28 February 2013

My motorbike returns

Fat white men on motorbikes are not a common sight in Malaysia. Instead, most people who hear that I ride a motorbike are quick to tell me how likely it is that I will die. This is, of course, well meaning: the underlying message is to be careful, but I have been thinking quite a bit about the motorbike and class and safety as I speed up Jalan Broga towards the university, the sun rising over the mountains and palms.

Motorbikes are, I would agree, a more dangerous form of transportation, particularly in comparison to cars and it does seem that if you can afford to get a car, most people do. But many people can't, and as I pull up to stoplights and look around at the people on bikes who congregate in front of the cars with me, the class distinction is clear. The understatement of the year: I don't belong with these guys. These are working men, sometimes with girlfriends or wives and/or kids on the bike with them. They are young and dressed to work with their hands. They aren't in cars because they can't afford them: that safety mechanism isn't available to them. Uncle actually told me that motorbikes are good for people making less than RM 2,000 a month. Everyone else has a car.

This is a kind of protectionism, I think, something I wrote about when my house in the UK was broken into more than two years ago. The world grows dangerous and we build higher walls. The roads are dangerous and we buy bigger cars. The schools are bad and we go to different schools.

I don't think there's anything noble about me on my motorbike: I'm one accident or good scare away from giving it up. Still, all this detachment and protection bothers me to no end: build the walls higher and higher and you can't see over them. I'd rather die among the people than live alone.

26 February 2013

Save your marriage, buy a car

There's an episode of Seinfeld I was thinking of yesterday, the one where George is working for a company and they mistakenly think he's handicapped, but when they find out he's not, they do everything they can to try to get him to quit. The whole episode is about the company going through extraordinary lengths to stop him from working. He doesn't quit though, continuing to show up and call his boss every morning, reporting to work.

This week has been a disaster, but rather than not blog, I'm going to ignore the stories I can't tell here, and focus on the stories that I can tell.

I was saying all along that getting a car would be the last big thing we need to make our life here. After weeks of hand-wringing about it, going back and forth to car lots, listening to lines like 'I'm a Muslim, I cannot lie' from a man with a lazy eye, on Friday it became clear: we needed to get this done, and we needed to get this done soon, if the Pihlaja family was going to survive our Malaysian misadventure.

Not having a car in Malaysia is certainly doable: everyone who says you need a car here doesn't think creatively enough. You don't need one, but you would be mad, with a wife and three kids living on the edge of the jungle, not to get one if you can afford it. I am mad, certainly, but also eager to keep the peace as much as I can, so Saturday we set out again, into the heat, to give it a go: another round of bad, expensive used cars, all either out of our price range or in terrible shape.

The Malaysian car industry, which I know more about now then I care to, is highly regulated. The government wants you to buy cheaply made Malaysian cars which are over-priced and glued together, and they tax the hell out of imports, discouraging you from looking at anything else. My neighbour has a 1990 Camry which is now on its second engine and which he is extremely proud of. I was shown a 1997 Honda CRV with 250,000kms on it for RM25,000 (USD$7,500). It's insane, it doesn't make any sense, but this is Malaysia and applying American/British/Japanese rules is even more insane. It is the car economy here: take it or leave it.

I had resolved to get a Malaysian car, accepting my fate and thinking, Well, even if it's a shitty car, at least it has a high resale value, but on Sunday, I got a text about a Hyundai Matrix from a woman in Puchong who we had been introduced to by another neighbour and who was treating me well, she said, because I was a friend of Zachi and Ruby (the girls' 'Big Tummy Uncle' and 'Auntie').

On Monday, I called Letchu, our moustachio'd Indian driver, and asked him to take me to Puchong, something like 30 minutes away with no traffic, but more like 90 minutes at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. I had been to the dealership before with Uncle, but never by myself; Letchu quoted me RM70, which seemed reasonable, and picked me up in a downpour, warning that the traffic would be awful.

Letchu has driven us around for the last month and half, but he and I have never been alone, so we naturally got to chatting. Letchu is 54 (three years younger than my dad) and has 5 kids: eldest being 27 and youngest being 12. His father came to Malaysia to be a rubber tree tapper, but died when Letchu was young. I asked him if they ever went back to India as a family, and Letchu said that he had only been once, that he didn't know where his relatives lived. I knew from other conversations that he had worked other jobs, but he told me that he had gone to Australia for a while as a landscaper when he was younger, living all over the country.

Letchu talked about how Australians changed girlfriends all the time and asked me, after hearing that I had married in Japan, 'Do you have a love marriage?' I laughed, thinking it was a odd question and then realising it was, of course, not, and said, 'Yes, yes: of course.' Letchu laughed too, and I asked him if he wanted his kids to have love marriages. He laughed again, doing the universal hand sign for using a smart phone: 'Now they have Facebook and I think it's good: let them choose.'

We got to the dealership and I asked Letchu if he was going to go or wait and he said, 'No, no, I wait; you go; take your time.' I went inside, and waited while Faizah, the dealer, called for the car to be brought. Faizah's young and Malay, but not in a tudong and her daughter was with her, maybe four or five. The car was brought up by Faizah's gent, and when I saw it, I knew it was the right car. I got in it, and the agent sat in the passenger side and as I pulled out of the dealership, Letchu was standing by his cab, watching me like a father.

The car was, of course, perfect: Faizah assured me it was the best price she could get and I trusted her in a way that I haven't felt like I could trust anyone selling me anything yet. I don't think it was a mistake: she said she would buy the car back when I left. I was riding on the good will of Auntie and Uncle, the kind of people who describing as 'good' is a disservice. They have loved and cared for us like parents: don't worry, Stephen, don't you worry. When we left the UK, I wondered who would replace Big Mummy and Big Daddy, but the three girls, smiling, are good karma magnets: middle-aged women and men can't resist.

Letchu drove me home and we laughed and talked the whole way. We talked about the many-armed elephant god, Genesha, and how Letchu and his wife prayed and prayed when their son had been injured in a bike accident last year and was in the ICU. He survived and Letchu's wife and daughter shaved their heads. The same boy is preparing for A-levels. Is he smart? I asked, and Letchu smiled, I think he's smart.

