28 Days … It’s the title of one of my favorite movies, with Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, and a bunch of other famous faces you’d recognize. (It’s good! Netflix it!) It’s also the number of days that have passed since I posted. (Okay, it’s close … no need to do the actual math. Just work with me here.)
While I haven’t undergone nearly the kind of emotional and psychological transformation Sandra Bullock does in the movie, I’ve had a few moments of … joy. There have still been innumerable moments of complete disbelief, despair, frustration, and confusion. (For example: Why is there only one toilet paper dispenser, why is it outside the stalls by the sinks, and will I ever remember to grab a few squares before it’s too late?)
But joy. Joy. Oh, I’ve missed it.
I went with some new friends to a local frame shop and met the shop’s resident canine. As dogs do, he must have sensed my scraped-up soul (or maybe just my long, thick nails) and came over to sit with me. I scratched his ears for a good 20 minutes while my friends made their purchases.
That one-third of an hour of silent therapy was equally as needed and effective as the 97 grumpy texts I send (daily) and empathetic responses I receive (daily) from patient friends (bless them!) back home.
I also found the tiny but undeniable Halloween section in the grocery store. There were fluorescent orange pumpkin-shaped Peeps and $12 bags of Butterfinger minis. There were plastic fangs. There were giant bags of b-list candy that no trick-or-treater really wants — especially hilarious because there’s no such thing as trick-or-treating here. But thank goodness some traditions carry over even when they are completely lost in translation. DOTS gumdrops and generic jawbreakers for the win.
The girl at the smoothie place I visit
4 times a week occasionally recognized me and gave me a rewards card so I could earn a free smoothie with every 10 purchases. (Yes please!) This came moments after I deleted the Starbucks app from my phone because the push notices were making me homesick. It was iced serendipity. And it was all the sweeter because someone in this strange city that I wander through each day trying to navigate and negotiate and belong in actually remembered me.
I started volunteering in the library at the kids’ school. I’ve loved school libraries ever since Ms. Pearl put on her pioneer bonnet and read us a few chapters of Little House on the Prairie in third grade. And I’ve really missed the Friday afternoons I used to spend at our old school shelving, alphabetizing, reacquainting myself with Dewey Decimal, and searching for the one Pokemon book the computer swears is checked in, which means Every. Single. Kid. wants to have it. (Turns out? Kids here have a Pokemon book addiction, too.)
I went to breakfast at a new cafe and ordered a hot mocha. This is what they brought me:
Happy Day indeed. The mocha message that represents my expat life still isn’t “Happy All Day” or even “Happy Most of the Day.” And “I Cursed 100 Times Today” or “Here Come the Tears” might both be more accurate frothy messages, but I’ll take these small moments. And the overwhelming sense of relief — maybe I can do this, at least today, right now — that comes with them.
Seriously, do you understand the toilet paper situation here?? What’s your favorite kind of therapy? And what message would you like to see in your favorite cuppa today?
“Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.” — Ray Bradbury
I still spend my days in Penang feeling a little (sometimes a lot) lost — geographically, culturally, emotionally. Don’t even get me started on the seven-story mall, where I stare at the directory, willing the winding corridors and bizarre numbering system to make sense in my brain, while more spatially inclined people whiz up and down the escalators around me, off to the bookstore on Level 3 or the udon kiosk on Level G. I’m slowly figuring it out … which store might sell ice packs or sunglasses or alarm clocks, where I can sit quietly with a cafe mocha and hide for a while, what route home has an honest-to-goodness crosswalk and occasional stretches of, gasp, sidewalk.
On one of my daily walks — the one from the kids’ school to the aforementioned maze of a mall on mostly residential roads with a dearth of scooters (hooray!) and, alas, pavement — I got to thinking about what has made this experience so different from Romania, which I don’t remember hating or crying over or feeling near-constant malaise about. I realized something. I think it’s the pictures. At least partly. In Romania, I was always looking through my camera lens, even if it was only the imaginary one in my brain. I was constantly looking for colorful, different, beautiful, bizarre things to capture. Here, I just see trash, grime, apathy.
