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 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


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.

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.

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

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


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 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

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.

"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

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

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

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 certainty 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.

21 September 2013

Mid-Autumn Festival

I said I had lost energy for taking pictures and then the Mid-Autumn Festival came.

Mid-Autumn Festival Mid-Autumn Festival Mid-Autumn Festival Mid-Autumn Festival

17 September 2013

What we show and don't

I don't know when I stopped taking photos of things in Malaysia. Yoko still has energy for it, but I don't.  On Sunday, we took out some Japanese college girls that Yoko had met at the mall. 18, 19 years old, the two of them took pictures of everything they saw in the market, and I watched them and watched the Malaysians watching them. Naomi and Mei watched as an old Chinese man pulled apart a chicken, cover in blood. Naomi was stoic, but realistic, 'It's okay because we eat it.' Mei was mesmerised, looking carefully at the cut neck. 

I'm happy to give this to them, to my children. Let them see the world as it is.

The Japanese college girls were energetic in a way that I had forgotten Japanese women of that age can be. At the same time both adults and children. Yoko kept buying them different kinds of food: try this, drink that. Naomi and Mei and Mia bounded around, full of endless energy too, but I felt, again, sapped and flaccid, as I have for a while in Malaysia now. I want to see it as foreign, for the smells and tastes to be new again.

I say that, but things still surprise me. Last night, the mid-autumn moon cake festival that our Chinese neighbours celebrated. Coming home from the new Speedmart 99, I met our neighbours walking up the road carrying paper lanterns hung on sticks. Other neighbours bought moon cake that Naomi attempted to cut evenly into five pieces.

Naomi and Mei continue to impress: saying goodbye to a vender selling us food at the hawker stalls, Naomi greeted the man in Chinese and he smiled broadly. She said it so naturally, telling Yoko all the things she had learned in school and then counting to 10 in Spanish. The world is so big for them. There's so much out there.

At the foot of the hill at Tanarata today, Naomi hugged me once and then, before going, came back for another hug. 'I love you/ stay with me' I wrote in my Bahktin poem. She walked off quickly then, up the hill, diligently pulling her rolling suitcase. I love you, I wanted to shout out again: I love you.

This all weighs heavily on me as I think about my next move and what my agency in the system can accomplish in terms of change. For now, at least, it looks like the choices in the immediate future will be clear enough: hard in the short term, but best in the long term. We need to now accept the different versions of the world as they are, not as I want it to be or think they should be. At least I have the agency to reject the most onerous version: it's only a matter of deciding which one it is.

14 September 2013

The call to prayer

Naomi's school, in the middle of a palm oil plantation, is a special place. Set between highways, when you exit into it, the congestion and frantic pace of the KL suburbs falls behind trees, like you are being protected. Naomi and I arrive everyday around seven twenty and walk up the hill to her classroom, past a pond where a hornbill landed earlier this week. Naomi is completely at ease: if she sees a friend, she lets go of my hand and is happy to walk to her room without me. Every day, I stand at the bottom of the hill, watching her walk up and away from me, before getting back to our silver Hyundai Matrix and starting my day.

The school has been a kind of mercy: I had been gearing up for struggle, but there has been no struggle. The money keeps flowing out, but some things are much easier to pay for than others.

And then one more mercy. Kajang Stadium, which we have driven past for the last eight months, is actually a full running track with an acceptable play area attached. We've taken to heading there after dinner to let the children play until sunset, the Maghrib azan heard loudly from the mosque across the street and across from the electronics store. The weather has either been cooler or we have gotten used to the heat, and the early evening is glorious. Yoko and I stand at different places in the stadium, watching the children. 

The misadventure in Malaysia is at the crossroads, and the feeling that I had in March, that everything would go back in boxes and we move on, feels suddenly very real, like that potential universe is just about to swallow us. Malaysia, like a spurned lover, might still have its way: who can say goodbye to this so easily, I wonder, looking up at a minaret against the sunset. Some things are easier said than done. 

08 September 2013

First Day of School

With a remarkable lack of drama, Naomi transitioned to the world of international primary school. One small bout of crying, and then only strength. Seeing my children grow into strong, courageous young women has been a clear success amid other failures this year. I suddenly feel the urgency of being with her before she gets too old. All three of them. 