Letchu let me out of his cab in downtown Kajang and I said thank you again and again: he took my money, but almost reluctantly and I said that although I was happy to have a car and it would be good for my family, I would miss him. He agreed and shook my hand vigorously, promising to invite me and the girls over during the next festival: he wanted to give us food, he said.

I went to the bank, withdrew money and then deposited it in the agent's bank account. I called Yoko and said what I had been waiting two months to say, 'I got a car: the right car, from the right person, for the right price.' I had done right, finally: stopped being cheap and petty, けち the Japanese say, Yoko calls me.

Forgive me, I worry: I am worrying about financial ruin when I shouldn't be. I should have faith, I should just give up and go with it. We're surrounded by people that are taking care of us. Another set of Aunties and Uncles, the Chinese ones, had us over on Saturday and gave me beer and the girls candy while we set off fireworks. I looked at Yoko as we watched the Chinese lion dance in the garden of a rich neighbour's house: how amazing is this, how did we get here. This story makes the narrative sound much better than it is right now. I'm not telling you the truth, just the 5% that I want to remember. The other 95%, I am hoping will be worked out. Japan is calling me again, reminding me that it's safer there, easier there, but I keep resisting it. I have a car now, after all: I'm committed, I'm all in. I'm falling back, believing someone is there to catch me. Now, we just have faith.

21 February 2013

Walking around naked

A writer is always telling the truth, whether people are reading or not. A writer writes because a writer has to write, because the truth is trapped inside and like a caged, agitated lioness trying to get to her cub, it rages to escape. There is no such thing as fiction: just different ways of telling the truth.

An exhibitionist walks around their house naked, without drawing the curtains. By and large, it's not a problem, because the exhibitionist lives in a quiet town and if people complain about his exhibitionism, the exhibitionist can encourage them to look away, take another street home. After all, the exhibitionist enjoys being naked and some people enjoy looking.

And then, suddenly, some time in the future, there is a housing development put in across the road and huge supermarket. Before the development was put in, only a couple of people walked past the exhibitionist's house every day. Now, there are hundreds of people, groups of them stopping to take a look, some lingering for a while. A local drawing teacher tells her students to check out the exhibitionist; he would be a good model. Making coffee, he is suddenly aware of people sketching him: before it had been rare to get two or more people to even glance.

When the exhibitionist goes to the supermarket, people greet him: Hey, aren't you the exhibitionist across the street who walks around naked all the time? I've seen you before! The exhibitionist feels awkward. Of course, he had always told everyone he didn't care who looked at him, that he was naked on purpose, to make a point about the human body and authenticity: We're all naked under our clothes, he remembers piously telling a friend who challenged him. But suddenly this same exhibitionist has second thoughts, standing in the supermarket, wondering if everyone is imagining him naked. The crowd grows larger outside the house and he is faced with a choice. Does the exhibitionist now draw the curtains?

I teach The Hunger Artist in my class on Stylistics, particularly lexical chains and cohesion using a paragraph from the first part of the story. Really though, I teach it because I love the protagonist and identify with his self-inflicted suffering. In college, I once went to see Tim O'Brien read at the Chicago Public Library. He was signing books after the event, his newest novel at the time July, July. I had hoped to have him sign my tattered, well-read copy of The Things They Carried, but you had to buy the new novel at the event and that was the only thing he was signing. In the long queue, waiting for him to sign our newly purchased books, a lady gave us yellow post-it notes to write our names on, so when we gave the book to O'Brien, he would be able to sign it quickly and spell the name correctly. I suddenly had the urge to write 'The Hunger Artist' and jotted it down without thinking. Yes, this is how I wanted O'Brien to address me.

I stood nervously the whole time, having second thoughts and waiting for my two seconds with him: what would he say? And then it was my turn, my moment with the master: he didn't look up, the book pushed in front of him: The hunger artist? Uh, yeah, I said. He signed it and I was replaced by the next person.

In Kafka's world, the hunger artist both fasts publicly as spectacle and fasts as an art only for himself, something he would do regardless of whether or not other people watched. People do watch and the hunger artist performs, and the part I teach, the part I like best in the story, is when the hunger artist is misunderstood and rages like an animal at the crowd, but then falls back into himself after the Impresario shames him. I read this paragraph out loud to my students on Tuesday, first telling them about my mother and then favourite professor and mentor in college reading out loud to me. I said that I hope they remembered fondly, in ten years time, me reading to them.  

Kafka exploits the comparison of the hunger artist to an animal--the semantic field of the zoo--but the more subtle analogy, of fasting as spectacle to artist performing, is a deep truth about being watched while doing your art. Except, unlike the zoo, you choose to enter the cage and encourage others to watch, regardless of what you say otherwise. The chance to be understood, or misunderstood, or ignored--the hunger artist is driven mad by it. It's a metaphor if ever there was a metaphor. The lights of the circus fading away, the Impresario gone for the night and the hunger artist, alone in the cage: fasting.

Melodramatic, sure, but the melodrama keeps drawing me back in. I said that it's hard to stop when you're telling yourself a good story. The story keeps getting better and more interesting. It would be silly to draw the curtains, no?

20 February 2013

A fat man in shorts

I have been saying that things come together piece-by-piece when you move abroad; all of our things arriving by boat this last week was a pretty big piece. I feel like I am becoming myself again after all the disorientation and adaptation to the new climate, new food, new job, new everything. Whoever I was in Milton Keynes got lost temporarily in the move. I'm even wearing different clothes--my fashion style (which I was mildly proud of) completely erased by the humidity. I wear shorts now because it's just too damn hot for jeans. I lamented to my dad about the potential of the loss of style when he visited the UK in November: who the hell wears shorts; what sort of personality will I have in shorts. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind and I changed the subject.

As the boxes opened and our possessions came out, one possession, one that I knew was coming and one that would tell me something I didn't want to know, found its way onto the living room floor. The scale, which ran my life for much of the last three years, called out for me to stand on it, knowing that I had also betrayed another important part of my personality: my meticulous care for my own physical welfare. I cowardly avoided it for much of the afternoon, but eventually the truth was too tempting: how much damage had these three months of stress eating done.

