Barber

For whatever reason, my barber had employed some new techniques with me today. Mostly with my shave.

I do not recall him having used a brush to foam my face with shaving cream before. I always assumed he had been using his hands. I am never sure because my eyes are closed every time.

This time around, he also decided to provide me with a gentle face massage, rather than pounding my neck and back with his palms after my haircut — which always served as a welcome sign that he was through.

The barber shop I go to is a nondescript room, adjacent to a residential property along Jalan Sungai Kelian. It is not right alongside the road, but rather, further inside the property, at the end of a driveway leading into a house.

There are two swivel chairs in the room – the kinds with built in head-rests designed precisely for holding your head back for a shave. There is only one barber, however, so customers sit on the same swivel chair furthest from the door when receiving their cut. I’ve never seen anyone sit on the other chair.

There is only enough room for about four customers to wait their turn for a cut and shave. When I arrive today, an old Chinese man was already seated before me, ready for a trim. There was another man waiting, presumably Indian, with whom the barber was conversing. Between the three of them, I hardly understood a thing. Most of the conversation was either held in Malay or in Tamil. Naturally, I took out my phone.

When the barber had finished trimming the Chinese man’s hair, the man then paid him a little extra, and the barber took out a DVD from one of the drawers. Perhaps it is a side business, I had thought. I couldn’t get a good look at what sort of film he had handed him, but I stopped myself from assuming.

It was my turn. The barber already knows me, by face anyway, and so he gave me a welcome smile. When I come by, he usually attempts to guess beforehand what sort of haircut I want, which isn’t that hard to guess, since it’s almost always the same – short on the sides, long on top. He gets it right, usually – I’m the one that can’t seem to make up my mind on what I was hoping for.

Today I told him I wanted something different. Short on the sides, but higher, I instructed him, but leaving the top uncut. I mumble another direction, something to do with getting it blended in, but I mutter it mostly to myself, thinking neither he, or I, might really know what that even means.

This was a new cut for him, and me, and I figured to keep the expectations low. He started off with a bigger guide comb attached to the electric clipper and got it all even, all the way around the sides and back of my head. He switched down to a smaller guide comb to fade it in for a boxier look, and as I requested, he hardly touched the top. It was a quick cut, and reasonably good for the first time around. I felt relieved and satisfied, and he wore the look of something of a proud stylist, pleased with his own handiwork.

As is often the case with my visits, he assumed I wanted a shave. He was right — my facial hair had gotten scraggly and I was too lazy to give myself a close shave. I often am. It gets to be a messy, sweaty endeavor here in Malaysia.

I find shaving to be a rather intimate experience. When else is one examining his own face so closely. Is there not any sense of fear at the prospect of discovering features you hadn’t known existed? A mole here, a wrinkle there, a zit you forgot to pop until your razor brushes over it and the sharp pain of the blade scraping against your pimple feels like fire…

Shaving for me, is in large part, acceptance. It is the admission that my face continues to change in ways I cannot fully fathom, even though, in my mind, I feel as though I ought to be able to control. It is one of those activities that signal to me my own age – not simply the mere act of shaving as symbolic of adulthood, but rather, the residue of time, leaving behind its inevitable trail on my face.

Mainly, around my neck. Especially there. There I have all sorts of extra baggage, a true testament of time. I once had a jawline and I miss it dearly. I fear I may not ever see it again.

Only my wife caresses my face, and even with her, I feel a tinge of shame, for not having maintained the same sort of face she fell in love with years ago. My hope is that only I really think this, and she could really care less. The face she has before her is, close enough to the original thing.

But my barber – he gets special privileges. He’s the only other person who touches my face in ways no one else would. Today, he decided it best to pinch my cheeks repeatedly, after he had finished with the razor, as if they needed to be assuaged from the trauma of metal. That was a first, and a welcome surprise. It got my mind slightly distracted from the sting of the aftershave that would soon follow.

This is a man whose hands touch dozens of face shapes and head sizes throughout the course of the day. He is entrusted with a special task.

As his hands and fingers held my face and head, I sensed that, he too, has placed himself in a vulnerable position. His hands are exposed to our senses. We can smell what he might have had for lunch, as I did today – it was curry. We can see whether or not he had trimmed his fingernails before coming into work.