29 August 2013


In front of our terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, there are trees in the park. On Monday night, dinner eaten, the children watching Japanese cartoons in the background, I sat out under the awning, filled my pipe, and smoked. The pipe comes and goes in life: I smoked when I was completing my PhD thesis, in angry walks down by the river across the football pitch from the Stuart Hall Building. This fit of smoking, over the last two months, began while Yoko and the kids were away, when I bought tobacco in Suria, the glossy mall in KLCC. RM22, a kind of selfish treat, I thought at the time.

After the sunset, but before the final call to prayer, the atmosphere is perfect — the streetlamp in front of the house casting a third-world light that you notice when you first arrive in the country, but becomes normal the more you are in it. I looked up at the tree and thought about how long it had been there — was it older than me?

On Tuesday, Naomi and I will go again to her new school for orientation and on Wednesday she will start, and I am dreading this. Another change in an unending series of changes, although Yoko assures me that if we, her parents, are okay, she will be okay. This won't be the case in three years time, when she is ten, but for now we can control it and make it okay. I want to believe this, but I have doubts. Her life has been in non-stop flux, new friends and languages. How does anyone remain happy throughout these changes: I map my own insecurity on her experience. Perhaps being a child is easier.

Security: a kind of half truth to our children about how the world really is.

After riding my motorbike on Tuesday, being liberated, I was brought down quickly. I passed an accident on the road home and remembered one thing about riding the bike I hadn't fully realised: the ride in to work was much easier than the ride out. A half circle of people around a mangled Yamaha Wave — a police car with lights on. No one was dead, from what I could tell, but an omen among good portents stands out.

I dread dragging my daughter back to the school again, but what needs to be done, needs to be done. Have I learned anything in the last eight months: it's worth asking that question outloud. I ask it all the time in my head, when I'm sending the children up to go to bed, or walking out to lock the gate, or waiting for the bus. Put this all in context for me.

All this talk of the moment around me now; just live the moment, don't pull anything close or push anything away. Cross-legged on the concrete in front of the house, for a moment, the peace that passes understanding, the peace of being present in the moment, the past and future forgotten, came upon me. Bathed in light and smoke, looking up. Yes, I see, I have a glimpse. There is nothing to do but be here.

26 August 2013

I will not lose, ever

Cresting the hill leading up to Nottingham outside of Broga, the sun streaming through the palm trees, the hum of the motorbike underneath me: if this is not a return to the original promise and joy of Malaysia, I'm not sure what is. I got on my bike this morning out of convenience, not courage: I have to go to the bank and Yoko needs the car, so I couldn't take the bus. Still, getting back on the bike, the feeling of riding out of Taman Sri Minang, past the pack of feral dogs and one of our Chinese Uncles waving at me, was a kind of performance of hope.

This weekend, we went to the Pearl Avenue apartments, a new apartment block being built in Kajang. For RM1300, you can have everything you would want: swimming pool, club house, aircon, stunning views of the city. I stood on the balcony looking out, the wilderness suddenly fading behind me. The kids loved it, and the agent and I talked about how much it would be to move it: what we would need to do.
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
Malaysia has taught me this in the last month: if you can't say 'never mind' to anything you encounter, you can't make it here. Fat white men don't say, 'Never mind' to the same things Malaysians say 'Never mind' to, and we think that this difference means we are morally superior. Fat white men do not throw away aluminium cans in bins.

Never mind: crouching down, coaxing a fire of grass clippings while the Isha call to prayer rang out, I connected again. My knees and hands were dirty: Mia wouldn't sleep. I sat on the sofa, drinking whiskey and watching TV. Yoko was there; we were just sitting, the door to the house open. I walked out to check the lock at the gate before going to bed.

20 August 2013

A newer normal

Last week, after the Bird Park, we retreated to the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, licked our metaphorical and literal wounds and repeated the Malaysian mantra: never mind, la. Never mind. Let's try again, let's be better today than we were last week. The girls are at an age where they adore me. When push comes to shove, of course, they prefer their mother, they will go with their mother, but they still want to held and carried. They think daddy is brilliant and strong and capable. The other parents will know how hard it is to appreciate this when it is happening, rather than after it has passed; life has a way of never allowing you to appreciate the moment, except as a memory. Still, this last week, I was able to appreciate it. A blessing. A mercy.