A fat man in shorts: this is not who I want to be. In disgust, I pulled on my running shoes Sunday morning and then Monday and then Tuesday, determined to not be that guy, the one whose weight ticks up when he turns 30, the guy who gives up and jokes about being slower, softer, and less determined. And so I set out now, day after day, into the early morning darkness, before the first call to prayer, when the roads are quiet and manageable. I have no idea where I'm going, running through the backstreets of Kajang, but I follow streetlights and, when the call to prayer starts, the first one, sometime between 6 and 6:20, I can orient myself: once I know which direction the mosque is, I can run home. Don't miss the metaphor here.

Control of your body is an important theme in religious life, and one that I am constantly drawn back to despite my own lack of faith. Running and fasting: they make me feel so strong, so in control. Nothing rules you. When you run, particularly in the morning, you are completely alone with your thoughts and completely empty; you can go for days without stopping. And so, just like that, the healthy version of me begins to return: I update my mapmyrun profile to Kajang, Malaysia and begin to have difficulty sleeping again as I imagine the next morning and the next run. What will I find over the next hill.

19 February 2013

Leaving and Staying

My older brother and I are going to start working on a project where we recount our disparate paths away from (me) and within (him) Christian faith. I hope the project will make for some good writing and eventually a book manuscript. But until then, just sketches. I will be posting all or most of my writing here and then collecting our work together on another blog which I will publicise sometime in the future. My first entry.

Stephen, 1987

My conversion to Christianity–the first time, the time I remember–came when we were moving between houses in the suburbs of Minneapolis. The whole family–my brother, sister, and our parents–was staying with friends from church, friends who had an older daughter I remember being called Lisa. The backyard of their house was massive and skirted a forest. I came out one day to find my sister and Lisa: I asked them what they were playing and they said, Christians. Christians? I said, confused for a moment, what's a Christian? It's when you ask Jesus into your heart. Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart? I didn't respond, or I don't remember responding, but I distinctly remember running back into the house and saying in my head, Jesus, come into my heart.

Those five words, as I think back on them, were intensely important for me, particularly when I was older and worried, constantly, if I was really a Christian. Had the prayer taken; had Jesus actually come into my heart? At every opportunity to convert, to pray the prayer again, I prayed. My parents told me that I prayed with them once before that time, but I don't remember that prayer. I only remember the prayer in the backyard: simple and dutiful and eager.

17 February 2013

Lord, you are worthy

Sunday found us attending, for the first time in Malaysia, a Protestant worship service. Yoko has been wanting to attend church since we arrived, and I have felt bad that she has been deprived of this community, seeing as it was so essential to her life in the UK and in Japan. The local Protestant church is an Assemblies of God church: the sort of speaking in tongues, spirit-filled denomination you may have seen on news magazine shows. As we went through the doors of the sanctuary, the Kajang church did not strike me as too pentecostal, although whether someone was praying in Malay or praying in tongues might be lost on me. It was loud, but the music was remarkably similar to the syrupy music you would hear in any American Evangelical church on a Sunday—the same lyrics about how God is robed in majesty and his name is worthy, worthy, worthy above everything else.

Having, in a former life, been in charge of making people feel welcome in church, the whole experience felt like a script I had memorised years ago being recited back to me: yes, well done, you're trying to get at least two people to greet me and make me feel welcome. Yes, you'll need my name and contact information so you can send me the visitor pack and I can be contacted by the designated person. There are a number of programmes you'll want me to think about joining, depending on where you perceive me to be spiritually. I fill out the card, and if you know how often I attend church and if I have any prayer requests, you can get an idea about me, without asking something that will make me feel uncomfortable.

They put us, my little family, in a glassed balcony where the kids could play loudly and not disturb anyone. The card I had filled out was taken from me before we were sent up though, and when they announced the visitors, I was told to stand and be 'recognised' (a fascinating bit of Evangelical register that was also maintained). I stood and came to the glass window and waved, while everyone craned around applauding and smiling broadly. They then managed to take the offering from me, the limp velvet bag held out to the only guy sitting in the family room. I awkwardly fished a blue bill out of my wallet, feeling like a coward, and stuffed it in, momentarily worrying that I had given RM50 instead of RM1. We never did this, I thought self-righteously: we made sure visitors weren't pressured to give.

Point-for-point, the Evangelical experience was the same in Malaysia as it would be in the suburbs of Chicago. As I listened to the pastor talk about prosperity, I felt like I could mouth along the whole sermon. It was perfect, middle-of-the-road Western Evangelicalism; The Purpose Driven Life in cliff notes. God doesn't necessarily desire for you to be rich, but being rich isn't a problem: it's all about your heart. These sermons, both today's and those in the States, tend to avoid quoting Jesus: indeed, there was no mention of the gospels in this sermon. The pastor chose Jeremiah instead, ignoring the more radical call of Jesus, in favour of a much less interesting message: God desires for you to have shalom. Do you know what that means? It means for you to have peace, and you have peace when your welfare is taken care of. And your welfare includes, but is not limited to, your finances. They could have just piped in a video of Rick Warren in a Hawaiian shirt preaching at Saddleback in Southern California: a perfect metonymy for the American iteration of the fat white man endeavour in the East.

The girls played with the toys in this room, incongruously including a toy automatic gun like the kind we're currently trying to ban in the States. Naomi picked it up and was making gun sounds as she pointed it at us and laughed. Yoko told her to stop and Naomi said in Japanese, Why? It's just a toy. Behind her, behind the glass, a woman was leading worship, one hand clutching the microphone, the other held high as she sang, You are the father to the fatherless. Where is my notebook when I need it, I thought: written well, I could connect all of this to Chief Keef and gun violence in Chicago. All the narrative elements are there; the contrast is undeniable.
Mei volunteered to go to the children's service, but came back after ten minutes, crying. She is so courageous in the moment, but is still only three. I empathise: she is basically me. We jump first, and find ourselves in over our heads.
I had asked the usher how long the service would go: he told me that it would be two hours, but at 12:30, our children were growing restless and hungry. The pastor was talking about the different translations of prosperity in the passage, he quoted Webster and we began to pack up. There had been several mentions of visitors staying for tea, but I figured if we left before the end, it could be a clean getaway. I don't need any more zealous Christians thinking whatever it is that I'm doing is all a part of God's plan.

