It was the week before the wedding. A couple friends arrived to join us.
Here’s the week in pictures…
Here’s the video of the week:
August 8, 2016: the emergency room doctor at Marin General placed in my feverish little hands a sheet of paper that said: No sex. No alcohol. Side effects of depression, anxiety, irritability, and suicidal thoughts. These are not exactly the words you want to hear the day before you are to be married.
It was the morning before my wedding to Chuan and I woke with a high fever. I lay in bed thinking, please god, don’t let me be sick…this is the worst possible time to be sick. This can’t be happening but it was. I wasn’t afraid to get married. This couldn’t be pre-wedding jitters, no, something is really wrong. Fever chills began working up my body in waves like a death rattle. My teeth chattered, my chest tightened and I pulled up the covers to stay warm in Jean’s guest room. Chuan was downstairs with Jean planning our day of cooking for the wedding reception. I couldn’t calm the shakes which had now become violent when the nausea kicked in. I stumbled downstairs into the kitchen crying and heaved right into the sink. Chuan and Jean were shocked and tried to comfort me. I felt Chuan’s arms wrap around me as I was heaving something yellow down the drain. I had never felt this sick in my life.
Between the dry heaves and shaking, Chuan stuck a thermometer in my mouth and it came out at 103. I didn’t really have any other symptoms of a flu or infection. I feared it was appendicitis as I had some minor, intermittent cramps in my lower abdomen. Jean said it was time to take me to the hospital. We called Blue Cross Blue Shield and spoke to a nurse who concurred we needed to get to the hospital right away. We fumbled through customer support to see if a visit to the emergency room would be covered — as one does only in America. It was and so we rushed out the door and then got stuck in bumper-to-bumper, morning rush hour traffic.
After the usual questions at triage, the nurses guessed it was appendicitis and so I was admitted to an ER room and thus began the questions, the poking, prodding, sampling and waiting. There was discussion about a CT scan to determine if it was indeed appendicitis but the doctor ruled it out after probing my painless belly. Then they tested my urine and voila! Infection was present. So they quickly put me on levofloxacin and suggested that this was a probably an acute prostate-related urinary tract infection…not an STI. Apparently women are more susceptible to this than men, but in men with prostate issues, it is indeed a problem. Four and a half hours after arriving, I was released on meds, whimpering about the hair they ripped off my arm with my IV.
So with a little side trip to the emergency room down a path of chastity, sobriety, and suicidal ideation, it was off to the altar to see about getting married after all.
Chuan and Jean nursed me back to health and we made it to San Francisco City Hall by 10am on the 9th of August, residual fever and all. And married we are. It happened. It had to happen. I was not going to take no for an answer. Nor was Chuan.
If you’ve never been to City Hall in San Francisco, it is a spectacular example of 1915 Beaux-Arts architecture. As you push the gilded doors open, you enter what appears to be an inside-out wedding cake. It’s the perfect setting for a marriage complete with Chinese tourists and selfie sticks. (They took special delight in seeing a same sex, Caucasian-Asian, age-divergent marriage taking place atop the stairs beneath the skylit rotunda.)
We made our way to the back corner of the hall where we registered with the city and then met with the woman who would be our officiant to perform the ceremony. She seemed incompetent and bumbling with a very thick accent which I think was a Filipino accent.
While they processed our paperwork, the guests were still arriving and looking radiant. Simon, Jean, Scott, Tom, Lawrence, Kristel and January all came to bear witness to the occasion and then we waited for the Justice of the Peace at the top of the stairs under the rotunda. She arrived and behold…there she was…all 3 1/2 feet of be-gowned and be-wigged justicia…Mrs. Yoda, our guide through the gates of holy matrimony! She started looking around and calling, “David…David?” I got all panicky and my fever surged before I realized that the couple to be wed before us also had a David in their party.
Lawrence sang us a beautiful song which wonderfully calmed our nerves, quieted my fever, and drew the attention of tourists. Finally our time came and it was time to step up to the top of the stairs and get married in full view of the bronze bust of Harvey Milk who was assassinated 38 years before, just steps away from that very spot.
Chuan and I stood facing each other in front of the Justice and she began her ceremony. At least I saw her mouth moving and her admiring eyes reading as she looked each of us in the eye, but I couldn’t hear anything. Mrs. Yoda was in fact Justice Whisperer. She was extremely soft-spoken and with the ambient sound of the rotunda’s live acoustics I simply had to go on memory of what she was going to say from having seen this on YouTube previously. We each leaned in closer and closer and the nearer we drew, the fainter her voice became.