My barber gets to share time with me at my most exposed, and in turn, he too, exercises his own level of vulnerability. Perhaps, it’s all business for him, but I want to believe, that with time, he’d be just as willing to carry the burden of our secrets, as he would, cradle our heads.

I finally asked him for his name, which is a bad habit I have — always putting that exchange last.

He told me it was Jodhit, and how you see it is how I think I had heard him spell it. I had to ask him to. I learned that he’s been a barber for 24 years. In his current shop, he’s been cutting hair and shaving faces for 14 of them. The man has earned the right to be trusted. The least I could do is reward him with my loyalty – that he can trust I’d always keep coming back.

Singapore

It’s 8 a.m. here in Singapore.

I’m sitting outside on a balcony on the 16th floor of the Espada condominium in the Somerset neighborhood. From here I can look ahead and into other people’s property – that is, other homes in other luxury abodes surrounding me. There are at least a dozen within a two mile radius of where I sit of similar high-rise buildings exuding the same posh status akin to the one I’m staying in also represents.

According to my friend Ryan, with whom my wife and I are staying, many of his building’s residents are expats – and this particular neighborhood is well-populated with Westerners from around the world. Ryan is American, as are my wife and I, though we are all also Asian, which we all agreed, makes for many less-than-ideal introductory conversations surrounding “where we’re from”.

Ryan is placed here temporarily for work and he’s been put up handsomely. From his bedroom he has a panoramic view of the Somerset neighborhood at his daily disposal. Each room of his “modest” apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, as if peering into other people’s places is one of the many understood perks of living in such residences at all.

If I had actually lived in this unit, I would likely be engaging in unhealthy amounts of people-watching and would probably indulge in my fair share of voyeurism (My wife acknowledged that she would probably do the same, and so I feel a little less alone in my admission).

Because it is still quite early in the morning, Singapore at its most bustling and buzzy is less apparent. It feels more like a quiet jungle interspersed with high-rise concrete structures darting up from the ground (Which appropriately, beckons the the “concrete jungle” saying).

To the left of the balcony is another development, the only blight to an otherwise, stunning view from above. It looks to be the beginnings of another residential building, still in the stage of exposed beams and rusted metal. According to Ryan, next to the development is a tiny residential building, which apparently, houses the migrant workers that have been hired to work on the development next door.

It is Sunday, today, and early, but I can already tell, these workers won’t be having today off.

Besides the rumored worker housing and the eyesore of early construction, there is little about this neighborhood that feels any less manicured into a self-contained sort of perfection. It looks like the neighborhood was built especially for their own residents to walk around in, to bask and delight in the magnificence of where they live.

I write this knowing full well that this temporary fantasy world of luxury will cease in the next 24 hours, as my wife and I will return to our humble abode on Penang Island, where we must downgrade to the 15th floor balcony view instead.

Where we live in Penang is far from shabby, as well. What we earn, however, is absolutely modest which requires us, in turn, to actually live modestly, as well. Still, we both value living simply and with unwavering commitment we hope to actually do so (Which makes having a partial ocean view from the 15th floor of our rented apartment already a slight compromise).

I told my wife last night, that I didn’t want, to want all of this.

What I mean is, I don’t want to have this festering desire to accumulate more than what my family and I need, simply because the kind of lifestyle around me seems to demand it. As if luxury, begets more luxury – which I believe, it would.

And to be clear, I mean this not as an indictment of my friend Ryan’s lifestyle. He was gifted with an opportunity to come to live in Singapore temporarily for work, and he’s genuinely taken to this little, powerful cosmopolitan city-state. He didn’t choose this way of living for himself – it was given. And if I were in his position, offered a chance to live in a safe, exclusive neighborhood, high above the rapid living below, there’s a good chance I’d take it in a heartbeat too.

But I’d want to be able to leave it all behind, just as easily, if I could.

I want to live with enough conviction to walk away the moment I felt a borrowed lifestyle consumed me more than my own integrity did. I’d much rather, still, the latter.

I can imagine the comfortable living here to feel, almost contagious. Like a kind of good-feeling disease people wouldn’t mind having, or sharing, for that matter.

I’m allowing myself a little room for judgment here, so I’m just going to say this: in Singapore, to have things, just seems so utterly, Singaporean. As if there isn’t another desirable way to live, than to accumulate wealth and establish comfort. That said, I want any Singaporean friends to show me something else. I invite any passionate sort of retort to my judging, American ways.

