30 April 2013


When it rains in Malaysia, it rains hard. And just now, like the alarm had been sent to go off, the rain starts.

Signs of settling and progression again, despite the lack of changes in the weather, the incessant heat. The last month I was in the UK, I bought new shoes that didn't fit properly, and threw away my old ones the week we moved. My feet swollen, I could not get the new shoes on after our plane ride here — I went through immigration, out to the baggage claim, in my socks. But, a sign — the shoes now fit well: perfectly, in fact.

I finished my first semester of teaching last week, only to begin again on Monday morning: my part-time hours for the summer to help top up my income. The new class went off with no trouble — some version of me is an English language teacher and he, if you ask politely, will appear on demand. He also, surprisingly, has a wealth of knowledge about it, gained in the EFL salt mines of Japan. Ten weeks of English for Academic Purposes? That knowledge is stored in a dusty shoebox in the back of my mind.

Slow progress articles too. One coming out in May, one almost through review, another to be sent in at the end of this week, and another 'in preparation'. And the book proposal: almost through review.

This progression doesn't, however, stop the almost daily discussion of leaving. No one here talks about staying, just trying to get out. I make and then immediately break my promise to not complain about finances, but it is the natural arc of so many conversations.

Building your career is such an imperceptible thing: money in the bank is not. I think of the 75 year-old version looking back at me, praising this decision and I want to curse at him for being so selfish, why won't he let me give up. Let me go, old man.

So another day. My weight goes up and down. The house is always the same, every night. What does progression look like in the heat. Yoko's eczema flairs up and I wake in the middle of the night, night after night, to move to the sofa. The call to prayer, the sun comes up, another morning.

25 April 2013


Stabilities, like plateaus, are always easy to recognise when you arrive at them. You don't know you have reached the top until you look up and can see the horizon. sᴇᴇɪɴɢ ɪs ᴋɴᴏᴡɪɴɢ. The call to prayer wakes you — you were sleeping next to your wife, and the rain has cleared. Everything that is normally dirty is suddenly clean. You walk the twenty minutes to the train station and watching the people come in and out of taxis and cars, you recognise stability in the system — that the system is fundamentally stable. The feeling is tangible for a moment. Everything that looked like chaos is profoundly, fundamentally ordered. A complex system.

A complex system: I think of the components that lead to temporary stability, some known, some unknown. Payday: yes. Small successes personally and professionally: yes. Kisses, hugs, parting cheers of Daddy, daddy! Yes.

You also know stability when you imagine the future as progression forward into something new, rather than retreat back to the familiar. When you begin to think of new ideas and new places you might call home rather than the overwhelming desire to go back.

The sense of stability is convergence. It's not just money, or love, or the weather. It's none of them, it's all of them. It's all of them together.
Mia is talking now, stringing together little phrases. If you've had small children, you how liberating this is for both the parents and the child. Vygotsky is right: in the acquisition of language, we internalise reasoning. Suddenly, getting breakfast in the morning is not a series of cries and shouts, but a request made and answered: a process that leads to pride and contentment, rather than frustration. You tell her to dance and she understands, smiles shyly, and swings her arms at her waist.
All this moving together, convergence and divergence. Jorie Graham comments on the process in a poem I suddenly decided to teach in class this last week. Graham, as the narrator, is hanging over a dock railing, watching minnows swim, when she falls into thoughts of the system:
And if I listen now?
Listen, I was not saying anything.
It was only something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.
Yes, this is it.

Everything moves together, but only when we realise it moves together. The rest of the time it is chaos. The world works? This shouldn't surprise me, but it does. Best to pin it down, log it, display it, write about it. My boss reminds me of the moment: this blog, this life, is about the moment. 'Here: never.' Tomorrow will be another day, another depleting bank account, a screaming child still hanging on her mother's breast. But for a moment, this moment, best to look to the horizon and imagine.

24 April 2013

One moment

Just now, I am standing in the kitchen, looking up and out across the alley for a moment into Auntie and Uncle's lit up back window. There is Uncle, doing the same thing as me: washing the dishes. He smiles and waves and I think about the responsibilities he and I share, caring for our little families in the same way.

22 April 2013

Eight Ringgit

Stories come and go over the week: when I can pin them down, they’re never the best ones. I had a post about my two staff photos called Recovery on deck. The photos, one from January and the next from last week, are clear evidence that things are looking up. At the very least, I've lost some weight. That story, however, slipped away before I could make something of it.
The end of our fourth month is coming up soon, but like every end of the month, we are under the strict confinement of the budget. Waiting to get paid is not something I thought I would be doing here, not after finishing my PhD. It will get better, I keep telling myself and Yoko, as we put off buying what we need to buy for another three days: the refrigerator pathetically empty.