No matter, we got the point and we exchanged the rings and said our vows. The hardest part was not to just burst out in tears about the whole thing. The text she was reading (what we could hear of it) was very beautifully written and said nothing about god, but everything about the power of love and the honor of marriage. When she got to the part about loving each other in sickness and in health I felt the relevancy of those words. The whole ceremony was very emotional for me especially having just felt so close to death the day before.
And so on the 2nd year anniversary of having met Chuan in Kuala Lumpur, we said, “I do,” and we did it. What an adventure it has been halfway around the world, over land and sea, continents and cultures, to land us here in the heart of gay America.
After the ceremony we placed flower leis that my cousin Dale from Connecticut sent. Chuan read some talking point from his iPhone, half laughing and half crying, and I stumbled in a still fevered way through some proclamations of love for Chuan. It would have been different had we not spent the day before in the hospital but, alright, sometimes life intervenes. Chuan seemed genuinely touched and moved by the whole experience in spite of all the stress and drama we had been through in the past 36 hours.
After the ceremony, we give a big kiss of gratitude to Harvey Milk whose face was glowing with the attention. San Francisco’s City Hall has a rich history of the struggle for gay rights in America and in a way is the birthplace of same sex marriage. So it seemed like a fitting place to tie the knot. It was also a very public place to get married with tourists circling around snapping pictures. I imagine that Wechat was buzzing that morning with pictures being sent back to mainland China of the 2 dudes getting married, kissing, and crying. They heard about this and now they got to see it in person.
You can watch the wedding and the reception on this video, but of course, you won’t be able to hear much from Justice Whisperer. Put in some earphones and maybe you can hear her sweet voice and words…
The reception afterward was held at Kristel & Lawrence’s house…my friends who just got engaged the week before. So they still had all the Congrats balloons and rented champagne flutes at the house — so it all worked out perfectly. Huge thanks to them for hosting the party; to Tom for the flower bouquets and for shooting video; to Jean for bearing the rings and for the fabulous vanilla and blackberry layer cake and getting us to the “church on time” (and me to the ER on time); to cousin Dale for the orchid leis; to Scott for coming the farthest and for being my oldest friend; to lovely January for the benediction that was delivered more in spirit than in words (my bad); to adorable Lawrence for learning “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and singing it at City Hall!; to Simon for picking up the cake and for all the pre-wedding week dramas that put me in the hospital (just kidding); and to my parents for loving me and supporting me since I came out to them 34 years ago. Thanks to all those who wanted to be with us but couldn’t. Thank you to Angela and Jeff in Tucson for an amazing Tucson reception (pictures coming soon)! And thank you to all those who sent gifts and greetings from around the world and donations to help with Chuan’s legal fees for immigration…all so very much appreciated and needed as we set forth down that path.
Finally, the biggest thanks goes to my new husband, Chuan, who has loved me from day three, who held my vomit bucket and my hand in the hospital thinking the marriage was off. He came all this way around the world to be with me in the strange new world, to step up to the rotunda and commit to a lifetime of being together. In Chuan’s words the next morning, “Hubby, we got married. Shit!” I think he meant, “holy cow.”
I feel a book coming on.
Next stop: Immigration.
That’s a line from Portlandia…a show that pokes a lot of fun at Portland and its wacky inhabitants. But who needs comedy writers when you have the real Portland for material? It’s a colorful, stylish (without being fashionable) place where convention and reality come face to painted face with fantasy in a cloud of blue-gray pot smoke.
Portland is a playful, delightful place where you can meet the blue man on the street or some beardy guy named Bug in the middle of a river wearing a bug hat…
It’s a place where you can get industrial safety gear and a ukulele under the same roof…
“The dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland,” goes a song in Portlandia…
Where else can you meet a friendly Furry with a foxtail in a bar? You might want to look up what Furries are all about.
Visit the creepiest bathroom on earth at Cafe Rimsky Korsakoffee house…
Portland is the place you can get a big hug from guilt-ridden Christians…
And if you’re not feeling the full weirdness, just pop into any legal marijuana store and get your freak-on to go (no smoking on premises!). Just look for the ubiquitous green cross at a neighborhood pot store near you.
