14 April 2014

Fires

The Queen Elisabeth Hospital is between our house and the University of Birmingham; I walk through it once or twice a week on my way to the library. Three interconnected curved buildings, all brand new and white, are surrounded at the entrances by the sorts of English people who always seem to have trouble around them. I remember them from the night that Mia was born, when I walked my labouring wife through the A&E on an early Sunday morning. Today, a man was smoking in a green hospital gown, covered in prison tattoos, a massive cast on his right arm, and an IV stuck in his left hand. I try hard not to judge these people, but only because I grew up saying that I didn't judge people like this. The truth is, I do judge them, tell stories to myself about them, as I walk past. I've never gotten drunk and hit my wife.

Classes are finished now — my first term at Newman University flew by. There is, of course, marking and extensions and e-mails to answer about margins on essays, but when I left the classroom on Thursday, having dispensed the last bit of advice, I felt lost again, like the list of things to do had been cleared and my purpose was gone. I can go home, but there is nothing worse than your father in the house, wandering around aimlessly in his pyjamas, snacking and pretending to be of use. I say, I have to go to the library to get a book about Islam, which I do, but really, what I want is to just wander around outside: sleep in parks and get very, very lost — become for a day the Stephen of another universe, the Stephen who never married nor had kids.

This weekend, I searched around and around for a cheap, small outdoor stove to burn firewood in. I got the kids all amped up about it, telling them how much fun it would be to have fires. I cut brush in the very back of the garden, the sort of American pastime that we all judged George W Bush for taking part in, but which I secretly understand completely, and have felt deprived of for the last year. In Malaysia, we would wait on a Saturday for a man, an Indonesian or Bangladeshi man, on a bicycle to come by and cut the grass for RM10. I would sit jealously inside, fat and white, watching him and thinking that, of the many things Malaysia had taken from me, gardening was the most surprising.

On Sunday, like everything else, I got that small piece of myself back. I spent the day outside: I pruned all the trees and made a pile of branches taller than me. The kids helped me move compost to lift up a few sunken patio stones. When night finally came, I lit the fire in triumph, though I was immediately worried that I would burn down all the houses in the terrace on Victoria Rd, every British man and woman in their houses quietly spiting me for making the neighbourhood smokey.

Neal and I used to make fires on the beach in Niigata, with whoever else was around. We would build them huge, as big as we could, using driftwood on the sand. There was nothing around for miles, just two kids running out and back with bigger logs, more sticks, more brush, as the fire grew higher and higher and higher.


Back in England, I burnt for an hour, pacing around the fire and watching the embers rise up and then die out. A flashback suddenly to burning grass and garbage in front of another terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. I guess I had done some gardening; it wasn't all bad. None of the neighbours there were worried, of course: just perplexed that the fat white man wasn't having the grass taken away. Chinese and Malay uncles sometimes just watching, standing in the street or park, without saying anything. It was hot and the fire made things hotter, but here, in Birmingham, the fire felt good. I stopped pacing when I realised no tragedy was going to befall me, and finally sat down as the fire died down, pulling closer and closer at the embers flickered and glowed and slowly went dark.

08 April 2014

Hope

We put everything in boxes only a week before we moved. Yoko's dad came and we spent the days sorting and throwing away and walking around central Kajang looking for a refrigerator box to put the keyboard and guitar and bike in. We taped everything up and they came to take them away when I wasn't there. I came home and almost everything was gone. Yoko and I have done this together before, so the tamping down of everything into a pile that gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it is only the 150kgs and hand luggage you are allowed to take on the plane felt much less like a miracle this time. We do this, we can do this, as hard as it might be.

When the things get taken, or when they have been taken, I think about how liberating it would be to lose everything I own in a shipwreck. All the useless things I imagine are in the boxes sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, like a lost Malaysian airplane headed nowhere. I send everything off, they take away the boxes, and I forget about everything, or most everything. This time, I remembered my coffee grinder: when the coffee grinder came to Birmingham, I would be whole again, I thought. Everything else can sink.

Then, last week, when I was sitting in the Cadbury Research Library in the basement of the Muirhead Tower, an e-mail came, and I called and our boxes were here, in the UK, ready to be delivered. I wondered what would be broken and whether or not my guitar would be shattered, or if a box would have split, my coffee grinder broken by some careless, underpaid, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant in Malaysia, who was being even more screwed than I was when I was there. Would the coffee grinder have survived the ordeal like me and Yoko and the kids.

Like when the boxes came to Kajang, to the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, I was gone. This time when they came, I was teaching and Yoko texted to say they had arrived, all 17 and they looked good. She said it like that too in her text: 'looked good' surprising me with how natural she sounded in English. I came back and there they all were. We started cutting them open. The coffee grinder, yes. Henderson the Rain King, yes. And my guitar. I pulled it out of the box, the 'Frankenstein' box my father-in-law had called it, with bike and keyboard. I popped open the locks of the case and pulled it out. It was okay, as okay as it has ever been with the same damage it's had all along. The split heal when we put in the strap peg. The damage on the top when Natalie Dear fell on it in 1999. I remembered that suddenly, touching it again: I had been so upset that I sat on the stoop to my parents' house, feeling so sorry for myself — Heather coming out to find me, saying I looked like I was going to cry.

I pulled it out and strummed a D chord — it was fine. I tuned it a bit and played an E and an A, a praise chorus coming back to me suddenly: I love you Lord/ and I lift my voice. There it was. Everything exactly as I left it, just a bit older and detuned. No matter: Malaysia was over now. There was nothing left to wait for. 

04 April 2014

Furusato

The train ride into Euston station felt like coming home. You relax when you are a place you know well doing something you have done before. All of this part of London makes perfect sense to me. This year, I will have been in England longer than I was in Japan, even though Japan still feels like the place I really belong in some way, like I should go back there for some reason or another. The Japanese call this place that you come from, your home, ふるさと furusato. I am only thinking about this because I met a man who had been living in Japan for a long time and he referred to Southport, here in England as his furusato. He used that word even, in the midst of an English conversation. I could hear myself saying that same word to someone that would understand it, I could hear myself using the whole phrase as a matter of fact, but it occurred to me that I can't ever remember hearing a Japanese person say it. I'm sure I have. I must have.

Another conversation had me thinking again about how drawn back I feel at times, but how inevitable it is that I will likely stay hear for a while. There is no reason to go back beyond these false feelings of warmth. False only in that I know they don't represent every day life in a genuine way. The same could be said of Euston and London. All these false feelings of warmth. Of course, it's not actually like this, of course it rains in London. These clear blue skies are a lie.

And then another moment today as I was walking back from taking the kids to school and smelled something that reminded me of the ocean in Fukuoka, of coming on my bike around a rocky bend into Imajuku. There it was again, the feeling like there was one point that things changed and the narrative took a clearly different path.

23 March 2014

Bells

Walking up to the park, last Saturday, we came through the cemetery that surrounds the church at St Peter's on the hill, a beautiful old building with bells that chime wildly on Sunday afternoon, as if to drive something out. In the cemetery, the children ask about different things, about death and Jesus and angels and we, Yoko and I, talked to them about what we wanted when we died. In Japan, if we were Japanese, we would have a family tomb. Yoko's family does, and we could, I suppose, claim our space there. Yoko told the girls about the responsibility of grave-keeping in Japan — the need to clean it and look after it. Much better was daddy's plan, to be cremated and thrown out into the ocean from a Japanese beach. The girls didn't think much of it, laughing and running ahead, not bothered by anything.

That beach: when I was in Fukuoka, I finally got a map and bicycle and realised the ocean was not far from our apartment. I would, on days off, pack my Bible and something to eat and head out to a beach that no one swam at. I would sit against the break wall and try to read the Bible or pray for longer than a couple of minutes, always frustrated with my inability to focus, to really connect in the way that I needed to, the way that the other men in my life seemed to. Instead, I would study Japanese word cards that I had made and walk up and down the beach alone.

The metaphor is so obvious, insufferably obvious. 

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I heard Mia crying and came upstairs to find her standing with her head in her hands leaned up against the wall of the hallway. I picked her up and carried her back to the bedroom in the front of the house. She pressed her face against my shoulder the way children do when they want to sleep, and I looked out onto Victoria Rd, the cars coming and going.

I feel at times that things are all held together by a bit of fraying string, and then other times that we have established everything we need to coast into the next 40 years without a second thought, our savings growing slowly at 1.25% APR. Yoko writes, looking at the picture of all of our bags, 'またやるかな~、これ。' and I think the same thing. Will we do this again. It applies to everything: the circuitry of marriage and life; the same things repeating again and again. If the string doesn't break perhaps.