Sometimes stepping back gives perspective, a lack of focus on a series of negative moments to find the good ones. Yoko and I and the kids, for example, sit in Starbucks in Midvalley and for a moment I think of Malaysia as it is intended to be: an outside terrace with fans. Arab men with veiled women and smartly dressed Chinese Malaysian men in black leather shoes. I sit back and try not to think too much about what counts as a place I can relax. The girls are nothing but happy, 'Today also a lucky day?' they say as I take three days off after the long weekend to buy them candy. Yes, today also. 

Naomi has the most concern for the family: like my older brother, she mediates the world of the children and the world of the adults. When my brother went to college, in 1998, the house dissolved without him. The weekend that Diana was killed in a car crash, yes, I can remember it all now if I think about it. Naomi is becoming this person in our family. Reasonable and careful. She pestered Neal, who came this last week, to ask her questions — quiz her spelling ability and then asked for praise, 'I'm good at spelling, right?' 

Now, next week, we will abandon her again at a new school, and I wonder how long it will take her to adjust. I keep thinking that something will happen that will mean she doesn't have to go and can stay at the neighbourhood tadika until the end of the year, that the ticket out of Malaysia will come in a chocolate bar wrapping that I discover walking home from work. It hasn't and isn't coming this week or next, so we will keep going through the motions, lying to her that stability is coming. The truth: No, sweetheart, you will have to do this again, I imagine. At least one more time. I promise we'll settle next time.

The readjustment wears on me more than on her. Kids are resilient, or at least we all say to each other, but no one really knows what they mean or has any empirical evidence for it. Children forget like I've really forgotten how it was when my brother left. I remember sitting around the kitchen table and everyone being profoundly sad and angry, but I can't remember if we shouted or what we said or what was said. 

I suspect the children will remember candy and the massive mall here — how daddy promised to buy a ukulele at Christmas and how we were always planning on going back to the UK anyway. Yoko and I will remember the uncertainty and the pressure to keep more money coming in than going out, but Naomi and Mei and Mia, with some luck, will remember how their daddy picked them up in the crowd and kissed their cheeks: told them, 'I love you. I love you' again and again, like it was a promise for a better future.

13 August 2013


The story splintered over the last ten days, in ways that I feel uncomfortable following. The narrative of this blog avoids certain topics: it gives the appearance of transparency, while keeping certain things out of sight, or hidden in plain sight. 'Here' — or physical location more generally — is always a metonymy for emotional or mental location. Here is never just the chair that you're sitting in, it's your whole embodied experience of here. Take that as a lesson.

On Thursday afternoon, the first day of my week of holidays, I walked through the KL bird park, bloodied, dehydrated, and exhausted. My youngest daughter was clinging again to my wife, who looked and looks one step away from collapsing. None of this is metaphorical, all actual: real blood, real dehydration, real screaming. I argue with a woman in a tudong, Is there really no drinking water in the park? Only the mineral water marked up 4 times? It's hard to tell who is more frustrated with whom.

I had returned from Germany feeling positive, but lasted only for a moment. In the taxi ride up from the airport, passing the mosques and chatting with the driver, I felt almost like I was in a foreign country again. The house, however, felt familiar; a kind of kennel. Not a jail: a place you are kept out of love. The Muslims in the neighbourhood broke fast on Wednesday with feasting and fireworks; we broke it with fighting. The next morning, the residue of anger and exhaustion hung on. The family couldn't stay in the overheated terrace house in Taman Sri Minang another day, but there was nowhere to go. Let's go to the Bird Park. Let's try that.

I was bloodied, actually bloodied, from falling in a hole, an actual, physical hole. Walking in front of Kuala Lumpur station, I had peeled my youngest daughter off of my wife again and was walking ahead to get her to forget that she was not with her mother. Then, suddenly, I am on the ground, my glasses have been knocked off. Mia is lying on her back, she's hit her head and is screaming. I try to stand, but can't. Yoko's asking if I'm okay.