Freak or no freaks, Portland in my humble opinion, is the most beautiful city in America. And the property values reflect it. I only wish to imagine living there in the winter, without actually experiencing 8 months of gray and drizzle. For now, it is a wonderful place to walk down the gorgeous tree-lined streets so pretty you want to weep.
Here’s the video encapsulation of the 3 weeks in Portland…
And here’s a photo montage of three lovely weeks in Portland. Thank you to Carole, Larry, Pretzel, Bluejoy and friends for the accommodations. And thanks to our lovely friends Greg, Robin, Franklin, Andrew, Trav B, Jeff, Steve, Larry, for all the fun times and good meals. We will miss you all and the food carts and swimming in the Gorge and the lack of sales tax. We’ll be back next summer for sure!!
Next stop: the altar. City Hall, San Francisco. August 9, 2016 at 10:30 am. OMG, it’s really happening.
Pacific Northwest summer means rivers, forests, and berries, berries, BERRIES! Blackberries abound along roadsides, ditches, and riverbanks. Blueberries jump off the bush at berry farms, and thimbleberries offer their delicate, red caps of flavor if you’re willing to go deep into the rainforest to find them. And we did.
Steve and Travis took us on a hike along the Clackamas River where we discovered the thimbleberries and some beautiful wildflowers in the shady undergrowth of the fir and cedar trees.
And Larry took us to Sauvie Island, just north of Portland, to pick black and blue berries. And our tongues were black and blue to prove it. One for the bucket. One for the mouth. We are so full of antioxidants, we’re going back in time.
Sauvie Island is one of my favorite places in the Portland area. It’s a gorgeous mix of wildlife refuge and farmland. It’s the place that would have inspired Van Gogh and Monet to set up their easels and behold a hundred different shades of green…
Here’s a photo collage of the 2 days of berry adventures…
Our pre-nuptial tour of the Bay Area continued through Marin at Jean’s house on the lagoon, Mt. Tamalpais, Wildwood Retreat Center, Armstrong Woods, and San Gregorio. Our self-guided tour culminated with a stay with Simon at his place in the Castro. Then after nearly missing the train because of traffic, we hit the rails to Portland on the Coast Starlight. It was a great trip with lots of picnics on cliffs, parks, and beaches, and a lot of worrying about the crazy cost of living in the Bay Area. Thank you to Jean and Simon for letting us stay for free! Oh, our thinking about Gay Pride in San Francisco — skip it! It’s a big, trashy, drunken party.
Here’s the video encapsulation of the month by the Bay…
And here’s the photo montage of the month. AGAIN, forgive the endless selfies and wefies. Immigration needs to see that we are indeed a couple and have a history with each other. Click on a picture and then scroll with your arrow buttons. Each photo is captioned.
Next stop: San Francisco for the big wedding on August 9.
There’s something about letting pictures just tell the story when you’re too busy enjoying life to take time to write it out in long form. So with the apology for WAY too many selfies and wefies (we need to show the authorities that we are indeed a legitimate couple) I am offering you photos of our prenuptial tour of California. Big thanks to Jean for use of the car and home while she’s away, January for the wonderful days in Pacific Grove and Esalen, Jack for the mineral collection tour, Ben & Jen for a great coastal retreat in Pt. Arena, and Charlie and Lark for a mountain top musical retreat in Ukiah. California has become out of reach expensive and we couldn’t experience this amazing state without your help!
Oregon is next.
Here in agonizing sentimentality is the performance piece that Chuan and I co-wrote and performed at the Generate Gathering at Saratoga Springs, California. The end of the piece has an unscripted proposal of marriage.
And so the wedding is August 9 in San Francisco.
He arrived April 11, and hit the ground pedaling. I paced the house nervously the day of his arrival. I put a stew in the SunOven, mopped, dusted, washed the sheets while listening to 40’s housewifey music like Doris Day. I awaited news from of his arrival at the Dallas airport. And then it arrived. He landed and sailed through Customs.
Housemate Trish and I met Chuan at the airport and waited for him to come down the stairs. He arrived and I waved my little American flag and welcomed him into my arms. I kept having to poke at him to make sure this was real. Could this be the little guy I left behind in Malaysia, finally here in the flesh? I handed him the bouquet of flowers I got for him. I felt the need to text my boyfriend in Malaysia to tell him that I met this great guy at the airport. But wait.
