31 March 2013

Forever

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

Every story begins sometime in the past, some point that is relevant to the conclusion of the story. I've been thinking all night about where this story begins, but I don't, as I sometimes do, feel a strong commitment one way or another. So I'll start in the rain in Paris in October of 2009: 
I am pushing a double pram with Naomi and Mei through the corral leading up to the Eiffel Tower. The width of the corral is almost exactly the width of the double pram and I keep getting caught, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until we finally arrive at the lift to the top. We are soaked, Yoko and I, but the kids are dry and bored under the plastic rain cover and I am reciting Nietzsche to myself: the will to power. I remember recounting this story to my PhD supervisor who often listened to stories of me and my family with a kind of disbelief and wondered aloud about the wisdom of travelling with children. Will they even remember any of it?
In the rain

Most of the stories that I've told so far about our adventures in Malaysia have included some appearance by 'Auntie and Uncle', the Malay family that live behind our terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. Auntie and Uncle both work for the Ministry of Tourism in difference capacities: upwardly mobile, middle-class Malays who, as far as I can tell, are relatively conservative, but have lived abroad and enjoy International company. The girls, Naomi and Mei, were on school holiday this last week, and somehow in talking to Auntie across the alley behind the house, we agreed to take a trip together. I was unclear for most of the last three weeks what this trip would entail precisely or where we would go (I thought mistakenly we were going to Tioman Island for most of last week), but on Friday morning at 7:30, we drove around the block to their house and followed their whole family--Auntie, Uncle, and their teenage kids--through KL and up out into the countryside, headed to Pangkor Island. Auntie wanted to buy anchovies: the anchovies are very good there.

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013Getting to Pangkor Island, or to Lumut, the town where we stayed on the mainland, included driving some 120 kilometers off the expressway in the countryside of West Malaysia, through palm oil plantation after palm oil plantation, the kids alternatively sleeping then laughing then screaming in the back of the car. The trip was supposed to take 3 hours and some change, but stretched to 5 after we stopped a couple of times, once at a wayside where monkeys were coming out of the palms to eat food that people were throwing at them, once to lay out a picnic brunch on plastic sheets in a parking lot, and once to get petrol. 

The hotel Uncle has chosen for us, negotiating some discount, overlooked the beach and was, from what I could tell, the nicest place in Lumut. This of course being Malaysia, is not necessarily saying much: we stayed in the nicest hotel in Kajang when we arrived and still struggled with basic amenities. The Orient Star, however, had the key amenity needed for a successful trip with three kids under five: a large, shallow pool which we spent most of the time in and around. Yoko remarked that the hotel felt very Muslim, which I agreed with, but immediately felt strange about saying. It's like things are in Malaysia: places feel Muslim or they feel Chinese. It's partially the people around, it's partially the architecture, it's partially what's being sold. Like a green Carlsburg sign gives it away: everyone's welcome, but that doesn't matter.

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

On Saturday after Auntie and Uncle left to attend a wedding and go back to Uncle's hometown, we took the ferry to Pangkor Island and swam in the ocean for the day. Not the sort of tropical paradise you imagine from a brochure, but very much Malaysia as I've come to expect it. The beach was dirty and there was broken glass in the sand. There was a public toilet that was completely locked up although the hours said 9AM-7PM. We went across the street to a mini-market to ask to use their toilet, but the woman told us to use the public toilet: there was a phone number. I called and was told to hold on, someone would come to open it up. After about ten minutes, I called again and the same person I talked to before told me that the man who opened the toilet was eating lunch and would be back at 1, in about 20 minutes. I got upset on the phone, but the man clearly didn't care: it's lunchtime. So Naomi and Mei both pee'd behind a palm tree at the gate: this is Malaysia, after all.

I'm always curious about the Western couples in places like this. There weren't many, but a few interesting stories to be sure: a young British guy without a shirt and a tattoo of a cross on his forearm with a partner, renting a motorbike. A mixed-race (Chinese-Malaysian and white) guy with a Western partner and his Chinese-Malaysian family, all having breakfast at the hotel. Two fat, sunburnt Americans lying on the beach on Pangkor, looking uncomfortable in the sun. How did we all get here, where does their story begin.

