29 August 2013


In front of our terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, there are trees in the park. On Monday night, dinner eaten, the children watching Japanese cartoons in the background, I sat out under the awning, filled my pipe, and smoked. The pipe comes and goes in life: I smoked when I was completing my PhD thesis, in angry walks down by the river across the football pitch from the Stuart Hall Building. This fit of smoking, over the last two months, began while Yoko and the kids were away, when I bought tobacco in Suria, the glossy mall in KLCC. RM22, a kind of selfish treat, I thought at the time.

After the sunset, but before the final call to prayer, the atmosphere is perfect — the streetlamp in front of the house casting a third-world light that you notice when you first arrive in the country, but becomes normal the more you are in it. I looked up at the tree and thought about how long it had been there — was it older than me?

On Tuesday, Naomi and I will go again to her new school for orientation and on Wednesday she will start, and I am dreading this. Another change in an unending series of changes, although Yoko assures me that if we, her parents, are okay, she will be okay. This won't be the case in three years time, when she is ten, but for now we can control it and make it okay. I want to believe this, but I have doubts. Her life has been in non-stop flux, new friends and languages. How does anyone remain happy throughout these changes: I map my own insecurity on her experience. Perhaps being a child is easier.

Security: a kind of half truth to our children about how the world really is.

After riding my motorbike on Tuesday, being liberated, I was brought down quickly. I passed an accident on the road home and remembered one thing about riding the bike I hadn't fully realised: the ride in to work was much easier than the ride out. A half circle of people around a mangled Yamaha Wave — a police car with lights on. No one was dead, from what I could tell, but an omen among good portents stands out.

I dread dragging my daughter back to the school again, but what needs to be done, needs to be done. Have I learned anything in the last eight months: it's worth asking that question outloud. I ask it all the time in my head, when I'm sending the children up to go to bed, or walking out to lock the gate, or waiting for the bus. Put this all in context for me.

All this talk of the moment around me now; just live the moment, don't pull anything close or push anything away. Cross-legged on the concrete in front of the house, for a moment, the peace that passes understanding, the peace of being present in the moment, the past and future forgotten, came upon me. Bathed in light and smoke, looking up. Yes, I see, I have a glimpse. There is nothing to do but be here.

26 August 2013

I will not lose, ever

Cresting the hill leading up to Nottingham outside of Broga, the sun streaming through the palm trees, the hum of the motorbike underneath me: if this is not a return to the original promise and joy of Malaysia, I'm not sure what is. I got on my bike this morning out of convenience, not courage: I have to go to the bank and Yoko needs the car, so I couldn't take the bus. Still, getting back on the bike, the feeling of riding out of Taman Sri Minang, past the pack of feral dogs and one of our Chinese Uncles waving at me, was a kind of performance of hope.

This weekend, we went to the Pearl Avenue apartments, a new apartment block being built in Kajang. For RM1300, you can have everything you would want: swimming pool, club house, aircon, stunning views of the city. I stood on the balcony looking out, the wilderness suddenly fading behind me. The kids loved it, and the agent and I talked about how much it would be to move it: what we would need to do.
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
Malaysia has taught me this in the last month: if you can't say 'never mind' to anything you encounter, you can't make it here. Fat white men don't say, 'Never mind' to the same things Malaysians say 'Never mind' to, and we think that this difference means we are morally superior. Fat white men do not throw away aluminium cans in bins.

Never mind: crouching down, coaxing a fire of grass clippings while the Isha call to prayer rang out, I connected again. My knees and hands were dirty: Mia wouldn't sleep. I sat on the sofa, drinking whiskey and watching TV. Yoko was there; we were just sitting, the door to the house open. I walked out to check the lock at the gate before going to bed.

20 August 2013

A newer normal

Last week, after the Bird Park, we retreated to the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, licked our metaphorical and literal wounds and repeated the Malaysian mantra: never mind, la. Never mind. Let's try again, let's be better today than we were last week. The girls are at an age where they adore me. When push comes to shove, of course, they prefer their mother, they will go with their mother, but they still want to held and carried. They think daddy is brilliant and strong and capable. The other parents will know how hard it is to appreciate this when it is happening, rather than after it has passed; life has a way of never allowing you to appreciate the moment, except as a memory. Still, this last week, I was able to appreciate it. A blessing. A mercy.

Sometimes stepping back gives perspective, a lack of focus on a series of negative moments to find the good ones. Yoko and I and the kids, for example, sit in Starbucks in Midvalley and for a moment I think of Malaysia as it is intended to be: an outside terrace with fans. Arab men with veiled women and smartly dressed Chinese Malaysian men in black leather shoes. I sit back and try not to think too much about what counts as a place I can relax. The girls are nothing but happy, 'Today also a lucky day?' they say as I take three days off after the long weekend to buy them candy. Yes, today also. 

Naomi has the most concern for the family: like my older brother, she mediates the world of the children and the world of the adults. When my brother went to college, in 1998, the house dissolved without him. The weekend that Diana was killed in a car crash, yes, I can remember it all now if I think about it. Naomi is becoming this person in our family. Reasonable and careful. She pestered Neal, who came this last week, to ask her questions — quiz her spelling ability and then asked for praise, 'I'm good at spelling, right?' 