17 March 2014

Recovery

I've been trying to put my finger on the difficulty of writing this year. I sit down again and again and keep failing — trying to avoid writing about writing, or writing about the inability to write. But I can't seem to do it. So here, I'll just write something. Tell you how things are. When you don't write, you write the same thing over and over and the same story can go from happy to depressed. Give any story enough time and it will change.

On Friday, I walked around the University of Birmingham in the sun, feeling like I needed to enjoy this spring twice over. The smell of the flowers, as I run up the hill to the Newman campus, is a memory and then another memory: first, of every spring in Milton Keynes for four years and running up and down the old railroad path towards Newport Pagnell. And then, a memory of the trees blooming on the Shinano River in Niigata City, nine years away now.

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Stephen at the ocean

Or ten years ago, a selfie in Fukuoka before there were selfies, where the digital trail drops off and all the other memories, the ones older than that, are stuck inside of me, or in photographs somewhere in my parents' basement. Or dispersed in the basements of parents all over the Midwest. The very edge of recovery.

How do you reorient yourself. This missing plane: they talk about invisible GPS points in the sky that work as markers. You go straight until you reach one, and then you turn, all the time arbitrary and precise. Of course, you need training to recognise them, the places you should turn.

We all have to suffer through the collective insufferability of a generation with its past perfectly preserved — in digital artefacts that we can all recall immediately — struggling with getting older, while all the while too cynical to actually do anything, to tell any real truth. Here, look at this. Look at how much older we all are now. There are so many pictures of it.

10 March 2014

Stepping

This weekend, I uploaded all of Naomi's photos from the last year (from the camera I bought her, which Yoko insists on telling people was the cheapest camera in the shop) in hopes to use the flash disk for another project. As I skimmed through them, the whole last year through her eyes unfolded. The terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. The month away in Japan that I feared would stretch into a year or lifetime. All of the pictures are honest in a way that the pictures that I take are not — they have an accidental quality to them. They don't have any shame or pretence to them — a photo of Mia sitting naked at the gate of the house in Malaysia, blurry and unplanned, haunting in a way.

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The window is open here at the office, to let the air in and the sound of the birds. I keep trying to reach back to Malaysia, to the last year, and remember something about the heat and I can't. Sunday, the weather was beautiful and I slept on the sofa in the sun for hours while the girls watched Japanese TV. The night before, we had been at a party and I had drunk Mexican beer while the children ran around upstairs, so the day felt sedated and slow, the way Sundays are for sinners who have nothing to do, nowhere to check in. When it got later in the afternoon, we all walked up to the park, past Vicarage Rd and the church surrounded my headstones that are split or splitting. We all talked about dying and being dead, looking at the names and dates. We went to the park and everyone played, and then we sat in a coffee shop on the high street, the doors open because it was warm, and talked about nothing in particular. We walked home, had pasta, the children bathed, and we all went to sleep, a kind of perfect performance of the middle class life.

26 February 2014

Silence

Nothing to write about now but the coming and going in the morning, or the bike ride up to the University of Birmingham, the red brick clock tower a kind of guide through the streets of terrace houses. There is an International grocer on Harborne Park Road with sunflower seeds and all things Polish. Then you come up on a bike lane, past the hospital, past the station, and you are on campus.

The other way, you ride down to through the valley and then up the hill to Bartley Green and the university there is on a hill. Even in the early morning, when I am out running past it, the lights of the library are on and the whole place is glowing. The days are starting to stretch out bit by bit and when I go home at night, it's not as dark as it was in January.

The talk inside of buildings here doesn't want to be written about: it's all the silence of the day in between my coming and going that I want to tell you about. How I rode my bike in my jeans and new desert boots across town. Or the silence of the University of Birmingham library, where you pull a string to make the lights come on in book stacks. Sitting, reading about narrative, I look out and watch the rain start and then stop and then start again. I should go home for dinner: the clock tower chimes like Big Ben.

If Malaysia, if last year was about confrontation, of waving cars off while crossing the road, this year is about none of that. There are no cars in the road ahead of me — I run down the middle of the lane. Naomi and I hold hands, walking to have coffee together in an old church turned cafe. She sits across from me, looking away at the cupcakes, and I ask her if she is having a good time. She is still only six: I haven't wasted my time with her yet. She still loves me, still wants to be held sometimes and carried. Fathers think about this when we look at our kids. We wonder when they will grow out of us and their need for us.

I stop typing and hear nothing. No one is in Oxford Hall with me. There is a rejection letter telling me things that I need to do to be a better writer and scholar, but there's no reason to hurry towards that. I am alone and the sun is going down. I can walk or run home, it doesn't matter. I will come back tomorrow and the day after that. And next week and next year: nothing is obstructing me.

20 February 2014

The body without organs

Following a running schedule is easy if you don't think about it. You wake up, you see the number of miles you are supposed to run, and you run them. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you are tired, sometimes you aren't. You get cold and hot; you get wet from run and sweat. You watch the sun rise and people wake up. You learn which streets are well lit and which ones are not. You just run and run and run and run, when you want to and when you don't want to.

The University of Birmingham still feels like the centre of my universe in some way, and today I rode my bike from Newman to the Main Library, cutting through back roads, looking up to the bell tower for direction. From the library at Newman, you can look towards the North and see all of this half of Birmingham in front of you: the University, Queen Elisabeth Hospital, and the skyline beyond it. Looking out the window in the corner of the humanities room, I looked out past the rain on the window to the clock tower and thought, This is a red brick university.

And then a week passes, or two weeks or three. I've forgotten how long it's been since we've been back. 

07 February 2014

Running fast

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The first month in the UK ticked by without any celebration or notice. The visa application went in and then we went to have our photos and fingerprints taken. Then, on Thursday, the 30th, the residence permits came: five cards with five photos, each one of us looking grim and serious. Like that, all the nervousness I had felt about the process was gone. Of course, it wouldn't be an issue. Of course, they would accept it. In retrospect, nothing seemed up to chance or fate or luck.

The girls quickly settled into their school and their new friends, Naomi chasing a little girl through the playground yesterday while they both giggled. Mei made a birthday card for her teacher, Mr Oakley, who is 25 — no, 26 now — and Mei blushes when she says his name with a bit of melody. Today was bright clothes day and after a discussion about what could or could not be categorised as 'bright', we all — Naomi, Mei, and I — walked up Tennal Rd to the school, laughing and chatting and talking about the day ahead of us. I will come home in the evening to shouts of 'Daddy, daddy' or no shouts at all, if they are playing upstairs, the house on Victoria Rd taking on a sense of place for us all.

In the midst of the settling, the bits of British life that I had to cast off while in Malaysia are coming back. On Sunday I ran for one hour and forty-five minutes in the early morning, the sort of run where you are fifty minutes into it by the time there is any natural light. You have endless imaginary conversations with the people in your life, your mind working like an old Rolodex, flipping from thought to thought, person to person. By the time the sun came up, I was near the University, on the road coming past the reservoir and I hit my stride as you do around that time, listening to the gulls on the water while the wind blew in my face.

There's been little else to say: my mind doesn't seem to want to reach back yet to Malaysia, to make sense of 2013. I look at pictures and can't remember the heat at all. It was so hot, wasn't it? I can't even remember.

On Wednesday night, I ran home from the University as I do now three days a week. Twenty two minutes, if I am running on pace. I stopped at the roundabout at the bottom of Victoria Rd and went into the fish and chip shop to buy two kebabs for dinner. Doner and mixed on naan, nine quid. I stood outside in the rain after ordering to cool down and look up at Harborne, the terrace houses spindled off the roundabout. When I imagined British life as a 19 year-old reading Virginia Woolf, it looked more like this than anything I have experienced. The streetlamps feel incandescent and warm, not harsh like the light in Taman Sri Minang. I looked up while stuffing my sweatshirt and jacket into my bag and felt for a moment like I wasn't falling anymore, like I had been caught without knowing it. The children are right there, warm and waiting for me to come home. There's nothing else that I have to do. 

29 January 2014

Sinners in the hands of an angry god

All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do.
At the end of War Lane, coming out of Harborne, there is a double roundabout that leads all the different directions our new life goes: one up Victoria Rd to the terrace house on the right, one up Tennal Rd towards the girls' school, and one down, Northfield Rd, toward the University. We walk through it in the morning, the girls and I, me pushing the bike and Naomi or Mei sitting on the back. I ride home through it in the evening and there is a small off-license, the War Lane Cellar, owned by Asians who advise me on real ale. Last week, Naomi wanted to go for a walk so we went, holding hands and going up War Lane after buying candy and Worthington's in a can.

