26 November 2013

Succeeding in failing

I've been telling this story backwards for a year, my story of coming to Malaysia has always been a story of leaving Malaysia. I did not intend this, but I'm always lying about my intentions. Look back and see all the stories: they all are about leaving, one way or another.

Last Monday, at 8:00 and then at 9:45 I had a presentation and interview with a small Catholic University in Birmingham, Newman University, for a permanent post in Stylistics. The interview went well, I thought, but as J and I sat out on the terrace after it was over — looking out in the palm plantation, the feral dogs sleeping somewhere beyond the darkness — I talked about how empty these feelings are, how meaningless. I have felt good about interviews I failed, and jobs I've gotten, I've felt poorly about the interviews. Feelings lie, of course.

I went home: drove up Jalan Semenyih still alive and humming like it always is. I missed my turn off and went the long way home: it didn't matter anyway. I came into Taman Sri Minang, the orange light in front of the house, the gate locked, the children and Yoko sleeping upstairs. I sat at the computer in the heat, waiting for an e-mail to come, and feeling like I could wait, like I would not be disappointed. 

I'm leaving, I said again and again for this last week, and everyone has been happy for us, understanding. All the pressure that has built up over the year, pressure looking for a stopgap to come that never came, dissipated into the night and wine I had saved since September for this moment. I savoured it. The invoice for Naomi's schooling came, but it sits undisturbed on the desk. There was nothing to worry about: it was done, wasn't it. We went out to dinner and suddenly worried less about everything. Now to just pack it in. How much cheaper life is in Malaysia when you think in pounds. 

The flights back home to the UK will take us into the cold, away from the palm oil trees emanating heat and all our Aunites and Uncles caring for us. Chinese Uncle, Uncle three houses down sees me on the ground blowing into the fire, and says, Still wet, ah, cannot burn. Yes, yes, I know, but it is burning, I am making it burn. Birmingham has no palm trees: it's raining and snowing and the sun has already gone down, but I know the way home from Terminal 5 at Heathrow. We will get the rental car. Someone may meet us at the airport even. That big roundabout, and the M25 and then the M40. How much easier everything will be.

Birmingham, the small university, permanent work in my area. There are so many good things to celebrate. A kind of future that will make everything else fade away, all thoughts of the heat and the stress, letting only good memories percolate through. Naomi and I in the car this morning, laughing. Mia waiting naked at the gate of the house. Mei holding a millipede.  

So the Pihlajas are moving again. I'm not sure the kids understand, but they don't need to at this point. Up and leaving is something our family does: it's normal for them. For me? I thought I would be angrier than I am about how much of a failure Malaysia has been for us. It hasn't, of course; to say it's a failure is to lie. It's been something else. Something I can't put my finger on. Maybe I will be able to articulate it someday, when things settle down.  

24 November 2013


The bike finally promised to a new owner, I pulled it out this weekend and dusted off the seat. After kickstarting it for a minute, it coughed awake like it has consistently the whole time I've had it, and the feeling, cresting the hill out of Taman Sri Minang and into the town, was like it has been all year: liberated and liberating.

For the last week, I have been going out into the town as much as I can, while I still can. I walked to the 99 Speedmart to buy beer. I walk up the hill and to the row of shops across from the hospital to get water and carry it back up the hill and back to the house. I took Mei out on the bike too, put on her pink helmet and she sat between my legs while we crept up and down the streets of the kampong. Into the hill, and back down. She pointed to things in front of us and we stopped at Tesco's, to get money and walk around, nothing to do but be together.

Funny how as the end comes on me like this, I'm surprised: suddenly Malaysia is what I want it to be. There is no financial stress anymore. I already miss the food and order more than I need. I can buy the computer I've needed all year with the money I don't need to spend on schooling. No future to worry about. Linger here.

I go to the gate. Start a fire. Take stock of all our things again. How many days are left.