One of the things you don’t notice in the developed world is the efficiency and raw force that occurs when you flush the toilet. It’s a thing of wonder, really. Only in rare, extenuating circumstances will the toilet become clogged. In our quaint terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, surrounded by the local Malaysia, the toilet is plastic and does not flush with force, but with resignation, like it’s given up. This is Malaysia: it works nominally well most of the time, provided you don't ask too much of it. That is to say: on Saturday night, the toilet clogged. I stood there, staring down, thinking, Shit and not taking the time to admire the irony of the situation. I told Yoko that the toilet was clogged, and Naomi kept saying, I want to see, I want to see! I got angry with her, shouted: No, of course not what's wrong with you.

The story ends happily, if a toilet flushing solid waste normally is a happy ending. In Malaysia, it is. I was content for about ten minutes— an abnormal sense of peace coming over me as clean water filled the bowl. But the peace only lasted until I had cleaned up.

I have RM8 in my wallet and am determined to make this last until Thursday, a kind of self-imposed minimalism — if everyone in the family has to suffer from this misadventure, I should do the most: this is, after all, my idea. Get up, ride the bus, work, work out, teach, go home, eat, sleep, do it again until Thursday when I will buy some fruit with whatever is left of the RM8. It's stupid, it doesn't make any sense except to me. We have savings, money coming in the next couple of months. But today is 22 April, and the future is the future.

I'm obsessed with these eight Ringgit and what I can make them represent. Five years it's been like this, I’m reminded again, sitting at the dining room table, another stalled conversation in the dull, oppressive heat. Five years, six, seven years is a long time. Maybe money does buy happiness and love: I'm not sure I will ever find out.

17 April 2013

Growing up, burning out

Something about Malaysia that is metaphorical, if you want it to be: the weather doesn't change. Today it was hot and muggy: high of 34-35. Tomorrow it will also be hot and muggy, high of 34-35. It might rain, it might not. The next day, and the day after that will also be hot and muggy. And next month, and so on and so on. The fat white man is disoriented by this and says things that have a slight condescension about them, everyone nodding and agreeing: I don't know, I just like the change of seasons back home; the sense of passing time. Of the many deficiencies of the country, the weather is one: I say this without saying it. I use this metaphor: it's like a tunnel without any ending.

In Japan, even the Japanese slow in August. They take a week off to sit around and complain about the weather: it's hot, isn't it hot?

The Pihlaja family goes back and forth about purchasing an air conditioner; the house didn't come with any so buying one (or two or three) would mean an active decision. We — the royal we; that is, I — don't like to make decisions like this. We, in theory, reject the air-conditioned life. We have no microwave. No TV. The air conditioner would result in all of us, suddenly, simultaneously, getting asthma and getting fat. So another day passes with the fans on: a student says, This is Malaysia, sir. It's hot and there are bugs. I feel especially white and fat when I answer: yes, yes, but it seems particularly hot and buggy where we are

Living as we do, we have no idea about the future: unease about investing in an aircon is just a metaphor for how little I can say about the future, even in the short to medium term. I don't even know if we'll be in this house in six months: we're taking it step-by-step, never quite sure. Why buy anything, really, except food and clean underwear. The bare essentials. Live like animals, hand to mouth. Jesus, if you'll recall, told us to look to the sparrows for inspiration. Quaint, yes: they don't appear to worry about anything. 

So I put on a dress shirt, tie, and slacks, kissing the girls goodbye and heading out into the morning which is deceptively comfortable for the first 15 minutes of the walk to the bus. It's not that hot, really. You just have to be willing to accept it. The fat white man walks to the bus, he sweats, the people stare until, mercifully, the bus coming up the road sees him and honks, pulling over. Hello, yes, selamat pagi, many thanks.

These are first world problems in the developing world: comical, really. Everything is going well, I report in e-mails to old colleagues. Books, two of them, in different stages. Articles forthcoming, under review, in preparation. Money problems on the verge of being solved, permanently and definitively (don't jinx it though — this is Malaysia and promises made are never promises kept). I even got my staff photo retaken: the less sweaty, thinner version of me, not squinting or standing flat footed. No, the new picture is almost aspirational: this fellow looks like he's headed to great things. Smiling confidently, but not too much. It's hot, yes, but I have it under control. 

12 April 2013


The Malaysian misadventure is full of thoughts of criteria.

