28 April 2014


In 2002, I went to Ireland for the first time to visit my sister, who was studying in Limerick. It was the sort of trip that I have repeated again and again, taking the long way out to save money and get a sense of how things are in a place. We stayed in a castle (a castle!) and I ate Cadbury eggs and took a lot of video of Martha, but now, looking back on it, I understand her much better — what it is like to leave the States and have people visit you from the States. Loud and big and ignorant all at once: I had even grown out my hair for a year. I remember humming 'Hail Britannia' on the street because I thought it was funny: the sort of loud, awful American things you do when you don't have any clue about anything. It had been a hard year, but I was starting to feel like the future was coming. Martha's friend cut my hair the second to last night I was there. The protest is over, I said.

This last weekend, I was back, this time in Belfast. As a rule, I've ditched the video camera for the most part and I don't take pictures very often when I travel alone. They're all there on the web anyway, any famous thing you want to see. In the sorts of places I go, I want to pretend that people aren't aware that I'm not from around there. It's stupid: I'm obviously a tourist in a pink shirt and a backpack and an American accent. I don't know what you've said to me, I'm sorry, I'd like a scone please. Is that not a scone? I'm sorry, I'll have that. Still, I imagine myself as better than that couple over there, so fat and awkward with their maps and shorts.

Belfast gives you the feeling that you need to take sides. I realised that as I was standing alone, looking at Nationalist paramilitary murals in Whiterock. It was grey and cold and no one was out. Most of the houses had Irish flags; I found a couple of the shrines to people who had been killed or murdered, depending on how you thought about it. I stood there, at the edge of the ghetto wondering what it would take me to care enough about something to shoot someone.

When we left Kajang, Yoko wanted very badly to keep a bike that her friends had given us — a white and blue 16 inch American bike that had been bought in Japan and brought to Malaysia. The bike had gone in the Frankenstein box, the box the my father-in-law and I had constructed with tape and a refrigerator box. Naomi had learned to ride in front of our house, although I was always afraid that she would get hit by a car, one of the many careless drivers that sped through the taman. Naomi rode in circles around the park, sometimes stopping when Chinese or Indian aunty would come out of the house to talk to her. I would stand in the park, in the middle, wandering around and thinking about how we would get away, what our escape plan would be.

I was talked into packing up the bike, although as I imagined it, everything like this, used bikes in particularly, would be cheaper in the UK. We could go, I said to people, to car boots sales and pick these sorts of things up for next to nothing. Good things, but used. Still, the bike went into the box and when the things came last month (it's been a month now), I pulled it out carefully and put everything back together with the tools we had sent over.

The bike is now too small for Naomi, so Mei is learning to ride it, but we don't have the space in front of our house like we did in Kajang. Still they have been finding places to ride, here and there. Yoko got them guinea pigs this last weekend too. They are little girls, living little suburban lives, with a father who travels on business every now and then and does work in the garden. How many miles have passed since the protest — the long hair and Pedro the Lion button. How peculiarly it has come together, now 12 years later. Still American, of course, though maybe if I'm lucky, I'll never really have to take sides. Just keep walking around, undetected, remembering each mural, in place of pictures.

14 April 2014


The Queen Elizabeth Hospital is between our house and the University of Birmingham; I walk through it once or twice a week on my way to the library. Three interconnected curved buildings, all brand new and white, are surrounded at the entrances by the sorts of English people who always seem to have trouble around them. I remember them from the night that Mia was born, when I walked my labouring wife through the A&E on an early Sunday morning. Today, a man was smoking in a green hospital gown, covered in prison tattoos, a massive cast on his right arm, and an IV stuck in his left hand. I try hard not to judge these people, but only because I grew up saying that I didn't judge people like this. The truth is, I do judge them, tell stories to myself about them, as I walk past. I've never gotten drunk and hit my wife.

Classes are finished now — my first term at Newman University flew by. There is, of course, marking and extensions and e-mails to answer about margins on essays, but when I left the classroom on Thursday, having dispensed the last bit of advice, I felt lost again, like the list of things to do had been cleared and my purpose was gone. I can go home, but there is nothing worse than your father in the house, wandering around aimlessly in his pyjamas, snacking and pretending to be of use. I say, I have to go to the library to get a book about Islam, which I do, but really, what I want is to just wander around outside: sleep in parks and get very, very lost — become for a day the Stephen of another universe, the Stephen who never married nor had kids.

This weekend, I searched around and around for a cheap, small outdoor stove to burn firewood in. I got the kids all amped up about it, telling them how much fun it would be to have fires. I cut brush in the very back of the garden, the sort of American pastime that we all judged George W Bush for taking part in, but which I secretly understand completely, and have felt deprived of for the last year. In Malaysia, we would wait on a Saturday for a man, an Indonesian or Bangladeshi man, on a bicycle to come by and cut the grass for RM10. I would sit jealously inside, fat and white, watching him and thinking that, of the many things Malaysia had taken from me, gardening was the most surprising.