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

Nothing was easy for the three days: Mia clingy, Naomi complaining, Mei running into the street. I can hear my dad in my own voice, like I am threatening to turn this car around if everyone doesn't shut the hell up right now. But these holidays are amazing for the serendipity they afford. Like the broken down amusement park in Lumut, full of rides that look like they will kill you. There was a ferris wheel, all rusted out and about to fall over, but it was running. I bought tokens and got Mei and talked Naomi into riding with me. The sort of thing you should never do with your kids: we paid out RM8 and loaded into the third basket. And suddenly we were up above the city, the ocean and the setting sun--the sea breeze coming and Naomi on my lap, laughing after having been terrified. We went round and round, Yoko taking pictures as we came past. Daddy, when will it stop? Naomi asks, laughing. I don't know, I say, maybe it will never stop and we'll be here forever. Forever!? Naomi says, laughing: Really?! Forever?!

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

I don't know what they will remember about this: maybe they will remember me cross with everyone, passive-aggressively complaining to Yoko about the cost of another thing we're doing. Maybe they will remember crying and crying because I wouldn't buy another toy to play with in the pool ten minutes before we were going to leave. Still, the pictures tell a much happier story, the one that I hope endures. I remember Paris fondly, despite the rain: we ate so much chocolate. And so for Pangkor Island, let's forget the rubbish in the water and remember instead the swing under the tree, where you built sandcastles. We spent the day away from the city and all the frustration of the real world, together as a family, with the whole world underneath us. 

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

25 March 2013

Oh death

Our terrace house in Taman Sri Minang is a kind of hotbed for discontent at the moment. Everyone is sleeping fitfully, the kids are waking and crying and sleeping and waking all through the night. It's hot: it's always hot. Mia is clinging to Yoko like she is an infant again and trying to breastfeed. Everyone looks exhausted, burnt out on another day. What's the answer: the blog goes quiet for a week under the weight of it. Two people sitting silently at the kitchen table, waiting for something to change.

How to think about the past without being nostalgic. Maybe Frank Zappa can help:
...I've also talked about the End of the World being a question of whether it's going to be by fire, ice, paperwork, or nostalgia. And there's a good chance that it's going to be nostalgia because the distance between the event and the nostalgia for the event has gotten shorter and shorter and shorter with each nostalgia cycle. So, projecting into the future, you could get to a point where you would take a step and be so nostalgic for that point where you would take a step and be so nostalgic for that step you just took that you would literally freeze in your tracks to experience the nostalgize of the last step, or the last word, or your last whatever. The world just comes to a halt - remembering.
'The world just comes to a halt – remembering': Frank Zappa must have looked into the future, seen me, and been horrified.

This morning, I rode past an accident. I saw the car first: a Myvi with the front left bumper crumpled. And then I saw in front of the car, the bike that had been hit and then the body of a man, face up and spread out on the asphalt, dead. No one was next to him: he was alone in the middle of the road, no helmet and with both of his shoes. He looked bigger to me in passing than he probably was. His shoes, in the glimpse of him I got–I remember his shoes. High tops, but with loose laces. I don't remember seeing his face. The cars slowed, and there were a couple of people standing around, but he was dead: very, very dead.

Everything seemed to come unravelled in a moment, all the feelings I have bound up and managed to keep at bay to make this whole adventure work. I wanted to suddenly stop my bike, get off and walk back to the house. Tell Yoko that I had made a mistake. I'm sorry for this, for all of it; let's buy tickets now, back to whatever life we left. The body with the life sucked out shocks you: how can anything be worth it. I wanted to put a pair of jeans and three shirts in a suitcase, tell the kids to get their shoes now, and leave everything behind on the next plane: it's too hard. A landslide of thoughts, inadequacies, fears: how long can a family keep going with so little money, so little energy. How much more can you ask those around you to sacrifice.

There were no dead bodies in Gurnee, IL, where my parents live in the States, and the place that is closest to home for me. Only when I was 15: the body of my grandmother, after a long illness (I had the urge to touch the body on the leg). No, I have just been insulated: there are dead bodies on the streets all over the world. Just like that: just suddenly dead. No reason, no lesson. Just suddenly dead. What's shocking is how surprised I am. Of course, the world is saying to me, of course, this happens. Take a look around yourself for the first time in your life, you spoiled child. What did you think happened.

Why didn't I stop and try to help. I just kept going like everyone else. Poor, pathetic dead man. Another dead man. Malaysia will make you confront the world as it really is if you let it: not the as world as it appears behind tinted glass windows of an SUV, but the world from the view of a Yamaha Wave 100. We are all only one mistake away from being dead in the street.

