MONDAY, 3 MAY 2004
Part one: Do I want to go back to South Africa, or …
Ask the right questions.
Am I missing something? Are there things I am not yet taking into consideration? I write down almost everything that enters my brain on this subject, but there is one thing I have been considering for some time but haven’t yet written down: Am I supposed to be here? […]
Everyone has their own needs, and everyone pecks around the Grand Farm Yard until they can nestle down, until they can allow the dust around them to settle. Why am I still in Taiwan after 63 months? Why am I not making more money so that I can go home after just six months?
Do my anxieties and my poor reputation as a functioning adult in South Africa cause a desire to stay in Taiwan? Are fears and anxieties sometimes good? I mean, people get married in part because they are afraid to be alone, right? Some people do not take opportunities to live and work in other countries because they are afraid they’ll feel lost.
This whole issue of stay in Taiwan or go home suffers from too many other issues, too many essays, too many words, back and forth, back and forth. It suffers from the five years I have been talking about it.
I wish I could disqualify myself as Judge of Plans and instead appoint a Panel of Sages, a decision-making forum that is not marred by a credibility crisis and “I have already said this or that too many times.”
What is my problem? I want to go back to South Africa. I want to spend more time with my family than just the miserable three or four weeks of vacation each year. On the other hand, except for the fact that my family is not here and I therefore cannot spend more time with them, my life in Taiwan is a hand-carved chair that is a most accurate manifestation of how I have always wanted to live (or “sit”).
Should I ignore this, and with it my fears as if they are not worthy of attention?
I want to risk an opinion: I have no idea how it would feel to not be living in Taiwan anymore. Not the faintest idea.
Am I going to fill another dozen pages with notes, or am I going to get to the bloody point?!
The point: settle in Taiwan. Forget about going back to South Africa. Visit your family two or three times a year until you can create a life that is even better than that. (Monday, 3 May 2004 at 10:25)
“Would this not be the perfect ending for the entire repatriation issue? The shocking final twist! The unexpected ending …” (These were the last sentences of a monologue that I have been conducting out loud the last 45 minutes in my living room.)
The main character betrays himself and reneges on promises he wrote in blood!
It’s ridiculous, but that is exactly my point!
Over the past few years, the two plans that I now call Settle In Taiwan and Return Permanently have gotten certain nicknames: To return permanently has become the “beautiful” plan, the “correct” plan, the “radical” idea – the plan that will excite a cry of joy from the “crowd” when I definitively announce it, the plan that will be the perfect ending for “my long-time ambition, as contained in the Personal Agenda …”
In contrast with this is the plan to settle in Taiwan (“Oh no …” the crowd sighs). This is the sissy plan, the plan that the “main character” would choose if he cannot gather enough courage for the beautiful, more romantic, radical plan. Settle in Taiwan is the plan of a traitor, the plan of someone who allows his fears to prevail.
So I ask again, is this not the perfect ending?!
Response from the dissenting faction: “Do you again want to say, after all this time, that it is impossible to have a good life in your own country, of which communion with your family is but one aspect?”
To which the other faction replies: “What is Taiwan, and what has it been for the last five years? A factory in the big, bad city? Am I a poor worker from the countryside who has come to work here for a few years to earn enough money so I can go back to my home town … to live happily ever after? Or has this polluted island been my home for the past half-decade, the place in the world where I could dream without inhibition/where I can talk about who and what I truly am/without doubt/and without hesitation?” (Is it a civil war if you use your own poetry as a weapon against yourself in an argument?)
A few days ago I spoke of permanently returning to South Africa in a manner that actually carried some weight. In the spirit of the time it is certainly reasonable that I had to use another strong word for the opposite – settle in Taiwan.
How do I feel about this? How do I feel, on 3 May 2004, about the idea of settling in Taiwan?
Answer: Half of me, half of my head, my heart, my lungs, my stomach, half of all my organs and limbs say: “Let’s do it. Let the process come to a rest. We are tired of all the uncertainty, of all the flip-flop between plans and ideas.”
What does settle in Taiwan mean? It means the same as returning permanently. It is definitive, for now. Both may change over five years, or two years, or not at all. It will, however, mean that I can get some peace of mind.
Then again, what does the other side of my soul, my heart, my head, and all my other organs and limbs say? They say I can live without Steers garlic sauce and biltong from the Spar and pecan nut pies, and second-hand bookstores and church bazaar stalls and Hospice shops with books under R10. They say I can live without Monkey Gland burgers with extra garlic sauce and Black Label at the Spur. But I miss my family.
I like Taiwan. I like my apartment here. I like my neighbourhood with the Chinese Civil War veterans who play cards under the trees in the small park in the late afternoon. I like the fact that I live in a city, but I have been able to get along with only a bicycle for the past two years. I like the fact that I earn R7500 per month by teaching 14 English classes per week. I like the fact that Tokyo is only three hours’ flight from here, and Hong Kong just an hour.