Had I had loads of cash at my disposal, I’m afraid I may have burned it all quickly on this short trip, as if I needed to purchase things I didn’t really need because purchasing things is exactly what people did here. Even those without much money, I imagine, still found things they could afford to purchase.

Perhaps I’m not saying anything particularly egregious when I say that this country reeks of rampant materialism (Though, I suppose, by saying it that way, I’m not exactly saying it, nicely either, even if it were true). I can’t help but imagine some thoughtful Singaporean citizens having already made this sort of a self-condemnation long ago, and often. I don’t imagine everyone is swept up by an uncontrollable desire to accumulate things, or to literally “rise up” into a luxury home. But I do get the sense that the pressure to want this for oneself, in a place like this, that beams with material success, is more than just palpable. The pressure might be boiling over, for many…

Though, maybe not for everybody.

When I see women sweeping the balconies of the apartments across from where I sit, I wonder what it is that they really want, living here. Or the men hired to build an apartment complex they likely could never afford living in in their lifetime – what do they desire? Or perhaps the maid pushing around the stroller behind the family with a newborn – what would she like to have for herself?

I’d hate to start assuming everyone wants the same things.

As I said earlier, for me, I wouldn’t want, to want any of this, really. Perhaps luckily for me, I actually get to leave it.

Video

Taste

“It’s going to take a while.”

I’ve listened to this snippet from Ira Glass many times over, and every time I do, I can’t help but feel a little encouraged, and a bit more hopeful.

Everything he says here, regarding the craft of creating stories is spot on.

Not only does it take time to feel like we’re creating something even close to our own ambitions, but it truly takes, a huge volume of work. Between the time, and the work, it’s the work that keeps me humble. The amount of work I will need to churn out, just so my writing can sound a little more like what I have in my head is daunting.

Time feels like a luxury. Sure, we take it for granted, too. But in my particular case, time is hardly the issue. I have loads of it. (I don’t manage it well enough to feel like I do, but I do)

It’s the work, though.

The commitment to churning out draft after draft of likely bad writing, again and again, until it looks a little less like a deformed mass of jumbled words and resembling more of a properly executed, carefully crafted story. Something beyond just well meaning, but poignant. Something actually worth reading.

I don’t fear the work. I just get tired thinking about what it will require of me. The demand is great, and the worker is few – me.

Now, about taste…

That’s the other thing in which I take some amount of solace. Actually, with regards to taste, there’s a little bit of pride.

I am not ashamed about what I like. I do not mind sharing the books I’m reading, or recommending films worth watching, or plugging the kind of music I’d want the rest of my small world to tune into (likely, it’s jazz, by the way).

What I like motivates me to create something that would, similarly, illicit a sense of pride – that I, too, can come up with something enjoyable. That I can move someone to action, or challenge someone to think differently, with my words, in the same way much of what I consume, much of my interests, move and challenge me.

Right now, the “taste” that Glass is talking about – that’s all I really have.

The body of work has yet to be built. The time to do so has yet to be managed.

But the taste, to me, is there. To me, it’s my beginning.

Things are likely to look a little different around here. It’s probably going to be a bit messier. I’m going to be testing a lot more out. See what sticks. My more manicured, professional self has its own, separate place – over here. But here…here is where the work, the real, grind-it-out, raw material, will once again gain its footing.

So pardon the mess ahead, but I have a lot of work still to do.

Everything in Motion

There is an advantage to spending most morning meals on my own, whenever I head to the market.

I get to watch.

The privilege of being a conspicuous observer isn’t lost to me – it helps not having a pale, white face, a loud, booming voice, or a restless band of children orbiting me like little planets. I get to have a quiet meal, virtually uninterrupted.

But I allow myself the slightest bit of distraction anyway, and it’s hard not to do so – not when I’m sitting in the middle of a collection of hawker stalls that make the wet market more than just a welcome source for the day’s fresh stock of produce, or meat.

After all, everything appears to be in constant motion here.

The chattering of chopsticks being dried and rubbed altogether after a quick rinse. The stirring of silver spoons in tiny, porcelain cups of piping hot Kopi.

The silent whirring of electric ceiling fans, dissecting the direction of fluorescent light, casting ghostly shadows dancing upon the red dining tables.

The mystical wafting of smoke, escaping the ends of dangling cigarettes, casting a slow spell upon the air.