Do not be afraid, the good book tells us. I like this line; I always have. Being afraid is a terrible way to live, but insulating yourself from fear is even worse. What's the balance, I wonder, riding away from the body and talking to it in my mind: Why am I not on my knees next to you, waiting for the police to come. Why did I leave you behind as well. And it ends there, without a simple answer, or good or bad ending. It just ends.

17 March 2013

Weddings

It's what it looks like

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the rest of this is redundant.

The fat white man adventure found itself at a wedding this weekend. How the adventure got to a wedding, it's hard to say. A neighbour was getting married, and we got an invitation. I had originally thought the wedding was for our Chinese neighbour and stupidly, looking at the names which are clearly not Chinese, still thought this was the case. We talked to Auntie and Uncle and since they were going as well, they agreed to take us: a throwback to the early days of the adventure when we travelled in their car everywhere. I was, again thinking this was a Chinese affair, surprised that Auntie and Uncle would go given all the tidak halal things I imagined taking place: beer drinking and pork eating, mostly. As I was filling out the wedding card today, it finally made sense, They're Malay, right? Not Chinese?  I asked Yoko and, of course, that was the case. No insight into Muslims at non-Muslim parties and no free beer.

On the ride to the hall, the conversation was mostly, as you would expect, about getting married. I asked about inter-cultural, inter-racial marriages in Malaysia, and Auntie and Uncle assured me it was common and no problem. But the Chinese or Indian partner needs to convert to Islam. Yes, yes. Is that difficult? No, very easy. You just convert and then follow the Sharia law, halal and haraam, what you don't do and what you should do. Like any religion, Uncle said.

When we pulled up, there were huge banners with the picture of the serious looking couple and men dressed in traditional clothes everywhere, smiling and greeting us. It also turned out to be not so much a wedding, but a reception, held in Putrajaya, in a public gym. Very similar to the place that a middle-class couple in the States might have their reception, with lines for the basketball court on the wood floor. I was, of course, the only mat salleh in attendance and when we sat down, next to a table of kids with hand drums (eating before the bridal procession into the hall), one nudged another and another and soon they were all looking at us. Another young man came up with his Blackberry, wanting Yoko to take a picture of us together.

We asked around about how much to dress up and what to give. The consensus was that we should give RM20 which seemed awful small, given that in Japan you would give about 50 times that. Auntie and Uncle assured us that anything over RM5 was fine (it should be higher, like RM100 and above, if it's a Chinese wedding, they said). I felt bad about this, particularly given the size of the party: the food was fabulous and rich; the coffee already heavily sweetened for you. They were playing loud music in the hall while people sat and ate quietly. I asked Uncle if there was going to be dancing, and he said likely not. I asked if I could dance and he said, laughing, You can do anything you want.

I was over-dressed, but that looked to be better than being under dressed: there were a few guys in jeans, but I sort of suspected it might have been, again like the States, a class thing. And it didn't matter: part of the fat white man protocol is the impromptu set of rules that follow you around. Unless I had been wearing a tank top, I don't think it would have mattered. Yoko was wearing the same dress that she had from my sister's wedding last summer, and looked great as usual, although she put on a yellow sweater when we arrived.

The show of multiculturalism did occur when the Chinese neighbours appeared about an hour after we arrived. They were happy and smiling and, as Yoko said, there was finally another person in a sleeveless dress. There was a procession with the children singing and playing drums. The couple looked tired, but happy, and I was, as I always am, enamoured with the religious aspects: the blessing which people didn't seem to listen to carefully, cupping their hands and looking around. Mei saw everyone doing it and did the same thing, standing in front of Uncle for approval. He smiled and patted her on the head as the blessing ended and everyone lifted their hands to their faces.

We greeted the bride and groom--I'm not sure I've met her before, Yoko said--and Uncle said, Shall we make a move, and we got up to leave. I gave our card with RM20 to the smiling father of the bride who seemed happy to have us there, but then again, he seemed pretty happy anyway.

I should take that moment and bring it around to talk about the potential that I will be going through this myself some time in the future, but I don't know if I have the energy tonight. Maybe another day.