I can also say that the crime rate is lower here than in South Africa, that I can ride around after midnight through dark streets without having a stroke from pure panic when I stop next to a group of young Taiwanese gangsters at the traffic light. It will probably sound implausible if I were to suggest that it will not at least be one of my considerations when choosing Taiwan over my native land; the fact is that it does not weigh heavy enough to drop the axe to one side or the other.
I like Taiwan. I love South Africa (whatever that means in real terms). But my life here has a quality that will cost me much more in my own country – a three-bedroom apartment in a safe, working-class neighbourhood, ten minutes’ bike ride from town, twenty minutes from the city centre. South Africa’s natural beauty has no equal on this island (despite a few scenic spots), but the Taiwanese urban environment – where I spend 99% of my time – is such that an income of R20 000 per month in South Africa will not be able to compensate me for what I have here.
The latter is a debatable point. What do I mean? Restaurants, museums, art galleries, flea markets? No. South Africa has better restaurants, more museums, better art galleries, more interesting flea markets. But I can leave my home right now, ride for three hours in any direction, and everywhere there is life – apartment complexes, houses, restaurants, small noodle shops with cheap food, convenience stores, bars, coffee shops, karaoke parlours, small shops, supermarkets, more small restaurants, narrow alleys with shops selling handmade traditional musical instruments, nightmarkets should I ride into the night, morning markets otherwise where one can buy fresh vegetables and even fresher fish heads; more restaurants where students, office workers and construction workers with dust on their faces can buy a meal of rice, some meat and vegetables for between R10 and R15; more convenience stores, more people – outside on the sidewalks, in small parks, outside cheap restaurants, sitting around plastic tables late at night cooking soup on small gas burners. I can ride for hours, and these are the scenes that will fill my vision. Or I could ride to the next city. On my bicycle. Is it possible to compare this with sprawling South African suburbs where, if a convenience store was still close enough to reach on foot to buy a loaf of bread, you probably couldn’t do so after ten in the evening because the store will already be closed?
“If you don’t like middle class suburbia, go live in a township,” someone might say. “Or go and live in a neighbourhood where you can go to a place after midnight where people still sit around red plastic tables outside a Woolworths slurping hot noodles and soup.”
Why do I have to justify my choices all the time? Why do I have to explain myself all the time? I do not want to live in a township – where I suppose I will experience a stronger sense of community than in a more affluent neighbourhood – because I will feel more like an outsider there than I would being a Westerner in a neighbourhood full of Taiwanese people. I do not want to live in a more affluent neighbourhood because that is not my style, even if I can afford it. And I do not want to live in Hillbrow, because it is too dangerous.
This world, this neighbourhood, this city where I currently reside in southern Taiwan, this is my ideal world! This is the kind of world where I want to live! Why do I have to justify it? Why do I have to explain it? It is as right for me as Houghton is to a wealthy lawyer; as right as Soweto is for any guy who is comfortable there; as right as Hillbrow is for any man or woman who wants to live in Hillbrow!
Why don’t they all come and live here? Why do I have to justify that I don’t want to live there? What if I have found my place in the sun? Why should I give it up for other people’s political arguments?
Why are there Zimbabweans in Cape Town, Nigerians in Johannesburg, and Taiwanese in Bronkhorstspruit? Because they have reasons why they want to be there, and not in other places! And maybe they also miss things from the places where they come from! Perhaps they have also left loved ones behind! What else should I say if this piece of land turns out to be my paradise?!
And how many other immigrants and so-called illegal aliens and long-term “tourists” can live in environments that fit their particular personalities and their ambitions and personal politics better than the environments where they come from, and still be able to visit their families twice a year for up to a month at a time? I certainly can’t do it yet, but it is within my reach!
If I am really so full of melancholy and sorrow here in Taiwan, far away from my people, why am I still stuck here after 63 months? Why do I have bookcases and wall hangings, and electric fans? Why do I write on a Monday afternoon if I can be busy packing or earning money for my repatriation? Because I have been confronted with a huge bloody dilemma for how many years: What do you do if you have found a place where you can live the kind of life you prefer – a life of which you had only dreamed about years earlier when you were broke and struggling – but without writing off your family?
You stop dancing around the point. You say what was unthinkable … no, unexpressionable a few days, or weeks, or months ago.
You say: This island of exile is my home, my place in the sun. Here I am going to buy some potted plants, and unpack the box of books that I had packed in two months ago to make another point.
You say: Here I am going to stay because in this strange world I feel more at home than ever before in my life.
What about my beloved sister in Bronkhorstspruit, and her sincere plea to a brother she would like a little closer than the other side of the planet?
I close my eyes and say with genuine love, I have no fucking clue how it will work out for me in Bronkhorstspruit.
My need for communion with my family influences me to such an extent on the pros and cons of Bronkhorstspruit that I should not trust myself when I think Bronkhorstspruit will turn out okay.
