March 17, 2014
The Same Yet Totally Different
(Warning: Due to increasing bouts of inertia, the following post was written (and only half-finished) quite some time ago; but for continuity and documentation purposes, I now post. Stay tuned for more recent news….)
We’ve now been here in Malaysia for more than seven months; it seems unfathomable that more than ½ of the total time we’ve planned to be here has already passed. Before we left on our adventure, people cautioned that a year would go by quickly, and I instinctively knew they were likely right because the slowness of time that defines childhood has long been extinguished for me, and life in general seems to recklessly speed by. So now, to no surprise, but of great consequence to me, much time has passed, so much has been experienced, and so many thoughts have been had, yet much to say has been left unrecorded because I’ve not written anything down in so long. Crap. Where to begin.
I guess I’ll start in the here and now. Lately, I’ve been thinking (and worrying) a lot about why I’m not writing much about our experiences here. I mean, holy shit, you’d think there’s something to say here, right? How often does an east coast, suburban, Jewish family, with their feet firmly planted in a wonderful life, decide for no apparent reason, to uproot and fling themselves clear across to the other side of the world to a Muslim country that literally has not a single Jewish resident? Don’t I owe it to my family – to my children and their children -- to record our journey, to track our growth, to affix the memories of our experiences to paper? To write our story so the sights seen, the people met, the wonders marveled at, the aromas smelled, the lessons learned, and the epiphanies experienced are all permanently inscribed in our Family History? Fuck. I wonder if Tolstoy set out to write the “Greatest Epic Story Ever Written”?*
THAT, and I’ve discovered that I’ve settled into and am experiencing a phenomenon often borne by expats here – mostly women – that, in a burst of rash hokey-ness I’ve just decided to call “Malaise -ia”. Which is just another way of describing that point in time when the newness and excitement of living in a foreign country wears off; you now know your way around, know how to get places, where to shop, you’ve acclimated the kids, routinized your lives, etc.… So basically, you wake up one day to shockingly realize that you’ve moved 9.5 thousand miles and across many time zones to live in an artificial expat bubble, where daily life really isn’t all that different from where you’ve moved from, except that your family, closest friends, and all your stuff isn’t here and you are not working and there’s just so much tennis and yoga and shopping in malls you can do, and coffee you can drink with friends. So, that’s not so interesting to write about.
But, thankfully that’s really NOT the whole story. Yes, day-to-day life here is weirdly similar to our daily lives in the U.S. The kids go to school, do their homework, play with friends; Ethan puts on a tie and goes to work (me, not so much); we make sure the kids do homework and clean their rooms, mediate their arguments, run a household, socialize with friends – in other words, we live. Kind of “normally” by our standards. We did not sign on to the Peace Corps; we did not choose to live in a village in the jungle in a mud hut and home school our kids. But, we can go there if we want to, and although, truthfully, we’ve all gotten “used to” life here and the basic principles are the same – here in Malaysia, life does come wrapped in a whole different tortilla (or, actually, roti channai).
That new “wrapping” is the point of our time here all; it is the gift we are giving to ourselves and our children. Changing the part that you see on the outside that holds all the stuff on the inside together can transform the flavor of the sandwich to allow you to enjoy and appreciate it in a whole different way. So, we may go to a waterpark that looks like one you’d find in the U.S., but here, the majority of women are wearing “burkinis” (yes – what they are actually called) and you stand in line next to Iraqi diplomats and their kids. We may go to Sunday brunch, but here, we eat curry laksa and mee goreng with chopsticks or spoons, while sitting at sticky plastic tables and using toilet paper for napkins. We may socialize with friends and neighbors, but here, friends aren’t run-of-the-mill doctors, lawyers or bankers, they are disaster relief chiefs from the International Red Cross, oil company execs spending weeks at a time off-shore on drilling rigs, or arms and technology dealers for governments. The kids may still plead to go out for dinner, but here, instead of walking on down to Arturo’s for the best pizza on the planet, we head off to Kanna Curry House to eat mutton curry (not I) and rice, plopped in heaps on a waxed paper banana leaf. We may go away for a long weekend, but here, we take spur-of-the-moment trips to Melaka, the caves at Ipoh, or hike through the jungle to a waterfall. This is the new normal.
But points are often sharp. Close your eyes and imagine everything you do is the same, but completely different. Not just the same things in a different place with different people like if you’d moved to Florida, but the same things in a whole, new way. It is a strange feeling. Imagine going food shopping and having absolutely no idea about the identity of half of the products or from what they are made. Imagine having to choose between rubbing toxic chemicals on your children’s skin every day and not, but taking the very real risk that they’ll be bitten by a mosquito carrying dengue fever, or worse. Imagine having anxiety about taking your pre-adolescent kids to one of the abundant, very beautiful, modern malls lined familiarly with The Gap, H&M, Forever 21, and Borders, and, doing so only after instructing them fervently and repeatedly to never walk behind you or wander out of eye-shot, and to hold onto you at all times in a crowd, because children are regularly kidnapped from under the noses of their parents. Imagine having to explain this after a lifetime of teaching your children to inhale life, and to be kind, compassionate, adventurous, helpful, friendly and non-judgmental. Imagine being a passionate environmentalist, yet choosing to purchase scores of 10 liter plastic jugs of water every month because you do not trust the government to have adequate water purification standards – even with a filter. And then, imagine being sickened by the thought of throwing away the pounds of plastic containers even our earth-loving selves use, yet taking those water jugs and the rest of the plastic accumulated by our little family, to the only “recycling facility” within miles of where we live, only to find that it is overflowing with the same trash that was overflowing the week prior, and the one prior to that.
And then for a moment (sometimes two or three) I wonder why we are here? What actually IS the point? Why did we do this? And the answer is the very same as the complaint. Because the experience is eye-opening. Because life here is different. And it is the same. That juxtaposition of daily life is subtle and so difficult to understand – perhaps inconceivable-- unless you live it. There is a broader world out there where people and circumstances are so rudimentarily different, and yet so much the same. Yet we generally have no context within which to understand this. Well, we are gaining context. Our children are gaining context, so when we talk about how truly blessed they are to have the opportunities they do, and how they are beholden to a very precious responsibility to offer their contributions to the repairing the world -- they’ll get it. Hopefully, they’ll live it throughout their lives because it is tangible now. They’ve visited poor orphanages, they’ve had to wear masks so they don’t breathe in the air where we live, they’ve experienced water rationing, they’ve met children who must work to support their families, they’ve befriended the children of our “enemies”.
And we’ve seen beauty, experienced friendships, found patience, learned resilience and gained insights in ways we never could have possibly done in our comfortable lives back home. And THAT after all, is the very sharp and penetrating, point.
So, until next time (which very well may be after we arrive home) ….
*Note to self: OMG! It’s just a friggin’ blog post – chill the F#*%K out!