Wedding

16 March 2013

Hitting all the high points

The little bits of life here keep passing, but I'm having trouble gathering them up into a single story, finding the common theme in them. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how I am feeling more generally: feeling uneasy, and unhappy with my own uneasiness. Like this: like we were caught in a sandstorm and the last three to four months have been digging things in our life out. We uncover thing after thing that we own, at first happy to find that we have it, and then realising it is in as bad a shape as before the storm. Life as we left it in England was quite dark: the PhD had taken its toll on all the relationships, all the expectations. Our joys didn't only disappear in the storm, but also our problems, the fundamental ones that we always work on, but never solve: they are still here too.

I'm thinking metaphorically about storms because on Wednesday, there was a terrible and sudden storm here, the sort you expect living in a tropical location. I've been trying to write about it, to write about fear, but I've come up empty every time. I was caught on it in my motorbike and had to stop on the way home after the road had become impassable and there was no visibility. I realised too late that there were no other bikers out: it was incredibly, incredibly dangerous to ride, and ankle deep in rushing water, with a dark car coming up behind me, headlights off, I wondered for a second if my luck had run out.

It had not, thankfully: I pulled into a strip mall and was absolutely drenched, despite my rainsuit, and people were, as they do, staring. Of course, the same question I always have came up: is it me, or is it what I'm doing. Are they staring because I'm mat salleh, because I'm drenched, because I'm riding a motorbike, or because I am visibly uncomfortable with the cockroaches which are coming out of the storm drains and trying to crawl up my legs. Or because I look like I have just seen the face of god. 

I got home okay, and the next morning, although I was expecting to find cops everywhere directing people around fallen trees and swollen rivers, burst pipes--there was nothing. Everything was dry and the trees had been swept to the sides of the roads. The mayhem had simply vanished; the water rushed away and evaporated.

Another metaphor for life in Malaysia: no trouble lasts too long.

The girls have been quickly losing their Milton Keynes accent as it has been replaced by a Malaysian lilt. Famali fo-TO, Mei says, referring to the picture of our family that I was trying to get printed in the apocalypse last Wednesday and which she took to school. I've been noticing the same accent in other speakers and aping it when I speak Malay: it's amazing how the accent makes you suddenly understandable. Naomi is even more surprising: you can here the lilt coming up in her Japanese now. Who will these children become:
Was Auntie praying? I ask Naomi when I pick her up at the neighbours and catch a glimpse of Auntie wearing a white tudong to pray.
Yes, Naomi says, and pauses: why don't we pray?
Well, I say, because Auntie has a different god.
And I rephrase it. Auntie has a different god than your mother, but daddy doesn't pray because daddy doesn't have any god. You can choose if you want to have a god and pray. 
And I think immediately of something Letchu, our moustachio'd taxi driver, told me about Ganesha. His mother showed him a picture of Genesha and said, This is our god. And so Letchu prays to Genesha.
My Malay has become slowly more functional, but only through forcing trial and error in every situation I can, and making every Malaysian I speak with uncomfortable. Today, I felt good that I ordered all my food in Malay, and then, when it came, realised that I had not gotten what I had wanted exactly. I went two turns of a conversation with someone at the market. 'What is this? Is it tea?' No, it's herbs. 'How much is it?' and he switched to English, '30 Ringgit.'

A perfect snapshot of learning: ordering my food, I was attempting to ask for half as much rice, but had forgotten the word for 'half'. I did, however, remember the structure for making fractions, so I asked for 'one over two', essentially. This confused the woman and another guy at the food stall, who kept insisting on responding to me in English, came up and took out two plates, 'He wants the rice on two plates.' No, I said, finally in English, dejected, Half.

All these little failures, however, are cumulative and you remember the things you mess up much better than the ones you get right. You just have to push through the feelings of intense fear and weakness. You can fail, you will fail: fail now, or learn nothing.

So. Uneasiness. Mat salleh tries, mat salleh fails. The history of the whole damn fat white man misadventure.

Finally, I stopped my weight gain after the second attempt: I am back down in reasonable numbers. It took a week of intermittent fasting to get my centre back and to really stop myself. I get going and I can't stop. Eating is a metaphor for everything. In my emptiness from fasting, I took to swimming rather than running, going to the pool everyday during lunch. I did my makeshift breaststroke and improvised a kind of doggy-paddle on my back. It is nothing to look at, certainly, but I felt much better, creeping up and down the pool in the hot sun. Back and forth, back and forth. These problems that beset me, the immense pressure of work, family, finances, research, teaching, this new life. The pressure to go, go, go... Maybe this year can bring some peace and silence. It's worth trying, at least. 

