02 April 2013

Threading the needle

Traveling to Malaysia

Walking by the Oriental Crystal Hotel, the place we first stayed when we came to Kajang, I said to Naomi, If we go up those stairs, and say we have a reservation, I bet there is a reservation for us. And I bet the reservation is for two weeks and if we stay two weeks, a taxi will come and take us to the airport, and there will be plane tickets for us, back to the UK. We will get back and come out of Terminal 3 at Heathrow, into the early-April British snow, and our car will be idling, waiting. And we'll take the M25 to the M1, exit in Milton Keynes, and drive home to Booker Ave. The door will be open and we'll go upstairs: all of our things will be there and we will fall asleep in our own beds. And when we wake up, we will only remember Malaysia like you remember a dream. Like it never happened, did it?

Some narratives are stories, some are just information to sort through—maths to do over and over again on mobile phone calculators. Known knowns. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns. Malaysia is full of the second and third categories. Yoko calls: Mei has cut her hand, should I go to the hospital? And I am now that person I always feared I would be: Can we afford to pay for it out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed sometime in the future?

Coming to Malaysia, I felt like there were three scales of success, based on how long we could end up staying. The first one was three months: this would have happened if life here proved to be impossible and we needed to suddenly up and leave. The second was for one year: that life proved to be manageable for the medium term, but serious problems remained either in terms of the kids education, my job, finances, or our overall happiness. The third was for three years, the full term of my contract.

We have now made it through three months, steaming towards four. This is a kind of achievement, a success, I think, although not that surprising. There was a lot of momentum built up. Still: I have had my doubts, mostly related to the finances, which have been difficult. I'm actually not sure how we have done it: I look at the money coming in and the money going out and it doesn't make sense. Just one month at a time for now: Yoko and the kids continue to sacrifice despite all my promises that it would be easier here, better here. I feel like I lied to to them. It's one thing to suffer for yourself, for your own career: but to ask those you love to do the same. I keep saying it will get better. I keep hoping it will get better.

We are getting to a crucial step which will really determine if we stay for one or three years. Naomi has been shortlisted at the local International school we had applied to and the school we had moved to Kajang to attend. Not a true International school, but really an English medium school with Malaysian staff and, therefore, potentially affordable. She will have her test on 12 April and then we will know for sure what our choices are. For (white, Westerner) foreigners in Malaysia, getting access to education is a privilege, one that your company buys for you; it is illegal, after all, to attend local schools. This is not an issue for people employed with multi-national corporations, but it is a massive problem for our little family, as my employer only subsidises a part of these costs. I had expected the costs to be negligible, but as things are in Malaysia, they are more expensive than you think when you're making a local salary. Forget USD, and GBP, and JPY: you're making RM. That's the only number that matters. Add to that any number of hidden costs and reimbursements which come on time sometimes, and other times not. It's a constant stress: you're constantly e-mailing, phoning, stopping by: I'm sorry, just to check up on this, was my claim filed? No? Can it be done today please? And you are then the complaining fat white man: so spoiled, such a high salary and still pushing, pushing, pushing.

I'm constantly thinking about it, with my mobile phone out: how much money will I have, how much will come in, what happens if it's late, or if there's an accident where we absolutely need to go to the hospital and need cash on hand, or if, if, if. And even the known-knowns are troubling. In August, I will need to put up almost two months of my take-home pay to register her in school. As Malaysia is, some of the money should be reimbursed, but when and how much, no one can ever say for sure. Yoko's tired of me talking about it: it's all I ever talk about.

I took some part-time work at the University leaving me with no summer holiday and an added teaching load when I should be doing any number of other things. But hopefully the work will take some of the stress off of our day-to-day life. We, Yoko and I, keep saying this is the best thing–making this work is the best thing.

I'm optimistic that things will, as they do in Malaysia, work out. Naomi will sit the test and I will pay some ridiculous amount of my pay this month for that privilege because I have faith and have not given up yet. Still, that reverse reality I began this narrative with gnaws at me: an envelope full of passports and airline tickets, some other multi-verse, some other waking dream, a plane ride away. 
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