Tense shifts to present for immediacy in narrative. My dad, telling me the story of seeing his uncle burned alive, also shifted into the present tense.

I was, thankfully, more or less okay. I was scraped badly, but not deeply, not actually cut. We went into the station, the thousands of Malay men clamouring for tickets, and the call to prayer of the national mosque on the other side. A man in a white robe, the station master, mopped up my scraps with another man in a backpack.There's a grate missing on one of the sewage drains out there, I said. Yes, the station master said, You must be careful. It was, as everything has been in this country, my fault: it's your fault for not knowing that you would not get paid. It's your fault for giving the police officer money when he asks. You shouldn't do that; you should know better. You should know there are holes in the sidewalks.

The story just trailed off there. Nothing happened, no one fixed the hole, no one took responsibility: we were pointed to the Bird Park, where we were headed before I fell. I limped a little, but by the end of the day, my ankle could hold my weight. The scrap slowly healed, is healing. We took a taxi back to town, and everything was forgotten.

Now, we are waiting -- for the holiday to end, for Naomi's school to start, for the first round of possibilities in the UK to go through or come back negative. Then we will re-evaluate, see where we should invest next. For my part, I finally bought shorts and t-shirts: clothes that fit and are comfortable in this climate. In Germany, I staggered around in my clothes from England which are too small now, particularly when I am eating non-stop. Come Autumn, I will, again, get my body back. Come next week, when I go back to work and can forget about heat.

04 August 2013

Grey light

The morning light seemed grey until I just opened the curtain now and looked out. Yes, it will be another glorious German day, but one that will be cut short by a plane ride back.

I left the conference feeling profoundly uneasy about the choices I've made in the last year. I've said that feeling duped is shameful and disheartening, but that's how I feel. I feel duped. Righting the ship shouldn't be impossible, I am still young and none of my choices have taken me too far away from where I wanted to go. Now though, to focus.

31 July 2013

Forgetting the heat

The heat of Malaysia can be forgotten in a moment. I step off the plane in Amsterdam and suddenly, my body has forgotten.

Letchu, our mustachio'd Indian driver, picked me up much earlier than he needed to, well before my flight was to leave. But being Malaysia, I didn't want to risk it. If given the chance to escape, all contingencies must be taken into account. Traffic, of course. The taxi breaking down. A bridge being out. A pack of feral dogs. The mind comes up with endless scenarios. Letchu came on time though and the children cried a bit because they wanted to go too, but I kissed them all goodbye and got into the car, wearing my jeans, my European clothes, the ones that I feel like me in, albeit tighter and too hot in the Malaysian evening haze.

Two hours before I left, I had another run-in with the institution, another list of people, none with any responsibility, screwing up another payment that I had needed ten hours earlier. I sent angry emails all up and down the reporting line, exhausting myself and getting an angry response from the person most culpable, denying responsibility and pointing me to an email that didn't say what she thought it said. 

More resentment: taking money is easy for the institution, giving it is an impossibility.

I left the house hating them for screwing it up, hating them for making me tell my wife again that there will be less money than we thought. Why? There is no simple answer. Nothing can be done. Get in a taxi and leave: the kids begging to go with.

The steps to leaving are drawn out over hours, but when I finally sat down on the plane, I believed it. No one had screwed up my reservation. The seat was what I wanted. Now, Germany: everything you image it to be. Ham and beer and brilliant people. I feel like I am on a prison break, but that Malaysia is pursuing me and will take me back in a moment. This world is not for you now, it's saying. I feel it coming up behind me. 

29 July 2013

Visions and barking

Dreams and visions: the last week was filled with them. I started to write them out here, but they felt angry and bitter. A year of writing about resentment is nothing in the grand scheme of things, a 'season' in life, my former Evangelical self would assure me. Crying out. We had metaphors for this as well. 