His first day ever out of Asia, I had him cycling 7 miles downtown (and 7 miles back) for a great Mexican meal at The Little Cafe Poca Cosa for some chicken molé. Then it was a sunny, colorful, and sometimes agonizing wild ride through the desert city to take as much in as possible in our 5 weeks in Tucson. We went to as many concerts at the University and ate as much great pizza and Mexican food as possible in that short time period. He hated my spare bike and then miraculously it was stolen and so we had the opportunity to outfit him with a bike to suit his taste.
And then it was off to California by train for 30 hours of eye-popping scenery, shake, rattle, and rail on America’s embarrassingly inefficient train system: Amtrak. We arrived 2 hours late and slightly agitated…but hey, when you’re taking the train in America, punctuality is not paramount. And when traveling a thousand miles, what’s a couple of hours?
Here’s a video recap of the trip so far…
Chuan really liked Tucson. He found the people extraordinarily warm and welcoming, the town full of cheap eats and ear candy at the University’s music school. He found the desert both beautiful and forbidding…as one should…because it is both. He thought the natural air conditioning was fascinating — the cool desert nights and hot days. He liked how many PhD’s he met in Tucson and how receptive the U was to him getting a music degree there should he want to pursue that. He likes the clean air and the orderliness on the streets. He’s astonished by how big the country is and comforted by how ethnically diverse it is. He has mixed feelings about the desert dryness and is somewhat mystified by how lazy and self-absorbed some Americans can be — especially the young people. He’s shocked by how ubiquitous the smell of marijuana smoke is in San Francisco.
Mostly I think what he likes about America is the social freedom to be himself, to be in love and be public about it. He doesn’t miss his government and dirty public places and the corrupt police. (Nor do I, Chuan!)
Thanks to Trish and our lovely friends for embracing him so warmly. Here’s a photo collage of our Tucson time (again, apologies for all the selfies and wefies — there’s a reason for this other than unchecked narcissism)…
And what does he miss the most? His best friends, warm sea water, and noodles.
I walked in the door of my house in Tucson, Arizona, after being away for the better part of 2 years and got my first whiff of the old house. The smell was familiar and comforting — a combination of wool rugs, oil paintings, and linseed oil on teak furniture. My house seemed like a museum of my life — as if all had been put on hold while I was traveling the world.
The first thing I said to my housemate Jon, after I hauled my suitcases over the threshold and clicked the door behind me was, “Where does one begin the task of repatriation?” The profundity of the moment was lost on him as he didn’t get up from the TV. But it wasn’t lost on me. I had, after all, turned my back on this place, this house, this everything. I had walked away in disgust of the 4G’s of America. The greed. The god. The gluttony. The guns. None of that changed in my absence and yet here I am happy to be back where I started. What had changed was me. And this return was significant. I was returning to my old life with a new twist — a changed man. A loved man. A man.
How did you know when you were finally a grown-up or perhaps more importantly when you stopped being a child? I’ve marked my own achievement of manhood at various points along the way: my first car, my first boyfriend, the first death of a loved one, the first time I tried to kill myself, buying my first house, building a house, starting a business, watching it fail. And now this — becoming an expat and repatriating.
Two years ago I threw away what billions of people would consider the winning lottery ticket of life: American citizenship. I didn’t actually revoke my citizenship but I swore I wasn’t ever going to live in the US again. A gritty 18 months in Malaysia made me rethink all that. In fact it brought me to my knees, quite literally many times — on my knees before a toilet vomiting my delicate western guts out. But for all that I bitterly complained about America, Malaysia was worse. Way worse. In fact, other than a few select countries I visited in Europe and New Zealand, I’d say that the whole world has it a lot worse than America.
I came to see that although guns really aren’t much of a problem in Southeast Asia, all the remaining G’s I fled were alive and well there and the God issue is even worse. So let’s just say Malaysia was 3G…just like my mobile phone in Kuala Lumpur. But I can’t complain too much. (Well, I can because we have freedom of speech.) But I did find love in a place I really came to hate. More about that in the months to come.