On Sunday, like everything else, I got that small piece of myself back. I spent the day outside: I pruned all the trees and made a pile of branches taller than me. The kids helped me move compost to lift up a few sunken patio stones. When night finally came, I lit the fire in triumph, though I was immediately worried that I would burn down all the houses in the terrace on Victoria Rd, every British man and woman in their houses quietly spiting me for making the neighbourhood smokey.

Neal and I used to make fires on the beach in Niigata, with whoever else was around. We would build them huge, as big as we could, using driftwood on the sand. There was nothing around for miles, just two kids running out and back with bigger logs, more sticks, more brush, as the fire grew higher and higher and higher.

Back in England, I burnt for an hour, pacing around the fire and watching the embers rise up and then die out. A flashback suddenly to burning grass and garbage in front of another terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. I guess I had done some gardening; it wasn't all bad. None of the neighbours there were worried, of course: just perplexed that the fat white man wasn't having the grass taken away. Chinese and Malay uncles sometimes just watching, standing in the street or park, without saying anything. It was hot and the fire made things hotter, but here, in Birmingham, the fire felt good. I stopped pacing when I realised no tragedy was going to befall me, and finally sat down as the fire died down, pulling closer and closer at the embers flickered and glowed and slowly went dark.

08 April 2014


We put everything in boxes only a week before we moved. Yoko's dad came and we spent the days sorting and throwing away and walking around central Kajang looking for a refrigerator box to put the keyboard and guitar and bike in. We taped everything up and they came to take them away when I wasn't there. I came home and almost everything was gone. Yoko and I have done this together before, so the tamping down of everything into a pile that gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it is only the 150kgs and hand luggage you are allowed to take on the plane felt much less like a miracle this time. We do this, we can do this, as hard as it might be.

When the things get taken, or when they have been taken, I think about how liberating it would be to lose everything I own in a shipwreck. All the useless things I imagine are in the boxes sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, like a lost Malaysian airplane headed nowhere. I send everything off, they take away the boxes, and I forget about everything, or most everything. This time, I remembered my coffee grinder: when the coffee grinder came to Birmingham, I would be whole again, I thought. Everything else can sink.

Then, last week, when I was sitting in the Cadbury Research Library in the basement of the Muirhead Tower, an e-mail came, and I called and our boxes were here, in the UK, ready to be delivered. I wondered what would be broken and whether or not my guitar would be shattered, or if a box would have split, my coffee grinder broken by some careless, underpaid, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant in Malaysia, who was being even more screwed than I was when I was there. Would the coffee grinder have survived the ordeal like me and Yoko and the kids.

Like when the boxes came to Kajang, to the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, I was gone. This time when they came, I was teaching and Yoko texted to say they had arrived, all 17 and they looked good. She said it like that too in her text: 'looked good' surprising me with how natural she sounded in English. I came back and there they all were. We started cutting them open. The coffee grinder, yes. Henderson the Rain King, yes. And my guitar. I pulled it out of the box, the 'Frankenstein' box my father-in-law had called it, with bike and keyboard. I popped open the locks of the case and pulled it out. It was okay, as okay as it has ever been with the same damage it's had all along. The split heal when we put in the strap peg. The damage on the top when Natalie Dear fell on it in 1999. I remembered that suddenly, touching it again: I had been so upset that I sat on the stoop to my parents' house, feeling so sorry for myself — Heather coming out to find me, saying I looked like I was going to cry.

I pulled it out and strummed a D chord — it was fine. I tuned it a bit and played an E and an A, a praise chorus coming back to me suddenly: I love you Lord/ and I lift my voice. There it was. Everything exactly as I left it, just a bit older and detuned. No matter: Malaysia was over now. There was nothing left to wait for. 

04 April 2014


The train ride into Euston station felt like coming home. You relax when you are a place you know well doing something you have done before. All of this part of London makes perfect sense to me. This year, I will have been in England longer than I was in Japan, even though Japan still feels like the place I really belong in some way, like I should go back there for some reason or another. The Japanese call this place that you come from, your home, ふるさと furusato. I am only thinking about this because I met a man who had been living in Japan for a long time and he referred to Southport, here in England as his furusato. He used that word even, in the midst of an English conversation. I could hear myself saying that same word to someone that would understand it, I could hear myself using the whole phrase as a matter of fact, but it occurred to me that I can't ever remember hearing a Japanese person say it. I'm sure I have. I must have.

Another conversation had me thinking again about how drawn back I feel at times, but how inevitable it is that I will likely stay hear for a while. There is no reason to go back beyond these false feelings of warmth. False only in that I know they don't represent every day life in a genuine way. The same could be said of Euston and London. All these false feelings of warmth. Of course, it's not actually like this, of course it rains in London. These clear blue skies are a lie.

And then another moment today as I was walking back from taking the kids to school and smelled something that reminded me of the ocean in Fukuoka, of coming on my bike around a rocky bend into Imajuku. There it was again, the feeling like there was one point that things changed and the narrative took a clearly different path.