For all the talk of Ramadan happening outside of my perception, the longer it goes on, the more I can see it. At fast food restaurants, mothers are feeding cheerful, oblivious children piles of junk food, while looking on lovingly. A man walking through the mall holding an ice cream cone on the way to a child. I am in the middle of it, sitting in McDonalds, awkwardly drinking coffee: insult to injury, they accidentally give us two ice cream cones instead of just one for Naomi. I swear to god I only ordered one. But now, of course, I have to eat it, what am I going to do. Throw it away? I'm not fasting; I'm not Muslim. I want to say this outloud, announce it like it hasn't already been announced. It's okay, everyone, don't worry, I'm not Muslim. I see a fat Chinese man eating ice cream, and we share a knowing glance. Look at us, we're not Muslim.

Am I the only one embarrassed? I shamefully ask for another refill of coffee from a woman in tudong. I feel like a child: only the children are eating, the weak ones. Look at me: it's obvious I don't belong. Give me access to coffee and ice cream, but also withhold my access to something I can't perceive. What am I trading this coffee for? Fat white men aren't supposed to think about this: we just do what we do and don't think about the gaze going both ways.

We found a Ramadan bazaar nearby, filled with all the smells and excitement of a festive season. Chicken, in particular: fabulous chicken. Everyone seems happy. In Malaysia, they make a sandwich called roti john which is just a long bun filled mostly with ketchup and sauce, and a small amount of meat. But 'John': John is the generic fat white man name. Children call me John; every fat white man is John. Walking past a stall at the bazaar, one of the men selling it has a flash of brilliance in his mind: calls out to me, 'John!' (laughing) 'Roti! John, roti! Roti John!' and they laugh and laugh and I pretend I don't hear.

We pack up the chicken and go home and eat when we are ready, not when the call to prayer comes. In the house, I can feel shame too, if I want to. Everyone is waiting to eat, but we are not. A whole social system we are free from, but not really free from. Of course I can eat: I'm not Muslim. 

I will go back to Europe for the week, to my people, the European linguists. This whole social structure of the fast will dissipate among blonde-haired, blue-eyed Johns like me. I will no longer be fat and white and a gluttonous child. I will have the advantage again; the fasters will become oddities. I will be normal, just like that, and I can go from the one being looked at to the one looking.

23 July 2013

The glowering

A series of thoughts today, unrelated.

In Port Dickson, we were guided to the ocean, and when standing ankle deep in the warm water, Yoko and my eyes met like we had the same thought: this is what we had expected from Malaysia. I laid down in the water and floated on my back. It was clean, no rubbish. The smell of Sumatra burning over the horizon.

This is one Malaysia, the one closer to what I expected when we came.

And then there is another: next to the car garage, some Malay guys have put up a banner and started washing vans, cars, and motorbikes. They are there all day, mostly sitting and waiting. Yesterday, as I came up the road, there was a group of Malay women walking up from the hospital: nurses in white coats and tudong. The men, as the women passed, leered and cat-called. I was behind the women and had an immediate flash of anger, locking eyes with one of the men who suddenly didn't know where to look. Group of women or fat, white man: which is more interesting? I glowered, as you do, passive and aggressive. He looked away and then looked back and then away and then back, realising that I was now staring at him. By the time I passed, all the car washers were silently staring at me, glowering at them. The moment passed — I passed them and the women and got to the top of the hill, and no one learned anything.

Ramadan creeps on and on, still beyond the edges of perception. On the 7:15 bus, at 7:30ish, a phone rings, the bus driver has a happy conversation, and starts pulling out some food. The bus creaks and bends and sways for another five minutes, and he starts guzzling a big bottle of water. At the next stop, I smell a cigarette: think, some asshole student is smoking here? No, it's the bus driver, smoking and spitting out the window... I get home and send an angry e-mail to transportation at the University; no one learns anything.

Ramadan is for visions. Sitting on the bus, another colleague gets on and passing me says, You're leaving: I've had the same dream three nights in a row — you and your family with bags. Where are we going, I want to ask: where did the dream say we were going?

This is what has been happening at night, apparently: Malaysia has been speaking to my colleagues about me in visions, asking me to go. This is why the night parties, the endless string of iftar meals have not materialised. Instead, visions and barking: I wake to a pack of feral dogs fighting in the park, Yoko standing at the window watching. I stand too, look out, mutter under my breath, Jesus, shut the fuck up, and regret cursing in front of my wife.