Last week, in three days, £6,000 left my Lloyds account: part for the visas and part for the car. The feelings of panic kept coming at the same time every day, around one or two in the afternoon after I had worked the morning, and my mind wandered off to all the things left undone. When we went to Malaysia and when we came here the first time, I had put things off for months, particularly getting a car, afraid to spend the money, but this time I did it right away, not wanting to go on like I had in the past, putting off the inevitable. After I had paid the money for the car — after it was taken out in a second by a handheld debit card kiosk — and after I turned off the ring road in Kidderminster headed back toward Birmingham, I felt like I had finally not repeated a mistake of my past. Like I had learned something.

When the car insurance came through and, on Saturday, we gave our fingerprints and pictures at the post office in the city, the things left undone were minimal. I argued again with the tax office in Malaysia and with the HR at Nottingham, and on Tuesday I had completed the last thing I had worried about: moving the final bit of money from my account in Malaysia to my account here. Twenty-eight days from when we landed: less than a month.

Although Naomi cried and fought going to school, by the end of her first week, she had friends and homework, and I helped her make compound words while we all sat in the small reception room. Mei runs off to her classroom now, forgetting to hug me goodbye. Yoko's friends came one weekend, then mine this weekend. We do the things you do in Harborne on a Sunday: take a walk up to the High Street for coffee and cakes, the children running in front and behind.

For the first time in seven years, things appear stable: nothing to change or do except to do what I am doing now better. I can go home without the feeling of something undone, no problems to solve or institutions to fight for the time being. I cancelled all the job alerts I was receiving: I will be here for at least three years, I can stop thinking about the next step for a moment and think instead about something else, the things people think about when they are not constantly under threat.

The silence is a thing you could almost touch. Even today, after working all morning, I went out into the rain to smoke my pipe. I stood on the edge of the awning at the gym, looking out at the terrace houses of Bartley Green, the rain coming down in the gloomy way it does here. I remembered my father-in-law on the sofa, sitting outside before we moved, the feral dogs beyond the gate in the dark. Somehow, we are all the same people, in the same world.

21 January 2014

Panic and settle

Newman University is right on the very of Birmingham, in Bartley Green. When you come in through the main entrance, a plasma TV shows the next buses and an energy certificate for the building. There is a Starbucks kiosk and when you go into the library, to the first floor, the front wall is complete glass, overlooking the Bartley Reservoir and beyond it, the edge of Worcestershire. As you go back into the campus, the new development of the front fades into its own history, red brick from the late-60s and early-70s, like the core buildings at the Open University. My office is in the newly renamed Oxford Hall, tucked away from where students might normally come, in a corridor that has been quiet for the last three weeks. I asked for a standing desk, and the maintenance man, a certified pipe-fitter who has been with the University for years and years, cut the legs down on a narrow table they had in the shed, and I soon was standing to work.

Birmingham as whole feels familiar. I get off at University Station from Birmingham New St, but instead of going left towards the University, I go right towards Harborne, where we are living. The new terrace house on Victoria Rd is nothing like the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. There are no bars on the windows or gates. You turn one lock on the front door and one on the back. After we cleaned it up and the refrigerator was replaced, the house warmed up and suddenly felt inviting. The boiler is on all day, pumping hot water into the radiators, and the Pihlajas sit in a single reception room, under blankets, watching Japanese television on YouTube and waiting the winter out.

After looking for schools for a week, we put the girls on a waiting list at the local Church of England school and enrolled them in the closest school with open space, a comprehensive primary school on the top of Tennal Rd away from the middle class safety of Harborne. Where there are more Asians and the white people wear track suits and can be ruder than those in Harborne. All the language of British class and race came back quickly: Asian means Southeast Asian, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi. There are no East Asians. 

The school seems good, I said to a woman in a green coat waiting with her daughter today, and she said, It's improving: another euphemism.

Last year, 2013, has just disappeared. It's simpler to leave it out when answering questions for insurance companies and on applications for various things. Our last address was in Booker Ave; Taman Sri Minang was just something that I imagined. I bought a bicycle from a man that met me in the Birmingham Airport bus station, and I took it away without thinking too much about the interaction. I bought a car from a dealership in Kidderminster, two train transfers away in the countryside. In two weeks, I have made more big decisions than I can, and am starting to feel the stress in moments of panic. I keep faking stability for the girls, for Naomi in particular who cries in the morning. I'm sorry, but you must go to school. I want to let you off, to let you stay back. I want to let all of us off, but we can't. Get up again, go again; this year will be our year, I promise.

14 January 2014

Drawing on top of a drawing

The sickness in the house is improving: the kids one at a time starting to get up at the right times. The feeling of sickness and things still not done ― the visa applications, pushchair and car to buy, the book manuscript unfinished ― leave everything untidy. There is still time, of course, but how much time is difficult to tell. The children are still waiting to start school, and I am running errands, feeling panic in supermarkets as I suddenly realise what I've done. This turbulence will end in a couple of months, but it will be a couple of months before it ends.

Today, I left the untidiness to drive the rental car back to the shop, pleased that I had not run it into a wall after a year of driving the small, automatic Hyundai Matrix. I felt like I had accomplished something, until the energetic young woman with an American accent carefully looking at the paint job asked me where the hub caps were. There were hub caps? They're gone? She treated me with more suspicion than she needed to as we circled the car, with the obvious answer that they had been stolen somehow not good enough for her. They took my £200 deposit and promised to return what they didn't use, but I was angry with the tone of the conversation and sat on the shuttle bus back to the underground, thinking about what I should have said. What the hell would I have done with a set of Corsa hub caps, I'm a doctor of linguistics, goddammit, a university lecturer.

They dropped me at the station and I stood in line to buy a new Oyster card, trying to remember the way up to Camden and listening to a middle-aged American couple talk loudly with the station attendant about their credit card and where they would need to transfer to get to their hotel. I went down to the platform to wait and found myself in the midst of my people again, a North American group of college backpackers, having a stupid discussion about saving money. We're everywhere now, I thought, you can't escape us. I tried moving toward the front of the platform, only to hear the original couple now at the map repeating lines from the transcript of every middle-aged trip to London: I know you know where it is, but I want to know too.

Of course, I also had stood on that platform as a college student, with a stupid haircut and a wide-eyed stupid excitement about a day in the city. Big Ben, of course, and the House of Parliament. Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. I had even brought my own stupid journal to write my stupid thoughts about Virginia Woolf. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the park, in the brisk spring air, I had stupidly thought I'd gotten it, finally, really understood Woolf.

On the train a couple of high school lovers kissed and held each other, making love in public the way that teenagers can. Another couple, an older woman and her husband, kept looking on disgusted, the teenagers at first oblivious and then defiant when someone moved away from them. The girl was wearing blue tights and looked vaguely like Mei might one day, I thought. They got off in the city, and the older couple looked relieved, but I found myself caught up, the way one remembers being in love and resenting people who resented you for it.

I looked for shoes at the British Boot Company, the first shop to sell Dr Martens and flexed my own British shoe knowledge for effect, Oh, in Northampton? when the shopkeeper told me the Solovairs were made in the old Dr Marten factories. This of course wasn't my first time in the shop, I had been many times. I had lived here, you know, when I was a PhD student. For four years ― I worked in London too. I would walk from Camden to Euston. Philip and Frank and I ate where we did last year in December: I kept joking that we needed to completely repeat the past, this while looking in the mirror across from me and realising I was probably wearing the same shirt I was at that time, albeit fatter now and more foreign.

I wanted the shoes I liked to fit. I willed them on my feet but didn't have the courage to commit to them. The shopkeeper reminded me that leather stretches, but leather doesn't stretch, rather it is stretched. The shoes I was wearing, I said, they were this tight and it took me two months to break them in. I walked sock-footed into Malaysia.

When I got on the train home ― home now in Birmigham ― at 8:43, I had forgotten the£200 and was remembering instead everything I still had to do. Tomorrow would be another day of little progress as I was seeing a man about a bike and returning to Milton Keynes ― Milton Keynes where I did not alight on this ride home, but instead looked out at the window and remembered. This new life is a sketch, with old experiences like tracing paper on top to check the accuracy of the lines. My own ghost standing on the platform there, thinking about a thesis chapter and scowling in the rain. The same story getting played out: when I was 19, through my 20s, and now into my 30s. How many more hundred rides on the Piccadilly line will I watch the teenagers get younger and my own memories deeper and deeper. I should have bought those shoes: any shoes worth having are worth hurting for.