14 March 2013

Coming home

The time has been passing like normal, like it is when you are not new somewhere, but when you live somewhere. I had expected that around March or April, things would smooth out for us, that the endless list of chores would start to taper off. Yesterday, I came home and Yoko had moved the new sofa to an acceptable place in the living room and I hooked up the speakers to the laptop and finally fixed a recurring problem the computer was having. The lamp is now in the corner, giving us warmer, incandescent light rather than the harsh florescent lights in the house. Some of my expenses were paid and the bank account will not go to zero this month. All these things lead to a sense of normalcy, of evening out. A new kind of normal. 

08 March 2013

Language

IMG_7085Feb 2013

I used to be, it's worth noting, quite religious.
13 October 2003
I am touched by Mark 1:20: Jesus calling John and James and how they leave their father “without delay.” I am struck by the urgency of their actions and how this same call todiscipleship falls near the call to repent and believe the good news. Discipleship follows very closely after. Maybe this is particularly encouraging to me because James and John leave their father to follow Christ (he is still in the boat with the hired hands).
Yesterday, Martha left and we both held each other cried and prayed and I think I understand this passage better because ofthe pain. I remember God saying that he will bind up the bruises that he inflicts and I rest in that. The best that I can right now, though it isn’t very much. I feel very far from rest, very torn up inside and I blame myself and my poor discipleship.
I wonder what God thinks as he looks down at this: Jesus doesn’t say anything to James and John to comfort them. He just calls them. Maybe the comfort comes later, or maybe there is comfort in following Jesus in and of itself. Would I be worse off not following? I know the answer is yes, but I feel very much like the answer is no. I don’t want to hurt for the gospel and I don’t want to go. I want to stay at home and see Martha over her school break. I want to be back at school.
“Come, follow me.” It’s so simple and there is so much reckless-abandon in the disciples. How incredible Jesus must look.
In 2003, when I first went to Japan, I had only intended to stay for a year and then return to the US to do an MFA in Creative Writing. I went as a missionary, primarily, although this embarrasses me now and I avoid talking about my first year in Japan in Evangelical terms because I was so spectacularly naive and ignorant. I had the whole dispositif of Evangelical Christianity around me, embodied, quite literally, in hands laid on me in prayer before going. It shocks me as I remember the experience: I thought I was right, that I had the truth, and the Japanese, whoever they were, needed to hear it. I hadn't thought about colonialism, the history of missions in the country–none of it. My paradigm at the time didn't require any self-reflection: it only required doing by saying. Proclamation, testimony: the word was with god and the word was god.

The word, I quickly began to realise, was an English word. I had never thought of this before–native speakers are generally not critical of their own language – and Japanese and the Japanese caused me problems. There are myriads of examples of cultural assumptions embedding themselves in language. The most famous one in terms of converting Japanese to Evangelical Christianity is the lack of distinction between singular and plural forms in Japanese – difficult when you're trying to distinguish between gods and the God. Japanese reflects the Japanese: there is no need to distinguish between the two because there is no concept, historically, of monotheism.

After a month and a half of thumbing through a rather useless Japanese book (Japanese for Busy People, but I wasn't all that busy and there wasn't that much Japanese), I got a proper textbook, one that I understood, and began to study hard, sitting under the trees of Ohori Park in central Fukuoka. Suddenly, I could ask for things: I could function and understand and explore. And as I began to acquire bits and pieces, my interest in my Evangelical mandate dropped and my interest in Japan, in Japanese, and the Japanese grew.

IMG_2658.JPG

I want to point to one moment where my paradigm started to unravel but there was no moment: just a series of them. For example, there is a shrine on the top of a hill on Meji dori in Fukuoka, Japan — you miss it passing in a car. It's tucked up behind a high rise apartments and an overgrown cliff. I found it by accident, riding my bike over the New Year holiday. I saw a long stone staircase and I stopped, curious. At the top of the hill, there were worshippers, visiting the shrine to pray for an auspicious new year. I had heard, in the echo chamber of Evangelical mumbling, that Shinto religion was filled with darkness. This experience though was nothing like I had been told. Out in the sun, dressed in kimono, the worshippers rang the bell in front of the shrine and stood quietly–earnestly, hands clasped and heads bowed. The priest handed me a shallow bowl of sake; I drank and watched.