We did make a clean getaway, one guy stopping us on the way out, asking why we weren't staying for tea. I pointed to the children without stopping, They're hungry, I'm sorry. It was hot and the girls all drank some water before we put on their hats and headed for the city centre.

As we left the walls of the church, we were suddenly back in a world where nothing seemed familiar: the Mosque, the green one, down the road suddenly larger and more imposing. What a complex world we live in, I thought. Rick Warren fighting a proxy war with the tudong and call to prayer here in the bed towns of Kuala Lumpur. No one even can see it. And me, standing metaphorically and physically between the two at one moment before turning towards town. The contrast, as I say, is undeniable.

Fixing what's broken

The motorbike as a metaphor for life in Malaysia: things, as they do, worked out.

After a day of plotting my return to the motorbike garage, I rode into town, the bike coughing and banging the 15 kilometers back to Kajang. I worried the whole time that it would not make it, but it did, persistent and courageous. I planned to go to the Indian repair place again, but by some miracle, the Chinese shop was open again on Friday. I rode up into the garage and they were immediately at work on it which wrenches and screwdrives; the old man who sold me the bike and his daughter in the Billabong t-shirt, welcomed me into the show room and gave me left over oranges for the Chinese New Year celebration.

I quickly felt at ease, thinking that at least I had some leverage with the bike, and imagined offering to give the bike back for something bigger, better, and newer. I looked at bikes for a couple of minutes before sitting and cracking open my Malay in Ten Weeks book that a friend had given me as a joke. Published in the fifties, all the conversations are quaintly racist and sexist, reminding me of a time closer to the actual, rather than metaphorical, fat white man imperialism. I was working through the numbers when a man who was at the desk, waiting for owner to do his road tax, came up and sat down next to me. We started chatting: he was a policeman and working in Kajang. We talked about guns and motorbikes, about how safe Kajang was and raising children in Malaysia. I gave him my card, joking that if I ever got in trouble, I was counting on him. The shop owner came up again, trying to give the policeman some oranges, which he rejected and I gladly took.

The policeman left and I waited, listening to the sounds of my bike being worked on outside. The afternoon here, around 4:30 is right when the heat begins to fade. There is a prayer around this time too, I think; depending on where you are, you can hear the call from the mosques. Finally, after almost two hours, the woman in the Billabong shirt returned, gave me the paperwork that I was waiting for (insurance and title to the bike) and led me outside. The mechanic told me that they had changed three or four things and then apologised, handing me my keys. I thanked him and rode off: apparently there had been a kind of warranty on the bike and I kicked myself for giving the Indian mechanic RM55 a mere 20 hours ago. 

I rode off and the bike was confident in the way that it had been when I first got it. Not banging or clanking. I rode home to find that our boxes from England had arrived and, despite my fears that they would be damp, broken into, and destroyed: they were not. Everything was there, my guitar in perfect condition. I opened boxes all night surprised by my own possessions. I did bring that book and more clothes: Everything was there. 

If everything in Malaysia is breaking, it is also simultaneously being fixed.

15 February 2013


Yesterday, the last committee that needed to ratify my PhD degree did so. I will get my diploma in the mail one of these days and that will be the last of it. The absence of the thesis in my life, however, still can't be quantified or described. On Tuesday, our neighbours (whom the kids call Auntie and Uncle and whose real names I don't know or can't remember) took us to a botanical garden, and Yoko and I were walking, holding hands, while the kids ran up ahead. I suddenly realised that I wasn't distracted by my thesis, that I hadn't thought of it in days.

There are all sorts of metaphors for PhD theses: marriages and marathons were always my favourite. As a marathon, mine ended abruptly before I thought it was done with the examiners saying at the end of the viva: It's done–bind it and leave. I had expected another three months to tinker and properly give it up, but it was suddenly taken from me, and I just had to go. Teaching, packing, an airplane, and then here: a whole new world where I am not a student, but faculty, and no one knows me as anything but that. A whole four years of my life erased.

Melodramatic and self-indulgent as it is, I am missing some of the ceremony of ending. I received one graduation card today, sent from some of colleagues at the OU who I had been in writer's group with, but that was all. We will celebrate properly in the future sometime, I told everyone as we left, but other things have taken over the celebratory moment passed. Lesson learned, I suppose.

While this committee was meeting somewhere in England, I was arsing around with a leaky piston on my motorbike. The shop where I bought it, with the Chinese woman in the Billabong shirt, has been closed all week for Chinese New Year, but luckily in this country, if one ethnic group is taking a holiday, the others are likely working. So I found another shop next door, this one run by Indians who, like Letchu our taxi driver, have many-armed elephant gods on display. Oddly, this made me feel at ease and I was told by the shop boys to wait and sit on some seats that had been pulled out of a car.

After about five minutes, a very dark man rode up on a motorbike, with a woman riding behind him, holding a box with new shoes. He hopped off the bike, walked past me without saying anything, and sat to put on the new shoes, joking and laughing with the shop boys and the girl. And then he, and the two shop boys, began disassembling the bike. A leaky piston, I thought, would only require a bit of disassembling, but suddenly the whole front half was gone in swings of hammers and large wrenches. The owner showed me something we had taken off the bike and quoted me a price which I agreed to after starting to say, I bought it at the Chinese place, but–and realising I was talking to myself.

The whole procedure took almost an hour and half, as people, all Indians from what I could deduce, came and went:  the owner quickly distracted by bike tyres needing to be inflated and motorbike chain adjustments. I sat watching it all, thinking again about how helpless I was and cursing myself for buying such a cheap bike and then cursing the stupid story about the romanticism of having a bike that always breaks. I handed over the money when they were finished and got on the bike to ride home. The piston was clearly working well, but the engine was now sounding as if it were in trouble. It died at a traffic light and then almost died going up the hill. I let the bike sit overnight, hoping it was some freak occurance, but when I rode this morning, it struggled the whole way, gears 1 and 2 giving me almost no power.
Yesterday having been Valentine's Day, and my wife and daughters being Japanese, I was the one receiving gifts when I came home: a banner of hearts hung up and a cigar that Mia had broken in half and then Mei had dropped in the dirty dishes. We salvaged it though and the three girls and I stood at the gate of the driveway while I smoked and looked out into the park.
The motorbike symbolises the uncertainty that it carries. Will it start today. Pulling into traffic, you wonder if the engine will give out. And then at the shop: I worry who is taking advantage of me, who is not. How do I know if what they're telling me is the truth. Whom to believe. It's both an adventure and an endless series of decisions without clear answers: a metonymy of life in Southeast Asia. You think you might be able to get away from it buying something more expensive, but when that more expensive thing breaks, you would just be more frustrated. All the solutions, it seems, involve small bits of money bleeding away from you here and there, spread out over a lifetime. Conceivably, everything on the bike could break.