11 January 2014

Waking up

When I found the house we were staying at in Ampthill it was nearly nine. I parked the car and looked up into the sky: stars, how long had it been since I'd seen stars. The house was kept by Yoko's friend and her husband, whom I had never met, but was suddenly eating dinner with as our children, the beautiful half-Japanese children, chatted away with one another in Japanese. We ate curry rice, Japanese style, and we all slept on three twin mattresses they had out for us on the ground. The children slept immediately, exhausted from chasing me through the airport.

And then everything was like it was before. We had left on the 29th of December and returned on the 31st. A year passed, but what is a year. Yoko's friends rang and showed up unexpectedly with bags of clothes for the girls and good wishes. I kept telling the story of Malaysia to people who asked why we came back. It's become a simple story, one that is more understandable every time I tell it, and everyone is understanding: well, at least you had the experience, at least you took the risk.

Life here was frozen in 2012 and all I do now is reanimate it. Visit the bank, e-mail the HMRC, call the Internet service. There are a few new steps to make. Birmingham is new to us, and when I came up to make a snap decision on our house, I did it too quickly, picking the first house I was shown, the one I had picked out while house shopping in the heat in Kajang. I had forgotten about the things one needs to keep in mind when shopping for houses in the UK. When Yoko saw it for the first time on Thursday, she said it was まあまあ, or 'okay' or 'passable'. It was dirty, yes, but we could clean it. I texted the landlord back and forth and Yoko cleaned for a day while I went to work. I came home and it looked completely different, like it had been salvaged from the brink of disaster. Yoko quizzed me about the things she had changed to make it better.

I worked on getting schools for the girls all week, calling here and there, making applications, and finally, with the help of a woman at the city council, finding two open spots at a school 1.1 miles from our house, barely walkable. When we took the kids to apply, there were nothing but good vibes from everyone we met. We could start tomorrow if we wanted to, they said, and we visited Naomi and Mei's new classes, full of a much more diverse student body than we had seen in the schools closer to our house. Naomi and Mei both beamed, and I felt suddenly better about this part of our return: schools resolved in days, not months. The only question now is whether it's walkable or not. Nothing to pay, no checks of passports. They just start.

Malaysia just disappeared. When people ask me if it will be difficult getting to my new university from the house, I try to remember the bus ride to campus in Malaysia. I sit in the Newman refectory with my head of school. I don't know how much to say. There are feral dogs in Malaysia, in the refectory, which is really a terrace that looks out into the palm oil plantation. You aren't supposed to feed them but some students do. I settle into my office in a brick building called Oxford Hall. There are no Indonesian women polishing the name plates. No one is in the office: it is, after all, looked down upon to travel when you don't need to.

Nothing is raw and uncovered, but wrapped in brick and tradition and wool. You won't see a dead body in the street: this is neither a good nor bad thing, it's just the way that it is. A large clock in the new ASDA superstore near our house counts down the minutes until the next cleaning check will take place and you trust, with some amount of certainty, that it will actually be checked at that time. There are aisles and aisles of wine and beer.

I carried our luggage from point to point until Thursday morning when I got the last of it into the house, Yoko and the girls stuffed into the back of the car as we made one final trip from the hotel. For the whole of the week, I had been feeling the touches of a flu, but I ignored it, as the father mule does, and pushed on. After getting everything into the house, I stumbled to work for a departmental meeting, contributing when I could, but thinking that I was just about to pass out. When it finished and I finally got out of the office, in my grey coat, I was shaking so hard that I had to sit in the car waiting for it to heat up and willing myself to make it back to the house, to the bed, where I could sleep and sweat out the fever.

The things you forget and remember about life in a certain place are telling, I suppose. I had forgotten my January sicknesses, the inevitability of flu season. The sound of the heater going on and off and worrying about the cost of gas this winter. Such British concerns: in Malaysia energy is free. Now to wait under the duvet as my body recalibrates, remembers how to cope with these different shocks. Give it some time and only the body will remember. 

02 January 2014

The beginning

When we landed and the children were sleeping, I looked out at the tarmac and grass: no snow, the sun going down. The plane slowly emptied and we waited, as you do with small children, for the polite and rude people to file past, their karma from the flight built up like a weight on them to be lifted or carried onwards, depending on how they treated those around them. I had too many bags because the children were on full adult tickets with full allowances and we exploited every kilogram and centimetre we could. I took two trips off the plane, the woman on the bridge stopping me before I could go back on. We were the last off, the Malaysian staff looking impatient and I thought suddenly, You get to see the culmination of your country's rejection of me, the final bit of coughing up as I stumble out of this plane, loaded down like a pack mule. 

I dragged our luggage through the airport, the children groggily following behind with Yoko, their determined father out in front. Pioneers pushing westward. The waiting corral at immigration was full, but moving efficiently as these things do and the Sikh man watching over the operation took pity on me, the father mule, and waved us through. I was then standing before the immigration officer experiencing the moment I had dreaded for six weeks. He took the passports, the cancelled passports with the student visas, and said the words I had heard in my head a hundred times before as I imagined the conversation: 'This visa expires in a month. Are you still a student?' No, I said, pulling out the documentation, the letters from the University and trying to explain the choices I had made the last year, how they made sense in my head at the time. He nodded, they did make sense, the letter made sense, the story made sense. Let me check our fingerprints. Look at the children's faces. Did you enjoy Malaysia?

And then the other side. It was over like that, ten minutes and it was done. We gathered our bags, and I put all of our things on three carts, pushing two myself. We walked through customs, the man in front of us being stopped before half of the bags fell off one of my carts in the doorway, holding up the flow of people out. I'm sorry, I apologised profusely while annoyed people with simple rolling luggage pushed past me. I tried to get everything back together, the perfect piles of luggage on the carts. Yoko's friend was there to pick us up as she promised: the Japanese everyone was speaking suddenly became very warm and friendly, pictures taken with all of our beautiful half-Japanese children who look like twins. They got in her car and drove away, leaving me with the baggage, and suddenly, in a moment it was there. I was sitting in a Vauxhall Corsa driving through the roundabout, driving north to 'The North'. There was the sign. BBC1 wishing everyone a happy new year, encouraging people to call in if anything momentous had happened in 2013.

I went north and stopped at the rest area on the M1, pulling on my grey coat and the Romeo and Juliette Puritos I had bought in KLIA for RM45. I stood in the cold, looking at my reflection in the window and feeling a kind of peace and silence that has eluded me for a year. Like I had been treading water for so long and suddenly, inexplicably felt the ocean floor under me. I could stand now, on the tips of my toes, and rest a bit. I could see the coast on the horizon. Now, to just inch that way. Make slow, steady progress. If there is any sense of home, this is it, in my long grey coat with the waist taken in. 

31 December 2013

The ending

The last week in Taman Sri Minang passed without any of the madness I had anticipated. Yoko's father was here, and we worked each day, bit by bit, to reduce the house to the pile of things that would go on the ship and then the pile that would go on the plane. Before, in the moves I have made in the past, the process of moving has been overwhelming, but this time, it felt less so, like everything would happen. A process of hundreds of steps is still just one step at a time. The tax, then the car, then the pension office, then selling one thing and another and another, until Monday afternoon, at 5:30, there was nothing left, the terrace house as empty as we found it.

There was another, final night at the club that my father in law told Yoko about the next day. We had thrown darts and he demonstrated his skill to Yoko, miming his relaxed stance and the ease with which he threw, contrasting it with my stiff, deliberate form. I was overthrowing, he said, I needed to be more nimble. I of course, only thought of the metaphor. 

Every morning I woke to see him sitting outside, smoking his pipe, and looking up into the trees of the park, a kind of kindred spirit. Everything was easier it seemed, separating things to throw away and then drinking beer and whiskey into the night, talking politics and religion and life in the world. The next morning would come and we could go again, packing, smoking, eating, and then drinking on the patio, until Sunday morning we both sat in Starbucks at the low cost carrier terminal of the airport, quiet and lingering, like something good was about to end.

By contrast, the last days at the University were sterile and empty: everyone gone and all the pictures taken down from my office. I talked to people I had polite professional relationships with, but otherwise it was just me and the void. The worst part of the job, only the relationship with the institution left. I wanted some feeling of finality, of closure, but in the end, I passed off my key and my I heart Nottingham mug and left in the car. I can't remember the last bus trip I had back to Kajang, even. It must have been sometime earlier in the month. I don't remember anything about leaving now. I just drove away.

