What do you do when you hear the call of love — when you have a really strong feeling that something wonderful is about to happen? Well, honestly, it’s not something I hear very often. But I did hear it one January day earlier this year. It was on a bus to the airport in Kuala Lumpur that the epiphany occurred. Yeah, I know — it wasn’t some mountaintop where the smell or roses suddenly overcame me or the seas suddenly parted and some guy with a trident rose up and spoke to me in a deep voice with lots of studio reverb. No, it was on a greasy yellow bus bound for the dumpy low cost terminal of KL International.
Here’s the backstory…
I was spending the winter in Thailand, thinking seriously of moving from Tucson to Chiang Mai. My life had really come to an end in Tucson. It had actually come to an end when Sebastian left for Germany, never to return, in 2010. He took with him my sense of home. I was left with a quiet house full of memories. In addition, over the years of being in Tucson, I witnessed the departure of nearly all my friends and the slow ebbing away of my graphic design business. I began to feel like Tucson was indeed a place where my own dreams had been rubbed out in the sand.
Here’s a note in a book (a sweet gift from Sebastian whom I’m sure was worried about my diminishing joy in his post-Tucson years) where I was instructed to keep a list of “Things That Make Me Happy.” Let me run down some items I listed on that page this last winter:
- my felt derby hat
- pink grapefruit
- oyster mushrooms lightly wokked
- flannel sheets
- a clean sink and toilet
- watering & pruning
- the color pink
- yellow birds at the fountain
Good god! A clean sink and toilet? How about something bigger, Gilmore? World peace? Or Making a Difference? The list now when I look at it seems so incredibly small, so limited, so lacking in imagination and joy. So lacking in love. It’s the list of a person living a contracted, joyless life, fishing for something, anything, to keep him from slipping into depression. I did list “dreaming of travels” as an item – probably the most noteworthy on the list.
But back to Thailand. So after a few years of visits, Thailand seemed like a possibility as an alternative homestead possessing my 3 basic requirements for living: cheap, warm, and liberal. But after 8 years of drinking and screwing my way through the cities, islands and rice paddies of Thailand, I realized I hadn’t made a single Thai friend. Mostly I chalk it up to a language and cultural barrier. The Thai language has 5 tones and the alphabet has 44 characters in it and they all look like squiggles to me. Imagine trying to learn this when you’re admittedly a goof with second language…
It took me about a month just to learn how to say just hello and thank you without accidentally identifying myself as a woman. And if you aren’t that into Buddhas (seen one, you’ve seem ‘em all), or riding elephants, there’s basically not much to do in Thailand. Wow, am I being insensitive or what? So Thailand was starting to feel a little pale to me in its offerings for the potential to find friends and most importantly, someone to patch up that gaping hole left in my heart after Sebby’s departure.
Anyway, after a month of being in the country, tourists must leave and return by plane in order to get another 30 days visa. So I contemplated where I would do my visa run this year. Hmm. I’ve been to every surrounding country but one — Malaysia. What did I know about Malaysia? My friend Dennis Gan was from there. They had a city with a funny name that had the tallest twin towers in the world. What was the name of that city? Something exotic sounding like a lumpy koala bear. Yes, yes. Kuala Lumpur. So I did a web search of things to do in Kuala Lumpur. Eat Indian food. Check! Love Indian food. Go to the twin towers. Check! Cool buildings — love a good stainless steel skyscraper. Bird Park, Batu Caves, Islamic Art Museum. Check. Check…NOT. Wait, Islam? Oh yeah, Malaysia is a Muslim country that has an inherently unfavorable view of gays. I figured 4 days would be about enough time as the lone traveler exploring a homophobic city in a foreign country brailing my way through another foreign language, and then I’d happily return to liberal Thailand with another 30 days stamped into my passport.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I arrived in KL and my phone began lighting up with invitations to meet me, show me around, accompany me for dinner or drinks or out to a club. And all executed in perfect English — a real treat coming from Thailand where most guys can say one thing: “How big yo hmm hmm?” (You can fill in the blanks.) I guess I was expecting KL to be an uneasy melting pot of ethnicities, devoid of any gay life. I was delightfully surprised to find that although the former is true, the latter is definitely not. I didn’t spend one lonely minute in KL. I met intelligent, charming, educated men who came to the hotel and picked me up and took me out on adventures in town…and picked up the check!