First Impressions of America
My re-entry to the US was through Denver, Colorado. After an all night flight from Tokyo on the Dreamliner (which was fabulous) I wandered the Denver airport looking for something to eat and was struck by how friendly and service oriented Americans are. “Hello, welcome to ____, what can I get for you? Would you like a home baked cookie with that? How’s your day going? Would you like something to drink? Cups are here if you would like water. Great. Thanks. Awesome. Have a nice day!” I was returning from Malaysia, a country not known for its smiling service sector or its free water. So Americans aren’t known for their deep sincerity but somehow when someone smiles and greets you and asks how you are, it makes you feel a little less lonely. So, I’ll take fluffy insincerity now after a long period of gruff indifference. But don’t neglect the tip jar in America…which explains the awesome gratitude at the cash register.
I took my sandwich and “home baked” cookie to a table and sat near a middle-aged Jewish couple in polar fleece jumpers. They were chatting about their son’s college and the snow storm coming and whether they would get out before it arrived. I enjoyed having 100% comprehension of all chatter around me. In Asia I drifted into public isolation as most of what was spoken around me, about me, or at me, made no sense. It became just a drone of sing songy gibberish and I had no chance of ever getting to the bottom of anything. Foreigners must just accept what they get and don’t ask questions. Tough for Americans who really want to know everything. We are a curious people and we are generally allowed our curiosity within the confines of our own country. And in the US, you can complain without fear of the dreaded SAVE FACE whereby Asians will disappear you in a snap if you criticize them in any way. Here a well armed and defensive American will just shoot you if you if you criticize them too much. Well, I guess that’s some form of the same thing.
I also noticed that I’m instantly invisible in America. Really, almost no one is exotic in America because of its multi-ethnicity. We have a lot of everything. In Asia I savored being exoticized…it had lots of perks. People usually had a little more respect for me than I get here, they listened to me if they could understand me or looked at me with fascination if they couldn’t. At least they looked at me and often with lust…something that never, ever happens to me here. But being white in Asia also comes with monetary expectations. It is presumed that all white people in Asia are rich. If only they knew. Here in the US, I’m back to being ordinary in both looks and means.
One of the things I noticed immediately when I arrived in Tucson was the resounding quiet. Malaysia is a densely populated country with 30 million citizens and over 2 million foreign workers + tourists crammed into a country about the size of the state of New Mexico, which by the way, has a population of 2 million. There’s just no way to cram that many people into a small land mass and have it be tranquil. Add in 21 million motor vehicles, 9 million of which are motorcycles, half of which don’t have mufflers, and my ears were ringing and I didn’t even know it. It was so quiet in my Arizona living room that I found it both startling and hypnotic. I can still hear Asia ringing in my ears. It’s as if I can’t get the motorcycles out of my ears.
Silence in the desert is a formidable presence. The quiet presses into your head. It’s like placing a seashell next to your ear only you don’t hear the ocean. It can either seem deeply relaxing or it can drive you to distraction. Two weeks after my arrival, I’m still sitting in silence in my backyard in awe of this phenomenon of emptiness. The only buzzing is the sound of hummingbirds whizzing by my head on the way to the feeder.
Last night, something significant happened: I fell asleep and slept the whole night without the use of white noise or earplugs. My patient boyfriend can tell you all about the white noise which I could not sleep without. In Malaysia it covered everything from the ungodly early call to prayer to the midnight motorcycle racing on the streets to the commuter train 30 floors below that rattled the house every 2 minutes. All the unintelligible chatter of languages I couldn’t understand and the moan of mosques and machinery left 9,000 miles behind me, I now sit here in my house stunned by what was missing from my life: nothingness. Delicious nothingness. I can open the front door and it’s quieter outside than inside.
A short list of other observations of America:
There is a vast infrastructure of fine arts organizations in America. This is the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus – of which I am a part (I sing bass). We’re rehearsing Carmina Burana under the exacting and brilliant tutelage of Dr. Bruce Chamberlain. The University of Arizona has a huge music school with free or cheap musical events happening every day and night of the week and a Steinway in every room. There’s also a culture here of pursuit of excellence. It’s a great privilege to have my musical ass kicked into shape every week. How wonderful it is to have passed the audition to sing with 100 other accomplished musicians (the soloists are from the Grammy Award winning ensemble Conspirare) and to be sharing the stage with a full, professional orchestra (founded in 1928). And there’s a university, chorus, and orchestra like this in practically every city in America. FYI – performances of Carmina Burana will be March 18 & 20 with seating capacity at 2,300 for each performance. It will probably sell out.