The neighbours in the taman were so kind in the end, having parties for us and taking picture after picture of the girls. They, of course, are the ones that will be missed, the girls and Yoko, not me. I was the sweaty, frustrated looking white man, never happy, always hunched over my laptop. When we finally left the house, Yoko and I and the girls got in the car and were surrounded by all the aunties and uncles and children of the taman: Indian, Chinese, and Malay. We drove away in a way that we haven't in the past, filled with energy. It was a Walt Whitman moment, a moment of rejoicing. Still, Naomi said it was sad to go, sad to leave people behind. Naomi thought about it and said, It would be like if you died, mom, and we hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. That would be sad. Yes, Yoko agreed, that would be sad.

And the little things in between: a couple of PhD students coming by one night: we drank beer and Venga gave me a statue of Genesh. Christmas night I drank at Indian uncle's with his brother in law and colleague, late into the night, talking about Malaysia and all it's come to mean for me. We went downtown one day. The girls ran around and around and around, laughing and playing. Jiji, Jiji, shouting for their grandpa.

Still, the feeling of failure hangs on, the feeling that I have left something incomplete, that I have let people down. Sean came the last day as well with his brother to take our washing machine, and I tried and failed to say that I was sorry for leaving, because sorry is the wrong word, the wrong feeling. What can you say. We'll see you soon, we'll see you again in England. 

Emptying the house, I took carloads of bags to the hotel, a windowless room with two twin beds in Kajang. When we had adjusted everything and I looked at the pile, I was not sure we would be able to get it all on the plane. Yoko did careful calculations again and again. At 5:40 on Tuesday morning, the taxi called, thirty minutes early, and I came down expecting to find a big van. Instead it was a simple MVP, not nearly enough space, I thought. The old Chinese driver insisted that it would be and packed it tightly, perfectly. Mei sat on my lap in the front of the car, and the driver seemed to being falling asleep the whole trip, swerving to almost hit cars again and again. I thought momentarily that when I left the car the night before with the new owner, when I had thought, Well, at least I am not going to die in a traffic accident in Malaysia, that perhaps I had been presumptuous.

Instead, there was no problem. Chinese taxi driver scratched and coughed his way, racing up the exit to the airport. We unloaded it all on three carts and I pushed them to the Malaysia airlines counter. 149.7 kilograms, perfect, just under the limit. One more bag, can? I said, and he said, Can lah, okay, light one. We walked away and that was that. I took more money out of the ATM, another RM1500. Nothing is left in the country.

On the plane, I went to the toilet, looked in the mirror and was shocked again at how fat I have gotten. I'm sorry, this wasn't the plan. I pulled on the Uniqlo fleece jumper that I bought in Alamanda, and remember thinking when I tried it on, when would I ever feel cold again. Here, it's here now. Mei looks out the window of the plane and declares that she sees snow.

It was all a dream. We wake up now in the snow. Drive north in the dark from Heathrow Terminal 4 to the North, with the determiner on it. The past is just the past. 

22 December 2013

Buying and selling

A group of Aunties, led by our Chinese Auntie from three doors down, came through the house, chattering in Mandarin and claiming almost everything that we had to sell. I had diligently priced everything, considering how much we had paid for it and what I thought would be fair, but the Chinese Aunties wanted everything for less than we asked. The starting price didn't matter: they just wanted thirty percent off that. Yoko negotiated while I sat at the table, disinterested in the whole event, playing with the iPad and making final decisions. Sure, why not: we'll take any price. They chattered more, asking again and again about things that had already been sold: to whom and for how much, nothing is done until it's done anyway ah.

On Friday night, three Indian Aunties came on motorbikes and no helmets: five people (including the children) on two bikes. The largest women, the Auntiest of the Aunties, was Mei's Indian Auntie from tadika. She declared happily, I make Mei Pihlaja's food pronouncing our name with a 'jah'. Mei beamed with pride and the Aunties went upstairs to look at beds and negotiate with Yoko some more. Would we take two hundred and fifty for everything? the message came down, and I said, three hundred, Yoko looking uncomfortable bringing the messages back and forth. Two eighty, and how about the refrigerator. It's already been sold, ah? I'll give you 380, ah? Okay with the beds? Yoko looked uncomfortable, went two houses down to confer with Chinese Auntie before coming back and declining the offer: the Chinese Aunties were here on Monday.

After the negotiations, we stood outside -- me, my father in law, and the Aunties and kids -- and made plans for how we would pass of the furniture, and then talked about salaries and the rental on the house. How much? 800! Very expensive. My salary 500: can't eat lah, how will I buy food? They promised to come back with the money and a lorry on the 30th: early lah, before getting on the motorbikes and riding off into the night.

The days filled with moving chores, father in law and I have been smoking and drinking out in front of the house after everyone has gone to bed. When the pack of feral dogs comes through the park, underneath the third world streetlamp light, I go and stand at the gate to watch. Father in law comes to stand next to me and says in Japanese, You know what I think when I see that? They're free -- that's how dogs should be. That's how it used to be: the dogs were free. We stand watching them in the street before going back to drink whiskey from the bottle and look up at the trees.

And then a series of goodbye parties. On Friday night, I squeezed into what used to be my fat jeans and boots and Father in law and I went to the club. The same cast of characters, the same music, revolved around like a record. Play it again: what will the old tune reveal this time. Again, achy breaky heart. Again, 12 year Scotch after mugs and mugs of lager. At some point after midnight, a group of Sikh men entered the club wearing what looked like bowling jerseys and holding a large trophy. They had just won a darts tournament, someone shouted to me, over the sound of music and cheers. Beer was poured into the trophy and passed around. I drank some too, with my arm around one of the Sikh men. Father in law asked me what they've won. I don't know, I said: darts I think.

Eight days in the terrace house in Taman Sir Minang, and then all this madness will stop. No Aunties in Birmingham, I'm reminded. Yes, no Aunties: no Sikh men with darts trophies full of beer. As the plane lifts up into the sky, a kind of silence will fall, I imagine. Everyone must be happy to be going back. I'm not sure: the problem with learning to adapt is that you adapt. And again, people are crying around you saying goodbye, relationships you didn't realise had meaning until they will be gone next week. Yoko and the girls hugging and kissing their friends. Of course, in Birmingham we will have new friends.

16 December 2013

Being nice

The car inspection office in Cheras doesn't look like much of anything from the outside. There are no signs leading to it, until you finally exit the freeway and turn a few times. Puspakom, one of these places owned by a nephew of a government official, you imagine. In front of the building, there was a mess of cars and trucks, Chinese men standing around smoking. I parked and got out of the car, trying to get a sense of where to go: who was in charge. A man in a Honda shirt, an agent I supposed, looked approachable, so I asked him and he sent me off on a dirt road that looped around and dropped me in a queue of cars waiting.

The feeling of uncertainty and unease in these situations is very hard to put into words and sounds silly when you write it out afterwards. I keep sitting in the offices on the edge of panic, hoping beyond hope that someone will come and let me out of this final trial in a year of trials. I don't want to learn anything else. I don't want to try anymore.

I had an appointment, but that seemed meaningless in the end. I stood at what looked like a police box with a crowd of people waiting, trying to decide which form I needed. People pushed in and through and I finally just pushed to the front myself. B5 ah? and got my form and went back to the car. I drove inside, got out of the car, and a Malay woman fussed with the printer and another Chinese man in a Honda shirt helped me fill in my form. Pay RM30, go through, go to the wrong lane, reverse, go into the right lane, get out of the car and wait.

Naomi asks questions upon questions about who is the real Santa and how he can do what he does. She is sceptical, but still hopeful. She only wants money for Christmas. RM80, so that she can have RM100 altogether. What would that amount of wealth feel like.

I have been saying again and again the the way to succeed in government offices is to be nice; smile and you can get anything. This had been no exception, but the when they called me back to the car, and asked me to move forward, I saw that they had pulled all the rubber seals off the car doors and hadn't put them back. I said to the Malay boy who was waiting, 'Please put this back up' and he said, 'You can do yourself.' And I said, 'No, you need to do it.'

He was annoyed and did the door behind the driver's seat. 'Go up' and then I noticed the other doors were undone too. 'You need to do all the doors' and he said, 'No you do' and I said, 'No, you took it down, you need put it back up'. I could feel myself falling into the hole of being right, a complete disaster in this sort of situation. 'Actually you need to,' he said and I said, 'Actually no, you do it' and stared at him. He backed down, annoyed, and went around, putting them back up.

I pulled the car out to park and realised that I had done the wrong thing entirely, jeopardised the whole trip by insisting, by being an asshole. How powerless the whole thing makes you feel, how silly to try to assert power in spite of it. I sat in the waiting room, imagining the failed report coming back, and then thinking about all the government papers I still had in process, all the money that needed to be moved. And suddenly panic again about the visa in the UK: had the University there checked enough, had they asked the right questions. I sat trying to keep it out of my mind. Please just let me go from it all, the plates I'm trying to keep spinning: I don't care anymore, just let me go.