Then there was an English class Bible study that I taught in which an old man, Koga san, told me that he, as a young man, had trained with a bamboo sword for the coming invasion of the Americans. I sat across from him having this vague sense that I was on the wrong side of the table: he, of course, should have been teaching me about how the world is, not vice-versa.

Now, ten years later, I am having the same experience in Malaysia, albeit on a smaller scale: there were no hands laid on me in prayer before coming, and I've only implicitly (although perhaps more dangerously) come to influence the culture. And in the same way as in Japan, my first attempts to study the language have added an intense amount of colour to the world here. My first sentence in bahasa, in Malay, 'Ini masalah kecil,' It's a small problem, reflects the way I'm learning the language; Malay, unlike Japanese, is not rigid and strict, but loose and playful. I've had fun with the administrative assistants here who call me 'Doctor Bebek': 'bebek' (duck) being the affectionate term for the small motorbike I ride.

Standing behind the house, talking across the alley with Auntie, I struggle through a series of phrases I learned at class: This is Mia. That's a door. This is a key to the door. This is the door's key. How are you? and she listens earnestly, nodding.

I tell my students week after week, Form is function; function is form. What you say is embedded in how you say it. When you say, How are you? in Malay, rather than English, you do something different.

I am, of course, still a fat white man: our teacher says, 'Don't pronounce the final consonant or you'll give away that you're a foreigner.' I look around the table of students and think, 'The final consonant is the least of our problems.' Still, a fat white man struggling in Bahasa is better than a fat white man demanding his way in English. Language is not a Sausurrean LAN cable from one head to another: it is phatic. It is always phatic. And we can't deconstruct our or any other culture until we can deconstruct the language. It is the first step. And if I can perform some submission in my broken Malay, this is not only a first step, but also a first step in the right direction.

03 March 2013

Making big money

Tonight: morality, safety, and affluence.

Big money

Early last month, Naomi had a cavity and, after finding a dentist online, we headed out to walk to the centre of town. As we were walking, a car pulled up, full of Chinese people from our taman offering us a lift. There were already six people in this small car, but it was hot and I said yes. They let us into the front seat and Naomi sat on my lap while everyone else piled into the back. Four adults, four kids: I strapped Naomi in with me and they took us into town. Today, our neighbours took all five of us to Ikea in Damansara. Again: four adults, five children in an SUV, with all the kids in the back. We drove into KL and around and around all day, and I thought only briefly about the safety of the situation. We probably shouldn't do this, I thought: we wouldn't if it was our own car. But we were doing it.

In the US, seatbelts are a kind of moral responsibility, or at least they were when I left and have been every time I go back. Of course, it's illegal to ride in a car without wearing one, but that's sort of beside the point: there is so much moral stigma that you would be shocked to see someone, particularly a child, not wearing one. You would even tell a stranger to strap a child in--you wouldn't feel any shame about it. You would also scold an adult for smoking around a child; you could even be aggressive about it. But you couldn't, of course, scold the parent of an overweight child, tell them, 'Look, you're killing your kid here.' That would be wrong. 

If living abroad has taught me anything, it's that norms about moral behaviour, what's right and wrong, don't withstand shifts in culture. And norms are often tied to economics.
On Monday, I was paid for the first time, but only about 60% of my salary. Eleven percent of the withholding I knew about, but the other 30% was a mystery. Panicked, I e-mailed people all day. Payroll wrote back to explain it: a new policy was instated to tax all new non-Malaysian staff at a rate of 26% for the first six months, before putting them on the resident rate (closer to 10% and likely less given the pile of dependants I have). Don't worry, I was assured, you'll be able to claim it all back in April 2014

This couldn't have happened at a worse time: on Monday I also decided to buy a car. Thoughts of living on nearly 20% less than I was expecting hung over me all week and left me with an uneasy lock box full of cash. What am I doing, I thought, Financial ruin—this is going to destroy us; I shouldn't get a car now. Still, I sucked it up and told myself the story about my career and stability and quality of life: I'm in this for the medium to long term, and if we're going to be here for more than three months, we need a car. I felt the same pain you do when a tattoo artist makes a stroke with the gun. It hurts, but you've made the decision and there's no going back.