Americans love to complain about how underfunded the arts are here. And then some private donor gives $20,000,000 to the University’s music department (this just happened). We have it good here and if you don’t think we do, I invite you to live somewhere else to gain perspective. I know of a city at the 3rd parallel you can go to. I assure you there’s not a Steinway in every room. Some say America is a nation in decline. That may be true depending on how you measure it, but it has a long way to go before it reaches a level that a lot of nations will never even get to. Malaysia is stymied by corruption and sloth and should be so lucky to achieve what America has even in its decline.
Old architecture and the preservation of heritage buildings. They’re everywhere here but only exist in a few precious locales in Malaysia. The rest there is an endless jumble of ugly shop lots (strip malls) that all look alike or the ubiquitous soulless shopping mall with parking garage vortices. I’ve been in Tucson 2 weeks and haven’t even seen a shopping mall. Allahu akbar!
The White American diet. Americans really embrace any new diet that will help them lose weight or feel special. We could say Americans have a lot of free time and money to indulge in such things. Yes, we could say that.
Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes that are sweet. Nevermind that it costs $2. It’s worth it. I just couldn’t find a good tomato in Asia where they are pink and tasteless. It’s not a tropical fruit. It takes a Mediterranean climate to make a tomato sweet. And if it isn’t sweet, what’s the point?
Open space. Sidewalks. Bike lanes. And stop lights that mean STOP, not STOP if you’re Chinese in a car and GO if you’re Malay on a motorbike. And sidewalks without cars and motorcycles blocking them. Heavens, if you parked your car on a sidewalk in America, it either wouldn’t be there when you came back or you would be shot by some person in a motorized wheelchair. And you would deserve it.
Truly a sign of a civilized society: paper towels. So glad I no longer have to wipe my wet hands on my shirt. Alas, there’s no such thing as a toilet sprayer (bidet) here in the US. But there is now at my house. Stop by and give it a whirl! You can buy kits and install them yourself.
Cheap alcohol and large selection of blue cheeses. Alcohol in the US is about 1/4 the price of Malaysia.
A dazzling selection of microbrew beers. Haram! It’s enough to make a grown man cry knowing that I no longer have to drink Carlsberg beer and I can ask for a hefeweizen without getting that puzzled look followed by SAVE FACE.
Blue skies. Wool sweaters. Felt pork pie hats. Not pictured: lace up shoes.
Boys in pink pants and orange cashmere. America is a country without the “tall poppy syndrome.” The more outrageous the better because everyone wants to be famous and go viral and get invited on Ellen. I saw this boy cycling by and I just asked if I could take his picture. He happily obliged without any questions. It’s refreshing after being in a Muslim country where people lurk in the shadows of Islam and everyone is suspect of being something. No one but no one would ride a blue bike in pink pants and an orange sweater in Malaysia. No one in his right mind would ride a bike in Asia, honestly. It’s both dangerous and so déclassé. It’s very heartwarming to be in a country where cycling is revered and respected. Decent upstanding people with BMW’s in their garages cycle. And we walk too. That’s just what people do once they’ve been through their industrial revolution and out the other side.
Am I being annoyingly patriotic? Americans can be spoiled rotten and I don’t consider myself among them. But I do believe in recognizing when you’ve got it good and being grateful for it. And I believe in contributing to making your community great wherever you are. But if Donald F. Trump gets elected, I’m going back.
As expected, it was terribly painful to have to leave Chuan behind. It’s always harder for the one staying. The night before my flight, we closed the door on the last guest who came to say goodbye. The moment I closed the door, Chuan melted into my arms and wept…one of the only times since we met. I held him sharing the pain of acknowledgment that having a binational relationship means long periods of separation. I have been amazed at Chuan’s personal strength in difficult situations but I left him with the unenviable task of closing up the apartment after my departure. He dropped me off at the airport and went back to the apartment. By the time I got to Tokyo he texted me that it was just too painful to do on his own. I was glad our friend Hao Yen was able to come by and help him out. Thank you again, HY for rescuing my boyfriend in my absence!
What I was unable to sell to friends and neighbors got donated to the Burmese refugee. Chuan took some giant IKEA bags full of goodies to them. I sent them some nice handmade placemats, realizing afterward that they don’t even have a table on which to place them.