When I left the UK last year, after I finished my viva and turned in my thesis, I worked on the puzzle that we had gotten for Naomi for Christmas. I sat on the floor to my office, everything pulled off the walls and shipped away, and worked diligently on the princesses of Disney, all 1,000 pieces. Yoko's friends were downstairs, helping her clean and I felt like an idiot savant in the attic: I can do one thing well and then I fall apart. 

In retrospect all the fear and uncertainty is silly; when I look back it will all seem like nothing. Thomas and I have talked about this inability we have to remember the emotions of the past and how it is a kind of deficit for future decision making. It wasn't so bad was it. Fourteen more days on this side and then into the cold and a winter to emerge from both metaphorically and physically. It will all come together, one way or another. 

12 December 2013

Slowly and then suddenly

When I wake this morning, before the azan, I can hear the feral dogs fighting on the hill and am afraid of walking past them in the dark. There is, of course, nothing to be afraid of, but in the dark, walking through the taman, I can still be afraid. 

The house is now filled with boxes that are themselves filling up. This is a good feeling, throwing away the garbage of your life and reducing it down to the few things that you really need. It's like losing weight. In a week and a half, they will come and take them all away, all the boxes, to meet us again in the UK. Genners Lane, the new address I will write again and again and again.

After I shower and dress, the azan rings out from the competing mosques and I get ready to leave, waking Yoko to kiss her and say goodbye. Only 18 more azan. 17 maybe. There are mosques in Birmingham, I'm sure, but not three within hearing distance. God is great; I put on my socks and shoes and walk out into the darkness. 

Kajang, where we live, is not a place for white foreigners or tourists. When I walk through the wet market in the morning, the Chinese Malaysians are riding motorbikes without helmets and cutting up coconut to sell. I cut around the edge, past the flower leis and fruits, the smell of durian if there is durian. 

This walk has always been caught up in thoughts about the future, my plan to escape this place, but now, the tickets bought and the money secured, I have completed the process of exhaling — now saying goodbye — that I talked about earlier this year. The dogs guarding the construction site look up at me and I look down at them. There are no feral dogs in Birmingham.

The process of saying goodbye is just that: a process. It comes to head when you say suddenly, I won't see you again. As a Christian, we had this phrase, 'Here, there, or in the air': we might meet again here, there, or during the rapture, when Jesus would come back and take us all away before the tribulation, the great tribulation. I ignorantly believed in this: now, there is nothing to say. I say, 'See you in London, see you in England.' You've known this hologram of me, this projection. Come see the real me, at home, in my grey coat with my beautiful British daughters. 

Past the wet market, up into the Chinese taman, I see a man and a woman, workers, sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for someone to pick them up. Real immigrants, I think, people with real hardship, from Bangladesh or India or Indonesia. I look at them as I pass, trying not to stare, wondering about their story: what is Malaysia for them? What possible worlds can they inhabit, what futures could they see?

English doesn't have good words to describe the feelings I have as the boxes slowly fill: I would say love, love is what I feel for my colleagues and students and supervisors, but you can't say to someone out of the blue, I love you. There are a multiplicity of loves. The kiss of a father, I think suddenly of my own father's love for me. I wonder about who I could say that to, as I buy a ticket at the station and walk up and down the stairs to the second platform.Who would understand.

I stand in the dark, waiting for the train and then it comes and we all file on —  Malaysians of every race and me, sweaty and fat. Don't worry, I promise the reflection of myself, you'll be back soon, less sweaty and skinnier. I am just a hologram of myself, there is finally research, maths done by a Japanese physicist in Ibaraki, to justify this feeling. Projection, being projected. I mind the gap, watch my step, and sit down among the people for one of the last times. I did my best, I want to announce to them, I tried as hard as I could. Everyone is nodding off. I'm leaving now.

09 December 2013

Boxes

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Everything you own can go in a box and be shipped anywhere in the world for a fee. Our boxes came this week, in plastic wrap. The things that can't go in boxes, all the cardboard furniture and foam gets sold off to interested parties in the taman. Aunties eyeing things over, making offers, asking about the capacity of the refrigerator. The car has been sold, the bike has been sold. I'm giving away books and taking everything off the walls.

In leaving, you learn all the things that you needed to know to live here, all the secrets to selling cars and getting tax money back and leaving the pension system. Day after day, you confront Malaysian bureaucracy and by the third or fourth time, you don't fear it anymore. You get a number to wait and there are 150 people in front of you and you think, well, at least I have a number. I only have to pay RM500 to cancel my Internet: perfect, sign me off.

Friends give you things: whiskey and cookies. My students gave me a giant card they had signed, applauding at the end of my last lecture. And cupcakes and books. They asked me why I'm leaving. It's complicated, I try to explain: it's like explaining to your children why you're leaving their mother. You should stay, but I can't. I'm sorry.

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On Friday, I got sucked into the orbit of the Royal Commonwealth Society again, danced the achy breaky heart line dance again, and drank and drank like the sinner that I am. The whiskey came out and we sat on the terrace and talked about adultery. When the cab came, sometime after the last call for drinks at 1ish, I sat in the front, focusing the way you do, when you are giving directions under the influence and we laughed and talked all the way back to Kajang. I unlocked and locked the gate and door. Pealed off my sweaty, fat white man clothes and stood in front of the fan, replaying the night back in my head.

Phylogensis is the evolution of the system; ontogenesis is the evolution of the individual in the system. These are good metaphors as the fat white man adventure ceases. I'm sure they have relevance as I crawl back into the body of 30 year-old Stephen, the one who cycles and would never eat nasi goreng or ice cream. The Stephen that doesn't drive down the middle of the road and honk angrily at 1995 Proton Sagas with children standing in the passenger seats. The version of me that doesn't mark the day by calls to prayer.

The Stephen reemerging wears a long grey coat and drinks ale, runs marathons. And my British daughters, in tights and jumpers and thick skirts, will come back.

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02 December 2013

A ghost, a phantom limb

The rain this morning has kept up all day. Naomi came downstairs wearing her uniform and I put on her ankle the jewellery I bought for her in Penang this weekend. We left out into the blue morning, the rain falling like it falls in England, not in a sudden downpour, but steady and regular. I drove Naomi to her school and she got out with a bag full of sweets to give her classmates as a going away present. She hugged me and went inside happily, another day like every other day.

29 days now. Like that, the end just came up. I spent today taking down photos from the wall and packing things up. 29 days: fours weeks from tomorrow morning we will be on our flight. I've been spending time, spare time here and there, searching for prices of things, making reservations. Going back is so much easier, I keep saying, my debit card the perfect metaphor for the ease of travelling West. Here, I say, speaking of Malaysia, it took me five weeks to get a bank card. I can close my eyes and see the road home from Terminal 4 at Heathrow. The signs leading off to Staines and the sign on the M1 to the North. The North, with the determiner in front of it.

The weekend in Penang, at the George Town literary festival, felt like fading out. When I was alone, walking up and down the streets in the heat, I couldn't think of anything, but how far away this will all be. It's December now, but the Christmas songs and trees, when I catch them out of the corner of my eyes, feel so strange, like they shouldn't be there, like we should just pretend this year didn't happen. Getting into the taxi last year, headed to Heathrow, I said that exact thing: We will be back soon.

I want to tie this all to some concrete experience, something that will embody this feeling better than just saying ephemeral, silly things about being a ghost. I can't though: I latch on to other metaphors. Malaysia as a phantom limb, something I will moving even in five years, ten years, when the girls are grown and speaking perfect, non-Malaysian, proper English. Maybe when they remember something, when they ask about a picture or a blog post from this year, I'll be able to put it into words.

But now, I am looking to the future, that feeling of the plane pulling up into the sky. When you first start to fly and you catch your breath after everything. Last year, I talked about moving as pushing your whole life, all your possessions, through a keyhole, but I don't feel anything like that this time. That was all excessively melodramatic anyway.

So get on the plane. Shut the hell up. Forget key holes and phantom limbs. There's too much to think about anyway.

26 November 2013

Succeeding in failing

Princesses

I've been telling this story backwards for a year, my story of coming to Malaysia has always been a story of leaving Malaysia. I did not intend this, but I'm always lying about my intentions. Look back and see all the stories: they all are about leaving, one way or another.

