31 December 2013

The ending

The last week in Taman Sri Minang passed without any of the madness I had anticipated. Yoko's father was here, and we worked each day, bit by bit, to reduce the house to the pile of things that would go on the ship and then the pile that would go on the plane. Before, in the moves I have made in the past, the process of moving has been overwhelming, but this time, it felt less so, like everything would happen. A process of hundreds of steps is still just one step at a time. The tax, then the car, then the pension office, then selling one thing and another and another, until Monday afternoon, at 5:30, there was nothing left, the terrace house as empty as we found it.

There was another, final night at the club that my father in law told Yoko about the next day. We had thrown darts and he demonstrated his skill to Yoko, miming his relaxed stance and the ease with which he threw, contrasting it with my stiff, deliberate form. I was overthrowing, he said, I needed to be more nimble. I of course, only thought of the metaphor. 

Every morning I woke to see him sitting outside, smoking his pipe, and looking up into the trees of the park, a kind of kindred spirit. Everything was easier it seemed, separating things to throw away and then drinking beer and whiskey into the night, talking politics and religion and life in the world. The next morning would come and we could go again, packing, smoking, eating, and then drinking on the patio, until Sunday morning we both sat in Starbucks at the low cost carrier terminal of the airport, quiet and lingering, like something good was about to end.

By contrast, the last days at the University were sterile and empty: everyone gone and all the pictures taken down from my office. I talked to people I had polite professional relationships with, but otherwise it was just me and the void. The worst part of the job, only the relationship with the institution left. I wanted some feeling of finality, of closure, but in the end, I passed off my key and my I heart Nottingham mug and left in the car. I can't remember the last bus trip I had back to Kajang, even. It must have been sometime earlier in the month. I don't remember anything about leaving now. I just drove away.

The neighbours in the taman were so kind in the end, having parties for us and taking picture after picture of the girls. They, of course, are the ones that will be missed, the girls and Yoko, not me. I was the sweaty, frustrated looking white man, never happy, always hunched over my laptop. When we finally left the house, Yoko and I and the girls got in the car and were surrounded by all the aunties and uncles and children of the taman: Indian, Chinese, and Malay. We drove away in a way that we haven't in the past, filled with energy. It was a Walt Whitman moment, a moment of rejoicing. Still, Naomi said it was sad to go, sad to leave people behind. Naomi thought about it and said, It would be like if you died, mom, and we hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. That would be sad. Yes, Yoko agreed, that would be sad.

And the little things in between: a couple of PhD students coming by one night: we drank beer and Venga gave me a statue of Genesh. Christmas night I drank at Indian uncle's with his brother in law and colleague, late into the night, talking about Malaysia and all it's come to mean for me. We went downtown one day. The girls ran around and around and around, laughing and playing. Jiji, Jiji, shouting for their grandpa.

Still, the feeling of failure hangs on, the feeling that I have left something incomplete, that I have let people down. Sean came the last day as well with his brother to take our washing machine, and I tried and failed to say that I was sorry for leaving, because sorry is the wrong word, the wrong feeling. What can you say. We'll see you soon, we'll see you again in England. 

Emptying the house, I took carloads of bags to the hotel, a windowless room with two twin beds in Kajang. When we had adjusted everything and I looked at the pile, I was not sure we would be able to get it all on the plane. Yoko did careful calculations again and again. At 5:40 on Tuesday morning, the taxi called, thirty minutes early, and I came down expecting to find a big van. Instead it was a simple MVP, not nearly enough space, I thought. The old Chinese driver insisted that it would be and packed it tightly, perfectly. Mei sat on my lap in the front of the car, and the driver seemed to being falling asleep the whole trip, swerving to almost hit cars again and again. I thought momentarily that when I left the car the night before with the new owner, when I had thought, Well, at least I am not going to die in a traffic accident in Malaysia, that perhaps I had been presumptuous.

Instead, there was no problem. Chinese taxi driver scratched and coughed his way, racing up the exit to the airport. We unloaded it all on three carts and I pushed them to the Malaysia airlines counter. 149.7 kilograms, perfect, just under the limit. One more bag, can? I said, and he said, Can lah, okay, light one. We walked away and that was that. I took more money out of the ATM, another RM1500. Nothing is left in the country.

On the plane, I went to the toilet, looked in the mirror and was shocked again at how fat I have gotten. I'm sorry, this wasn't the plan. I pulled on the Uniqlo fleece jumper that I bought in Alamanda, and remember thinking when I tried it on, when would I ever feel cold again. Here, it's here now. Mei looks out the window of the plane and declares that she sees snow.

It was all a dream. We wake up now in the snow. Drive north in the dark from Heathrow Terminal 4 to the North, with the determiner on it. The past is just the past. 

