26 February 2017

A fever dream

After avoiding alcohol for a month mostly in service of an attempt to get my body back, this last week I have been wandering to and from pubs in Harborne, finding myself buying naan on the walk home for 80p at the takeaway just past that old blown out roller skate rink. On Monday, this stop involved having a chat with a police officer about corruption in the UK police force compared to the US, me trying very hard to not appear like I had just been out drinking and this man, excited to have a bit of culture in his otherwise cultureless night. I turned over my one pound coin and wished him and the man behind the counter good luck awkwardly. Good luck with what.

There was another conversation on Friday with Tom, after two beers and a peaty, smokey whisky that turned into me recounting all the people I had touched that day, and how meaningful all that physical contact had been. I had patted a colleague on the back in the Sanctuary, the University's religious-sounding cafeteria where Justin Bieber and the BBC news are projected on a screen, and another colleague had hugged me in her office. They meant a lot, I was saying, feeling suddenly nostalgic about everything in my life. Tom left for the toilet and a woman at the other table asked me where my accent was from – she had been listening to our conversation and I answered the typical sorts of questions that you answer, feeling like my moment with my smartphone was being taken away from me unjustly. She asked me about my partner, who I said was Japanese and she responded, Oh you mean like Chinese, and I said, No, I mean like Japanese. And she looked confused and said, Yeah, but she looks like a Chinese, right?

And then last night, the church had a variety show, something that felt very British with vaguely colonial moments, and Yoko gave me five pounds to buy a bottle of white wine. I drank it over the two hours of the performance, the whole thing fading moment by moment into a surreal fever dream of 17 year-old me, thinking about England and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath somewhere up in the Yorkshire Moors before she stuck her head in that oven. At the end, the lights came on and everyone belted out God Save the Queen, me included, full of cheap wine and irony, thinking, well, this is fitting. I tried to sober up enough to say goodbye to the Vicar, and thank him, Give me a passport now, I said. I'm British. Of course, I'm not British.

The Pihlajas of Harborne is an imaginary iteration of our family that I've been toying with while thinking again about my relative value in the community — am I just residing here for my own benefit, my beautiful children leeching off the welfare state with our free education and healthcare and Mia's free hot lunches. To be fair, very few British people seem to think this about me, the friendly white American man with the beautiful children and Chinese-looking wife. A mortgage advisor said to me several weeks ago when I was thinking I might buy a house, If we're getting rid of people like you, then we're really lost. Sure, I thought, but you don't know much about immigration policy in this country. It's not supposed to make sense. That's the point.

Despite my Tier 2 status, I want to believe I have something to offer. Surely Harborne benefits from this splash of colour. Today, in McDonalds, where I had taken the children in spite of Yoko's objection, I was drinking espresso from a paper cup. A younger mother, with a boy and two little girls in highchairs, yelled over to me, Can I use your phone, mate? I didn't know what to say, I hesitated. It's fine, she said, I just need it to call someone to pick me up, I'm here with my kids, I'll give you a pound. I didn't know what to say, It's not about the money, it's just that- and I realised I had nothing to say, so I pulled my phone and gave it to her with all the Protestant judgement I could muster. Call your meth dealer on my phone, I thought, I've been feeling like I have nothing to lose anyway.

She was thankful and had a short angry conversation on the phone before saying she needed to send a text. I had eased into the situation thinking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, which I had taught earlier in the week in a metaphor class and felt increasingly like this might be a freebie: do whatever you need to do. She lightened up, Where are you from? she asked, and I said, Chicago, and she smiled happily and pointed at the girls, And them? Mia said, Japan! just as I was saying, America too, and it felt disjointed and awkward. Well, you're from America too, I said to Mia, which is, of course, a lie.