So I’m going to start looking through that imaginary lens again. Looking for photographs. Looking for beauty. Looking for something to endear this place to me. I still expect to feel disoriented. But Ray Bradbury says that’s okay, fun even, so I’ll try to embrace the lostness. I’ll turn toward it. I’ll look for it and capture it.
Here’s my first attempt.
When do you feel most disoriented? Can you navigate a mall like a champ? And what did the lens in your brain capture today?
Haiku Friday: Success Stories
Chauffeurs, peanut butter, tears …
First week of school: check.
After-school clubs? Booked.
Knitting! Yoga! Mandalas!
Scoured the mall (all
seven floors) for the island’s
only booster seat.
Safety first! says the
Crazy American mom.
Nobody cares, lah?
Toured the wet market:
Teeny tiny bananas,
Monks selling bracelets.
Chicken feet, incense, undies?
Make your best offer.
Found at Cold Storage:
Pretzels! Applesauce! Syrup!
OMG, squirt cheese!
Tried a curry puff,
too, but Velveeta in a
can sure feels like home.
How did back-to-school go where you are? What comfort foods would you miss most if you lived abroad? And what’s a good price for a quality chicken foot?
Six weeks ago, not-so-fresh from 30-some-odd hours of travel, we landed in Malaysia, collected our five giant bags, and wheeled our way through the long, hot customs line. We were home … sort of.
Well, we were definitely home — the envelope binder-clipped to the inside of my carry-on contained stamped, sealed letters written in officialese from governments on both sides of the world granting us permission to call this city home for two years — but nothing about it felt familiar or comfortable or at all home-like.
I expected that. We’d done this before — new cultures, new climates, new foods, new routines. But I didn’t expect to feel like a complete interloper, even now, 44 days later. Most days, I wage an internal battle between staying in the condo — safe, air-conditioned, stocked with peanut butter — and venturing out. Even the most mundane things are an actual, honest-to-goodness, frequently terrifying adventure.
Whether we need laundry detergent or a pizza margherita from the cafe .3 kilometers away according to Google Maps, it goes like this. Put on sunscreen. Deet up. Pack water, hats, and an umbrella. Pee. (Yes, you. Pee, even if you don’t have to. Because it’s pee in the toilet now or squat in that porcelain-lined hole later.) Get in the elevator. Cluster around the center to avoid getting limbs sucked into elevator doors (learned from experience on day 12). Launch into reminders. Dear children: do not fall in open sewer channels. Remember that cars are coming from the opposite direction than you expect — and scooters are everywhere, following absolutely zero traffic protocols. Remember that people — the strangers you’ve been taught your entire lives to be wary of — will stare at you, strike up conversations, and take your picture without asking because, well, we obviously aren’t from around here. And talking to these more-or-less strangers is okay … Sort of. Mostly. Don’t pet cats or dogs (or monkeys) even though we all got three rabies shots so we could potentially pet cats and dogs (and monkeys). Remember: the “scrambled” part of scrambled eggs is a relative term and that packet of ketchup is probably going to be spicy. Or sweet. And please, oh, please, try not to whine loudly and incessantly about it. And, last, remember that 9-1-1 is now 9-9-9. You need to know this if one of us should happen to get walloped by a scooter and knocked into that open sewer and you can find my phone and a modicum of calm to call for help. I, myself, will be catatonic. And possibly covered in other people’s poop.
And that’s the crux of it for me, I think. The last time we did this, I could buckle my boys into the double-stroller, hold the hand of the other child — the one least likely to bolt into traffic or eat something brown and vaguely cracker-shaped off the sidewalk — and be off. They demanded less autonomy, and I was mostly in control. Mostly. In. Control. And even still, this happened. And this.
Here, now, I am even less in control. There is more I don’t understand or know how to accomplish. I spend my days wondering if that mosquito carries dengue or Zika, if that earthquake 400 miles away is going to spawn a tsunami (and what in the world I should do if that happens), or if that chicken was cooked to an internal temperature of 73.9°C. And in this exotic and chaotic city, I want to be able to singlehandedly haul us all across the busy road with no discernible sidewalk or shoulder while scooters come at us from every direction. I want to keep us safe. I long to be in control. I’d even settle for mostly in control.