22 December 2013

Buying and selling

A group of Aunties, led by our Chinese Auntie from three doors down, came through the house, chattering in Mandarin and claiming almost everything that we had to sell. I had diligently priced everything, considering how much we had paid for it and what I thought would be fair, but the Chinese Aunties wanted everything for less than we asked. The starting price didn't matter: they just wanted thirty percent off that. Yoko negotiated while I sat at the table, disinterested in the whole event, playing with the iPad and making final decisions. Sure, why not: we'll take any price. They chattered more, asking again and again about things that had already been sold: to whom and for how much, nothing is done until it's done anyway ah.

On Friday night, three Indian Aunties came on motorbikes and no helmets: five people (including the children) on two bikes. The largest women, the Auntiest of the Aunties, was Mei's Indian Auntie from tadika. She declared happily, I make Mei Pihlaja's food pronouncing our name with a 'jah'. Mei beamed with pride and the Aunties went upstairs to look at beds and negotiate with Yoko some more. Would we take two hundred and fifty for everything? the message came down, and I said, three hundred, Yoko looking uncomfortable bringing the messages back and forth. Two eighty, and how about the refrigerator. It's already been sold, ah? I'll give you 380, ah? Okay with the beds? Yoko looked uncomfortable, went two houses down to confer with Chinese Auntie before coming back and declining the offer: the Chinese Aunties were here on Monday.

After the negotiations, we stood outside -- me, my father in law, and the Aunties and kids -- and made plans for how we would pass of the furniture, and then talked about salaries and the rental on the house. How much? 800! Very expensive. My salary 500: can't eat lah, how will I buy food? They promised to come back with the money and a lorry on the 30th: early lah, before getting on the motorbikes and riding off into the night.

The days filled with moving chores, father in law and I have been smoking and drinking out in front of the house after everyone has gone to bed. When the pack of feral dogs comes through the park, underneath the third world streetlamp light, I go and stand at the gate to watch. Father in law comes to stand next to me and says in Japanese, You know what I think when I see that? They're free -- that's how dogs should be. That's how it used to be: the dogs were free. We stand watching them in the street before going back to drink whiskey from the bottle and look up at the trees.

And then a series of goodbye parties. On Friday night, I squeezed into what used to be my fat jeans and boots and Father in law and I went to the club. The same cast of characters, the same music, revolved around like a record. Play it again: what will the old tune reveal this time. Again, achy breaky heart. Again, 12 year Scotch after mugs and mugs of lager. At some point after midnight, a group of Sikh men entered the club wearing what looked like bowling jerseys and holding a large trophy. They had just won a darts tournament, someone shouted to me, over the sound of music and cheers. Beer was poured into the trophy and passed around. I drank some too, with my arm around one of the Sikh men. Father in law asked me what they've won. I don't know, I said: darts I think.

Eight days in the terrace house in Taman Sir Minang, and then all this madness will stop. No Aunties in Birmingham, I'm reminded. Yes, no Aunties: no Sikh men with darts trophies full of beer. As the plane lifts up into the sky, a kind of silence will fall, I imagine. Everyone must be happy to be going back. I'm not sure: the problem with learning to adapt is that you adapt. And again, people are crying around you saying goodbye, relationships you didn't realise had meaning until they will be gone next week. Yoko and the girls hugging and kissing their friends. Of course, in Birmingham we will have new friends.

16 December 2013

Being nice

The car inspection office in Cheras doesn't look like much of anything from the outside. There are no signs leading to it, until you finally exit the freeway and turn a few times. Puspakom, one of these places owned by a nephew of a government official, you imagine. In front of the building, there was a mess of cars and trucks, Chinese men standing around smoking. I parked and got out of the car, trying to get a sense of where to go: who was in charge. A man in a Honda shirt, an agent I supposed, looked approachable, so I asked him and he sent me off on a dirt road that looped around and dropped me in a queue of cars waiting.

The feeling of uncertainty and unease in these situations is very hard to put into words and sounds silly when you write it out afterwards. I keep sitting in the offices on the edge of panic, hoping beyond hope that someone will come and let me out of this final trial in a year of trials. I don't want to learn anything else. I don't want to try anymore.

I had an appointment, but that seemed meaningless in the end. I stood at what looked like a police box with a crowd of people waiting, trying to decide which form I needed. People pushed in and through and I finally just pushed to the front myself. B5 ah? and got my form and went back to the car. I drove inside, got out of the car, and a Malay woman fussed with the printer and another Chinese man in a Honda shirt helped me fill in my form. Pay RM30, go through, go to the wrong lane, reverse, go into the right lane, get out of the car and wait.

Naomi asks questions upon questions about who is the real Santa and how he can do what he does. She is sceptical, but still hopeful. She only wants money for Christmas. RM80, so that she can have RM100 altogether. What would that amount of wealth feel like.

