22 January 2013

Piece by piece

Something happened to this blog in the last six months: it's become very narrative. I think I finally realised that I don't have much I want to say to you, but I have a lot I would like to tell you. I crossed the road into Taman Sri Minang yesterday, on my way home. There were no cars on the road, and as I looked up, I could see palm trees and the mountains in the distance, slowly disappearing in the perfect warmth that comes here between 6 and 7 in the evening. I stopped for a moment and thought, Yes, this story is coming together, piece-by-piece.
When I was a kid, we used to visit the Minnesota Zoo, in the suburbs of Minneapolis. In one of buildings, you opened the doors and had to push through these hanging sheets of heavy plastic before feeling the oppressive weight of humid air come down on you suddenly. I was remembering this today because a bird that lives outside of our house here also lived behind that plastic in Minnesota. It sings contently in the morning, reminding me that I've woken up on the other side of the world, in a housing development that used to be the jungle people keep saying. This sounds melodramatic to me, but I suppose it's true. We are living on the edge of the jungle.

Today in the jungle, we took the girls (Mei and Naomi) to get their school uniforms and register them for kindergarten. Naomi will go from 8 until 2:30 and Mei will just go for the morning. They all seemed confident enough as they tried on their school uniforms in the office, and I reluctantly shelled out another laughably small amount of money for a private, tri-lingual Montessori kindergarten with a staff to student ratio of 1 to 12. Still, I resented it: resented having to pay for school; resented my contract for covering some parts of their education, but not others; resented again having to make another series of decisions. Yoko was happy—happy with the school, which is safe and clean and full of smiling, tri-lingual children who gaped at us as we walked up and down the staircase.

After this, the kids resettled back at home eating watermelon, and I left to sit at the bus stop and wait for the orange Nottingham campus shuttle bus, which never came. Yes, another giant metaphor, I thought, as taxis honked and flashed their lights at me: Fat white man, waiting for bus?! Surely not! Where you go I take you. The bus has a published schedule, but from my experience, unless you pick it up at the station, you can never really know when it might show. Had it already come? Should I wait longer? After a half hour, I grew frustrated and resentful. I gave up, got a haircut and tried to kill two hours while I waited for the next bus because, apparently, the bus runs every hour, except for 11:00.

In Japan, I always had the same same experience when I saw another foreigner I didn't know walking down the street, Christ, they look out of place. Not always fat, but always big: a friend of mine in the UK described being in Japan for the first time as feeling like a walking wardrobe. You notice this about others, but never really notice it about yourself most of the time. That is, until you see another pathetic, fat white guy in crocs, or someone points out that you too, believe it or not, are also a fat white guy. It comes at the oddest times: walking to the bus a couple of smiling hawkers on the road wave me down, He says you look like a football player. Immediately, I wondered: The Fridge or Cristiano Ronaldo? I trudged on, smiling as politely as I could, but feeling heavy and foreign and awkward.

Still, piece by piece. My name cards came today; Dr Stephen Pihlaja printed unironically under the Nottingham logo. The sofa comes on Thursday, but I think until we have a shelf in the bathroom to put our things, life here will feel unnecessarily arduous. It's a matter of slowly acquiring everything you need to make things acceptable. Once my visa comes, I can get a bank account. And then I can get a car. Piece by piece. Then maybe I can stop eating constantly, start exercising regularly, feel more confident. I suspect I'll feel it a bit when I stand in front of students again, or when this book proposal I'm working on gets accepted and I have a contract. But I suspect the moment I feel it too much, I will get restless and we will be moving again. Maybe Sweden. Maybe Germany. I'm sure there are birds everywhere to awaken my sleeping memories.

Malaysia
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