On Friday night, when the agent delivered the car, he counted up all the bills on the dining room table, stuffed them in a couple of envelopes, and left. I felt freedom--freedom to have gotten the money out of the house, freedom of having made a choice with no recourse to go back, and freedom to move freely as a family. We got in the car and left almost immediately, coming up to the stoplight on Jalan Semenyih, the four lane highway that makes walking in Kajang impossible and worrying about nothing: not how much the cab would cost, or if we would be able to get a ride home, or if everything we bought at the store would fit in a taxi. We could take our time: we stood in the parking lot and realised we could see the Petronas Towers in the distance. Kuala Lumpur is not that far after all. 

And then Saturday, we woke and left for the morning market near our house, where people smile when you speak Malay and pinch the girls' cheeks. We had breakfast there, sitting on a concrete wall and counting to five in Malay. Then we drove out to the pool, got lost, then swam. Then drove to a festival in Putrajaya that we had happened upon. Then drove to the university for the Japan festival. The new, used car had no problems: nothing fell off along the way. The girls sat quietly in the back, sleeping in the air conditioning and I thought about peace and the possibilities the car allowed us. 

The kids were, of course, strapped in the whole way. Unlike the times in the Malaysians' cars, I controlled the situation and asserted myself with my typical American paternal fascism: sit the hell down and strap in, or this car isn't going anywhere. But as we pulled up next to a motorbike with a husband and wife, and a baby sat between, the thoughts about class, safety, and morality were there again. The only thing really painful about my car purchase was using a bit of my savings. I had the option to get one and I did. Even with 40% out of my salary, I am rich: ridiculously and famously rich. I feel entitled to more money because I am white and educated (goddamned PhD) and I can get so much more if I go somewhere else. But my god: I'm sitting in an air-conditioned car with a permanent job, a golden parachute above me and a golden net below.



How you keep all this in balance, all these different moralities, I have no clue. When you are better off than 96.25% of the people in the world, can you still say, I'm being treated unjustly? It was so much easier to be self-righteous and indignant when the poor people were on the other side of the world. I feel these sudden bursts of sympathy, the desire to completely empty my wallet for a woman begging, but then, at the same time, I see a white couple at Ikea, their American accents grating on me: sure, I bet they can afford to get anything they want. Must be nice. I'm rich or I'm poor, depending whom I looking at. Things were easier when I never thought about this.

Waking up

I woke up sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning to the sound of Yoko shouting out my name in another room--my body full of adrenaline and intense pain in my left hand. I was standing, but I quickly slumped down and my brain went through the process of orienting itself: a process that takes less than a second, but feels much longer. I'm not wearing a shirt, I must have been sleeping: it's hot, right, I'm in Malaysia. I'm terrified, I thought I was dying, I was being crushed: Yoko must be in the other room sleeping with the girls, I must have been sleepwalking. I touched my left hand in the darkness: I was bleeding, why was I bleeding? My brain went back to the dream: you were being crushed and you were trying to get up and out of something. I must have stood on my bed and put my hand into the metal ceiling fan.

I went into the bathroom: my hand was killing me, but the cut didn't look bad. I got it to stop bleeding and sat on the toilet seat, letting the adrenaline get out of my system. It was a death dream: I have them every so often and sometimes they are more vivid than others. I don't usually remember them except that I wake right at the moment I would die. Although I suspect my real death will come after a long struggle with colon cancer, in my dreams I die being crushed or buried, and it's always terrifying.

I've been thinking about truth this week and how I see autobiography in the way that I do it on this blog. My favourite line in the Bible is when Pilate, having listened to Jesus say that 'Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice', rolls his eyes essentially, asking, 'What is truth?' (John 18:37-38) A brilliant response, and a brilliant answer to questions about the truth in reporting about one's life. What is truth.

Anything you do in Malaysia, when done to the backdrop of the Maghrib prayer around 7:30, feels like postcard come to life, the kind of quintessential Malaysian experience you want to bottle up and send home. Today, the call to prayer came as I was adding leaves to a burning pile of trash outside Auntie and Uncle's house, the kids playing in the street. Our Chinese neighbours coming home in their beat-up 1990 Honda Civic on its second engine and there was a moment of the perfect Malaysian multicultural experience--four countries, four languages, five ethnicities--pulling rambutan out of a tree. The story can stop there: it's enough.
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