Now, next week, we will abandon her again at a new school, and I wonder how long it will take her to adjust. I keep thinking that something will happen that will mean she doesn't have to go and can stay at the neighbourhood tadika until the end of the year, that the ticket out of Malaysia will come in a chocolate bar wrapping that I discover walking home from work. It hasn't and isn't coming this week or next, so we will keep going through the motions, lying to her that stability is coming. The truth: No, sweetheart, you will have to do this again, I imagine. At least one more time. I promise we'll settle next time.

The readjustment wears on me more than on her. Kids are resilient, or at least we all say to each other, but no one really knows what they mean or has any empirical evidence for it. Children forget like I've really forgotten how it was when my brother left. I remember sitting around the kitchen table and everyone being profoundly sad and angry, but I can't remember if we shouted or what we said or what was said. 

I suspect the children will remember candy and the massive mall here — how daddy promised to buy a ukulele at Christmas and how we were always planning on going back to the UK anyway. Yoko and I will remember the uncertainty and the pressure to keep more money coming in than going out, but Naomi and Mei and Mia, with some luck, will remember how their daddy picked them up in the crowd and kissed their cheeks: told them, 'I love you. I love you' again and again, like it was a promise for a better future.

13 August 2013


The story splintered over the last ten days, in ways that I feel uncomfortable following. The narrative of this blog avoids certain topics: it gives the appearance of transparency, while keeping certain things out of sight, or hidden in plain sight. 'Here' — or physical location more generally — is always a metonymy for emotional or mental location. Here is never just the chair that you're sitting in, it's your whole embodied experience of here. Take that as a lesson.

On Thursday afternoon, the first day of my week of holidays, I walked through the KL bird park, bloodied, dehydrated, and exhausted. My youngest daughter was clinging again to my wife, who looked and looks one step away from collapsing. None of this is metaphorical, all actual: real blood, real dehydration, real screaming. I argue with a woman in a tudong, Is there really no drinking water in the park? Only the mineral water marked up 4 times? It's hard to tell who is more frustrated with whom.

I had returned from Germany feeling positive, but lasted only for a moment. In the taxi ride up from the airport, passing the mosques and chatting with the driver, I felt almost like I was in a foreign country again. The house, however, felt familiar; a kind of kennel. Not a jail: a place you are kept out of love. The Muslims in the neighbourhood broke fast on Wednesday with feasting and fireworks; we broke it with fighting. The next morning, the residue of anger and exhaustion hung on. The family couldn't stay in the overheated terrace house in Taman Sri Minang another day, but there was nowhere to go. Let's go to the Bird Park. Let's try that.

I was bloodied, actually bloodied, from falling in a hole, an actual, physical hole. Walking in front of Kuala Lumpur station, I had peeled my youngest daughter off of my wife again and was walking ahead to get her to forget that she was not with her mother. Then, suddenly, I am on the ground, my glasses have been knocked off. Mia is lying on her back, she's hit her head and is screaming. I try to stand, but can't. Yoko's asking if I'm okay.

Tense shifts to present for immediacy in narrative. My dad, telling me the story of seeing his uncle burned alive, also shifted into the present tense.

I was, thankfully, more or less okay. I was scraped badly, but not deeply, not actually cut. We went into the station, the thousands of Malay men clamouring for tickets, and the call to prayer of the national mosque on the other side. A man in a white robe, the station master, mopped up my scraps with another man in a backpack.There's a grate missing on one of the sewage drains out there, I said. Yes, the station master said, You must be careful. It was, as everything has been in this country, my fault: it's your fault for not knowing that you would not get paid. It's your fault for giving the police officer money when he asks. You shouldn't do that; you should know better. You should know there are holes in the sidewalks.

The story just trailed off there. Nothing happened, no one fixed the hole, no one took responsibility: we were pointed to the Bird Park, where we were headed before I fell. I limped a little, but by the end of the day, my ankle could hold my weight. The scrap slowly healed, is healing. We took a taxi back to town, and everything was forgotten.

Now, we are waiting -- for the holiday to end, for Naomi's school to start, for the first round of possibilities in the UK to go through or come back negative. Then we will re-evaluate, see where we should invest next. For my part, I finally bought shorts and t-shirts: clothes that fit and are comfortable in this climate. In Germany, I staggered around in my clothes from England which are too small now, particularly when I am eating non-stop. Come Autumn, I will, again, get my body back. Come next week, when I go back to work and can forget about heat.

04 August 2013

Grey light

The morning light seemed grey until I just opened the curtain now and looked out. Yes, it will be another glorious German day, but one that will be cut short by a plane ride back.

I left the conference feeling profoundly uneasy about the choices I've made in the last year. I've said that feeling duped is shameful and disheartening, but that's how I feel. I feel duped. Righting the ship shouldn't be impossible, I am still young and none of my choices have taken me too far away from where I wanted to go. Now though, to focus.