun High School to the ramen shop on the other side. Was it getting on the ferry in Niigata City, headed to Kobe and then on to England. Was it that night I drove from from Semenyih and chose to come back to the UK. 

I complain about the government, about the visa constraints constantly, to the point that I can now notice exhaustion in the eyes of my British friends. God, this again. I feel the same way, the British verision of me frustrated with the immigrant verision of me. The American in the baseball hat, his accent giving him away. I hope things work out for you. I do too: I'm sorry I'm so miserable, I'm not that miserable.

My father came and went and I tried to explain again what I'm thinking, what I'm trying to do. My life will make sense when I look back on it, I try to say. All these things I plant, these cups of coffees with people here and there, a network of support. You write thirty e-mails and one comes back to you. The kids are happy, I say, Yoko is happy. What will my thirty-three year-old children say to me, I wonder, in which country. Will I buy them coffee too, will I understand why they do what they do. Will I be proud, despite what I know and believe. We all just want people to visit us when we are dying. My father, my father's father. I am a father, but not a good one, I say. I'm trying to be wise and cautious, in spite of it all.


29 July 2015

When the lie stops

When you gain weight, you lie to yourself: you are not gaining weight, you are not eating too much, you are, for whatever reason, feeling slower and more depressed. Your clothes fit more tightly and you compensate by saying you are under a great amount of stress. You don't think when you eat: you just eat. You eat when you are happy and when you are sad. You eat because of those things, and then in spite of them. You eat not because you need to, although you need to, but because you are obsessed with it. The clothes get tighter and tighter and you keep lying to yourself until you can't any more, and the lie of it all catches up with you.

The University of Kent is on a hill: you become aware of hills when you run. The Kentish hill, Kentish being an adjective meaning 'of Kent' or 'in Kent' or 'coming from Kent', is steep even in a car and when we sped up it in a taxi on Wednesday afternoon, I was happy that I hadn't decided to walk it initially. I would have arrived at my talk sweating and exhausted. On Saturday morning, I woke up with the incredible yen to run to the sea, like it was my birthday. I followed the path, the signs to Whistable that I both trusted and distrusted until I came first to the harbour and then the beach, a man with a metal detector. I chose three rocks from the sand and ran back up the hill.

Now, I've slipped into a summer holiday. Birmingham is flirting with rain today: I am on the fourth floor of the university library with the books I need and some I want. The girls are at home giggling and chasing each other. 

14 July 2015

Metaphors that work until they don't

The jungle

On the bottom of War Lane Road, where there is a double roundabout, you can go in six directions. One is Victoria Road, our road. Vicarage Road leads up to the cemetery and church and the girls' school. And War Lane goes back towards the city. The cars go around like a figure eight and we, the girls and I, stand on the edge, holding hands and waiting for a lull in the traffic to cross.

Yoko had told me that on the roundabouts there was an Indian takeway  that had tosai, or dosa, the lentil pancake you could get at Ayza's in Kajang for RM1. We used to eat there on a Wednesday night, with the sun going down. All the food courts in Kajang were open, without any doors or walls, and Ayza's was halal — there were no Carlsburg banners strung up. Ayza's was run by dark southeast Asians, not Malays, perhaps Indian, but Muslim: several of them wore kufis. It would cost less than £4 to eat there: I convert it out of ringgit to make a point of how cheap it was, although it didn't feel cheap at the time. I would order tandoori chicken sometimes, and there would be cats that came up and sometimes we would get ice cream afterwards.

The tosai, the dosa, at Dosa Mania in Harborne is ten times more expensive: £2, but this is reasonable to me and we can get it to takeaway, with the savoury sauces and soup. The Masala Dosa is perfect for the children, stuffed with potatoes and not too spicy. When I come home with the plastic bags, I'm a kind of god. We sit out in the garden to eat it, with elderflower lemonade that Yoko has made.

Dosa Mania is guarded in the entryway by a large statue of Ganesha, a kind of Carlsburg sign that differentiates it from the other Indian takeaway in this row of shops, the one where the men wear kufis and long beards. When I see Ganesha, I feel a kind of Southeast Asian safety. The kind of safety that makes you forget to put your seatbelt on or worry about the chemicals in the food you're eating. I remember Letchu, our taxi driver in Malaysia, who told me that Ganesha was his god because his mother had said to him, 'Letchu, this is Ganesha. He is our god.' Letchu had us to his house once for a party, and there were paintings of Ganesha. We had curries and savoury snacks, and the girls played in the park across the street.

I made the comment in passing last week about how going to Malaysia had been a mistake, a detour. After I agreed to go to Malaysia, but before I signed my contract, I had the chance to apply for a job at the OU. I would have probably gotten it: it was a temporary post, but all the temporary posts eventually became permanent. If I had applied for that job and got it, I would have never met Letchu or Ganesha. I would have never had my shoes fixed by that man sitting on the street outside of the mall in Kajang. Mei asked about the cats in Malaysia the other day — she wanted to go back and see them. None of that would have happened. Yoko laughs at me when I say it was a mistake: what is a mistake. It's all snakes and ladders anyway: you catch some breaks, you fail other times. Now my life is complicated, but so much less so.  

08 July 2015

Love over time


The day Yoko and I married, the weather was perfect. The rainy season came abruptly to an end and the sky was clear, without being hot. I don't remember waking up that day. I don't remember feeling anything but the rush of movement forward, like a whole machine we had built piece by piece over the previous six months was suddenly moving on its own. I don't remember feeling any doubt or fear: I remember being confident and sure, like if I wasn't sure, I would somehow jeopardise it. I had bet on Japan again and again over the last few years, each time raising the stakes, and then we were sitting there, the two of us, in front of this crowd. The pastor, Koibuchi sensei, speaking about something which I didn't take the time to listen to carefully because the momentum was pulling us forward. You let go at some point and trust your instinct.

