The rebels start arguing – but it’s just the quiet before the storm

THURSDAY, 29 APRIL 2004

Why would I want to take a four-month working holiday rather than to go back “permanently”? What would be the advantages of a four-month vacation over full repatriation?

The topic of “going home” is by now as loaded as a sty full of pig shit – I can hardly put my foot in this or that direction or I step in something. Brave, and full of audacious courage I will, however, once again try to say something about this thorny issue.

To pack all my boxes, drag them one by one to the post office, save a few thousand rand, throw away half of my clothes and drape the other half over my body for a fifteen-hour flight so I can pack my luggage full of CDs, VCDs, photo albums and books to then arrive in the Highveld with big ambitions is, in a word, romantic.

Now, this would have been fatal criticism of the Full Repatriation idea were it not for the fact that it is precisely such romantic, irresponsible ideas that fill me with revolutionary fervour. But I do need to face a nasty reality: We eagerly cultivate caricatures of ourselves that make us look better in our own eyes than the fallible and sometimes unromantic, everything-but-hero figures that we are in actual fact.

Am I desperate to believe that I can be the irresponsible, romantic revolutionary, not only in the eyes of other people or as a character in my own book, but so that I could have more respect for myself? Do I not know all too well that the real me is much closer to the image of the Careful Bureaucrat than to that of the Revolutionary Hero?

I will be possessed with zeal and passion if I could actually climb on a roof like a mad hero figure and shout: “I am going home! With absolutely no money! I am going to publish my own poetry and throw middle fingers to all the suckers in the street below!” For weeks I will be writing Pieces Where All The Words Start With Capital Letters. I will quote Lenin, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx.

And then my last night in Kaohsiung will arrive. I will be lying on a mattress staring at the ceiling in an empty apartment until long after midnight. I will tip the ash of my cigarettes into an empty Coke can. The next morning – before a possessed taxi driver rushes me to the airport – I will go to McDonald’s for one last breakfast, and smile glumly as the girl, oblivious to reality, greets me in English, “C-U A-gain …”

At that moment I will comprehend the reality of my situation. My time of dabbling in the remotest corners of the planet will be over. It will be time to face my enemy. And the Red Hero won’t be anywhere to be found inside my head to give me a little courage.

Am I a sucker for my own propaganda speeches? Am I desperate to formulate fantastic plans because they are so NOT mediocre? Do I sometimes feel so depressed about my life in Taiwan that I entertain myself almost into the abyss with plans that are actually not really that great?

Where does one draw the line between being responsible to yourself on the one hand, to confront your own true character and your own fears and to recognize them regardless of how embarrassing it is, and on the other hand to do things on occasion in the belief that they will work out well?

I don’t require guarantees that everything will work out exactly as I expect. I am not afraid to suffer a little. And I am really not bothered with middle class comfort or esteem. But I sometimes lose my biggest partner in life, namely the ability to motivate myself, when I overplay my hand. Once the desire to disappear has taken root inside my mind, the desire to creep into the darkest of corners where no one can bear witness to my embarrassment, I find it difficult to think of anything else.

If I end up in a situation in South Africa where I have to explain myself (“The plan sounded so great in my living room in Taiwan”), if I have to defend my decisions, and my beliefs and my actions all the time, there won’t be much time for social criticism, and not a whole lot of energy or motivation to criticize what I am so eager to criticize right here and now, sitting in my “headquarters” in a much safer environment.

I therefore ask again, what is the difference between, a) to leave all my stuff where it is, go to South Africa for two months, check things out without ignoring long-standing insecurities, and then to come back to Taiwan for a few months; and b) to pack all my stuff and without first sorting out the proverbial name or place to start a life in my own country that I will be able to maintain and hold till death do us part?

The next question: What qualifies as a radical but irresponsible plan? Answer: Any of my plans from the past few months qualify as just that – a plan that says that I have to go back with what I have, in the belief that “things will work out”.

Did things work out in the first of my radical, irresponsible plans when I went to Cape Town in 1991? My personal dogma dictates a positive answer, but the truth is not so simple. Or should the mere fact that I eventually did graduate from my favourite university cast aside all other considerations?

Did my decision to leave Korea in 1998, and more specifically to go and look for a possible future in Johannesburg work out? Should it once again be good enough that I didn’t spend one night in the streets, or that I never needed to scrape leftover food from trash cans? If these are the only requirements for a plan to work, then, hell, I can go back tomorrow (or “late June”).