I watch the same white-haired men congregating around the same corner table, and I can’t help but imagine they’ve occupied the same, red plastic chairs, for years. Their banter is constant but unforced, as if they’ve been saying the same jokes they first told one another on the playgrounds of their elementary school. 

The hawker stall workers, employing their keen sense for when it’s appropriate to bus their own dishes and clean up after their customers. With one hand gathering back their empty plates and with two quick swoops of a wet cloth upon the table’s surface, you almost forget that they came by at all.

Time simply refuses to stand still at the market. But perhaps, only for me – affording me the pleasure of watching all the slow, quiet, order of things, unfold.

 

The Need, Not To Forget

Some time last week, I found myself in a Malaysian prison.

It’s taken some time to process the experience, and I think I’ve come to grips with it a bit better by now, but it feels as though this newfound awareness I have won’t be going away any time soon, and the best thing I can do is to keep processing why it might have left such a deep impression with me.

To be clear, I didn’t get myself in any trouble. I went to a visit someone I didn’t really know. I had to relay a message to her, in Tagalog, for her to not plead guilty for a crime she’s been accused of committing. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the victim in the matter, and that’s the story I’m choosing to believe.

There’s probably a lot of explaining I could do, but I won’t. I’m not convinced it’s a story I’m supposed to tell. And for her own privacy and protection, it’s best that I don’t anyway.

Here’s what I can say…

My friend Sally works with women fleeing abusive domestic work situations. She’s asked me to come with her a few times to visit some women and help translate if they were native Filipino-speakers. Many of these women are seeking compensation they are owed due to violations on their working contract. Often times, they just want to go back home.

Without going into to much detail here, there’s a cycle in place, wherein the key characters involved are worker, agent, employer, government and embassy. In short, the system is severely lacking in any real accountability, leaving multiple parties complicit in what’s becoming commonplace abuse of domestic workers just hoping to send their earnings back home to their families, through what’s presented to them as a legitimate job.

Outside of this, I will say no more. Again, I’m not entirely sure this is my story to tell, nor is it something I’m fully ready to expose. Not yet, anyway.

All I really know is what I’ve seen and heard. I’ve met several women – usually at the labor department here in Penang – accompanied either by Sally or some other women who have chosen to take up their case after they have fled. It’s always an uphill battle, but there are people here on the ground who have hustled their way towards the right kind of people with actual legal power to help back for these workers what they rightfully deserve.

But the woman we met in prison faces a different sort of battle, entirely. She wants to go home too, but until she begins her trial for assault, she’s stuck in a cell, thousands of miles away from whatever home she has left in the Philippines.

To be truthful, the details of her story remain fuzzy to me. Probably due to a combination of not being able to translate her Tagalog well enough, or the non-linear progression of the events as she recounted them. We had 45 minutes to tell her, over and over again, not to plead guilty at her first hearing (I learned later that she didn’t, to my relief). But Sally and I used most of the time, to try and piece together the story for ourselves.

I can’t share those details here. It’s only fair that I keep those confidential. 

I will say this, though…

I won’t be forgetting that experience any time soon. I doubt I’ll forget about her story, tragic and unresolved as it stands. I certainly won’t forget seeing her trying so hard to remain composed throughout our time together, only to break in agony at the mere mention of her family.

We were surprisingly granted nearly an entire hour with her, and it still wasn’t enough. She cried, sparingly, but whenever she did, whatever little ability I had to comfort her in Tagalog felt so strained. I just couldn’t really find the words.

I could only tell her that she wasn’t alone, over and over again. That we were there for her.

And it’s true, Sally and the rest of us involved in this endeavor won’t be giving up. We’ll make the trek to the labor department, and yes, even to prison, just so that she, and others like her, know that they aren’t alone in this.

And yet, who’s to say what this woman’s daily experience is like, locked up in a cell with no real family to comfort her. She remains at the mercy of those taking up her case and advocating on her behalf, in a country, and in a language, not her own.

I can only imagine that feeling a lot like helplessness. She told me, herself, that she was starting to lose hope.

At that point, I nearly broke as well. Since our strange encounter on opposite sides of a glass divider with classic phone receivers, our only means of hearing one another, I’ve fought hard not to forget what I had felt with her that day.

And while I can hardly explain what it is that has remained with me since, why it lingers quietly, but persistently inside me, I know I need to feel it. I just can’t afford to forget.

