01 June 2014


When we left Malaysia, there was little I felt we were truly leaving behind in terms of quality of life. Every day had become a hurdle of traffic and heat, and when we were called out, I believed in purgatory, at least as a useful concept in framing experience. We had paid our dues and were back on track. Still, there were small things we left behind, one being the access to very cheap extracurricular activities. RM50 a month for swimming and another RM50 for gymnastics. We could all go swimming for about a pound and then have dinner, piles of food in the food court, for less than five quid. I was reminded several times that this would not be the case in the UK: it would cost much more, more than we could afford.

We quickly went to work to find places for Naomi to swim and Mei to do gymnastics. Naomi got on two swimming club waiting lists, but as luck would have it, Mei was able to join a gymnastics club that meets on Saturday in the University of Birmingham gym and only costs £3.50 a time. Naomi, however, didn't get a place in the swim club, and we have been waiting and waiting for the e-mail saying she could start.

The e-mail did, finally, come last week and she was given a trial spot in a private club, one that, looking at the website, you feel is quite serious. We took the spot, of course, and waited patiently for this morning, when we all got up early to drive her like the Bundrens to the King Edward's High School across from the University of Birmingham, where the club meets. The University of Birmingham, the red brick and the crests are all matched by the King Edward's High School (for boys and for girls, but not co-ed). There are well-manicured playing fields surrounding it, with the University clock tower looking down as it does in Edgbaston and Harborne and Selly Oak. I had a moment of pride as I do sometimes in these places, a feeling of anticipation for the future: I had been saying that we might send the kids to a school like this, if they wanted to learn Latin and have a chance at going to Oxbridge. They could, I had been thinking — this was now a possible future in the Pihlaja multiverse. A kind of ascension from the bottom, from the public swimming pools in Putrajaya.

 The woman running the whole event  looked like my PhD supervisor, and was kind enough: a coach, a serious coach. Naomi was placed in the learners’ group one, but was quickly promoted to group two. Yoko, Mei, Mia, and I sat on the side of the pool with the other forty or so parents. Mia kept complaining that she wanted to swim, and Yoko disappeared with her and then reappeared and she was wearing her swimming costume, beaming like a three year old. I was embarrassed at first: here we were, the immigrants, stepping up and we had to go and have Mia running around making everyone uncomfortable thinking she’s going to jump in the water.

She kept running around in front of us, getting in the way of one of the coaches, but we would apologise and pull her back. Yoko and Mei and Mia ran off to the toilet and I played with my phone, looking up every now and then. Eventually, Mia appeared from across the pool, running out of the ladies room and headed towards me, and I thought, Jesus, she shouldn’t be running, but I couldn't manage to shout out to her. She got about halfway, and then started running back, Yoko standing at the door of the ladies room. Mia, I said, trying not to yell and starting to run after her, and she started to run faster.

Somewhere deep in my reptilian brain I thought this was probably not a good thing, that I shouldn't run, but it didn't catch up with me until, suddenly, a loud whistle was blown and the whole of the pool stopped, all thirty kids swimming, all parents looking up, and the coach looking directly at me and shouting. Shouting? Was she shouting at me? She was, yes, and I was standing there with Mia and now, Yoko at the door, who didn't realise initially that the whole pool, everyone, was staring and the coach was still shouting. I apologised, but she couldn't hear me — I may have even bowed. There was silence for a second and then everything started up again. I walked back to my seat, in front of the stands of parents, all looking at me sympathetically, and me apologising the whole way back, Sorry, I wasn't thinking, sorry I’m sorry, sorry, yes, I know, sorry, and sheepishly sitting down.

The swimming ended, and I apologised to the coach again, to the woman taking the money, to the parent who sympathetically said to me, Oh that must have been awful, just awful, I felt so bad for you. No, no, I'm sorry, I said: it’s my fault, we were in Malaysia last year, my wife is Japanese, the children are much less restricted in Asian countries.

These things, of course, happen: it's certainly not part of some bigger picture, some bigger narrative about being places one should not be — in the boy's pool at King Edward's High School, that I feel I have infiltrated, as an American with my Japanese wife. We don’t belong there, do we: we don’t have old Edgbaston money, or a cottage in the Lake District. We have somehow clawed our way into this world, where we don’t belong, but are trying to. When I open my mouth, you know that I am American, right? My wife is clearly not British, you can see that, I know you can. Standing there waiting for the girls to come out of the toilet, I suddenly felt a rush of empathy for the woman in the hijab having an awkward conversation with another British woman from the swimming club. What are any of us doing, what do we think we’re doing.