If my requirements are a bit more sophisticated, I must necessarily come to the conclusion that going back to South Africa did not work out in 1998. Why not? Because I didn’t know how I was going to earn a living, I didn’t have enough money to cover my own needs for more than two months, and I did not have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. (I did have a pretty good idea though what I did not want to do with my life.) When I started working in Johannesburg after two months of loafing around, I did so in the good faith that things will work out all right. It did not. The work was boring. I had no money to buy proper groceries. I had no money for social drinks. I didn’t have a car. I had to get up at six o’clock in the morning to ride a bicycle to work. I was stuck with a toothache for weeks because I couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. And did I mention that the work was boring? The reality of those few months in Johannesburg has been one of the main factors that has kept me stuck in Taiwan for more than five years.

Of course much has changed since the first time I repatriated myself back to my own country. Not only did I sort out what I want to do with my life, I am already doing it. I am also really not concerned with the farce of middle class esteem – and I understand the reasons for it. Furthermore, I am working on several creative and business projects where I can suspend my work here on a Thursday night to continue on Saturday afternoon in Bronkhorstspruit as if I were just watching TV for two days. Finally, I know who I am, and I have the (literary) documents to prove it.

What is the problem then? What are the reasons for my reluctance to again take a chance on a radical, irresponsible plan?

Like everyone I have fears, the kinds of things that I sweep under the rug with my ambitious portraits of Revolutionary Caricatures I try to sell myself on. I am just a man; the Red Hero is much more than that. I am afraid that things might not work out; the Red Hero doesn’t give a shit. I am afraid of running out of money, and I have to once again become a guest in the homes of friends or relatives; the Red Hero reminds me that I would be a guest with a dirty beard that flies like a freedom flag in the afternoon breeze, and that poems “really look a lot better on toilet paper than in those fancy notebooks that you love so much”.

My greatest fear is not that I will again be unsure of who I am or about my value in the Greater Scheme of Things. My biggest fear is not that people will stare at me in the supermarket and think I am homeless. My greatest fear is to lose my self-respect, and that happens when you cannot take care of yourself. And what do you need to make sure you can at least take care of your own needs? Money. Enough of it.

This brings me back to the unanswered main question of this piece: What is the difference between a working holiday on the one hand, and on the other to Return Like a Hero to the Land of My Birth? The difference is money. With the latter option it is of the utmost importance to have sufficient funds for at least a few months in order to give the endeavour a reasonable chance of success. A working holiday, on the other hand, is lighter on the mind, and lighter on the wallet. I can enjoy the pleasures of my family’s company for more than the duration of a normal holiday, but with the peace of mind that if my backside begins to itch, it does not have to sour relationships nor influence my morale to such an extent that I would want to throw the Red Hero in front of an oncoming truck. Less cash will also be needed to finance a working holiday than will be the case with full repatriation.

The intelligent reader might by now be wondering what a “working holiday” will entail. In short, this means that all my possessions will remain in Taiwan, and I will travel to South Africa to go on holiday in the first place, and in the second place to earn money while I am on vacation.

The curious – and responsible – reader might want to know how I would make money for only two or three months at a time before I again take to the skies. Suffice it to say that there is an answer to this question – and it does not involve any illegal or immoral activities, just for the record.

Another question might be how it will affect me if a so-called working holiday works out better than I had thought, and I begin to wish I had not left all my books and bedding in Taiwan. If that happens … well, then I can return to Taiwan with the passion of a revolutionary hero, start packing the minute I enter my apartment, and for the last few months sleep on my boxes until the Glorious Final Return to My Homeland.

A few days ago I referred in a notebook to the struggle between the working holiday idea and full repatriation as a struggle between two opposing ideologies, two different plans, two different lifestyles, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I also thought it represented a breakdown of the “Rebel forces” into factions of Left and Right. The latter is saying, “Compromise”. The former is saying, “No compromise. Go back, fight the good fight, carve out a niche, nurture and maintain what is good.”

I shamelessly tried to manipulate myself to go for the “brave” option, to not be afraid of unpleasant consequences, to not compromise like a coward with fancy ideas like “working holidays”.

What can I say now? The red hero is a sissy …

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