Last Monday, at 8:00 and then at 9:45 I had a presentation and interview with a small Catholic University in Birmingham, Newman University, for a permanent post in Stylistics. The interview went well, I thought, but as J and I sat out on the terrace after it was over — looking out in the palm plantation, the feral dogs sleeping somewhere beyond the darkness — I talked about how empty these feelings are, how meaningless. I have felt good about interviews I failed, and jobs I've gotten, I've felt poorly about the interviews. Feelings lie, of course.

I went home: drove up Jalan Semenyih still alive and humming like it always is. I missed my turn off and went the long way home: it didn't matter anyway. I came into Taman Sri Minang, the orange light in front of the house, the gate locked, the children and Yoko sleeping upstairs. I sat at the computer in the heat, waiting for an e-mail to come, and feeling like I could wait, like I would not be disappointed. 

I'm leaving, I said again and again for this last week, and everyone has been happy for us, understanding. All the pressure that has built up over the year, pressure looking for a stopgap to come that never came, dissipated into the night and wine I had saved since September for this moment. I savoured it. The invoice for Naomi's schooling came, but it sits undisturbed on the desk. There was nothing to worry about: it was done, wasn't it. We went out to dinner and suddenly worried less about everything. Now to just pack it in. How much cheaper life is in Malaysia when you think in pounds. 

The flights back home to the UK will take us into the cold, away from the palm oil trees emanating heat and all our Aunites and Uncles caring for us. Chinese Uncle, Uncle three houses down sees me on the ground blowing into the fire, and says, Still wet, ah, cannot burn. Yes, yes, I know, but it is burning, I am making it burn. Birmingham has no palm trees: it's raining and snowing and the sun has already gone down, but I know the way home from Terminal 5 at Heathrow. We will get the rental car. Someone may meet us at the airport even. That big roundabout, and the M25 and then the M40. How much easier everything will be.

Birmingham, the small university, permanent work in my area. There are so many good things to celebrate. A kind of future that will make everything else fade away, all thoughts of the heat and the stress, letting only good memories percolate through. Naomi and I in the car this morning, laughing. Mia waiting naked at the gate of the house. Mei holding a millipede.  

So the Pihlajas are moving again. I'm not sure the kids understand, but they don't need to at this point. Up and leaving is something our family does: it's normal for them. For me? I thought I would be angrier than I am about how much of a failure Malaysia has been for us. It hasn't, of course; to say it's a failure is to lie. It's been something else. Something I can't put my finger on. Maybe I will be able to articulate it someday, when things settle down.  

24 November 2013

Counting

Cameron Highlands

The bike finally promised to a new owner, I pulled it out this weekend and dusted off the seat. After kickstarting it for a minute, it coughed awake like it has consistently the whole time I've had it, and the feeling, cresting the hill out of Taman Sri Minang and into the town, was like it has been all year: liberated and liberating.

For the last week, I have been going out into the town as much as I can, while I still can. I walked to the 99 Speedmart to buy beer. I walk up the hill and to the row of shops across from the hospital to get water and carry it back up the hill and back to the house. I took Mei out on the bike too, put on her pink helmet and she sat between my legs while we crept up and down the streets of the kampong. Into the hill, and back down. She pointed to things in front of us and we stopped at Tesco's, to get money and walk around, nothing to do but be together.

Funny how as the end comes on me like this, I'm surprised: suddenly Malaysia is what I want it to be. There is no financial stress anymore. I already miss the food and order more than I need. I can buy the computer I've needed all year with the money I don't need to spend on Naomi's schooling. No future to worry about. Linger here.

I go to the gate. Start a fire. Take stock of all our things again. How many days are left.

20 November 2013

Telling a story backwards

This is one embodied experience of Malaysia: Last night, Yoko and the girls came to campus to meet me after a meeting and by chance, one of the PhD students in the department was here, and we all went to dinner in the village of Broga, down the road from the university. Broga, filled with Chinese people and durian, has a gate that you enter and a lovely Chinese restaurant that staff from the university frequent. I told the story of the first time I was there, with my boss and the Dean of my faculty, and I reminisced about coming to Malaysia, what I had wanted and expected. The girls ate happily and ran around, and we came back to campus to walk in the cool night air. The girls played in the fountain in the middle of campus and we walked through the new night market that they have set up here on Tuesday. The moon was full, it has been full the last couple of days.

This is one embodied experience of Malaysia: the bus lurching and fighting its way out of campus. Standing to exit, I steady myself on the armrest, the door already open and curb and grass and stray dog flying by below. What if I fall, I think and then try to unthink. These are not useful thoughts, not fruitful ones. Press on, I think, wait and brace for the stop, I think. Ah, there lah, it's done now. Walk into the heat, up the hill to campus.

Exactly one year ago I was standing looking down at St Martin's church in Birmingham with all the women in my life: my wife, my mother, and my children. We walked up through the German Christmas market and Grandma bought the girls mittens although I told them it was a waste, we wouldn't need them in Malaysia because it was so hot. Exactly one year ago, when I put everything into boxes and we came here. There was snow the day they took the boxes. Two Malaysians who were the first real Malaysians I had met took pictures of the snow on their phones and took our 14 boxes. I remember how empty the garage looked.

The terrace house in Taman Sri Minang is much more empty than the house in Bradwell Common. There are far fewer things: just cheap furniture I bought to last the year, maybe three. I didn't know it was cheap at the time, not until it all started breaking. Yoko and I take stock, it's still early, but what will we take. We have so little, it's been so basic. We'll take Naomi's bike, at least.

The people in Birmingham that I email tell me that come February I will miss the heat of Malaysia. I laugh too, yes, but there are other things to consider. The food is so much better there, right? Yes, lah, it is, but there are other things to consider.

11 November 2013

Dry air

Cameron Highlands

In the Cameron Highlands in the midst of the tea plantations, the air is dry and cool. When we pulled into Tanah Rata, at a small park to let the kids get some air, I felt embodied memory. In my preteens, my family lived in El Paso, Texas, in the desert, but only a few hours from the mountains, the Rockies trailing off into Mexico. The same thing would happen: our blue diesel Chevy Suburban would pull into Cloudcroft, and the doors would open to pine trees and crisp air. We picked cherries one year, I remember, climbing ladders in the trees and filling huge buckets. In Malaysia, we paid RM25 to a Nepalese man to pick about 50 strawberries. We were supposed to pay more, I think, but I feigned ignorance, and bobbled my head. Country? America. Oh, America.

The air leads you to linger outside, something that Malaysia doesn't in general allow for. Here, as a fat white person, I rush from building to building. Hurrying and sweating and cursing the heat. The endless tunnel of summer. In the mountains, stuck in traffic with the windows down and the children sleeping in the back, the sun felt warm and welcoming — not hot, not to be avoided. And then another rush of memories, of riding my bike through the rice fields in Shibata City, Japan, up into the mountains. I rode 80km one Saturday, pushing higher and higher.

The mountains are full of the things the kids love: insects and plants and fish. We stopped at the side of the road, at a strawberry farm, where there were goats tied up. The girls fed the goats stems of plants and they licked us, and we sat in the sun, taking in the clear air.

Cameron Highlands
"Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)
When we descended back into the heat, and opened the doors of the car outside of Tapah, the mist and rain from 15 minutes before were gone and the heat rushed back. Everything heavy and angry again. We drove through KL, back home to the Happy Happy Cafe where the kids had noodles and Chinese tea on ice, another memory tucked away somewhere to be remembered in 10 or 15 years.

23 October 2013

Ten years

IMG_1850

Ten years ago, I left the States for Japan. The writing I did around settling there, of being a young missionary with DK (Dan), feels familiar again.
 We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant on the Bay and we fumbled through conversation. After dinner, Miyauchi Sensei told us he would take us to the public bath and DK and I shared some concerned looks. We drove up into the hills, got out of the car and then walked further up through what seemed to be a very touristy part of town that had closed for the day. At the end of a path lined with closed food stands, we got to the public bathhouse. Miyauchi Sensei bought tickets out of a vending machine then gave the tickets to a woman sitting at a counter right by the vending machine. We went down a narrow hallway to the locker area where we all got naked.
The public bath is basically a line of showerheads about waist high next to little stools. You sit on the stool and wash with a bar of soap and the showerhead, then get into a hot tub to rinse off. After washing, we sat in the hot tub for a while, and I realized that the whole room was lined with windows that didn’t have shades. After about five minutes, Miyauchi Sensei got up and we followed him out through sliding doors onto the patio. We stood there, naked, looking out at the city. It was pretty surreal. After a couple of minutes we went back to the hot tub, and Miyauchi Sensei asked about our families.
Ten years after this experience, ten years exactly, I was in Kajang, buying new tyres for our Hyundai Matrix, the car that saved my marriage last February. The car has been excellent along the way, although I am afraid every morning that it will suddenly not start. Over the weekend, I saw a small crack on front driver's side tyre and thought about Yoko and the kids stranded in the middle of a congested freeway, the tyre blown and motorbikes flying by on both sides.