20 November 2013

Telling a story backwards

This is one embodied experience of Malaysia: Last night, Yoko and the girls came to campus to meet me after a meeting and by chance, one of the PhD students in the department was here, and we all went to dinner in the village of Broga, down the road from the university. Broga, filled with Chinese people and durian, has a gate that you enter and a lovely Chinese restaurant that staff from the university frequent. I told the story of the first time I was there, with my boss and the Dean of my faculty, and I reminisced about coming to Malaysia, what I had wanted and expected. The girls ate happily and ran around, and we came back to campus to walk in the cool night air. The girls played in the fountain in the middle of campus and we walked through the new night market that they have set up here on Tuesday. The moon was full, it has been full the last couple of days.

This is one embodied experience of Malaysia: the bus lurching and fighting its way out of campus. Standing to exit, I steady myself on the armrest, the door already open and curb and grass and stray dog flying by below. What if I fall, I think and then try to unthink. These are not useful thoughts, not fruitful ones. Press on, I think, wait and brace for the stop, I think. Ah, there lah, it's done now. Walk into the heat, up the hill to campus.

Exactly one year ago I was standing looking down at St Martin's church in Birmingham with all the women in my life: my wife, my mother, and my children. We walked up through the German Christmas market and Grandma bought the girls mittens although I told them it was a waste, we wouldn't need them in Malaysia because it was so hot. Exactly one year ago, when I put everything into boxes and we came here. There was snow the day they took the boxes. Two Malaysians who were the first real Malaysians I had met took pictures of the snow on their phones and took our 14 boxes. I remember how empty the garage looked.

The terrace house in Taman Sri Minang is much more empty than the house in Bradwell Common. There are far fewer things: just cheap furniture I bought to last the year, maybe three. I didn't know it was cheap at the time, not until it all started breaking. Yoko and I take stock, it's still early, but what will we take. We have so little, it's been so basic. We'll take Naomi's bike, at least.

The people in Birmingham that I email tell me that come February I will miss the heat of Malaysia. I laugh too, yes, but there are other things to consider. The food is so much better there, right? Yes, lah, it is, but there are other things to consider.

11 November 2013

Dry air

In the Cameron Highlands in the midst of the tea plantations, the air is dry and cool. When we pulled into Tanah Rata, at a small park to let the kids get some air, I felt embodied memory. In my preteens, my family lived in El Paso, Texas, in the desert, but only a few hours from the mountains, the Rockies trailing off into Mexico. The same thing would happen: our blue diesel Chevy Suburban would pull into Cloudcroft, and the doors would open to pine trees and crisp air. We picked cherries one year, I remember, climbing ladders in the trees and filling huge buckets. In Malaysia, we paid RM25 to a Nepalese man to pick about 50 strawberries. We were supposed to pay more, I think, but I feigned ignorance, and bobbled my head. Country? America. Oh, America.

The air leads you to linger outside, something that Malaysia doesn't in general allow for. Here, as a fat white person, I rush from building to building. Hurrying and sweating and cursing the heat. The endless tunnel of summer. In the mountains, stuck in traffic with the windows down and the children sleeping in the back, the sun felt warm and welcoming — not hot, not to be avoided. And then another rush of memories, of riding my bike through the rice fields in Shibata City, Japan, up into the mountains. I rode 80km one Saturday, pushing higher and higher.

The mountains are full of the things the kids love: insects and plants and fish. We stopped at the side of the road, at a strawberry farm, where there were goats tied up. The girls fed the goats stems of plants and they licked us, and we sat in the sun, taking in the clear air.

"Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)
When we descended back into the heat, and opened the doors of the car outside of Tapah, the mist and rain from 15 minutes before were gone and the heat rushed back. Everything heavy and angry again. We drove through KL, back home to the Happy Happy Cafe where the kids had noodles and Chinese tea on ice, another memory tucked away somewhere to be remembered in 10 or 15 years.