31 July 2013

Forgetting the heat

The heat of Malaysia can be forgotten in a moment. I step off the plane in Amsterdam and suddenly, my body has forgotten.

Letchu, our mustachio'd Indian driver, picked me up much earlier than he needed to, well before my flight was to leave. But being Malaysia, I didn't want to risk it. If given the chance to escape, all contingencies must be taken into account. Traffic, of course. The taxi breaking down. A bridge being out. A pack of feral dogs. The mind comes up with endless scenarios. Letchu came on time though and the children cried a bit because they wanted to go too, but I kissed them all goodbye and got into the car, wearing my jeans, my European clothes, the ones that I feel like me in, albeit tighter and too hot in the Malaysian evening haze.

Two hours before I left, I had another run-in with the institution, another list of people, none with any responsibility, screwing up another payment that I had needed ten hours earlier. I sent angry emails all up and down the reporting line, exhausting myself and getting an angry response from the person most culpable, denying responsibility and pointing me to an email that didn't say what she thought it said. 

More resentment: taking money is easy for the institution, giving it is an impossibility.

I left the house hating them for screwing it up, hating them for making me tell my wife again that there will be less money than we thought. Why? There is no simple answer. Nothing can be done. Get in a taxi and leave: the kids begging to go with.

The steps to leaving are drawn out over hours, but when I finally sat down on the plane, I believed it. No one had screwed up my reservation. The seat was what I wanted. Now, Germany: everything you image it to be. Ham and beer and brilliant people. I feel like I am on a prison break, but that Malaysia is pursuing me and will take me back in a moment. This world is not for you now, it's saying. I feel it coming up behind me. 

29 July 2013

Visions and barking

Dreams and visions: the last week was filled with them. I started to write them out here, but they felt angry and bitter. A year of writing about resentment is nothing in the grand scheme of things, a 'season' in life, my former Evangelical self would assure me. Crying out. We had metaphors for this as well. 

For all the talk of Ramadan happening outside of my perception, the longer it goes on, the more I can see it. At fast food restaurants, mothers are feeding cheerful, oblivious children piles of junk food, while looking on lovingly. A man walking through the mall holding an ice cream cone on the way to a child. I am in the middle of it, sitting in McDonalds, awkwardly drinking coffee: insult to injury, they accidentally give us two ice cream cones instead of just one for Naomi. I swear to god I only ordered one. But now, of course, I have to eat it, what am I going to do. Throw it away? I'm not fasting; I'm not Muslim. I want to say this outloud, announce it like it hasn't already been announced. It's okay, everyone, don't worry, I'm not Muslim. I see a fat Chinese man eating ice cream, and we share a knowing glance. Look at us, we're not Muslim.

Am I the only one embarrassed? I shamefully ask for another refill of coffee from a woman in tudong. I feel like a child: only the children are eating, the weak ones. Look at me: it's obvious I don't belong. Give me access to coffee and ice cream, but also withhold my access to something I can't perceive. What am I trading this coffee for? Fat white men aren't supposed to think about this: we just do what we do and don't think about the gaze going both ways.

We found a Ramadan bazaar nearby, filled with all the smells and excitement of a festive season. Chicken, in particular: fabulous chicken. Everyone seems happy. In Malaysia, they make a sandwich called roti john which is just a long bun filled mostly with ketchup and sauce, and a small amount of meat. But 'John': John is the generic fat white man name. Children call me John; every fat white man is John. Walking past a stall at the bazaar, one of the men selling it has a flash of brilliance in his mind: calls out to me, 'John!' (laughing) 'Roti! John, roti! Roti John!' and they laugh and laugh and I pretend I don't hear.

We pack up the chicken and go home and eat when we are ready, not when the call to prayer comes. In the house, I can feel shame too, if I want to. Everyone is waiting to eat, but we are not. A whole social system we are free from, but not really free from. Of course I can eat: I'm not Muslim. 

I will go back to Europe for the week, to my people, the European linguists. This whole social structure of the fast will dissipate among blonde-haired, blue-eyed Johns like me. I will no longer be fat and white and a gluttonous child. I will have the advantage again; the fasters will become oddities. I will be normal, just like that, and I can go from the one being looked at to the one looking.

23 July 2013

The glowering

A series of thoughts today, unrelated.

In Port Dickson, we were guided to the ocean, and when standing ankle deep in the warm water, Yoko and my eyes met like we had the same thought: this is what we had expected from Malaysia. I laid down in the water and floated on my back. It was clean, no rubbish. The smell of Sumatra burning over the horizon.

This is one Malaysia, the one closer to what I expected when we came.