Naomi needs to be peeled off me again to take her entrance exam at the only international school option we have at the moment. She has changed schools three times now, and here she needs to take a test. We spent the last whole two days trying to prepare her, but when the moment came to go in, she couldn't. They told me to leave her crying in the room. So I left. Pay RM350 to torture your daughter: what sort of life is this. And it will happen again, if by some miracle she passes the exam, in the autumn. Again and again and again. You can't protect your kids from change, certainly, but all this change, all the time? I am mad: the whole misadventure is mad.

What criteria do they test on, I wonder. They interview me and I feel confident and strong, like we belong here: we, this school and my family. I use those terms. I try to be amiable and likeable--I interviewed so much last year, it feels like a skill I have; I know what to say, I think.

Then she comes out of the test, sees me, waves and goes confidently with the teacher into the office. What the hell. She tells me she counted to 100, wrote some words, was praised a lot. Can we have ice cream now?

More criteria for testing: I look through CVs trying to help find another person for our new little School of English. A new family member in a way. How do you choose this person over that person? There is no test: this post doc versus that set of publications. I know that university, I don't know that other one. And then, of course, it's about me: how did I make it up a list like this one to be hired. Why did I get chosen. What other job might I get chosen for.

And then I have been marking my own students. I want to write them all the same comment, 'Forget this number, try your hardest, and be passionate... Work hard. Work as hard as you can. I gave you this number, but all I really want from you is hard work. Someone gets an 80 easily, another person struggles and fights for a 53. You want to be the person with the 53, not the 80.’

Naomi will or will not enter this school based on some criteria, but I suspect she is fundamentally not a person who does well in new situations that are high stress. She is exactly the opposite of me, in this case. She, when she takes her A-levels or SATs or whatever test she takes in 12 years for university: I suspect she will get all the books to prepare and practice tests and still, on the day, be hyperventilating. What can a father do. You can only protect your kids for so long.

I hope she is, or is becoming, a girl who can cry a bit, shake it off, and then blow the challenge out of the water. I sort of suspect that she is. If not, I'm sorry if I'm making things too hard for you, Naomi: I love you, I want the best for you. In a better place in the multiverse, we could all have what we want in the same place. We don't live in that world. So we all just have to do our best.

08 April 2013

All the worlds

The fat white man endeavour found itself this weekend in the kind of place fat white men find themselves in Malaysia: high rise condominiums perched above the more Malaysian parts of Malaysia. At the gate of the condo, there was a Indonesian or Bangladeshi man waving people in, and I saw one women in a Tudong, but otherwise, it was Chinese, white people, and Arabs, sitting by a beautiful pool which was surrounded by beautiful condos, surrounded by a beautiful golf course. and ringed by expressways on all sides. Completely cloistered from Malaysians on motorbikes and the markets. Fountains and clean changing rooms.

We were at these condos to visit some new friends that Yoko had made. Down-to-earth, good people: the kind of Japanese people who embody the stability and clarity of Japanese culture while maintaining the independence of people living abroad. Calm and wise: the sort of people you sit with and instantly feel at ease. This is the best thing that can be said of someone, I think: they make you comfortable. The children swam and Yoko and I sat, speaking Japanese together like we were suddenly back five years, before we had kids and when Yoko sat on my lap sometimes. We had lunch and hung out in the apartment until it was time, after seven hours, to go home.
I realise with every passing week how long it's been since I have completely exhaled, how many levels of stress have been weighing on us the last four to five years. I keep thinking, now I've exhaled, but then I go another month and exhale some more. I realised this weekend that we will soon have no children under 2 for the first time in six years. That Yoko will not be pregnant or caring of a newborn. That I will not be doing my PhD or looking for a job. I'm less on edge, particularly after Mei went to the hospital and it was okay. It's okay: can we say that now? It's okay.
Our little terrace house in Taman Sri Minang has no pool or gatekeeper or wall. The gate in front of the house could be broken down by anyone. The sounds of Malaysia permeate everything: the birds and call to prayer and the stray dogs barking. You must, in our house, open the windows or you will burn up: it's a metaphor for everything. The neighbours are always coming and going: there is a truck that comes by to take away cardboard and another truck selling tofu and another truck with vegetables. A man on a motorbike with a weedcutter who you pay RM10 to cut your grass.

Yoko and I go back and forth about where we live and where we might be able to live when our finances stabilise sometime in the next couple of years. We could move out of Taman Sri Minang into a less local area. That's the codeword, 'local' as opposed to 'international'. I keep saying, I came to Malaysia to live in Malaysia, but there are parts of me that think it would be nice to swim and relax behind the walls. Perhaps our narrative arc bends that way, but I think having it every so often is enough for me. I say that all the good things in this country have come to us because we don't have any money. If we were rich, we'd have air-conditioning, but no Auntie, no Uncle. No running in the streets in the early morning.