Everything could break or is broken: another recurring theme of my life in Malaysia. The lack of order in the system could drive you mad, but let me end this post as a kind of evangelical object lesson: as long as you stay oriented to life here as a series of lessons learned rather than regrets, you can do okay for yourself. Or if not lessons learned, at least new, interesting bits to add to the story. And the end of the day brings little girls in pink dresses who have cut out hearts and folded origami flowers: best celebrate them while we can.

14 February 2013

My memory of Benedict

It being Valentine's Day, I figure I might ruminate on love and the papacy in a brief respite from stories of geckos and motorbikes in Malaysia.

Yoko and I got married, like Johnny and June Cash, in a fever. We met in April of 2005, went on our first date in August, engaged in January, married in July. A whirlwind, a tempest, a tsunami of love: pick your natural disaster metaphor. There was a quote from Gravity's Rainbow that hung over me the whole time: They're in love; fuck the war. I briefly, for six months, lost my ability to be cynical or careful or cautious; I was Walt Whitman at one with everything, loafing in pasture grass and taking it all in. To cap the run of passion, I had planned our honeymoon–four days in Malta, four days in Rome–fpr October, three months after we had married. Italy in the Autumn; I couldn't think of anything more romantic.

But then in September–the ultrasound printout says it was a Wednesday, the 20th–we found out Yoko was pregnant. Not part of the plan, not anywhere close to the plan: I was scared and embarrassed (I've written about this before). Everything changed in the matter of a week. I had been an English teacher on a motorbike: little responsibility, little holding me back from what seemed like an endless number of possible universes. And then: there was only one universe. One where I was a father, first and foremost. Tied to responsibility and forever cornered by obligation.

The little fleck of baby floating in Yoko caused nothing but pain and illness for the first nine months of her existence. Yoko was sick, very sick, and as the day of the honeymoon got closer and closer, I thought the whole trip would unravel. I remember standing at the door of the apartment with the bags, Yoko looking again like she was about to vomit, and saying, Should we just not go? We couldn't, of course, just not go. We had spent so much money: everything was non-refundable. In what has become a hallmark of our marriage, we just did it; me, dragging the suitcases, and Yoko, following behind slowly but steadily. Into the taxi and then onto the train and then onto the next train and then onto to the plane. When we got to the hotel in Malta, some 24 hours after we had left Japan, we were exhausted, ready to give up and sleep for days and days. I opened the hotel door and there were two double beds: insult to injury.

The trip went on with varying degrees of marginal success. Yoko was able to leave the hotel room a couple of times in Malta, but when we got to Rome, she slept and slept, and I spent two days out by myself, site-seeing and cursing the whole thing. This wasn't what I wanted, what I had imagined. I had done everything right, for the most part: why was god punishing me with this misery? I visited all the monuments full of anger and deep, unmitigated spite. There's the Sistine Chapel. Great.

The last day, a Friday, Yoko was feeling a bit better and we decided to go back to the Vatican where I had been earlier in the week. We moved slowly, up and down stairs and through the piazzas, but things were going better. The sky was electric and blue, the way I had imagined it would be when I made the reservations in June. At St Peter's Square, we weren't able to enter the Basilica as they were preparing for a mass, but we decided to wait and see if things would open up eventually. The mass started, and then went on and on, but we were happy to sit in the back, in the sun, and not have to deal with any sickness for a short time.

Benedict came suddenly, without an announcement. The crowd cheered and he rode out, standing on the back of a Jeep. We were behind the crowd, craning to look over the throngs of pilgrims from some Eastern European country who were getting a saint that day. Benedict was far away, but there were screens set up and cameras following him around. They cheered, we snapped pictures of the crowd, and Benedict spoke, saying something I either didn't understand or can't recall.

And then, my lasting memory of Benedict: how I will always remember him. After he spoke, people came up to be blessed while music played. A child was there, and instead of kneeling like everyone else, he ran up and jumped into Benedict's arms, and Benedict held him. It was hard to see the reactions of those around him, the mother who had come with the boy. I want to remember her as embarrassed, but I can't say if that's a real memory or not. I honestly don't even remember if the child was a boy or a girl. But I do remember how tightly the child held on to Benedict and how comfortable Benedict seemed. This couldn't be the scholar Pope, I thought, the cold, bookish old man who hated pastoral ministry. The Pope living in the shadow of John Paul: certainly not.

The mass ended and Benedict was cloistered away back behind the walls of Vatican City. The Basilica opened up and the pilgrims all clamoured in to pray at the tomb of John Paul II. In the Basilica, as you walked over a grating above the crypt you could hear them mumbling, but Yoko and I wandered around, looking at the statues of the older popes, the ones that burned people and started wars.

Yoko was wearing a corduroy jacket that day; I looked across the Basilica and saw her in the cavernous light. She had cut her hair short in September and she was looking up, her long neck perfect, confident, and in control. And that phrase, the one that comes back again and again all these seven and half years we've been together: I love you; stay with me. As I pull the narrative thread taut, from this moment through all the moments that brought me from there to here, I was thankfully not cornered  Things, as they do, work out. and there were, and are, still plenty of different futures to explore.

11 February 2013

Pictures, race, and religion

If the closing scene of my last entry was me riding up into school, triumphant, on my motorbike, the opening scene of this entry starts with me riding out of the campus several days later, less intoxicated, but more in control, aware of the dumptrucks and buses around me; the eighteen year-olds on bikes in worse condition than mine cutting in and out of traffic as we make our way up Jalan Semenyih towards Kajang.