Another possibility that I can only ignore if I want to be unforgivably naive is that I might find living in Bronkhorstspruit quite viable for a few months, but then my sister and her husband decide to move to Kwazulu-Natal, or Limpopo Province, or anywhere else where they can earn more money. Do I tag along? Or do I indeed have my own life to live? Should what is good enough for them necessarily be good enough for me because I would rather barbeque with them Saturday nights than to eat deep fried squid while I watch videos alone in my apartment in Taiwan?
In a previous piece I asked whether there is an alternative between Full Repatriation and Stay-In-Taiwan-And-Go-“Home”-Once-A-Year-For-Vacation. The answer, as I also knew then, has been on the table for many years: to visit my country and my family more than once a year, and for longer periods than three or four weeks (living arrangements can be sorted out in ways other than me occupying a guest room for weeks at a time).
I have also talked about working holidays, but this has also come down to me returning to South Africa permanently after one or two rounds of visiting-and-working – especially once I had gotten a better understanding of how things could work out.
Without being unnecessarily critical about the idea of a so-called working holiday, I almost feel like bellowing out: STOP THIS MADNESS! Admit what you’ve known for years now! Admit that you are comfortable in this place where your books are already on shelves, your ornaments displayed, and where your fabrics already hang on your walls! Settle down, for crying out loud! Or acknowledge that you’ve been doing so for years …
* * *
It is three o’clock in the afternoon, Monday 3 May 2004. I have been writing since I washed down my four cereals with coffee that was unusually strong this morning. I have since gone for a ride through the area that I tried to describe a few pages ago, past the few acres of green rice paddies with the apartment buildings on the edge, through the street where wealthier veterans and their descendants live in double storey houses, to the 7-Eleven where I bought a bottle of green tea and a hot lunch.
“What did you do?” I want to ask myself almost in a panic when I think of what I have been writing since breakfast.
Because I do not feel like tearing the pages out of my notebook – and because it would be against my principles in any case, I have no choice but to declare that the war is over.
The result? I won. And hopefully also my parents, who no longer have to worry about me moving into their spare room a few months after my repatriation while mumbling endlessly about how I could ride my bike in Taiwan from one convenience store to the next city whilst thinking of more essays to write. And hopefully my beloved sister in Bronkhorstspruit (or in Kwazulu-Natal, or in Limpopo Province) will also win when I suggest a braai at their place for a few Saturdays in a row, twice a year. And hopefully also my beloved older sister when I visit her in England for a week or two during one of my trips “home”. And hopefully my teeth will also turn out winners since I can have them fixed here for R60 without any medical aid. And hopefully also my future wife and children who will see more of the world than a dusty backyard in a small town in rural South Africa.
So, here I sit, at 25 minutes past three on Monday, 3 May 2004 and I affirm: I will settle down. In Taiwan. And in August and September I am going to visit the family – and every second evening I will have dinner at the Spur. I will fight the good fight, where I am. I will maintain what I have built up over the past five years, and I will keep my bookshelves and my antique cabinet just where it is. My place in the sun, my home, is here. I am an eternal expatriate, a timeless outsider, because that is how I want it. My place is where I belong. And for now it is here.
* * *
TUESDAY, 4 MAY 2004
Does what I wrote yesterday mean that I no longer want to return to South Africa?
My answer is that I made a choice that would give me what I have longed for as long as I can remember, namely stability, a sense that I have arrived, that the search for my own place in the universe is over. If I can make peace with this choice, it means I can relax somewhat, I can beat my sword into a ploughshare, I can consolidate, I can begin to maintain and hold (or continue to maintain what I have built for the last five years). The feeling it gives me is strong. It is fucking powerful. I would almost go so far as to say if I had wanted to go back to South Africa … I should have done it last Friday.
* * *
I think I just got tired. I recently started talking of permanently going back to South Africa. Settling in Taiwan is just another way to fulfil the same desire. This need is the main factor that should be understood in the sudden U-turn in ideas and contemplations about my future. This need is the key, the axis around which the settle in Taiwan idea turns.
I think I am tired of uncertainty. I am tired of running, of chasing after things that are always three or four months in the future, things for which I “only have to scrape together NT$150,000”.
This fatigue reached a critical point last Sunday, after starting off on my bicycle late afternoon with the sun casting a soft light on the neighbourhood I like more and more every day. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t have time at that moment to find the right words for it (coffee and a movie with a friend until eleven).
Sunday night I knew I was tired of running, that I wanted peace of mind – and if I can get it here, then I will have it here (even if there is a possibility that I can have the same experience in South Africa).
In the end I will do what I have always said I will never do – I am going to settle for less. (Tuesday, 20 past five in the afternoon)
(Why does it feel like I have just become a normal human being with those final words? And why does it feel so good?)
* * *
If it would be a heroic thing to return to South Africa, that would have been one thing. But if I succeed in my threats and my plans of the past few years, would anyone really applaud? And if I fail, would anyone look at my face or ask my name before they step over me?
* * *
I am tired of impulsive fantasy flights in which any kind of life anywhere in South Africa is good enough, as long as it is close to my family. I love my family, but god knows there are other considerations an adult who accepts responsibility for his own life must take into account.
Continue reading: The war hatchet hits my wall – parts two to four