Here, in Taman Sri Minang, Malaysia confronts you and then swallows you. My daughter comes home from Auntie's in the Tudong the other day, talking about how beautiful it makes her. She wears it with a Cinderella dress and then she says to me, in Japanese, that she wants to be Muslim. What do you say to that. Mei's accent is fully Malaysian now. What do you say. I shrug and smile.

We inhabit so many worlds as a little family, moving weekly in and out of them. Another context, another language, another god. Mia's first words are in four languages: she's standing naked at the gate shouting 'Selamat Malam!' at the neighbours. The conversations we have with people orient towards the children's future all the time, but I am just starting to enjoy the present, all the gods here in Malaysia looking over all the different people around me. More food under the back fence from Auntie: fried noodles and curry and watermelon. I bought whisky and sat down yesterday without the impetus to go on to something else. We played Candyland and I listened to Jazz: Sunday night like I used to imagine Sunday night should be. When it was done and everything was finally quiet, I shut off the lights of the house and locked the doors, but the windows were still open upstairs. Not home, but a kind of home. Our home for now.

03 April 2013

Known Unknowns

Tucked in yesterday's post—my climbing on my desk and shouting in my own passive-aggressive way, I'm not going to take it anymore—was the story that really mattered:
Yoko calls: Mei has cut her hand, should I go to the hospital? And I am now that person I always feared I would be: Can we afford to pay for it out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed sometime in the future?
I wrote this as it happened: Mei had cut her finger trying to open a jelly desert–badly enough that she needed to go to the hospital. I had expected some accident to happen eventually, a Rumsfeldian 'Known Unknown', and had investigated our options, all the hospitals nearby and covered by our insurance plan. But in the course of a day, a whole series of events unfolded, all representing different struggles about life here and resulting in the problem becoming more and more debilitating as the day wore on... It came to a head at 4:16 when I had to duck out of class on the mobile phone with the coverage breaking up: Mei having still not been to the hospital in four hours, and me trying to explain to Yoko where she needed to go over Mia screaming in the background.

Mei was, of course, fine, more-or-less. She's always more-or-less fine. She needed stitches, but she had stopped bleeding and was comfortable enough. Mei is the daughter I can tell to stop crying and she stops.

But still, more problems: the university doesn't give you insurance cards so you have to pay out of pocket and be reimbursed, but because Yoko can't have a bank account she can't have a bank card, and usually doesn't have that much cash. She had RM300 yesterday by a fluke, but I had no idea if that would be enough to be seen. You only know what you've heard: I had heard they ask for a thousand Ringgit deposit. The panel hospital I had sent Yoko to, it turned out, was having a blackout and not treating anyway. This is, after all, Malaysia. The receptionist Yoko spoke to suggested she head to Cheras, another 40 minutes away in traffic, but when Yoko called me, the whole thing sounded like a massive miscommunication. I told her to just go to the public government hospital: try that before going all the way to Cheras.

This was happening while I was in class, but my phone died and everything went dark. There's nothing I could do anyway. Class ended, and I got on the bus headed to the hospital, wrapped up in all the thoughts again. Man made troubles: fat white man troubles. All of these puzzles, this confusion, is a tangled web of my own life choices. Knowing the reason for them doesn't make their solutions easier or harder to find, but I always note this when it's hard. We are choosing this. All of it.

The bus arrived and I burst into the emergency room, sweating and out of place (mat salleh!?) and a Chinese man, seeing my confusion, held up three fingers, quizzically. How did I know what he meant: Yes, I said. He pointed to a door. I opened it and a doctor was sitting there. I'm looking for my wife and daughters. Mei Pihlaja? Yes. She's fine, you can wait outside.

So I waited, watching the people come in and out of exam rooms, listening to the numbers being called, and feeling abruptly, surprisingly at ease, a strange, serendipitous whiplash Malaysia gives at times: there are places where everything is controlled by people who are genuinely empathetic. Behind the glass of the reception counter, I suddenly saw Yoko and the kids, all three with candy and smiling. They came out and Mei jumped into my arms and I held her and held her. It was okay, it was all okay. Just like that, they glued the cut up. The supervisor looked, all the nurses: like always we were the main attraction for the day. That's it? RM50 and we're done. Let's go to the night market.