Yes, I’m a rational adult able to assess risks and weigh costs and benefits. Believe me, I know this. It is my mantra right now. You are smart and capable. You can figure this out. It will be all right. Breathe, repeat, breathe, repeat. But I’m also a mother, and I am mothering in the unknown. I do not know this place yet. And I do not love it, despite the whopping sunsets, enchanting azan that floats across the city, and the uber-cheap Uber cars. But I’m hopeful, with time (and deet), I will.
How do handle parenting in the unknown? What’s your mantra right now? And do you prefer your ketchup spicy or sweet?
Tags: Children, Creativity, Curiosity, Family, Fun, Growing Up, Kids, Perspectives, Photography, Summer
“For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
F is “for everything Thy goodness sends.” See more F’s at Jenny’s.
Tags: Books, Cats, Children, Kids, Photography, Play, Rain, Summer
“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Henry James
D is for downpour and distraction and delightful. See more D’s at Jenny’s.
Tags: Autumn, Children, Fall, Halloween, Kids, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Play, Pumpkins
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” — George Eliot
Are you wedded to autumn like Eliot (and me) or to another season? Have you made your annual pumpkin-patch pilgrimage yet? Are your Halloween costumes ready to go??
W is for wheeeeee! and wonderstruck and wedded to autumn. See more W’s at Jenny’s.
Tags: Birthday, Children, Creativity, Daughters, Growing Up, Milestones, Motherhood, Personal, Relationships
She’s been 7 for three days.
This girl, the one missing her front top teeth. The one who loves sequins almost as much as she loves rabbits. The one who graduated to chapter books when I wasn’t looking.
She roller skates. She backstrokes. She rides her bike, the one with the sparkly purple streamers, without training wheels.
She’s wise to this blog thing and suggested I write about “that funny growl Bun makes when he’s cranky, which is a lot, Mommy.”
She has a slight addiction to funny cat videos on YouTube.
She digs in the dirt. She makes her own mud. Her fingernails are a mess. She doesn’t care.
She does this thing now where she rolls her eyes and sighs when she’s exasperated. There’s usually an “aye yai yai” to go with it and, occasionally, a sassy hand-on-the-hip gesture.
She read a book on global warming this summer and decided to start an environmental club. There are 15 members and counting. So far, they’ve planted bean seeds, cleaned up the neighborhood park, and made nature collages. For the next meeting, she’s planning an autumn-focused sing-a-long and maybe some choreography.
She leaves me purple sticky notes on the kitchen counter with reminders like, “Please fix my bird’s wobbly beek” and “I prefer grape jelly for my luntch.”
When she grows up, she wants to run a store called Love Bunnies. She’s got a business plan partially drafted, complete with a social media component. She’ll sell real bunnies, stuffed bunnies, bunny clothes, bunny food, bunny snacks, bunny toys, and bunny bling. There may be a line of bunny ballet slippers. She will oversee things, and Giggles will be her minion. They are both okay with this arrangement.
Last week, she researched bats on the computer and wrote a nonfiction book about them because she had a little time before swim lessons. There may have been a glossary.
Last month, she got an award at school for, among other things, “general awesomeness.”
She’s 7. She’s amazing. And she’s mine.
I think I’ll celebrate with some choreography.
V is for she’s growing up so very fast, it’s giving me vertigo. See more V’s at Jenny’s.
Tags: Balance, Children, Fun, Growing Up, Life, Motherhood, Perspectives, Photography, Play
“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.” — Alexander Woollcott
Are the leaves and acorns falling off the trees where you are? What’s your learning-to-ride-a-bike story? And have you patted a fluffy bunny lately?
T is for truth and training wheels and tenderness. See more T’s at Jenny’s.
Tags: Beach, Children, Family, Life, Photography, Sand, Sea, Travel, Vacation
“Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and showered salt rain upon us.” — Charles Dickens
When’s the last time you felt that lovely salty rain? Where’s the oddest place you found sand? And what’s the best treasure you brought home?
S is for sea and sand and shells. See more S’s at Jenny’s.