Dorothy had a feeling she was not in Thailand anymore where a foreigner is the walking wallet with the big hmm hmm. Unlike Thailand, where there’s an endless supply of Caucasian tourists to feed on, KL really doesn’t get many Caucasian tourists. It gets a lot of Arab tourists — women in black burkas — not so sexy to gay Malaysians. As a result, I found myself a desirable commodity with my big nose and hairy arms. And let me tell you, the men here sure know how to show a guy a good time and English is widely spoken.
After four days of seeing sights and meeting so many wonderful guys I got that very strong message: I was on the greasy yellow bus heading to the airport when it arrived. It wasn’t a voice, really. More like a light bulb went on and illuminated this message: COME BACK TO KL AND YOU WILL FIND YOUR MAN HERE. HE IS HERE AND WAITING FOR YOU. It was January 13, 2014 and my eyes welled up with tears. How could I ignore this message? I knew I had to come back. In the moment I shot this selfie…
I returned back to Thailand going through the motions of what now seemed like a flat existence. Cute little guys that I cannot relate to. A culture I cannot access, where I’m perennially locked out of all conversations, road signs, instructions on how to operate this thingamjig, all media (though watching the adolescent Thai TV, maybe it’s a good thing I don’t understand). It felt almost as isolating as living in Tucson. Besides, Thailand has nothing for museums, is largely lacking in urban infrastructure, and the populace is in general, uneducated. It’s just a fun place to have a mojito, get a killer massage, and eat some yummy food. By contrast, Malaysia seems so much more sober — a place with a working economy that isn’t based on tourism and a country that has an educated populace.
Yeehaw, it’s back to Thailand!
But fast forward to my return to the States…this time I knew it was a return to pack my things. When I finally left Tucson in June of this year, it was not a vacation or even an adventure, it was a migration. The chief purpose of my move to KL was to heed the message that I received on the greasy yellow bus that day and to find that man who was waiting for me. I wondered if I was indeed a little crazy following this voice half way around the world. I wasn’t. Meet Chuan…
Within 3 weeks of my arrival (after a few poignant, star-crossed encounters) I met this lovely man (above). He delivered himself to my doorstep in a boxy little car called a Kenari (I called it the Canary). We had chatted by text messages on Planet Romeo (a gay chat site) for a few days and agreed to go on a cultural date. He told me he was a classically trained pianist, was also learning violin, and that he would like to pick me up and take me to KL Performing Arts Center (KLPAC) for a dance performance. I was thrilled that it wasn’t just a booty call and I would get to see this place I’d heard about. Below is Chuan’s profile pic — I was sure he was going to be a tortured, if not angry artist. I wasn’t sure I’d like meeting him based on that look…
Chuan’s profile picture that was almost the deal breaker.
But I opened the car door to find a glowing soul — a gold mine in the the Canary. I think my first words to him were, “Wow! You look so much better than your profile picture.” And my first unspoken thoughts were how his aliveness and joy, his smile and enthusiasm, immediately brightened my spirits. And we took off down the road bouncing in the boxy little car to the dance performance, chatting about piano and violin and clarinet. I appreciated his near-perfect British English and loved his constant smile and his goofy laughter. During the performance I wondered if his leg touching mine was accidental or intentional. I hardly paid attention to the dance as I felt the heat transferring to me from his knee or his elbow on the armrest. What we would do afterward, I wondered to myself?
We decided, well, actually I think it was I who decided that we would keep it cool that night and if we wanted more, there could be a second date. And we did keep it cool — as cool as possible considering there seemed to be a very strong chemistry between us. And there was a second date, which included a violin he brought to play for me and a sleepover and French toast in the morning — for me a serious declaration of intent. And it was Chuan who made the French toast, not me! I was smiling inside and out.