In my trip to Chichester, reading through my journal, I realised I had been looking for something, some point where I explained this momentum, explained how it all started. It wasn't there, wasn't in the e-mails I had written to people at the time — I met a girl, we had fallen in love, we were getting married. I felt in a way guilty to not find something more convincing, surely there had been more to my thinking, I must have written it down somewhere. I simply hadn't written it down.

Something happened though, something implicit: you can see it in the photographs over the two years. I started dressing more smartly, I lost weight. I took up running, the early Saturday morning into the rice fields on the outskirts of Niigata, under the overpasses and further and further towards the mountains. All the memories have no words. We had been hunting for fireflies in that river. We went to the mountains and held hands and I struggled with my Word Tank electronic dictionary as I read Murakami and fell into this fabulous metaphor of Japan as an enchanted forest you wander into deeper and deeper. It was all mystery without uneasiness: Japan would and was and did take care of the things that needed taking care of. You just needed to let it guide you. 

I do question the inviolability of marriage as a rule: nothing is inviolable. The moment you feel you have something right, that you have perfected something, it falls apart. Relationships end; we shouldn't be surprised when they do. And, conversely, there is no reward for soldiering on, for making things work. Making it to your or your partner's deathbed is not success. I don't valorise relationships; they are what they are. When you stack everything up, our relationship seems untenable. We are separated by cultures, nationalities, generations, and a language. We have never lived close, or indeed the same country, as our families. We live in countries that constrain us, put an end point on the time we can legally be together in the same location. We have built everything we have together, the two of us, by ourselves. That is an achievement, if there ever was one. We live the lives that we imagined in so many ways: we've given that to each other. 

Relationships are what they are. That thing I was looking for, what I couldn't write down, but I realise now, nine years on, is the thing I recognised in Yoko and which keeps this going: she is my antidote. She doesn't save me; relationships can't save you. She sanctifies me. She pulls me upwards, towards things that matter, are timeless in a way. Where the children don't take away from your relationship, but are the embodiment of it. Where passion and commitment burn slowly and steadily for years and years. I couldn't write that in 2006 — I didn't have the words. I only knew to get into the water, wade until my toes didn't touch the river bed, and let it take me away.

07 July 2015



In Midvalley Mall in KL a couple of years ago now, I bought white plimsolls at Zara. They were and are John Lennon shoes, like ones if you look in that famous Abbey Road picture. I got them on sale at a time that I felt I needed to let go a bit, stop worrying and get some of the things I needed, like new shoes and some shirts and shorts. I thought of all the things the kids needed or wanted: anything for yourself as a parent seems selfish, even when it's needed. Still, the shoes were perfect: I took off my sandals and wore then the rest of the day.

As I think back, Midvalley was a kind of retreat, where on a Saturday, we could go and pretend to get away from the kampung, the local area, where we were living. In Midvalley, the air conditioners pumped on and on, and there was Starbucks and Aeon, the Japanese supermarket that wasn't really a Japanese supermarket. And Zara, of course. Now, as I think about it and remember, all the bad bits, the insecurities of schools and taxes and my motorbike have been chipped off and all I remember is sitting in Starbucks, the sun shining outside, like we were on a very brief holiday from this mess that I had landed our family in. Mia was still, if you can believe it, in a stroller.

These white plimsolls have treated me well, but now have holes in the toes. When I wear red socks, the red comes through and I think the holes are well-earned and make the shoes all the better, like they show the length of the journey. I've been thinking to buy some new ones, something for my birthday perhaps, but that moment seemed to have come and gone. Instead, we went to Pizza Express, as you do. Yoko got me Bombay gin and the suggestion that I should fly back to the States in August for a couple of weeks to see my dying grandfather and my new niece and nephew. It was a nice thought, but impractical. The gin was lovely. 

We're all getting relentlessly older: Mia will start school full time and I sat yesterday at the parent induction, holding a file full of different forms for me and Yoko to sign, giving them liberty to take pictures and change the kids' pants if they need it. I remembered that when Mei went to school full time, she became a little girl so quickly. And like that, now she is 6. She had a piano recital in St Augustine's in Edgbaston, a huge Catholic church with vaulted ceilings and spires. It was an impressive place for a first piano recital I thought, as an American — my first piano recital had been in an Evangelical church with carpet and a shiny grand piano. Mei played well, a proper little girl, and there were cakes and ice cream afterwards. The girls ran round and round the church and I shouted when they got too close to the road. 

Relentlessly older, yes: another birthday party and a weekend of swimming and then swimming and then another birthday party. It all passes without you noticing. I sat and read Murakami's new book in English, The Strange Library, in a soft play birthday party centre called 'Treasure Island' — the sort of place where sad fat people pump children full of sugar and chemicals. In Murakami's books, there are no fat people or children — only young men who work and read and go for Ramen in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. In The Strange Library, several worlds overlap and a man becomes a Turkish tax collector he is reading about, at least in his mind. A perfect Murakamian collapse. I looked up from the book at Mei running around, and thought of Istanbul and the call to prayer. Yoko wanted to buy a fish sandwich from the boats. We ate mulberries and walked around the Blue Mosque. There was a Starbucks there too, yes, and the cobblestone streets. The Adhan again and again: Inshallah, you will be back, someone says. Mei runs up to me, with her face painted, This is the best party ever, and runs off. It is? It can't be.

Face painted Mei
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