And then there is another: next to the car garage, some Malay guys have put up a banner and started washing vans, cars, and motorbikes. They are there all day, mostly sitting and waiting. Yesterday, as I came up the road, there was a group of Malay women walking up from the hospital: nurses in white coats and tudong. The men, as the women passed, leered and cat-called. I was behind the women and had an immediate flash of anger, locking eyes with one of the men who suddenly didn't know where to look. Group of women or fat, white man: which is more interesting? I glowered, as you do, passive and aggressive. He looked away and then looked back and then away and then back, realising that I was now staring at him. By the time I passed, all the car washers were silently staring at me, glowering at them. The moment passed — I passed them and the women and got to the top of the hill, and no one learned anything.

Ramadan creeps on and on, still beyond the edges of perception. On the 7:15 bus, at 7:30ish, a phone rings, the bus driver has a happy conversation, and starts pulling out some food. The bus creaks and bends and sways for another five minutes, and he starts guzzling a big bottle of water. At the next stop, I smell a cigarette: think, some asshole student is smoking here? No, it's the bus driver, smoking and spitting out the window... I get home and send an angry e-mail to transportation at the University; no one learns anything.

Ramadan is for visions. Sitting on the bus, another colleague gets on and passing me says, You're leaving: I've had the same dream three nights in a row — you and your family with bags. Where are we going, I want to ask: where did the dream say we were going?

This is what has been happening at night, apparently: Malaysia has been speaking to my colleagues about me in visions, asking me to go. This is why the night parties, the endless string of iftar meals have not materialised. Instead, visions and barking: I wake to a pack of feral dogs fighting in the park, Yoko standing at the window watching. I stand too, look out, mutter under my breath, Jesus, shut the fuck up, and regret cursing in front of my wife.

Malaysia, if you can talk to my colleagues in dreams, let me talk back to you. I miss you already: when the car battery dies, another series of kind neighbours come out. Saturday, one neighbour takes me to where the car is stranded in the city centre and helps me push it out and jumps it, smiling and chatting about race in a frank way the whole time. And then last night, when the car is dead again, another couple of Uncles, a Chinese one and an Indian one, happily help me pull out the dead battery and replace it. Dead, la; need new one, la; never mind.

Never mind: a kind of Malaysian mantra. My daughters say it now too. Never mind. Whatever is troubling you or broken or in need of improvement, fixing: never mind la. A colleague calls it the Malaysian charm, a shrug. A car passes me today with a boy hanging out the window like a dog. Never mind, nothing bad ever happens.

16 July 2013


A strange feeling of nostalgia now in Malaysia, nostalgia for a place that I have no plans to leave, but still, the sense that the end is inevitable. Today, I climbed like a bear into my swimming trunks (my 'costume', the British say) and slipped into the water of the Y.M. Tengku Tan Sri Dato' Seri Ahmad Rithauddeen Sports Complex swimming pool, tucked into a hill covered in palm trees.

Swimming, like running, lends itself to strings of thoughts that are only tenuously related, but make sense in your own mind. I thought about gaining weight, about possible universes that I could inhabit, possible futures for our girls. I thought about how annoyed my wife seemed as I left this morning and how unable I am to express myself in anything but writing. I thought about looking across the park in front of our terrace house and seeing Mia at the top of the slide.

The moment, of course, the moment is worth catching and pinning down: my fat, foreign white body floating thousands, tens of thousands, of miles away from where it landed.

One lesson learned in Malaysia, a surprising one, about how institutions function and how responsibility is dissipated. Institutions are not pyramid structures, with people on the top: individuals function with different levels of power, but the institution itself is never dependent on any individual so no individual is ever responsible for the actions of the institution. The individual plays a role in the institution: whatever plan or goal the individual has coming into the institution, it is carefully and slowly bent until the individual fits the role they are needed to fill. This is fine, of course, if you believe in what the institution is doing, but when you don't, you grow to resent it and what it is requiring of you.

Individuals have very little power in institutions; you need more than one person to make a change. I have never much seen the value of a union until now. The institution reinforces the same message: Each one of the individuals is replaceable, one at a time. Without any collective bargaining apparatus, you are only you. Your only recourse is to leave the institution — you rarely change it. Lesson learned.

Before dawn, before the fajr prayer on Monday, Auntie and Uncle left us for Vietnam where Uncle is taking a new post. On Sunday night, we went to their house to say goodbye. Uncle gave me some Ramadan sweets wrapped in bamboo leaves and they gave us all the things the girls had left in their house over the last seven months. No one cried: Yoko hugged and kissed Auntie and the girls hugged and kissed everyone. We left, as we have so many times, with food and the girls begging to stay. We stopped at the end of the street to wave goodbye to them, probably for the last time.