Malaysia, if you can talk to my colleagues in dreams, let me talk back to you. I miss you already: when the car battery dies, another series of kind neighbours come out. Saturday, one neighbour takes me to where the car is stranded in the city centre and helps me push it out and jumps it, smiling and chatting about race in a frank way the whole time. And then last night, when the car is dead again, another couple of Uncles, a Chinese one and an Indian one, happily help me pull out the dead battery and replace it. Dead, la; need new one, la; never mind.

Never mind: a kind of Malaysian mantra. My daughters say it now too. Never mind. Whatever is troubling you or broken or in need of improvement, fixing: never mind la. A colleague calls it the Malaysian charm, a shrug. A car passes me today with a boy hanging out the window like a dog. Never mind, nothing bad ever happens.

16 July 2013


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.

15 July 2013


I have been waiting and waiting to experience Ramadan, but now that it's here, I've felt like it's happening around the corners, right outside of my eyesight. On Saturday, we went to the big shopping mall and the food court was essentially closed except for two or three places feeding the Chinese and the other kafir. At night, twice now, I have gone out in search of night bazaars, but it has been largely quiet in Kajang. No endless party through the night — just long queues of weary looking people at the KFC. Where is the clarity? Where are the endless invitations to iftar, the dates? Instead, I have again been sucked into some alternate universe where I can't seem to stop myself from eating, like I have taken over for the whole country.

Fasting is not something you do, of course, it's something you avoid doing. So there's nothing to see. The azan for maghrib seems louder than normal. I have this sense of communal accomplishment when it comes, like we have made it through the day, despite my lack of involvement. Auntie and Uncle's house is full of life and excitement, from what I can tell across the alley. Still, there is less to be seen than I hoped...

10 July 2013

Bucketed suffering

I'm sure I've used this picture before, of the bucketed Christ perpetually suffering on Gozo in Malta. I always loved this picture because I can see the Maltese light in the way I remember it, reflecting off the limestone into the blue sky and water. Golden and dry: bright but not hot.

The things I have lost living in Malaysia now include a sense of weather beyond it being hot, or different degrees of hot. The Autumn is not coming: I should give up on that hope. Ramadan is coming, not the Autumn.

A lack of positive narratives continues to hold me back from writing. I am trying to see the way forward, but not getting there. The resentment keeps rising: resentment results from both real and imagined wrong done, Wikipedia says. Look to the bucketed Christ for answers. 

03 July 2013

Six months and 31 years

From the second year of university through to January of the next year, Tsukuru Tazaki lived, thinking only of dying.
This is the first line of Haruki Murakami's new novel, leading into the sort of navel-gazing introspection about death that I love. Murakami does it in such a stark, minimalistic way. Murkami doesn't say, 'Tazaki was miserable'. He says, 'Tazaki woke everyday, sat on the bench waiting for the train, went to school. When he was hungry, he ate noodles in the school cafeteria. After his classes finished, he went home, sat on the floor and thought about dying. This continued for quite some time.' Murakami shows us the life a miserable person and we don't need him to tell us, 'He is miserable.' The truth is obvious in the actions: faith without works is dead.

I love this about Murakami, but I love it even more about Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese people. Love hangs in the air; it is the air. How had I forgotten that in the last two months. Murakami explains my life to me again. The action of love is the evidence of love. My wife stepping out into the smoky air to say, 'I love you' in English is a grace to me, a fat white man, who needs to hear it, to be reminded of it. Murakami shows me that the things that are the realest are the things that go unsaid, that don't need to be said: a whole race and culture of silence that I desperately miss. Looking at a map of Tokyo, trying to remember where Waseda is, all the streets are vividly alive in my memory. How many times had I walked through Shinjuku station to meet someone I loved.

This silence isn't, of course, wholly Japanese: Hopper makes this same point in his paintings of people tensly sitting together. My new Twitter  friend/Hopper scholar says, '#EdwardHopper's genius is that he depicted deadly silence, so thick you could cut it with a knife.' Yes, of course: how had I missed this. What is true in art is true in life. It has to be.