As much as I didn’t like Kuala Lumpur, in the end I’m glad I went because I met Chuan. I could have stayed home in Tucson complaining about being lonely the rest of my life. I took a risk and spent a lot of money. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. We did have a sweet life in that apartment because we were together and that gave it meaning and purpose. Closing up that chapter was very poignant and only improved by the knowledge that our separation is only temporary. What will be written in the new chapter will very likely be fabulous in a way that just wasn’t possible in Malaysia. I’m pulling out all the stops to show him my life here. It’s my invitation. My proposal.
Now we wait.
Moving away from a place is like dying and being allowed to attend your own funeral — only worse because you have to be there for the un-fun parts like getting rid of the furniture and cleaning out the fridge and the scary junk drawer. But the fun parts are the farewell luncheons, the free drinks, and the people coming forth to say goodbye, the friends sending the crying face emoticons. These are the same people who normally are too busy to see you, who, had they made time for you during your tenure in this place, you might not have moved. But leaving is a chance to take stock of your life and see where you might possibly have had an impact or made a difference in someone’s life, even in a small way.
Take for example one of my main pet peeves in life: unconscious use of resources, wastefulness, and littering. I’ve complained bitterly about Asia’s reckless use of plastics and its unwillingness to reuse or recycle. How many times have I purchased an item and handed the cashier my own bag only to have them put my items in a new bag. And then when I say, “No plastic!” they put the new bag in my re-used bag. Now I have doubled my domestic bag population and not for lack of trying. I simply cannot get my message across in Asia. Not in concept. Not in practice.
But the other day something miraculous happened. I was shopping at the Regalia Pasar Mini – the mini market store in the lobby of the building where I live in Kuala Lumpur. The same Bangladeshi guy who has served me probably a hundred times, took my milk and put it in a new plastic bag, to which I quickly responded, “No plastic bag, thanks,” with the same eye-rolling false patience I’ve had since day two. And he looked at me and smiled for the first time in over a year and said, “Oh, sorry. Save the environment!” I was so dumbstruck I didn’t know what to say. It caught me completely by surprise. I tripped on my response, “Um yeah, save the environment.” I repeated it just to feel the glory of the words rolling off my tongue to understanding ears. “Save the environment. Yes, exactly. Thank you.” And I stood there beaming like a parent whose child finally used the potty.
Ho-ly-cow. I couldn’t believe it. He had paid attention to what I had said on scores of previous occasions and he even understood it. He hadn’t initiated actually saving the bag, but at least he got the concept instead of thinking it was just some annoying expat who prefers to carry his milk carton in his hands…how weird. I relayed the story as a minor triumph to Chuan. “Good Hubby,” was his stock response. (I think he thinks maybe I should choose bigger battles, but he knows at least to pat me on the back for trying.)
Then a couple days later, Chuan and I were on the elevator and the same Bangladeshi cashier stepped on, pressed his button and proceeded to look down at the floor as most foreign workers do, avoiding eye contact. I thought the intersection of our lives was fortuitous — I’ve never see him on the lift in my building. So I said to him with a big smile of acknowledgment, “Hey, save the environment.” His subcontinental bindi-ed face came alive and he responded, “Yes, yes, save the environment.” And he stepped off, our short social interaction ending at the garage level. Chuan looked at me with a face of “Good Hubby” and ‘why are you talking to the foreign workers?’ The beauty of the moment, however, was not lost on me.
That was a small but significant moment in my time here but undoubtedly the largest contribution I have made to Malaysia wasn’t even to Malaysia as much as the world community. It was my teaching the impoverished Myanmar refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the Zotung School here in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t say I was a great English teacher as I really have no qualifications. Though I use them all the time, I couldn’t have told you what a past participle was (but there’s one now). I bought a book and watched some YouTube videos about how to teach English. I felt terribly unprepared for this task and just stepped into the stinky rundown school mustering some courage and desire to help. Half the time I hated being there and walking on the broken sidewalks through the rat infested neighborhood on the way to class.
