23 October 2013

Ten years

Ten years ago, I left the States for Japan. The writing I did around settling there, of being a young missionary with DK (Dan), feels familiar again.
 We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant on the Bay and we fumbled through conversation. After dinner, Miyauchi Sensei told us he would take us to the public bath and DK and I shared some concerned looks. We drove up into the hills, got out of the car and then walked further up through what seemed to be a very touristy part of town that had closed for the day. At the end of a path lined with closed food stands, we got to the public bathhouse. Miyauchi Sensei bought tickets out of a vending machine then gave the tickets to a woman sitting at a counter right by the vending machine. We went down a narrow hallway to the locker area where we all got naked.
The public bath is basically a line of showerheads about waist high next to little stools. You sit on the stool and wash with a bar of soap and the showerhead, then get into a hot tub to rinse off. After washing, we sat in the hot tub for a while, and I realized that the whole room was lined with windows that didn’t have shades. After about five minutes, Miyauchi Sensei got up and we followed him out through sliding doors onto the patio. We stood there, naked, looking out at the city. It was pretty surreal. After a couple of minutes we went back to the hot tub, and Miyauchi Sensei asked about our families.
Ten years after this experience, ten years exactly, I was in Kajang, buying new tyres for our Hyundai Matrix, the car that saved my marriage last February. The car has been excellent along the way, although I am afraid every morning that it will suddenly not start. Over the weekend, I saw a small crack on front driver's side tyre and thought about Yoko and the kids stranded in the middle of a congested freeway, the tyre blown and motorbikes flying by on both sides.

The tyre store I stopped at — Yoko had asked if it was a good one: what's a good tyre store? — was run by a Chinese Malaysian man who looked at my car and quoted me RM195 a tyre for Silverstones: Malaysian tyres. I've learned so far the hierarchy of car accessories in this country: Chinese are the cheapest, then Malaysian, then Japanese or American. RM195 seemed high, so I tried to negotiate: How much for two? RM380. Discount? No discount. You want cheaper, you need Chinese tyre, but I no have. RM150, but cheap, many problem. (I thought about it, performed thinking about it.) Okay, fine. You want alignment? How much? RM25. You do for free? No, RM25. Do I need? Maybe need, maybe not. How car drive, I don't know. 

I left the car and they put it up on the rack. I walked up the road: I was in a part of Kajang that I hadn't been  — a small Indian community with dark men selling flower leis and a vegetarian food stall on the corner with old men on plastic chairs looking out at the evening, the traffic passing on the main road. I bought a Diet Pepsi and peanuts at the corner shop and walked up the hill, looking out over the city.

When I came back, they were done. RM390, as promised. The car drove fine and the Malay man in the Proton Saga waiting at the light let me cut in from the parking lot: a small grace, I thought, the sort of thing you appreciate in Malaysia. Thank you for letting me in ah. No problem la.

I came home and Mei and Mia were naked, running around. They hugged me at the gate, giggled and ran off, back into the house. Yoko played some loud Russian orchestra for them and they all danced around with drums and flutes, drowning out the Maghrib call to prayer, while I drank whiskey and watched.

14 October 2013

Let's be generous with our claps

Naomi graduated from her kindergarten on Saturday. I sat in the audience, Mia sleeping on my shoulder. Surrounded by scores of Chinese parents with smart phones and digital SLRs, I felt the way I do at things like this: cynical and wishing desperately to be somewhere else. The British Library, maybe: somewhere with my people, the ones I can recognise. Mei danced to the Blue Danube, holding a flower, and wearing a costume that the school had rented for RM75 and charged to us. We needed, a woman kept reminding us in English and Chinese, to give a big clap for the children and appreciate their movements, regardless of how well they were doing. Perhaps people have more patience for all of this when they get older.

Mia woke up during the thirty minute introduction, looking around the auditorium for Yoko and starting to cry. I took her out into the waiting area. We were on the fifth floor of the New Era College, a small Chinese Malaysian college in Kajang. You could look out at the whole city, the traffic moving up and down Jalan Semenyih, the hotel we stayed at when we first came, the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang just over the hill. Mia wandered around fussing and I thought about the last year and all Kajang has come to mean in this misadventure.

When the ceremony ended and it was time for photos, Naomi was chased down by two boys, both called Joshua and both very polite. They took photos over and over and when Yoko said to Naomi that she should take a photo just with me, she said, in Manglish, 'Do'n wan!' the consonants cut off the end of the words. I finally grabbed her and got it, the sort of reluctant picture you take with your father.

We all slip into our roles: we can't really escape them, despite where we are. Malaysia feels less and less foreign because of this. The argument with the Nepalese security guard at the entrance to a gated community: that is unique, at least for the Americans and Japanese. The kids chastising me for cursing, 'Don't say Jesus, Daddy': that is not unique at all, that might happen in any country. All the problems, all the joys and pleasures are not likely to change, not given the surroundings.

06 October 2013

Pall Mall Cigarettes

Seated in a smoky corner of the Royal Commonwealth Society, sometime after midnight, but before one thirty when I left, a package of Pall Mall cigarettes found their way in front of me. I'm not sure whose they were, in retrospect, but at the moment I saw them, I wasn't concerned with ownership. I had lost at billiards and was drinking fine twelve year scotch whisky between glasses of Carlsburg, and as the early morning showed no signs of slowing, I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and smoked, satisfied and drugged by the warmth of the night. How, the question keeps coming up, had I gotten here.

In the simplest terms, I had gotten there by following a series of choices that began with agreeing to discuss functional grammar with colleagues in the Nottingham campus building downtown. The meeting ended up being just a few of us, my boss and one of his PhD students, a third year language student I taught last year, and my part-time boss from the school of education piped in via Skype. Systemic functional linguistics and grammar are not things that excite normal people, but if they excite you and you find three or four other people who are also excited by them, two hours of discussing transitivity and mood blocks can pass in a blink of an eye. That was great: let's go drinking.

And then a tree -- there is a tree behind the campus building in KL, an incredible one. One like I have never seen before. Much older than all of us and one that you have to stop and look up at. And in looking up at it, the story somehow slips into the present tense.

At a Chinese restaurant on the street, beer, and a fight breaking out between lovers. A waiter is kicked and bitten and he shows us his cut. The tourists (there are tourists everywhere) sit uncomfortably, while our table looks on like social anthropologists, discussing culture, our responsibility or ability to try to stop it. A fat Malay police officer finally arrives, with an automatic weapon strung nonchalantly and resting on his belly.

At some point in the night, I lose my voice.

People dance, and I dance too. I line dance to achy breaky heart sung by a man and woman with a guitar and backing tracks on Macbooks. I request, and they play 'Over the Rainbow', the song that reminds me of everything good in my life. There's more excellent whisky and I think of the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns water to wine. The master of the banquet comments, 'Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.' (John 2:10) There's a metaphor here, I think, something about my life lived to this moment: the whisky made by a miracle, the best of all.

In the loss of faith, the five years I have been completely free and clear of Christianity, I have only grown happier and more content with how, rather than where, life has taken me. This is true for me: it doesn't need to be true for you. While the former version of me wrung his hands and worried (surrounded by others wringing their hands and worrying), I feel more and more like I am simply riding on the planet, on the top of the globe at any moment, hurtling forward into space. No one is watching. Let the others worry: I have worried enough for a thirty-one year old.

When the taxi stops in front of the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, Mia is awake again, as she is most nights, busy running the sort of errands two year olds run well after midnight. I sit up a bit, Yoko sleeping on the floor and the heat of the house slowly seeping out into the night. Hurtling forward, yes. Best to just let go.