Two anniversaries ticked past in the silence of last week: I turned 31 on the 27th and the 29th marked six months in Malaysia. Birthdays, as I get older, feel more like impositions on others, particularly my wife, adding unnecessary tasks and expectations. It was nice though: my sister-in-law and my niece and nephew were here, and we had pizza and I got a little drunk after the kids went to bed. I took the next day off to pick up my brother from the airport.

Six months of life in Malaysia was supposed to bring with it some stability, but we are still on the margin. It's easy to sacrifice — or rather, to ask others to sacrifice — when there aren't better options in front of you, or it is clear what the future holds. The same old story. I feel like I've bought a stock that plummeted immediately, and I wonder whether I should cut my losses. And then, when I am just ready to sell, ready to give in, the stock ticks up a point and another point, and I think, well maybe I should hold onto it another month.

Bad metaphors, yes; opaque, yes. There is no worse feeling than being duped, or rather thinking you've been duped. Long narratives must either be happy narratives or hard narratives with happy endings. If you can't see one or the other, you always feel the need to flip the story, wondering what, if anything, should be changed. Because if anything is true about storytelling it's this: if you look carefully enough at a scene, you can create a narrative around it, bending the truth.

30 June 2013

The Œuvre of Edward Hopper: Day 30

I came to Edward Hopper's work in college, when I was working on an honour's project about the disappearance of my great-great grandfather in the fifties. John Omerza, it was said, disappeared from Ely, Minnesota without a trace, a whole series of rumours following after him. I knew the version of the story in which he drown in quick sand in the wilderness of the boundary waters where Ely is sat, on the edge of the American frontier.

Hopper's eye is drawn to people looking out of windows. I love how you can always see the sun in a Hopper painting, even though it is not in the frame.

I deliberately chose a few of the paintings I dislike of Hopper's (see Day 7 and Day 12); ones in which his people are embarrassingly bad. I understand the point: the figure as an idea. But I don't see the idea, not like I see the ideas in Rothko. I just see a mannequin.

I also didn't choose Hopper's most famous painting, the one I have seen the most in person at the Art Institute in Chicago with Bacon, and that Gustave Caillebotte painting that Heather and I sat in front of in the Summer of 1999. We were there with my parents and sister, I remember: I have a picture pasted in a journal from the day. These others I don't remember seeing in person, but there must have been one or two I have seen along the way, in New York or London.

Hopper, in my mind, is a great artist, but not all of his art is great. I hope this month has made that point clearly.

26 June 2013

24 June 2013

Having an eternal prospective

A tweet earlier today reminded me of something I used to hear and say when I was religious: We must have an eternal perspective. Washing the dishes, looking out into the alley, I remembered this phrase verbatim: what a ridiculous, silly, arrogant thing to think you can do. Have an eternal perspective.

Taman Sri Minang woke in a haze, fires in Sumatra burning, reducing — as a friend and colleague noted on Facebook — an ancient rainforest to an acrid stench. Everything is covered in grey dust and you aren't supposed to go outside when it is at its worst. We cleaned for most of Sunday and then left to Auntie and Uncle's house for a going-away party. The smell is incredible; the whole world burning just beyond the horizon.

In the heat of the weekend (tasks: mopping and napping, waiting for the night to come), I told Yoko what I realised while she was gone: we are going to be here, in Malaysia, until something moves us. I've stopped looking for a job and being able to imagine going somewhere else. It's been six months now, and I've started leaning into the curve, rather than trying to slow down, to stop. The fundamentals don't change with changes in scenery: move enough and you learn that. Like a stain you wash and think you've removed, but reappears. Any problem you have will follow you wherever you go: the weather is not the problem, the salary is not the problem. You can exacerbate problems and ease them, but you can't solve them without solving them. A tautology, sure, but tautologies are always right. Perfectly balanced equations, perfectly true.

The world may be burning, but that doesn't mean the end of anything. As I left to pick up my brother and his family at the airport last night, Yoko followed me, reaching out to say, 'I love you' at the threshold of the house. I thought suddenly, morbidly, that if I died, that moment would hang, perfectly, a kind of brief summit in a year of valleys. Kisses under smouldering incandescent light, the moon coming closer and closer, touching the treetops.