Naomi has been struggling to get up and go to school in the morning, crying and pulling the covers over her to make the world go away. Yoko or I have to pick her up, assure her and firmly insist that she put on her dress, eat her bread, brush her teeth, put on her shoes, and walk with us to school. The brilliant trilingual Montessori Kindergarten is the pinnacle of five year-old education as far as I'm concerned: what a bright, beautiful future this is building. But when I am empathic, when I can compress the experience into the comprehension of a five year-old, I can see how terrifying and disorienting it all is. She is a year behind the other kids who speak Malay and/or Chinese natively and who have been together for more than 13 months. Naomi has been forced awkwardly into this situation, taken away from all the warmth and security of Ms Heath's first year class in Milton Keynes where she was the insider, into this foreign building with foreign children. A toilet you don't sit on, but squat over.

I see it is snowing everywhere else in the world. Here, the windows are open and a gecko has just run across the wall. We walked out into the streets of Kajang two nights ago, which are quiet as the Chinese have shut up all their shops and headed home for the holiday. There are red lanterns strung up on the main road downtown. The girls have been shouting 'Happy New Year' in Chinese and I have been struggling to hear the pronunciation correctly. I suspect they will have a whole different world to call home.

The thoughts on white privilege provoked responses from readers around the world, literally, if not figuratively, with the best note coming via e-mail from my PhD cohort colleague and friend, L. She, a black woman in South Africa, who grew up with apartheid, writes:
I wanted to say - it's less about you as a real representative of the old colonial powers i.e. Britain or France or Spain (guess we could debate whether America can be considered a 'colony' and subject to colonialism in the same way as most of the countries in the global south, especially when defining it from the perspective of those who came to country as part of the colonial project and not the indigenous people who were there already and actually subject to being colonized) - but more about how colonialism has become embedded and ingrained in the consciousness of the colonized country and and its people. It gives everyone a particular place in the society and it infects everything. And what you are doing is coming to the society without that lens, without the inherent understanding of how things work there...  
She is, of course, right: this is all about how people think without thinking. It's the same as my Christianity which I explicitly and vehemently reject, but still runs my life in so many ways, hijacking my feelings and responses to the world around me. You don't just forget how you are programmed to think. You don't just deconvert. I talked about my trouble with my race in a class the other day and a student told me that there were four categories here: Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other. In this scheme, I am, of course, other. Yes, I suppose so, but not just any other. The white other — there may not be a box to tick, but my place here is already, subconsciously, predetermined.

Today, the fat white man adventure took a predictable turn as we made our way up to the Hindu shrines in Batu Caves, a must-see tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur: at least two pages in the Lonely Planet guidebook, I imagine. The caves are high up in limestone outcroppings, and you have to climb two hundred some steps to get into them. There are two massive statues at the base, Hanuman and Murugan, and I was struck immediately as we got off the train, how the tudung, the hijab, had disappeared. Instead, there was a crowd of beautifully dressed Indians with sweaty, frustrated-looking Westerners, all carrying water bottles, mixed in. Every foreigner within 200 km of this place has the same set of photos.

At the base of the steps, you look up and it's a bit daunting, particularly holding the twenty-month old's hand, and looking at the almost four year old and wondering how far she will make it. We put on cheerful faces though and started up, Mia making it almost twenty steps and Mei, after taking off her shoes, making it all the way to the top.

Inside the caves, the mix of capitalism and religion made me immediately think of the temple cleansing (Mark 11:15-19); a tent made from the back of a Bieber promotional poster, with an inverted image of Bieber's smiling face and his album title, Believe, projected back at you like a mirror. They were selling all sorts of things--trinkets and good luck charms and many armed elephant gods like the one our mostachio'd taxi driver, Letchu, has on the dashboard of the taxi. The contrast to Islam goes without saying: this is a religion of the body, of animals and images. The Indians were walking around, some having just shaved their or their children's hair, while Chinese tourists and white, serious-looking hipsters snapped photos with the same Japanese camera.

We walked through the main cave, which was spectacular and high, light streaming in through holes in the top. And then up some more stairs, back into the sun, where the cave disappeared and the limestone walls were covered in foliage and monkeys. The monkeys, the ones I had promised the girls before we came here, were bounding down and taking food from tourists, garbage piled up in different places. Suddenly I remembered watching an Eastern Orthodox church service on the edge of the Red Square after a hungover flight from Madrid enroute to Tokyo. There, it sounded like a bee hive of mumbling, people oblivious to me, the tourist, while they kissed the crucifix. Here, the Indians also seemed to ignore the tourists, hands clasped piously as men in robes came in and out of the different shrines with the ring of a bell. Your holy site is my photo opportunity. Thanks for looking so exotic. I wondered when in the future these same tourists would travel to Gurnee, IL, to my parents church, to take pictures of white worshippers their eyes closed, hands held high. When will this also become a photo opportunity.

Perhaps I'm wrong to interpret all of this in terms of race and nationality, but I'm not sure what other lens works. I keep coming back to it; it's always on the edge of conversations. The categories are always splitting people up into different careers, train stops, public holidays. Me and my little family, Yoko and I holding the two youngest ones who have fallen asleep in the middle of whatever we are doing — we just watch, bumping into people, trying to skirt around our imperial histories and take good pictures so the girls remember their childhood.

06 February 2013

My motorbike as a metaphor for white privilege, or how to avoid jail in Southeast Asia

I have a feeling of immeasurable warmth when I think of small motorbikes, feelings always tied to places. Two examples.

The Agano River stretches out of the Japanese Alps and empties into the Japan Sea in Matsuhama, a small fishing town on the edge of Niigata City. I had an apartment there for three years from 2004 until 2008, right where the river and sea come together. I would ride my motorbike, a Honda Minicub, inland towards Meikun High School where I worked. The road was built on the river embankment, so you could see forever — the mountains in the distance and the rice fields stretching out underneath them. I kissed Yoko for the first time in a park tucked under the embankment and still remember how amazing summer nights felt riding into the darkness.

And then in Laos in 2007: I rented a motorbike with some tiny amount of money and my passport. I rode as far as I was comfortable, out away from Vientiane into the villages. I rode and rode and at some point just stopped, not sure where I was going or what I thought would happen if I kept going. I stopped, got off the bike, and took a few pictures. It was so quiet there.  

Today, a new set of memories of motorbikes and place.

