16 July 2013

Institutions

Istanbul, March 2011

A strange feeling of nostalgia now in Malaysia, nostalgia for a place that I have no plans to leave, but still, the sense that the end is inevitable. Today, I climbed like a bear into my swimming trunks (my 'costume', the British say) and slipped into the water of the Y.M. Tengku Tan Sri Dato' Seri Ahmad Rithauddeen Sports Complex swimming pool, tucked into a hill covered in palm trees.

Swimming, like running, lends itself to strings of thoughts that are only tenuously related, but make sense in your own mind. I thought about gaining weight, about possible universes that I could inhabit, possible futures for our girls. I thought about how annoyed my wife seemed as I left this morning and how unable I am to express myself in anything but writing. I thought about looking across the park in front of our terrace house and seeing Mia at the top of the slide.

The moment, of course, the moment is worth catching and pinning down: my fat, foreign white body floating thousands, tens of thousands, of miles away from where it landed.

One lesson learned in Malaysia, a surprising one, about how institutions function and how responsibility is dissipated. Institutions are not pyramid structures, with people on the top: individuals function with different levels of power, but the institution itself is never dependent on any individual so no individual is ever responsible for the actions of the institution. The individual plays a role in the institution: whatever plan or goal the individual has coming into the institution, it is carefully and slowly bent until the individual fits the role they are needed to fill. This is fine, of course, if you believe in what the institution is doing, but when you don't, you grow to resent it and what it is requiring of you.

Individuals have very little power in institutions; you need more than one person to make a change. I have never much seen the value of a union until now. The institution reinforces the same message: Each one of the individuals is replaceable, one at a time. Without any collective bargaining apparatus, you are only you. Your only recourse is to leave the institution — you rarely change it. Lesson learned.

Before dawn, before the fajr prayer on Monday, Auntie and Uncle left us for Vietnam where Uncle is taking a new post. On Sunday night, we went to their house to say goodbye. Uncle gave me some Ramadan sweets wrapped in bamboo leaves and they gave us all the things the girls had left in their house over the last seven months. No one cried: Yoko hugged and kissed Auntie and the girls hugged and kissed everyone. We left, as we have so many times, with food and the girls begging to stay. We stopped at the end of the street to wave goodbye to them, probably for the last time.

For whatever failures I have had in this misadventure, I have accomplished the one thing I wanted: giving my children an experience of Islam as it is. I want them to remember that Auntie said she prayed for them and that there is no compulsion in religion. I want them to remember the azan and appropriate it the way I do: a sweet and clear reminder throughout the day to stop, clean your body and your heart, and remember what is most important to you. If they can remember that, I've accomplished what I hoped I would by coming here.

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