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013
Mei, you can always trump your father if, when I'm scolding you or angry with you, you ask me, But didn't you do the same thing when you were my age? I did. This is karma.
Yoko says staying only a year is a waste: she's right. You fight through things and you make progress and you take workarounds and you don't let it get you down. Yoko is the master of this: nothing phases her. I fall into deep depression, analysing and thinking and reassessing, but she is happy to have the moment, take pictures of the new food and chat with the neighbours about the flowers. Maybe that's the lesson learned from another problem overcome: my marriage is my grace. My children are my grace.

02 April 2013

Threading the needle

Walking by the Oriental Crystal Hotel, the place we first stayed when we came to Kajang, I said to Naomi, If we go up those stairs, and say we have a reservation, I bet there is a reservation for us. And I bet the reservation is for two weeks and if we stay two weeks, a taxi will come and take us to the airport, and there will be plane tickets for us, back to the UK. We will get back and come out of Terminal 3 at Heathrow, into the early-April British snow, and our car will be idling, waiting. And we'll take the M25 to the M1, exit in Milton Keynes, and drive home to Booker Ave. The door will be open and we'll go upstairs: all of our things will be there and we will fall asleep in our own beds. And when we wake up, we will only remember Malaysia like you remember a dream. Like it never happened, did it?

Some narratives are stories, some are just information to sort through—maths to do over and over again on mobile phone calculators. Known knowns. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns. Malaysia is full of the second and third categories. Yoko calls: Mei has cut her hand, should I go to the hospital? And I am now that person I always feared I would be: Can we afford to pay for it out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed sometime in the future?

Coming to Malaysia, I felt like there were three scales of success, based on how long we could end up staying. The first one was three months: this would have happened if life here proved to be impossible and we needed to suddenly up and leave. The second was for one year: that life proved to be manageable for the medium term, but serious problems remained either in terms of the kids education, my job, finances, or our overall happiness. The third was for three years, the full term of my contract.

We have now made it through three months, steaming towards four. This is a kind of achievement, a success, I think, although not that surprising. There was a lot of momentum built up. Still: I have had my doubts, mostly related to the finances, which have been difficult. I'm actually not sure how we have done it: I look at the money coming in and the money going out and it doesn't make sense. Just one month at a time for now: Yoko and the kids continue to sacrifice despite all my promises that it would be easier here, better here. I feel like I lied to to them. It's one thing to suffer for yourself, for your own career: but to ask those you love to do the same. I keep saying it will get better. I keep hoping it will get better.

We are getting to a crucial step which will really determine if we stay for one or three years. Naomi has been shortlisted at the local International school we had applied to and the school we had moved to Kajang to attend. Not a true International school, but really an English medium school with Malaysian staff and, therefore, potentially affordable. She will have her test on 12 April and then we will know for sure what our choices are. For (white, Westerner) foreigners in Malaysia, getting access to education is a privilege, one that your company buys for you; it is illegal, after all, to attend local schools. This is not an issue for people employed with multi-national corporations, but it is a massive problem for our little family, as my employer only subsidises a part of these costs. I had expected the costs to be negligible, but as things are in Malaysia, they are more expensive than you think when you're making a local salary. Forget USD, and GBP, and JPY: you're making RM. That's the only number that matters. Add to that any number of hidden costs and reimbursements which come on time sometimes, and other times not. It's a constant stress: you're constantly e-mailing, phoning, stopping by: I'm sorry, just to check up on this, was my claim filed? No? Can it be done today please? And you are then the complaining fat white man: so spoiled, such a high salary and still pushing, pushing, pushing.

I'm constantly thinking about it, with my mobile phone out: how much money will I have, how much will come in, what happens if it's late, or if there's an accident where we absolutely need to go to the hospital and need cash on hand, or if, if, if. And even the known-knowns are troubling. In August, I will need to put up almost two months of my take-home pay to register her in school. As Malaysia is, some of the money should be reimbursed, but when and how much, no one can ever say for sure. Yoko's tired of me talking about it: it's all I ever talk about.

I took some part-time work at the University leaving me with no summer holiday and an added teaching load when I should be doing any number of other things. But hopefully the work will take some of the stress off of our day-to-day life. We, Yoko and I, keep saying this is the best thing–making this work is the best thing.

I'm optimistic that things will, as they do in Malaysia, work out. Naomi will sit the test and I will pay some ridiculous amount of my pay this month for that privilege because I have faith and have not given up yet. Still, that reverse reality I began this narrative with gnaws at me: an envelope full of passports and airline tickets, some other multi-verse, some other waking dream, a plane ride away.