The tyre store I stopped at — Yoko had asked if it was a good one: what's a good tyre store? — was run by a Chinese Malaysian man who looked at my car and quoted me RM195 a tyre for Silverstones: Malaysian tyres. I've learned so far the hierarchy of car accessories in this country: Chinese are the cheapest, then Malaysian, then Japanese or American. RM195 seemed high, so I tried to negotiate: How much for two? RM380. Discount? No discount. You want cheaper, you need Chinese tyre, but I no have. RM150, but cheap, many problem. (I thought about it, performed thinking about it.) Okay, fine. You want alignment? How much? RM25. You do for free? No, RM25. Do I need? Maybe need, maybe not. How car drive, I don't know. 

I left the car and they put it up on the rack. I walked up the road: I was in a part of Kajang that I hadn't been  — a small Indian community with dark men selling flower leis and a vegetarian food stall on the corner with old men on plastic chairs looking out at the evening, the traffic passing on the main road. I bought a Diet Pepsi and peanuts at the corner shop and walked up the hill, looking out over the city.

When I came back, they were done. RM390, as promised. The car drove fine and the Malay man in the Proton Saga waiting at the light let me cut in from the parking lot: a small grace, I thought, the sort of thing you appreciate in Malaysia. Thank you for letting me in ah. No problem la.

I came home and Mei and Mia were naked, running around. They hugged me at the gate, giggled and ran off, back into the house. Yoko played some loud Russian orchestra for them and they all danced around with drums and flutes, drowning out the Maghrib call to prayer, while I drank whiskey and watched.

14 October 2013

Let's be generous with our claps

12/10/2013 Graduate concert 12/10/2013 Graduate concert 12/10/2013 Graduate concert 12/10/2013 Graduate concert

Naomi graduated from her kindergarten on Saturday. I sat in the audience, Mia sleeping on my shoulder. Surrounded by scores of Chinese parents with smart phones and digital SLRs, I felt the way I do at things like this: cynical and wishing desperately to be somewhere else. The British Library, maybe: somewhere with my people, the ones I can recognise. Mei danced to the Blue Danube, holding a flower, and wearing a costume that the school had rented for RM75 and charged to us. We needed, a woman kept reminding us in English and Chinese, to give a big clap for the children and appreciate their movements, regardless of how well they were doing. Perhaps people have more patience for all of this when they get older.

Mia woke up during the thirty minute introduction, looking around the auditorium for Yoko and starting to cry. I took her out into the waiting area. We were on the fifth floor of the New Era College, a small Chinese Malaysian college in Kajang. You could look out at the whole city, the traffic moving up and down Jalan Semenyih, the hotel we stayed at when we first came, the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang just over the hill. Mia wandered around fussing and I thought about the last year and all Kajang has come to mean in this misadventure.

When the ceremony ended and it was time for photos, Naomi was chased down by two boys, both called Joshua and both very polite. They took photos over and over and when Yoko said to Naomi that she should take a photo just with me, she said, in Manglish, 'Do'n wan!' the consonants cut off the end of the words. I finally grabbed her and got it, the sort of reluctant picture you take with your father.

We all slip into our roles: we can't really escape them, despite where we are. Malaysia feels less and less foreign because of this. The argument with the Nepalese security guard at the entrance to a gated community: that is unique, at least for the Americans and Japanese. The kids chastising me for cursing, 'Don't say Jesus, Daddy': that is not unique at all, that might happen in any country. All the problems, all the joys and pleasures are not likely to change, not given the surroundings.

06 October 2013

Pall Mall Cigarettes

Seated in a smoky corner of the Royal Commonwealth Society, sometime after midnight, but before one thirty when I left, a package of Pall Mall cigarettes found their way in front of me. I'm not sure whose they were, in retrospect, but at the moment I saw them, I wasn't concerned with ownership. I had lost at billiards and was drinking fine twelve year scotch whisky between glasses of Carlsburg, and as the early morning showed no signs of slowing, I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and smoked, satisfied and drugged by the warmth of the night. How, the question keeps coming up, had I gotten here.

In the simplest terms, I had gotten there by following a series of choices that began with agreeing to discuss functional grammar with colleagues in the Nottingham campus building downtown. The meeting ended up being just a few of us, my boss and one of his PhD students, a third year language student I taught last year, and my part-time boss from the school of education piped in via Skype. Systemic functional linguistics and grammar are not things that excite normal people, but if they excite you and you find three or four other people who are also excited by them, two hours of discussing transitivity and mood blocks can pass in a blink of an eye. That was great: let's go drinking.

And then a tree -- there is a tree behind the campus building in KL, an incredible one. One like I have never seen before. Much older than all of us and one that you have to stop and look up at. And in looking up at it, the story somehow slips into the present tense.

At a Chinese restaurant on the street, beer, and a fight breaking out between lovers. A waiter is kicked and bitten and he shows us his cut. The tourists (there are tourists everywhere) sit uncomfortably, while our table looks on like social anthropologists, discussing culture, our responsibility or ability to try to stop it. A fat Malay police officer finally arrives, with an automatic weapon strung nonchalantly and resting on his belly.

At some point in the night, I lose my voice.

People dance, and I dance too. I line dance to achy breaky heart sung by a man and woman with a guitar and backing tracks on Macbooks. I request, and they play 'Over the Rainbow', the song that reminds me of everything good in my life. There's more excellent whisky and I think of the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns water to wine. The master of the banquet comments, 'Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.' (John 2:10) There's a metaphor here, I think, something about my life lived to this moment: the whisky made by a miracle, the best of all.

In the loss of faith, the five years I have been completely free and clear of Christianity, I have only grown happier and more content with how, rather than where, life has taken me. This is true for me: it doesn't need to be true for you. While the former version of me wrung his hands and worried (surrounded by others wringing their hands and worrying), I feel more and more like I am simply riding on the planet, on the top of the globe at any moment, hurtling forward into space. No one is watching. Let the others worry: I have worried enough for a thirty-one year old.

When the taxi stops in front of the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, Mia is awake again, as she is most nights, busy running the sort of errands two year olds run well after midnight. I sit up a bit, Yoko sleeping on the floor and the heat of the house slowly seeping out into the night. Hurtling forward, yes. Best to just let go.

26 September 2013

The book

Naomi's Tadika Books

On Tuesday morning, I signed my first book contract. It came as a .pdf and I printed it and sent it off, without thinking much of it. Where had the moment gone, I have been thinking as I fall into another writing-induced depression: this mountain top of mountain tops for someone who has been writing for 25 years. It was like finishing the PhD: the celebration just flashed and suddenly we were here.

'Here': a metonymy for everything.

My daily routine now includes waking at 5:30, and taking Naomi to school at 7. The two of us get in the car and experience the Malaysia that everyone else knows so well: gridlock of traffic. The house we chose was close, I thought, to the school that we could afford, and it is, in relative terms, close enough. Still, I spent 40-50 minutes in the car, fighting through the centre of Kajang and then up onto the expressway that jams between 7:15 and 7:30 every day. Here, in five minutes, everything changes. I cuss and jockey for position, talking to Naomi, who sits in the middle of the back bench, chatting happily with me. And then, everyday, we pull off and drive down into the school ground, the plantation, and things are suddenly still. I pull her bag out of the car and carry it to the path, holding her hand. She takes it from me and rolls it up the hill and at the halfway point, we say goodbye. She hugs me and I kiss her on the neck and she goes up to her class and I go home.

This life is in no way sustainable: Yoko makes the same trip in the afternoon, although it takes longer and the traffic is worse. We do our best — Yoko and I — but I can't see this going on and on. What do you change? Can we move closer, do we get another car, do we order a taxi? Everything, as it has been here, is not a simple decision: what can we afford, what do we have the energy for. What future is coming.
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.
Yes, unfinished and immovable: the stifling heat has returned to terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. Yoko's skin continues to flare and burn with no end in sight. The kids are happy enough, unaware of anything else despite the pent up frustration around them, running around and sleeping naked. With little certainly still about the future, we've yet to commit to much except that tomorrow, at least, we'll wake up and do it again. Forget happiness, forget rest. Mei's deposit and registration slip for the 2014 school year hang on the refrigerator. I know we will end up paying it on the last day, but I am putting it off, hoping for a kind of rapture out. You never know the time or day.

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