I looked like a school marm in my my drab olive shorts and plaid shirt with my briefcase that wasn’t full of toys, board games, and cookies. It had only one thing: my notebook with an outline of the day’s class which would include some reading, writing, storytelling, and grammar lesson. At first the kids seemed to reflect my stiffness. They were quiet and respectful but not joyful when I arrived each morning. But over time they warmed up sharing gossip (whoa, hold back on that kids!) with me like I was a peer. DimDim wore a little bow in her hair and would proudly show it to me turning her head to the side, “Look teacha!” Tam Wi Oo would get out the folders and put a water bottle on the desk for me. Hang Thung Lia would share a word he learned like ‘lovelorn’ revealing some of his tenderness to the class. Harry gave me a hug-like-he-meant-it when he got resettled to Oklahoma.
I gave my last class just before Christmas and I will likely never see Dim Dim, Tam Wi Oo, and Joel again. The other students I had over the year and a half of teaching moved on to other schools, were resettled to other countries, or died on the street here. But wherever they are, I think a small part of me lives in them and a bigger part of them lives in me. Maybe they will remember my words of the day like forgiveness, cooperation, and respect. Did I help them with their past tense verbs and prepositions? Sure. But more importantly I saw them as human beings in a place where they are illegal and treated like rats by the police. Of all things in Malaysia, I will miss them the most.
Summing up my life in Malaysia, it has been full of less than grand moments of triumph and defeat. That I figured out a small handful of restaurants in which to dine without going home with extra creatures in my bowels that would leave me glued to the toilet for days, is an unglamorous but noteworthy achievement of my time here. It’s one of many uninteresting details of life that I’ve tediously knocked out here by trial and error. The list is too long and dull to even enumerate. Knowing the ins and outs of a place is just what you do to survive. And I survived. But I didn’t thrive here. Thriving would be to savor the beauty of a place, to wake up in the morning ready to embrace the day and head out on a walk or a ride enchanted by what you might encounter. That faded shortly after I arrived and took the blinders off — the blinders that got me here in the first place.
But if I look back at the reason I moved to Malaysia, I would say that I did achieve what I came here for. I found it in Chuan in spades. In my time here in Malaysia, countless people have asked me, “What brings you to KL?” I’ve fumbled for the answer saying anything from, “I wanted to get away from the US for a while,” (which always raises suspicions that I’m some sort of fugitive or as Chuan’s grandfather suggested, an operative for the CIA) to, “I came to Malaysia to find love.” That’s the truthful answer and one that makes no sense to anyone here. I quickly learned not to make that statement to any local here. It sounds like I came here recruiting for human trafficking victims. Their faces, upon utterance of that reason, give a look as if I had placed a turd on the table before them. A mission of love is the import of someone from a ‘developed nation’ — a privilege in a place that is more caught up in survival than such tender matters. And so I abandoned revealing the truth about my intent here just as I abandoned my enthusiasm for the place. You can read my original blog posting about it by clicking here.
It was not an easy 18 months in Malaysia. I had my fun and my anguish but the scales were tipped a little too much to the latter and I admitted that I simply couldn’t make it work. In the end I did get what I came here for and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful I had the courage to risk so much to venture over here. And grateful that in so short a time I found what was missing in my life in America. I’m grateful for the handful of beautiful people I met along the way, as one always does even in the most dreary places. Do I have any regrets? Yeah. I shouldn’t have eaten those candlenuts. I should have tried the chocolate camel’s milk. And I shouldn’t have scratched that car. (But I’ll tell you more about that once I’m out of the country.)
In a few days all the furniture will be sold or donated, the piano will sit unplayed in the store where I found it, the bed stripped of all its late night cuddles, the magic carpet rolled up, and the curtains on the magnificent view pulled tightly shut. The smell of Chuan’s baking will be scrubbed off the walls, the oven sent to Auntie Louise, the pots and pans to Auntie Eve. The air conditioner will be switched off and the hot, humid air will overtake the apartment. Chinese New Year fireworks will go unheard by my ears this year and Chuan’s nightmares will go un-comforted when he returns to his bunk bed in his mother’s apartment where he lived before we met. My plane bound for the States leaves just after the sun casts its first orange light between the Petronas Towers onto my former home.
In my 30 hours of flying home I will go from being rich and exotic to being poor and ordinary, and my name ceases to be “Boss.” I will be just another white face in a mostly white crowd, but this time I won’t be going home empty-handed. Chuan has his B2 visa and his flight is booked for April.
Cross an ocean, start a new chapter.
Here’s the farewell video with a recap of the last month in Malaysia and a little slice of domestic life in KL…
Have a look at the Gallery of Goodbyes. Click on one and advance with the L or R arrows…