I can only imagine the inordinate amount of courage she needs to keep her own spirit from breaking. We, her advocates, her only friends, can only do so much on her behalf. I can only pray that, within the confines of her cell, there’s some peace to be found, just enough faith to hold onto, and an abundance of grace to keep her strong – to keep her hoping, still.

Back On Foot

For reasons I won’t disclose here, our car is in the shop for some minor repairs, and so we have been relying on public transportation the past few days.

Our little car, a Viva model from Perodua, a local auto manufacturer in Malaysia, has served as our main means of getting around Penang. We’ve taken it around the entire island, all the way up to Cameron Highlands, and shuttled it to and from the airport, somehow squeezing into it visiting friends and entire families into what feels like the local equivalent of a Mini Cooper (or so I’d like to think).

But currently, it is out of commission, and so we’ve returned to life being car-less, as it was for us when we first moved to Penang over half a year ago.

It goes without saying, how much of a hassle it can be without a way of getting around on your own. This is true, and nothing brings home this truth more than having the oppressive heat of these rain-less days weigh upon you while you wait for a bus that’s sure to be overflowing with passengers.

The only solace is the (at times, unbearably) frigid air-con to cool you off inside the bus, and the relief of not having to navigate the traffic at rush hour.

But I’ve discovered something else during our car-less escapades.

Finding new things, by bus or on foot, makes the process feel fun again.

Being utterly dependent on a shaky transportation system and having to meander about the maze that is Georgetown without the guidance of a GPS has made our little excursions around town actually feel like we’re visiting Penang, for the first time. As if, we didn’t actually live here, ourselves.

There is a freshness to the experience that I had forgotten, having gotten used to feeling so sheltered in my little car, weaving in and around one-way streets I’d never imagine traversing on foot.

Even the streets we had been meaning to pass through were likely missed many, many times, whizzing by in our car, determined to beat the jam and get home.

When walking, the adventure can’t help but last a lot longer. And you don’t really know where you might end up, or what you’ll run into.

Today, for example. I wasn’t counting on having what might very well be the best Char Kuey Teow you can find on the island. But being on foot led us down Lorong Selamat, and eventually, to the lady in the red, mushroom-looking hat – a very visible, trademark look for the woman responsible for producing one of the best, staple dishes Penang has to offer.

We took streets we had never taken before – little inroads connecting the major thoroughfares we usually drive up and down upon by car. I stumbled upon a unique view of one of the tallest buildings in town – KOMTAR, walking down Lorong Madras. I see this building all the time, but not in this angle, and not framed so symmetrically as I had seen it, today.

Eventually, we ended up on Burma Road, which we usually take when driving back from town towards home. But it had been so long since we were actually walking down this road, on foot, stopping at little shops we had forgotten were there – like Ming Xiang Tai, makers of our favorite salted pastry, the Tamun biscuit.

We were so comfortable taking our time that we even made an impromptu trip to the nearby Starbucks – which is something we never do, together. (I doubt we’d ever actually drive to one, unless I needed to get work done)

Yes, there were, of course, inconveniences.

We picked the wrong day to finally visit Bangkok Lane in Pulau Tikus. We got off the bus, only to find all the shops closed on Sunday. Then, we paid nearly a full fare for a bus ride that lasted all of 5 minutes. And, it goes without saying, that riding a packed bus, sticky from your own sweat, doesn’t make for the most comfortable coziness.

Still, these were not problems capable of spoiling what had otherwise been a fine afternoon. We have had far, far worse experiences waiting for the bus (for hours!) in the past.

We couldn’t have picked a better time of day to set out for the city – that pocket of time between the end of lunch and the beginning of dinner. The pulse of the city that beats at its peak at midday and again, at dusk, can, at times, be an overwhelming sort of energy (for us introverted types anyway).

Catching Penang at rest, with the sun laying low readying for its own escape into the horizon is like experiencing a quieter, subtler sort of magic. It is the time of day when dilapidated buildings look even more historic, and easy-going cart pushers trudge along more slowly. Motorcycle riders appear less aggressive, as if they, too, are still waking from their afternoon slumber.

The more I’m on foot, discovering this enchanting city, the more I realize how impossible it is to appreciate Penang as fully, and as slowly, when I’m driving.

In my car, the town becomes a stressful, anxiety-inducing, pollution-emanating maze of one-way streets, crowded with obnoxious jaywalkers.