The first breakfast with Chuan at the helm.
After the second date, I noticed he started calling me “Hubby” in his text messages to me. I both cringed and delighted in how fast he had launched into use of that word. Chuan seemed so very uninhibited with me. If he wanted something, he was just going to go for it boldly, and so he did. Henceforth I’ve been known as Hubby.
So here I sit in a high rise apartment in Kuala Lumpur, with a very dedicated Chinese-Malaysian boyfriend who calls me Hubby and I’m learning how to be an English teacher at a United Nations refugee school. My life couldn’t be more different than it was just a few months ago, sitting in the desert lamenting my middle-aged doldrums wondering if it was a pruning day or watering day.
A few weeks ago, Chu and I were at the Kek Lok Si temple in Penang and we came to a wishing pole where you make a donation and pick out a ribbon based on what you want to manifest. We chose the “Being Coupled & Paired” ribbon and stuck it on the top of the pole and made our wish. And there it remains lashed to all the others’ wishes on the pole under the spell of Kwan Yin.
It was a bold move for me to come to this crazy place in pursuit of love. I had a good life in America if we are to measure our lives by our possessions. I had a nice 3 bedroom townhouse with two fireplaces and a swimming pool. I had a grand piano and a great collection of art and rugs and fancy clothes. But it was all wrong. And here I have little more than a suitcase of things in a hot and chaotic city echoing with the hum of traffic and the calls to prayer from the Mosque. As one of a few white heathens in KL, I couldn’t really be more of a mismatch for this place, if we measure fitting in by our skin color or our religion. And yet I feel more at home here than I do in my “home” in America.
My shirt says: Together Life Gets Better.
As a perpetual seeker of “home” as an ideal, I always have to ask myself, “What actually makes a home a home?” I can tell you it has very little to do with a structure and possessions. I literally sailed across oceans to find a new definition of home for myself. But really it’s an old definition, an ancient one. Many of us (myself included) held notions that a home was defined by material goods, a couple import sedans in the garage, a suburban house with giant kitchen stocked with all the best crockery. Maybe a dog, some big trees, and a white picket fence surrounding it all. But when you’re in that cute house by yourself, cooking in that big kitchen alone every night, sinking into your leather sofa watching a movie on your giant flat screen TV, your grip on your martini loosening as you fall asleep…does that make it a home? When all you do is meet with your neighbors at the gate to bitch about their barking dog — is that home? I suppose it’s one definition of it. It’s the one I chose to leave behind.
At home in Arizona.
Here, my tiny white shoebox apartment with dysfunctionally small kitchen transforms into a home when Chuan throws open the door, kicks off his flip flops and rushes over to greet me while I’m cooking him dinner, “Hi Hubby, I missed you,” and he throws his arms around me. We cook a simple meal together in the tiny kitchen, trading places as it’s only big enough for one cook at a time. We play duets on the violin and clarinet. We chat by candlelight, have a little cuddle, rub each other’s backs and then watch some Mad TV on his little mobile phone before bedtime. What it lacks in material embellishments that I once had, it delivers in the realm of intimacy, warmth, creativity, and mutual support.
Late at night in bed with the white noise drowning out the car horns 15 stories below, I hear Chu lightly crying in his sleep. I think he’s having a nightmare. I reach over and hold his hand, nuzzling my nose into his coarse black hair. It seems to quiet down whatever bad dream he was having. And in those quiet moments before I slip back into sleep, I think about the bad dream I was in — it lasted for years — popcorn for one at the end of a day when all I had to look forward to was watering and pruning the yard. I did the best I could to make it work. And in the end I failed. The American dream didn’t serve me very well. I think it was a materialistic illusion, a mirage in the desert — that when I got “there” I didn’t know I was there and so I kept going down that road hoping to one day arrive. In the end I found myself swinging in the hot desert air grasping at nothing.
At home with Chu in the little white shoebox apartment in the sky.
And here I am in Malaysia now having answered that distant call. That call to embracing arms — a gentle voice guiding me toward love if I was willing to listen and trust. I was. I am. I’m here.
And I’m really glad I came.