I have been saying again and again the the way to succeed in government offices is to be nice; smile and you can get anything. This had been no exception, but the when they called me back to the car, and asked me to move forward, I saw that they had pulled all the rubber seals off the car doors and hadn't put them back. I said to the Malay boy who was waiting, 'Please put this back up' and he said, 'You can do yourself.' And I said, 'No, you need to do it.'

He was annoyed and did the door behind the driver's seat. 'Go up' and then I noticed the other doors were undone too. 'You need to do all the doors' and he said, 'No you do' and I said, 'No, you took it down, you need put it back up'. I could feel myself falling into the hole of being right, a complete disaster in this sort of situation. 'Actually you need to,' he said and I said, 'Actually no, you do it' and stared at him. He backed down, annoyed, and went around, putting them back up.

I pulled the car out to park and realised that I had done the wrong thing entirely, jeopardised the trip by insisting, by being an asshole. How powerless the whole thing makes you feel, how silly to try to assert power in spite of it. I sat in the waiting room, imagining the failed report coming back, and then thinking about all the government papers I still had in process, all the money that needed to be moved. And suddenly panic again about the visa in the UK: had the University there checked enough, had they asked the right questions. I sat trying to keep it out of my mind. Please just let me go from it all, the plates I'm trying to keep spinning: I don't care anymore, just let me go.

When I left the UK last year, after I finished my viva and turned in my thesis, I worked on the puzzle that we had gotten for Naomi for Christmas. I sat on the floor to my office, everything pulled off the walls and shipped away, and worked diligently on the princesses of Disney, all 1,000 pieces. Yoko's friends were downstairs, helping her clean and I felt like an idiot savant in the attic: I can do one thing well and then I fall apart. 

In retrospect all the fear and uncertainty is silly; when I look back it will all seem like nothing. Thomas and I have talked about this inability we have to remember the emotions of the past and how it is a kind of deficit for future decision making. It wasn't so bad was it. Fourteen more days on this side and then into the cold and a winter to emerge from both metaphorically and physically. It will all come together, one way or another. 

12 December 2013

Slowly and then suddenly

When I wake this morning, before the azan, I can hear the feral dogs fighting on the hill and am afraid of walking past them in the dark. There is, of course, nothing to be afraid of, but in the dark, walking through the taman, I can still be afraid. 

The house is now filled with boxes that are themselves filling up. This is a good feeling, throwing away the garbage of your life and reducing it down to the few things that you really need. It's like losing weight. In a week and a half, they will come and take them all away, all the boxes, to meet us again in the UK. Genners Lane, the new address I will write again and again and again.

After I shower and dress, the azan rings out from the competing mosques and I get ready to leave, waking Yoko to kiss her and say goodbye. Only 18 more azan. 17 maybe. There are mosques in Birmingham, I'm sure, but not three within hearing distance. God is great; I put on my socks and shoes and walk out into the darkness. 

Kajang, where we live, is not a place for white foreigners or tourists. When I walk through the wet market in the morning, the Chinese Malaysians are riding motorbikes without helmets and cutting up coconut to sell. I cut around the edge, past the flower leis and fruits, the smell of durian if there is durian. 

This walk has always been caught up in thoughts about the future, my plan to escape this place, but now, the tickets bought and the money secured, I have completed the process of exhaling — now saying goodbye — that I talked about earlier this year. The dogs guarding the construction site look up at me and I look down at them. There are no feral dogs in Birmingham.

The process of saying goodbye is just that: a process. It comes to head when you say suddenly, I won't see you again. As a Christian, we had this phrase, 'Here, there, or in the air': we might meet again here, there, or during the rapture, when Jesus would come back and take us all away before the tribulation, the great tribulation. I ignorantly believed in this: now, there is nothing to say. I say, 'See you in London, see you in England.' You've known this hologram of me, this projection. Come see the real me, at home, in my grey coat with my beautiful British daughters. 

Past the wet market, up into the Chinese taman, I see a man and a woman, workers, sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for someone to pick them up. Real immigrants, I think, people with real hardship, from Bangladesh or India or Indonesia. I look at them as I pass, trying not to stare, wondering about their story: what is Malaysia for them? What possible worlds can they inhabit, what futures could they see?

English doesn't have good words to describe the feelings I have as the boxes slowly fill: I would say love, love is what I feel for my colleagues and students and supervisors, but you can't say to someone out of the blue, I love you. There are a multiplicity of loves. The kiss of a father, I think suddenly of my own father's love for me. I wonder about who I could say that to, as I buy a ticket at the station and walk up and down the stairs to the second platform.Who would understand.