It’s no wonder pedestrians look far more at ease than the drivers do. They’re in on a secret I won’t soon forget, now that I remembered what it’s like to be on foot. And there’s really no point in saying more, now that I’ve come to know it – it’s just best you find out for yourself.

Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.

On Grace

Day 29, 500 words, 31 days.

We began our final day of Lunar New Year weekend at church.

As expected, the service at Georgetown Baptist Church was far less attended than the first time we had gone. I assume everyone was either out of town or stayed in with visiting family. We strolled in about 15 minutes after service had started. Turns out worship wouldn’t end until an hour later, so we didn’t miss much.

I haven’t written much about faith during this entire project, and I don’t really know the reason. That’s a part of my life that I don’t intentionally hide from anyone, not even in a Muslim country like this one. I don’t ever get preachy anyway, so I don’t fear ever getting “found out”.

So, it’s a curious thing that it’s never come up. But better late than never, I suppose. This project reads like an open book anyway.

The preaching today had to do with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from the Book of Matthew. In sum, Jesus tells his disciples a story about a landowner who agrees to pay his workers a ‘denarius’ for their labor on his vineyard. As the story goes on, we’re introduced to more workers without work that the landowner chooses to employ as the day progresses. At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon, he adds on more workers to his vineyard. By the end of the day, the landowner decides to pay the last batch of workers the same amount as he promised his first set of workers – a ‘denarius’. In the story, the earliest group of workers complained at the injustice of the landowner’s decision, wondering why those who worked far less still earned the same, and yet, they didn’t receive more. The landlord then tells the disgruntled laborers that he paid them as they agreed, that he wanted to pay the rest of the workers as he wished, and that it was his right to do so.

Jesus ends the story with a familiar sentiment He repeats elsewhere in the gospels: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This isn’t going to be a theological exposition on the true meaning behind this parable. But I want to note something in the very beginning that changes how I receive the story dramatically.

Jesus begins the parable by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”

The metaphor here is between the kingdom of heaven, and the landowner, or more specifically, what the landowner does. I presume, the landowner is God, we, the workers, and the vineyard, this world.

The pastor today preached about how this story in Matthew teaches us about undeserved blessing by God’s grace. He urged us to be grateful, regardless of what we’ve been given, and not to envy others of what we do not have.

He talked about fairness, and how God operates differently than us – how He gives as he chooses, regardless of what we believe we’ve earned.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with all of this.

But I take exception to one thing – and really, it has more to do with what the pastor didn’t say, than what he did.

I was left wondering, “What about the workers?” I wanted to relate to the characters of the story, and of course – the plight of the workers felt most relevant. What about what they deserved?

I started to think about day laborers who often avail of themselves to do the sort of jobs no one else would voluntarily take, for pay that’s far less the value of their toiling. I thought about women who agree to leave their countries to serve as domestic workers elsewhere, only to be tricked into working more hours for less pay. Or even the cart-pusher selling food on the street, charging a measly three ringgit for a full plate of noodles or Nasi Lemak. Is that all they’re really getting for their work? There doesn’t seem to be anything fair about their situations at all.

It wouldn’t have hurt to spend a little more time examining the “us” and “them” that make up the collective “worker”. To recognize the reality of their plight, the hardship of their toiling, and the injustice many experience when all they desired was what they deserved.

Because wherever the Kingdom of God “isn’t” – suffering, exploitation, and pain, will be. Can we realistically expect that those who experience injustice from their labor remain grateful anyway for the little they are given? Is it reasonable for us to discourage envy when they aren’t even given what they humbly deserve?

This was my knee-jerk reaction to a sermon that felt a little too simple and good-feeling (though probably appropriate for the “new year”) and a service that ran a little too long for my hunger to handle.

What I missed, and perhaps what the pastor failed to emphasize – was what this story was really about. Or rather, whom.

For all the emphasis I wanted on the workers, I realize after examining the beginning of the story, that it isn’t really about them.

It’s about the landowner – about God. I relate far more with the workers than I do the landowner, of course, and perhaps this is why I missed the point.

I forgot about the analogy Jesus was actually making. The story was explaining what the Kingdom of God was like. Not what we were like, what we earned, or what we did or didn’t deserve.

