16 March 2013

Hitting all the high points

The little bits of life here keep passing, but I'm having trouble gathering them up into a single story, finding the common theme in them. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how I am feeling more generally: feeling uneasy, and unhappy with my own uneasiness. Like this: like we were caught in a sandstorm and the last three to four months have been digging things in our life out. We uncover thing after thing that we own, at first happy to find that we have it, and then realising it is in as bad a shape as before the storm. Life as we left it in England was quite dark: the PhD had taken its toll on all the relationships, all the expectations. Our joys didn't only disappear in the storm, but also our problems, the fundamental ones that we always work on, but never solve: they are still here too.

I'm thinking metaphorically about storms because on Wednesday, there was a terrible and sudden storm here, the sort you expect living in a tropical location. I've been trying to write about it, to write about fear, but I've come up empty every time. I was caught on it in my motorbike and had to stop on the way home after the road had become impassable and there was no visibility. I realised too late that there were no other bikers out: it was incredibly, incredibly dangerous to ride, and ankle deep in rushing water, with a dark car coming up behind me, headlights off, I wondered for a second if my luck had run out.

It had not, thankfully: I pulled into a strip mall and was absolutely drenched, despite my rainsuit, and people were, as they do, staring. Of course, the same question I always have came up: is it me, or is it what I'm doing. Are they staring because I'm mat salleh, because I'm drenched, because I'm riding a motorbike, or because I am visibly uncomfortable with the cockroaches which are coming out of the storm drains and trying to crawl up my legs. Or because I look like I have just seen the face of god. 

I got home okay, and the next morning, although I was expecting to find cops everywhere directing people around fallen trees and swollen rivers, burst pipes--there was nothing. Everything was dry and the trees had been swept to the sides of the roads. The mayhem had simply vanished; the water rushed away and evaporated.

Another metaphor for life in Malaysia: no trouble lasts too long.

The girls have been quickly losing their Milton Keynes accent as it has been replaced by a Malaysian lilt. Famali fo-TO, Mei says, referring to the picture of our family that I was trying to get printed in the apocalypse last Wednesday and which she took to school. I've been noticing the same accent in other speakers and aping it when I speak Malay: it's amazing how the accent makes you suddenly understandable. Naomi is even more surprising: you can here the lilt coming up in her Japanese now. Who will these children become:
Was Auntie praying? I ask Naomi when I pick her up at the neighbours and catch a glimpse of Auntie wearing a white tudong to pray.
Yes, Naomi says, and pauses: why don't we pray?
Well, I say, because Auntie has a different god.
And I rephrase it. Auntie has a different god than your mother, but daddy doesn't pray because daddy doesn't have any god. You can choose if you want to have a god and pray. 
And I think immediately of something Letchu, our moustachio'd taxi driver, told me about Ganesha. His mother showed him a picture of Genesha and said, This is our god. And so Letchu prays to Genesha.
My Malay has become slowly more functional, but only through forcing trial and error in every situation I can, and making every Malaysian I speak with uncomfortable. Today, I felt good that I ordered all my food in Malay, and then, when it came, realised that I had not gotten what I had wanted exactly. I went two turns of a conversation with someone at the market. 'What is this? Is it tea?' No, it's herbs. 'How much is it?' and he switched to English, '30 Ringgit.'

A perfect snapshot of learning: ordering my food, I was attempting to ask for half as much rice, but had forgotten the word for 'half'. I did, however, remember the structure for making fractions, so I asked for 'one over two', essentially. This confused the woman and another guy at the food stall, who kept insisting on responding to me in English, came up and took out two plates, 'He wants the rice on two plates.' No, I said, finally in English, dejected, Half.

All these little failures, however, are cumulative and you remember the things you mess up much better than the ones you get right. You just have to push through the feelings of intense fear and weakness. You can fail, you will fail: fail now, or learn nothing.

So. Uneasiness. Mat salleh tries, mat salleh fails. The history of the whole damn fat white man misadventure.

Finally, I stopped my weight gain after the second attempt: I am back down in reasonable numbers. It took a week of intermittent fasting to get my centre back and to really stop myself. I get going and I can't stop. Eating is a metaphor for everything. In my emptiness from fasting, I took to swimming rather than running, going to the pool everyday during lunch. I did my makeshift breaststroke and improvised a kind of doggy-paddle on my back. It is nothing to look at, certainly, but I felt much better, creeping up and down the pool in the hot sun. Back and forth, back and forth. These problems that beset me, the immense pressure of work, family, finances, research, teaching, this new life. The pressure to go, go, go... Maybe this year can bring some peace and silence. It's worth trying, at least.