I stand in the dark, waiting for the train and then it comes and we all file on —  Malaysians of every race and me, sweaty and fat. Don't worry, I promise the reflection of myself, you'll be back soon, less sweaty and skinnier. I am just a hologram of myself, there is finally research, maths done by a Japanese physicist in Ibaraki, to justify this feeling. Projection, being projected. I mind the gap, watch my step, and sit down among the people for one of the last times. I did my best, I want to announce to them, I tried as hard as I could. Everyone is nodding off. I'm leaving now.

09 December 2013


Everything you own can go in a box and be shipped anywhere in the world for a fee. Our boxes came this week, in plastic wrap. The things that can't go in boxes, all the cardboard furniture and foam gets sold off to interested parties in the taman. Aunties eyeing things over, making offers, asking about the capacity of the refrigerator. The car has been sold, the bike has been sold. I'm giving away books and taking everything off the walls.

In leaving, you learn all the things that you needed to know to live here, all the secrets to selling cars and getting tax money back and leaving the pension system. Day after day, you confront Malaysian bureaucracy and by the third or fourth time, you don't fear it anymore. You get a number to wait and there are 150 people in front of you and you think, well, at least I have a number. I only have to pay RM500 to cancel my Internet: perfect, sign me off.

Friends give you things: whiskey and cookies. My students gave me a giant card they had signed, applauding at the end of my last lecture. And cupcakes and books. They asked me why I'm leaving. It's complicated, I try to explain: it's like explaining to your children why you're leaving their mother. You should stay, but I can't. I'm sorry.

On Friday, I got sucked into the orbit of the Royal Commonwealth Society again, danced the achy breaky heart line dance again, and drank and drank like the sinner that I am. The whiskey came out and we sat on the terrace and talked about adultery. When the cab came, sometime after the last call for drinks at 1ish, I sat in the front, focusing the way you do, when you are giving directions under the influence and we laughed and talked all the way back to Kajang. I unlocked and locked the gate and door. Pealed off my sweaty, fat white man clothes and stood in front of the fan, replaying the night back in my head.

Phylogensis is the evolution of the system; ontogenesis is the evolution of the individual in the system. These are good metaphors as the fat white man adventure ceases. I'm sure they have relevance as I crawl back into the body of 30 year-old Stephen, the one who cycles and would never eat nasi goreng or ice cream. The Stephen that doesn't drive down the middle of the road and honk angrily at 1995 Proton Sagas with children standing in the passenger seats. The version of me that doesn't mark the day by calls to prayer.

The Stephen reemerging wears a long grey coat and drinks ale, runs marathons. And my British daughters, in tights and jumpers and thick skirts, will come back.

02 December 2013

A ghost, a phantom limb

The rain this morning has kept up all day. Naomi came downstairs wearing her uniform and I put on her ankle the jewellery I bought for her in Penang this weekend. We left out into the blue morning, the rain falling like it falls in England, not in a sudden downpour, but steady and regular. I drove Naomi to her school and she got out with a bag full of sweets to give her classmates as a going away present. She hugged me and went inside happily, another day like every other day.

29 days now. Like that, the end just came up. I spent today taking down photos from the wall and packing things up. 29 days: fours weeks from tomorrow morning we will be on our flight. I've been spending time, spare time here and there, searching for prices of things, making reservations. Going back is so much easier, I keep saying, my debit card the perfect metaphor for the ease of travelling West. Here, I say, speaking of Malaysia, it took me five weeks to get a bank card. I can close my eyes and see the road home from Terminal 4 at Heathrow. The signs leading off to Staines and the sign on the M1 to the North. The North, with the determiner in front of it.

The weekend in Penang, at the George Town literary festival, felt like fading out. When I was alone, walking up and down the streets in the heat, I couldn't think of anything, but how far away this will all be. It's December now, but the Christmas songs and trees, when I catch them out of the corner of my eyes, feel so strange, like they shouldn't be there, like we should just pretend this year didn't happen. Getting into the taxi last year, headed to Heathrow, I said that exact thing: We will be back soon.

I want to tie this all to some concrete experience, something that will embody this feeling better than just saying ephemeral, silly things about being a ghost. I can't though: I latch on to other metaphors. Malaysia as a phantom limb, something I will moving even in five years, ten years, when the girls are grown and speaking perfect, non-Malaysian, proper English. Maybe when they remember something, when they ask about a picture or a blog post from this year, I'll be able to put it into words.

But now, I am looking to the future, that feeling of the plane pulling up into the sky. When you first start to fly and you catch your breath after everything. Last year, I talked about moving as pushing your whole life, all your possessions, through a keyhole, but I don't feel anything like that this time. That was all excessively melodramatic anyway.

So get on the plane. Shut the hell up. Forget key holes and phantom limbs. There's too much to think about anyway.