I turned up at the bike shop at 8:30 after peeling my crying daughter off my wife and taking her to school. The shop is on a corner, right in the centre of town, so the roads were already clogged with all sorts of different cars and motorbikes and lorries. I sat thinking about Naomi while I waited, about how miserable she seemed, wondering what might be done to ease her stress, and sweating. A Chinese woman in a Billabong shirt and jeans got the paperwork together and another older Chinese man pulled out the bike I had bought on Monday, which looked in worse shape than I remembered, but still seemed okay. He showed me everything I needed to know — petrol cap, oil, lights — and I got on, kickstarted it, thanked both of them, and cautiously rode off into the morning rush hour. It took two or three minutes and then everything came back. All the freedom I remember feeling when I first rode like I was suddenly unfurling. I was comfortable immediately; the bike gasping and struggling along at first and then humming confidently.

I rode to a government pension office, where I was to enrol in the national pension programme. As a foreigner, I can withdraw this money when I leave the country, and it guarantees me some savings, provided the system works as it should. This being Malaysia, I am a bit apprehensive, but the office instils confidence. New, efficient, clean. They called me quickly and I was smiling, holding my application and passport while a woman in a tudong (the Malay word for hijab) and another woman sitting behind her, both smiling took my papers and read through them. I had everything I needed, and the process was clipping along without any trouble until they reached 'race'. Race and religion. Sorry, you wrote white. I don't know if we have white. She showed me the drop down menu in Bahasa Malay: an endless list of different categories. I didn't know what to say, I actually said to her: I don't know what I am. What am I? She scrolled some more... Am I Caucasian? Do you have Caucasian? 

And then religion: sorry, you wrote none? Yes, I said, I don't have a religion. She looked at the much shorter drop down list. You are Christian? she asked, not realising how complicated a question that is. No, no, I don't have a religion. She said something to the other woman in Malay and ticked a box.

I got back on my bike and assumed that they had just marked 'Christian' and got on with it. Fat white man doesn't speak language, doesn't know the difference anyway. The bike started up immediately again, and I was quickly distracted. Yes, right: you need to idle in the first gear at the lights. You need to look left and right when you change lanes. You have to watch out for potholes.

Gaining confidence far too quickly, I chose to go to school on the expressway, cutting out the Kajang traffic. I could manage, I thought: overly confident, flying along. The expressway was empty, thankfully, and I stayed to the side like all the other bikes. No one bothering me, no one coming close. Before the toll booth, the motorbikes have a separate, narrower road to follow. I exited onto it, and looked up to see four or five men with moustaches and uniforms: a policeman waving me down. Shit. SHIT. I coasted in, suppressing the urge to just recklessly gun it and fly through.

I had been, before this moment, confident enough to ride on the licenses I have from the US and UK, but I was by no means certain. I figured if I got pulled over and there was a problem, I would offer to pay the 'fine' and move on. Simple enough in theory: more difficult when you are surrounded by serious looking men with handguns. They asked for my license and I pulled out my EU one. For motorbike? the policeman asked. Yes, I said, small motorbike okay. He looked at it carefully, and waved over an older cop whose gun I also immediately noticed. You are American? he said. Yes, I am. You have your passport? I did, surprisingly, yes. He flipped through that and got to my visa: you are a student? No, I said, a lecturer. Why don't you have a car? I said the stupidest thing: I don't have the money now. He laughed, How does a lecturer not have money to buy a car? Yes, I thought, I've been asking myself the same question... But instead I smiled and shrugged: I like the motorbike.

He flipped over the license again, paused, smiled, gave it back to me, and shook my hand, and I rode off.

This, of course, doesn't mean anything in terms of the legality of riding the bike, but what I've suspected and what another lecturer had told me was absolutely true: it doesn't matter what colour your license is; it matters what colour your skin is. The nuance of the systems, the different licenses, the size of the engine: I researched this, preparing some explanation that is plausible and accurate, but it doesn't matter. I have a license from the UK and I am a white lecturer. That's all that anyone needs to know. Still: the sheer terror I felt when I saw them waving me down. How can I be so powerful when I feel so powerless. There is a whole system of privilege built on hundreds of years of history that I have no knowledge of, but puts me at the top, the very top, without me even being aware. I thought everyone was born with this silver spoon in their mouth.

I rode off from the police trap feeling incredibly lucky, naively thinking I had won some sort of lottery, but caught up in these complex feelings about who I am, where I am, what I am. After five minutes, though, the bike had intoxicated me and I forgot about myself as foreigner: a smell reminding me of Japan again as I rode up into the palm oil plantation where our school campus is set. A beautiful white tower like the Trent Building in Nottingham, England set in a perfect blue sky, the most diverse set of students you will ever see streaming in and out of it. There is so much to make sense of, but so little time.

This motorbike, if it doesn't kill me, will save me. I suppose that's true about a lot of things.

05 February 2013

Getting angry

The Bible is such a foil :
In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Selah
I rushed out of work yesterday to get to the bank in Kajang, as I finally had some money to deposit and a letter that would theoretically get me a bank account. It was raining, as it does, and I had to navigate my way through the stopped taxis and cars with an umbrella. All the eyes were, of course, watching: not transparent Emersonian ones, but eyes embedded in a crowd so diverse that I wonder why I can't be normal here too. Fat white man is interesting enough–fat white man and umbrella weaving through traffic is worth stopping for.
Today, some schoolchildren shouted out Hello! to me, laughing and pointing to their friends, as I walked past. This always happened in Japan and the quality of my day always dictated my response. Today, I didn't know what to do: a small wave and I kept walking. On a better day, maybe I would stop and shake hands. Joke around a bit. The security men at the gated development at the top of the hill near our house were playing cricket with a broom and a PET bottle top last Wednesday. They waved and smiled at me, and I laughed, threw off my bag and demanded they let me take a swing. Shocked, delighted: they laughed, Cricket?!
Baseball: you know baseball? I said, grabbing the broom.  More shock, more delight: Okay, okay! I took two big swings at the bottle top, embarrassing myself. Okay, okay! 
When I got to the bank and gave the woman at the kiosk my passport and letter, I was told to wait while she showed everything to a man at a desk. He flipped through my passport, stopping at my visa page, and then waved me over smiling. Very sorry, sir, you need to go: Semenyih bank. Very sorry. I was confused, But why? It's the same bank. No sir, very different, very sorry, you teach: University of Nottingham? Yes. You need to go: Semenyih branch. Very close. Very sorry. But why? I said, and the record was put on repeat. Need to go to: Semenyih branch. Very sorry. 250 Ringgit, they give you Visa card. Very sorry. Maybe I asked one more time, but it didn't matter: very sorry.

