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.