The woman thanked me and went back to her table and I got back to nicking fries off the children and feeling bad about myself.  The woman stood up and signalled to me that she needed to take a call on her own phone, which appeared, and left her kids. The boy was focused on me, It's hot in Chicago, right? And I said, well, no, not really. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught his sister in the high chair starting to get up to try and get a balloon she had dropped. I sprung up to stop her, suddenly holding this little girl saying, no, no sweetheart, you have to sit here, you can't get up. She sat back down, and I pulled my chair over. The woman came back, asking to use the phone again, starting up with some explanation but I waved her off, just use it, don't worry. She had another angry conversation, and then gave the phone back again, thanking me, and asking, Texas – is Texas in America? I was confused: Yeah? I said realising she wasn't joking, yeah, it is. The little boy looked like he had seen a celebrity and that maybe somewhere in one of my pockets, there were tickets to America, to some different life free from all the drama of the Birmingham Ring Road McDonald's.

We packed up our stuff and I threw away the rubbish. I held Mia's hand as we walked out and the woman thanked me again as we passed. I said, Good luck, and she smiled at me. In the car park, Naomi asked about her, and I gave some boilerplate liberal platitude about privilege and what we had been given. If caring for the poor is the pathway to heaven, I have no chance of getting in. I avoid eye contact with people on the street. I left this woman and her kids before it cost me anything more than a few phone calls. I voted for Bernie, isn't that enough. I made sure that Naomi and Mia were strapped into their seats and we drove home, an American family caught up in some fever dream.

20 February 2017

A vivid unhappiness

The third false spring came last night, when I was standing outside the house with the recycling bin and flip-flops, speaking to the neighbour in shirt sleeves. We were talking about the weekend, which has been good or bad, I don’t remember, and their trip up to Lancashire to see his in-laws. The conversation fell into property prices and I took pleasure in my use of terminology, saying numbers like two twenty-five to refer to two hundred twenty five thousand pounds, the counter-offer that the landlady made for our house and how ridiculous I thought it was. I pointed at the roof, That’s going to be at least six to replace, and he nodded knowingly.

The truth is that I have been giddy about the whole thing, feeling like Pinocchio after he becomes a real boy – I suddenly exist in this society as the most valuable member: potential property owner. Yoko and I saw the most perfect house the other day, although it was out of our price range and the real estate agent seemed to sense that. She spoke to us like children, and I resented it — in five months I will be a Reader and I will be able to buy any house on this road. I thought about slipping this into the conversation even though it wasn’t really true. Instead I nodded begrudgingly when she told us it would be good if we ‘registered our interest’, a phrase I thought was peculiar. We walked back, Yoko and I, in the sun, feeling warm and I had a rare moment of optimism, despite it not really being a possibility. I imagined the two of us in that house for ten or fifteen years, the girls coming home from university at times with young men or women and me, retiring to the ensuite master bedroom to write whatever I’m writing in 15 years.

In April, I am going back to Japan for the first time in nine years – this too has produced a kind of giddiness in me. Being in Japan as a visiting scholar and ‘foreign expert’ is a kind of dream come true, one that a younger version of me would have been impressed by. I’m particularly looking forward to the feeling that I don’t need to do everything as cheaply as possible, which was the real hallmark of my life in Japan in my early twenties. No, this trip to Japan in April is markedly different from the first time I went in 2003. That time, I went with a friend from youth group as a missionary, sent to teach English and oblivious to the colonial undercurrent of the whole thing. We had people lay hands us in the suburbs of Chicago, men in polo shirts and our mothers too and I said all sorts of nonsense with conviction, testimonies full of the most awful notions of manifest destiny applied to some nominal notion of the Orient. I had been caught up in a narrative of purpose — we were headed to the mission field, like Paul and Barnabas. 