The injustice of this world, the world we know – the unfair one with all the broken, rigged systems in place – persists. It shouldn’t, and yet, it does, and for many, this is the most discouraging thing. It is enough reason to lose faith in ourselves – the whole lot of us with our own twisted agendas and perverse versions of what’s fair and what isn’t.

The hope, however, is in this other reality, this promise of a better “world” that God introduces, in which He is king, and His justice rules. And it’ll make very little sense to us, most of the time. Probably similar to the way things were with the disciples.

But the hope continues – because the promise isn’t just this strange sense of justice we experience, but this immediate inheritance of abundance, of grace. And these, too, often times, will make little sense. I doubt we can truly ever fathom what God’s abundance feels like for it is probably beyond measure, and certainly not His grace, which is beyond what we can ever earn.

Maybe this sounds a bit dissatisfying – how, as characters in a the story of life, human beings play the part of toiling laborers, subject only to whatever we are given, regardless of whether it’s fair. But we hope for more, so we work more, to get what we feel we deserve. This is a very basic principle that seems to stir a very natural motor within us to want to earn our keep, and then some.

I understand so little, of God’s ways. I can barely even grasp how my little life is unfolding before me. I only know, to toil on.

And yet, this peculiar story seems to point to an even bigger, better thing worth putting our hope in, something beyond all that I can ever earn, should I even try to. This grace promised to us, this thing that only the “Landowner” can give – might be the most undeserved thing I want most. The thing none of us, good workers and bad ones, could ever attain on our own accord. It will always be more than everything we’ve given, and never too little for those who have given none.

That is a profound mystery to me, still – the “justice” of that gift. And the only consolation I can find, dissatisfying as it might be, is that to us, it’s always free.

New

Day 28, 500 words, 31 days.

Lunar New Year in Penang was pretty quiet, after all. Sure, we heard some fireworks in the distance, but they didn’t keep us up anymore than the instigating bird that pesters the entire neighborhood with its awful crowing.

Granted, we kept things pretty local and stayed in our area – Tanjung Bungah – for most of the weekend thus far. I’m bracing myself for a sudden spurt of liveliness that would change my mind, but until then, things have been pretty tame where we are, and it’s just the way I like it.

I’m not sure it’s a Lunar New Year tradition to make any resolutions the way we Westerners like to ring in January 1st. I know there are many other established traditions in place – the wearing of red, the giving of red envelopes or ‘ang pao’, the big family gathering for a meal.

For our modest, little celebration, there was just one ‘ang pao’ given, I wore a button-up shirt that Shuli insists is pink, and I didn’t even get everyone we had in one photo together – and there were only five of us.

Still, in our own, fairly non-traditional way, I’d say it was a nice evening – especially for the Chinese among our small group – my wife, and  two friends. For them, I can imagine doing something, anything, on this particular day, mattered a lot.

Considering how much of a family-centric celebration this is, and how none of us were around any, we made the most of what we had – each other. But we prepared a meal as if there were far more people coming over than there really were. Shuli provided all the ingredients for Vietnamese spring rolls, Chris prepared dumplings, and our hosts Roby and Erica, cooked an entire fish and roasted a chicken.

Meanwhile, I de-shelled shrimps for an hour. That was my proud contribution to this elaborate meal.

Ever so often, I walked out on the balcony and the occasional set of fireworks went off (I’d find out later that these are actually illegal in Malaysia, which might explain how infrequently they flew).  Something about watching the spectacle of lights burst brightly into the night sky gets me to be still.

Something about that compels me to take a moment to breathe, and be grateful. But I’m not drafting mental checklists of all that I have to do. I’m letting myself feel my own soul well up with a fresh hopefulness for whatever else is in store.

I’m not a naturally hopeful person. Most days I forget what it’s like to desire what I don’t have, and trust that one day, it will be given. Most days, I can only trust that which I feel I’ve earned.

“New Years” – in whatever form they come – the traditional ones, the Lunar ones, the birth-related ones, are a different kind of day, though. To me, they signal the dawn of a new beginning, and I suppose the explosion of lights have something to do with this.

My new beginnings always start from within. My secret hopes, deeply buried like ancient treasures, rise to the surface for some, shall we say, “dusting off”. And all the hopes I already had, the resolutions I made from a month ago that have already fallen to the way side, get a second chance at getting back on the grind.

I doubt our sleep tonight will be getting interrupted by any fireworks. But even if it were, then I hope to be shaken out of any cynicism, and remember to see the lights go boom.