For whatever failures I have had in this misadventure, I have accomplished the one thing I wanted: giving my children an experience of Islam as it is. I want them to remember that Auntie said she prayed for them and that there is no compulsion in religion. I want them to remember the azan and appropriate it the way I do: a sweet and clear reminder throughout the day to stop, clean your body and your heart, and remember what is most important to you. If they can remember that, I've accomplished what I hoped I would by coming here.

15 July 2013


I have been waiting and waiting to experience Ramadan, but now that it's here, I've felt like it's happening around the corners, right outside of my eyesight. On Saturday, we went to the big shopping mall and the food court was essentially closed except for two or three places feeding the Chinese and the other kafir. At night, twice now, I have gone out in search of night bazaars, but it has been largely quiet in Kajang. No endless party through the night — just long queues of weary looking people at the KFC. Where is the clarity? Where are the endless invitations to iftar, the dates? Instead, I have again been sucked into some alternate universe where I can't seem to stop myself from eating, like I have taken over for the whole country.

Fasting is not something you do, of course, it's something you avoid doing. So there's nothing to see. The azan for maghrib seems louder than normal. I have this sense of communal accomplishment when it comes, like we have made it through the day, despite my lack of involvement. Auntie and Uncle's house is full of life and excitement, from what I can tell across the alley. Still, there is less to be seen than I hoped...

10 July 2013

Bucketed suffering

I'm sure I've used this picture before, of the bucketed Christ perpetually suffering on Gozo in Malta. I always loved this picture because I can see the Maltese light in the way I remember it, reflecting off the limestone into the blue sky and water. Golden and dry: bright but not hot.

The things I have lost living in Malaysia now include a sense of weather beyond it being hot, or different degrees of hot. The Autumn is not coming: I should give up on that hope. Ramadan is coming, not the Autumn.

A lack of positive narratives continues to hold me back from writing. I am trying to see the way forward, but not getting there. The resentment keeps rising: resentment results from both real and imagined wrong done, Wikipedia says. Look to the bucketed Christ for answers. 

03 July 2013

Six months and 31 years

From the second year of university through to January of the next year, Tsukuru Tazaki lived, thinking only of dying.
This is the first line of Haruki Murakami's new novel, leading into the sort of navel-gazing introspection about death that I love. Murakami does it in such a stark, minimalistic way. Murkami doesn't say, 'Tazaki was miserable'. He says, 'Tazaki woke everyday, sat on the bench waiting for the train, went to school. When he was hungry, he ate noodles in the school cafeteria. After his classes finished, he went home, sat on the floor and thought about dying. This continued for quite some time.' Murakami shows us the life a miserable person and we don't need him to tell us, 'He is miserable.' The truth is obvious in the actions: faith without works is dead.

I love this about Murakami, but I love it even more about Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese people. Love hangs in the air; it is the air. How had I forgotten that in the last two months. Murakami explains my life to me again. The action of love is the evidence of love. My wife stepping out into the smoky air to say, 'I love you' in English is a grace to me, a fat white man, who needs to hear it, to be reminded of it. Murakami shows me that the things that are the realest are the things that go unsaid, that don't need to be said: a whole race and culture of silence that I desperately miss. Looking at a map of Tokyo, trying to remember where Waseda is, all the streets are vividly alive in my memory. How many times had I walked through Shinjuku station to meet someone I loved.

This silence isn't, of course, wholly Japanese: Hopper makes this same point in his paintings of people tensly sitting together. My new Twitter  friend/Hopper scholar says, '#EdwardHopper's genius is that he depicted deadly silence, so thick you could cut it with a knife.' Yes, of course: how had I missed this. What is true in art is true in life. It has to be.

Two anniversaries ticked past in the silence of last week: I turned 31 on the 27th and the 29th marked six months in Malaysia. Birthdays, as I get older, feel more like impositions on others, particularly my wife, adding unnecessary tasks and expectations. It was nice though: my sister-in-law and my niece and nephew were here, and we had pizza and I got a little drunk after the kids went to bed. I took the next day off to pick up my brother from the airport.

Six months of life in Malaysia was supposed to bring with it some stability, but we are still on the margin. It's easy to sacrifice — or rather, to ask others to sacrifice — when there aren't better options in front of you, or it is clear what the future holds. The same old story. I feel like I've bought a stock that plummeted immediately, and I wonder whether I should cut my losses. And then, when I am just ready to sell, ready to give in, the stock ticks up a point and another point, and I think, well maybe I should hold onto it another month.

Bad metaphors, yes; opaque, yes. There is no worse feeling than being duped, or rather thinking you've been duped. Long narratives must either be happy narratives or hard narratives with happy endings. If you can't see one or the other, you always feel the need to flip the story, wondering what, if anything, should be changed. Because if anything is true about storytelling it's this: if you look carefully enough at a scene, you can create a narrative around it, bending the truth.