None of this makes sense now. I’m unrecognisable in the pictures, with the worst mix of naivety and arrogance, like I was assuring everyone it was okay — I had been prayed over. I happily shared my testimony in the church we worked at, translated by a nervous woman who struggled to piece it all together and whose struggle I didn’t fully understand. What’s the problem? I remember thinking: just say it in Japanese. There’s little about those first three months that stuck, as I think about it. I bought a maroon Yamaha Vino that loved. It was almost new and only cost 60,000 yen, but as I think about it now, I only drove it for a few months before I left for Niigata. I remember that I put it over on its side once in the apartment car park. I remember getting pulled over one night. Everything felt so serious, like I was on the precipice and if I wasn’t careful, Satan could knock me off.

All that fear is gone now, completely out of my imagination, replaced by a vivid and persistent unhappiness. I sat, as the service started at St Peter’s, thinking about how different the world seemed now, some 15 years later. My family was sprawled out in the third pew and a woman from the church came up with an order of service and asked if Yoko and I would be willing to bring up the bread and the wine. We were both unsure for different reasons — Yoko afraid of doing the wrong thing, me afraid of being found out to be hypocrite, the apostate taking the path of least resistance. The woman was insistent, however, so we agreed and after the peace we made our way to the back with the girls. I took the wine and walked that long aisle up to the altar. Hello, Stephen the Apostate is here with the blood of Christ. This is the body and blood of Christ at least for a moment, the sun streaming through the stained glass.

13 February 2017


There are limits to telling the truth — I’m learning them as I look at houses. The trouble starts with the task of identifying and communicating with stakeholders. I learned the word stakeholder last year. Stakeholders have different needs and desires, and you as the father, or researcher, or other person responsible for coordinating efforts, must somehow match synergies and lead on innovation. These are phrases you use to paper bad ideas, but they are also things that need doing, dumb tasks that fill up hours and days: looking at houses on the Internet, showing iPad screens to wives, and engaging energetic men and women in the real estate community. Banks are also stakeholders, so I also faced the fear of calling the States to transfer some of my savings over to the UK. Every step of the process has been filled with a dread doesn’t seem to be substantiated, but it has followed me, gnawing away. When I finally called, I was connected through to a polite young man, who called me sir and after forty minutes of confirming and reconfirming my details, assured me that my money would be received before Valentine’s Day. I felt triumphant hanging up the phone, like I had faced some substantial imaginary fear and come out better for it. This is what adulthood is, after all.

The houses themselves are all perfect except for one thing: a price, or a second room, or a location. We’ve gone to them one by one over the last couple of weeks uncovering new and imperfect places around the B17 post code. First liberated by the feeling that I could buy a house, the decision itself has been harder as the imperfections make themselves known. The first house we we saw, just a short walk up Tennel road, had a building in the back, and then a shed as well — places I fantasised that I and the guinea pigs could hide out if needed. No one else liked it though, and I started to learn the things you need to do when you’re house-hunting. Forget fantasies of hiding out with the pets – there are more important things to consider, like damp and the presence or absence of an entryway. When you walk through, you must scan the ceilings, looking for water spots, and then find the boiler and comment on whether it is new or relatively new or old, and in need of replacing. You must not appear too eager and not ever say, under any circumstance, the word perfect.

On Thursday, I went further up Tennel Road to a smaller house. I packed and smoked the last bowl of pipe tobacco I had before setting out as a way to offset the dread. Everything about the house was perfect (although I didn’t say it) until we came into the second bedroom. The agent, James, looked at me with a false optimism when I asked if you could fit a bed in it. He said, A one and a half, certainly, and I wanted to say to him, You aren’t married, James, are you? This, for me, is a sticking point, a ‘deal breaker': the bedroom must have space for a bed that is large enough for me and my wife. The next house was bigger with a bedroom that had two cribs in it and space for a loft conversion. The agent spoke to me in a hushed voice, like someone who wasn’t there might be listening, and said that they would consider any offer above two zero five. This is a code language for two hundred five thousand pounds. It sounds like a significantly smaller number, or series of numbers, if you say them as single digits. I nodded knowingly, like it meant something to me, but really I just wanted to get away from it and apologise, I’m sorry James, this whole thing has been a lie. I’m just pretending that I have any idea what I’m doing.

