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.