I left frustrated and angry, probably visibly so. Fat white man doesn't speak language, demands something, doesn't get what he wants, leaves in huff. I can play my role well.

Determined to not make the afternoon a waste, I trudged on to the motorbike shop, umbrella and medicine bag in hand. After some marginal research the night before and talking to some people, I decided that I could probably ride a motorbike on the license I have. Fat white man is free to do some things without question. On a motorbike, I would avoid the inconsistent bus and have something to look forward to in my day: riding my mini cub in Japan is a warm memory of being even younger. I went to the bike shop and just picked one out, like that. How much is this one? Does it start? Great, I'll take it. I don't even really remember what colour it is. I didn't haggle, I just bought it and they said it would be ready on Wednesday morning. Five hundred Ringgit deposit, thirty for the helmet: I gave it up happily like I was the one ripping them off. You just gave me freedom and happiness for ten hours worth of essay marking: what a racket! 

I got home with my helmet, triumphant: kissed the girls, checked my e-mail and looked at the receipt for the kids' kindergarten that Yoko had brought home. Another thousand Ringgit, some of which was supposed to be reimbursed by my university, but given all the difficulty I've had with HR, I needed the receipt written a particular way: a way that I had explained very carefully to the head teacher when Yoko and I went a couple weeks earlier. Of course, it was wrong and I got angry, all the triumphant unravelled immediately by frustration: the bank, the lists of things to do, the sweaty khaki trousers, the rain, the carbs everywhere around me...everything aimed directly at my wife.
Do not sin.
You can't get angry in this country: you get angry and you bury yourself immediately. You win the battles by happily chatting and shaking hands. You negotiate with smiles, get your way through kindness and building relationships. You will rip me off this time, but the next time you will realise I am here to stay and you'll be kinder. It's worked surprisingly well so far. The bike shop: I did haggle for the helmet, but otherwise--all smiles and thank yous and gratitude. When the bike breaks and I show up again, they will be kinder to me. The anger, though, doesn't dissipate. It gets masked and stuffed down and comes out when you're with someone who you know loves you and has to forgive you. How awful and petty is that.

Forgiveness and patience can run out even with those who love you: don't test the boundaries. This is my mantra that I can't seem to repeat enough to remember. Another day, another opportunity to do good and not evil. So many things to be angry about, but so little to gain from sinning. My family is all I have: best be more careful whom I sin against.

01 February 2013


Mommy, how do you climb the jungle tree? Mei asks, looking up, as we wait for a taxi in a palm oil plantation. It's a good question. I look up, too: I have never really looked at palm trees before.

Every day another new memory of the call to prayer, told in the present tense like it is perpetually happening: we eat dinner at an mostly empty restaurant near our house. We can read only bits of the menu and the waitress, a Malay, doesn't speak any English. Daging is meat. Ayam is chicken. Sup, I assume, is soup. We order four or five things, I point to a bottle of water, and Yoko and I chat about our day, the weekend, and the way things are coming together.
My boss appeared at my door this afternoon with an envelope full of money. It was my first salary, or part of my salary. Another piece falls into place. Yesterday, our passports with visas came back: another piece. I have a letter that will get me a bank account. The horror stories I hear from other faculty on the bus don't seem to apply to me. We've been lucky, but I don't believe in luck.
When the food comes, all five of us taste things and shuffle the food around, the peppers and chili sauce coming my way,  everything else to the kids. We order more rice and say hello to a small Malay girl in a flower dress who is standing next to our table staring at a us. A cat comes and sits down underneath Mei's chair. More soup comes; we all stumble in saying thank you in Malay.

We chat about the girls' schooling, about whether it will be okay if Naomi starts at Year 1 again or if we should push for her to start in Year 2. The conversations all revolve around a future that we have no idea about. Which country will we settle in. When will we settle. But we both have come accustomed to it; it's all a joke. The Pihlaja family does not settle; why would they. The cat comes and goes and comes again, Yoko warning the girls not to touch it. I say something that is a truism, but is true: This experience is worth more than being in the right school year, anyway. This is so good for them. And Yoko agrees and we help Mei with her noodles and oversized spoon.

I love you, I suddenly want to say to Yoko, just then. I love you and I never want you to leave. 

We hope to send Naomi (and Mei and Mia, if we stay) to study in a beautiful international school in the middle of a palm oil plantation. You exit off of the expressway and go down into it, with huge palm trees making a canopy above you. The car park is at the bottom of the hill; you have to walk up to the school house. It's a beautiful place. I did everything I could to present our family in the best possible light in the interview. We would volunteer, of course. We would love to do anything we can. Naomi is kind-hearted and quiet: she'll be perfect here. Everyone smiled.

At some point in the narrative, the story is clearly a comedy and not a tragedy. Once you've started telling yourself a good story, it's hard to stop. I felt that way as the week came together. I restructured my book manuscript based on the revise and resubmit comments I got last summer. I worked on all the courses that I'll be teaching next week. Yoko and the girls went shopping alone. All the normal things you have to ease into when nothing is familiar. Letchu, our moustachioed Indian driver in jeans, sunglasses, and a forgettable short-sleeved dress shirt, was kind and prompt and let Yoko pay RM11 instead of RM12 when she didn't have any smaller bills. He spoke bits of Japanese he has learned driving around businessmen, and the girls sat happily in the back the cab as he took us where we needed to go.

Back in the restaurant, I pay the bill, and hold Mia's hand as she toddles over the step outside. We look up and out over Kajang and the sun is setting. And then the call to prayer starts, like a postcard. The drone, the sacred reminder, the community called together. We are foreigners just listening, taking it in. Religious expression at a distance: nothing to answer for or think about or understand. Just one single, mournful voice, calling out to the city. We walk up the hill and then back down into Taman Sri Minang, the children pointing out animals and bugs, and the call to prayer fading into the background. Tomorrow we will hear it again.