The kids wanted to go to the park after that viewing, but I was sick with indecision. Instead of going to the park, we drove home, but when Yoko said she would take them alone, I felt guilty and went round and drove back amidst cheers of the children behind me. We all got out and as we walked up the path, Yoko and I fell into silence without discussing this last house or the loft conversion. The numbers sound so much different in Japanese — when you say them, you find yourself thinking in yen, not pounds, and it sounds like it should be substantially more. You feel the need to add zeros. The girls went on to the playground to make snowmen and have a snowball fight. I hung back and stood around like I do, awkwardly, my hands in my pockets because I had forgotten my gloves. I stood in the cold for a few minutes, then excused myself, giving the car key to Yoko and walking home alone — I was cold and needed to think.

The house on Victoria Road also grows becomes increasingly less perfect as we consider it. Holding instant coffee and talking to a man in the church hall after the service, we discuss post codes and damp and the weather. I use the code ‘two zero five’ to describe the Court End Road house we saw with the cribs and he winces —yes, it has become expensive now, remarkably so. Another man appears with a coffee cup and story of a church member waiting to have part of his lung removed. It’s been cold, hasn’t it.

I suppose you just have to wait. Having smoked the last of my Christmas tobacco, I have no reason to go for a walk at night and escape the house. There’s no reason to tell the truth about how I feel when Yoko glances across the room or church sanctuary, looking for some comfort, some answer about something. I don’t have any answers, I want to say — I got the money over from the States and I have to go to work on again on Monday. What more can I do. I’m starting a midlife crisis, I fantasising. I’m wondering about the future. I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back eventually, don’t worry. I’ll bring the car around.

12 February 2017


Somewhere outside of Susenji, the neighbourhood on the edge of Fukuoka where I first lived in Japan, there was a beach that I found one afternoon when I went looking for the ocean. On one end, there was a grove of pines and a shrine — a red gate opening out into the water. And on the other, there was a small mountain. I would park my bike and walk up and down it, or stop sometimes to study Chinese characters and try to pray, my back against a concrete wall. There was the water in front of me. If I swam out, I thought, I would eventually make landfall in the States. It was silent — I would pray and look out into the distance before giving up and going home.

The silence had followed me from the States, from elementary school when I had prayed again and again for salvation and never heard anything. One night, when our youth group had been on a retreat, there was a worship service that everyone said had been particularly meaningful, that the spirit of the Lord had been there. I remember saying, yes, it was there, I felt it, but that had been a lie — I had sung and reached out and tried, but it wasn’t there. People were crying and I felt nothing, but the need to say, Here I am, send me. We were told to say that, by men in polo shirts and khaki trousers, holding guitars and praying. Here I am, send me. At Devil’s Head in Wisconsin on another retreat, I had been sent away from a van in the car park by our youth pastor, a fiery man with red hair. We were to practice the spiritual discipline of silence. I sat on a rock and tried to be silent, to not think of my girlfriend who had come on the retreat too and had also been sent away from the van, somewhere in the woods, wearing a one piece blue bathing suit with stars underneath her clothes. I tried not to think about it, to sit and say it, Lord, send me. Send me.

When I went to spread the word of God, to Kyushu, 400 years after the Portuguese, Japan was precisely the swamp for Christian belief Cristóvão Ferreira said it was. Christianity cannot take root because there is no cultural context for it. There is no word for a Christian god. The Japanese Christians are anomalies; the true believers were the worst — a group of theology students from Tokyo building a fire at a summer camp and telling the kids they would burn in hell if they didn’t convert. The children cried and prayed for forgiveness — they didn't want to burn. I remembered this last night as I watched the Scorsese film — the fire pyres in the film where they burnt the Christians in Nagasaki looked like the one the Christians had built that night in the camp. I remember being told about the conversions, the morning after it happened, and being shocked — this isn’t something we do, this isn’t what we are supposed to do, I said, but the Japanese believers reassured me it was okay. I fell into despair over it, over the whole concept of hell: what was my belief anyway. I sat on my futon in the concrete apartment building, the sounds of the city outside, waiting in the silence. Here I am. I’ve come. Why is it still silent.

Ferreira became an apostate after five hours of torture, although they say that he recanted after many years and died a martyr. What does it matter though. At some point, it becomes clear that what you hear in your head is from inside of you. It can’t be anything else. When there is silence, you don’t have the answer. You can tell yourself a story, but you are just papering the silence. It is only silence. My apostasy didn’t lead to anyone’s freedom, it didn’t stop any torture. I got on a plane and flew away from Kyushu, deeper into the swamp. Whatever truth I had before, Japan took it away from me. I had just been lied to by people that didn’t know they were lying. There is just silence. 

05 February 2017


When we first came back to Birmingham in January 2014, this house that I rented, the house on Victoria Road, was the only house I thought I could I afford. Six hundred and fifty pounds a month — I didn’t have to convert Malaysian Ringgit to pounds or wonder about the hidden costs or feral dogs. I asked the realtor to show me houses in my price range and this is the one that I could afford. There were two, and I remember that he didn’t let me ride in his car, I had to walk up to them. There were only two, so like that, I chose it and we moved in. It was mouldy, yes, and dirty and cold, but choosing is really where pain comes in. Better to limit the choice and just make a decision. I sat in a coffee shop after I had done it and thought about the future.

You can make anything work. It’s three years later and whatever I imagine home to be, the house on Victoria Road is the closest thing. We have been thinking of buying it, but have assumed it to be out of our price range. With my new visa, however, and my promotion, and a sense of purpose, I decided it was time to sort it all out. On Friday, I went around banks to see about getting a mortgage, something I have been told I can't get because my leave to remain is limited. I had my passport and my residency card and at the first place, a young Asian man told me, after checking with someone upstairs, that I could borrow the money I needed, provided I put a quarter of the value down. I was surprised, and clarified with him several times that he understood my situation. I’m a dirty immigrant, you’re sure this doesn’t matter. It wasn't a mistake, he assured me, he had gone upstairs to check. And then? The rate? Same as everyone else. Can I do it now, I asked. He looked at me confused, Do you have a house in mind. I'll take any one, I thought. Check the catchment area, and sign me up.

I left feeling hopeful — no one had ever told me that I wasn't a credit risk. I could borrow money, lots of it, provided I was willing to put my life savings against it. I went home and transferred some money from the States to make sure it worked. I talked to my parents. What is there to lose, really, other than money. So I’ve made an offer to buy the house on Victoria Road. Just like that, I wrote a carefully crafted, appropriately apologetic offer in an e-mail to my landlady and sent it off.

I have a history of making quick decisions after years of uncertainty. I did this when I moved to Japan — it was only a month or so from when I heard about the opportunity to having the tickets. And then Yoko and I decided to marry in about two weeks, having only dated for four months. It doesn’t make sense now when I think about it, but it made sense. We just did it — I was 23 and I didn’t think about it longer than I needed. I bought the ring for 70,000 yen at Isetan in Niigata City and took it to show Neal and then went to Yoko’s apartment. Close your eyes, put out your hands, ‘Let’s get married’ or ‘Shouldn’t we get married’ or ‘Getting married would be good.’ I don’t remember the grammar precisely.

These things sort themselves out. My Protestant beliefs said that the outcome, how things sorted themselves out, was based on my character. Don't worry about what others say; worry about your character. It’s become clear that character is just a stick that narcissistic men shake at you to make you behave. Perhaps I can just believe in fate now, or something like fate. Or you’re lucky or not lucky. Or you can tell a story that fits whatever master narrative you want to make for yourself. I lost money, but I learned a lot. I got lucky and things worked out. Or more likely, so many things happened. Some were good and some were bad. I’m back in the same place, the same coffee shop. Some things have changed, but some things have not.