Blonde meditation


The whole episode started Saturday morning when I received a call from W., a local businesswoman who had helped me find a job when I arrived in Taiwan. She had just returned from a trip to South Africa, she said, with a South African woman who was now working for a partner of hers in a neighbouring city. But the woman had a few problems, and could I please go with her and her husband to talk to the woman. I was obviously excited. I always thought it would be nice if there were a few more South Africans in the area. And W. mentioned the woman was blonde …

So I went along to meet the woman.

The moment I saw her, I knew something was wrong. Her hands were shaking, she was pale, and she was clearly overjoyed to see someone who could possibly help her. She explained that she was unhappy with her work situation, and that she wasn’t keen on staying in the same house with her boss and his family. And these and those promises were made that haven’t been met.

Other people might have seen dollar symbols flash before their eyes (a lot of money can be made if you introduce a foreign teacher to a school looking for one). While she was talking, I saw the Rider in Black. I fantasised how my mouth turned into a well-oiled revolver, how I fired a few arguments in the direction of the villains, and how by sunset the blonde woman and I would be on the train back to Fengshan.

After spending an entire afternoon arguing back and forth, we came to the point where W.’s partner, “Honest” Jimmy, made a suggestion: If I guaranteed they would not lose the money they had paid to get the woman to Taiwan, they would “release” her in my care.

By that point I had been speaking on behalf of the woman for hours, and I realised if I did not agree, my whole effort to help her would appear as ridiculous as an empty Colt in a shootout. So I agreed: I guaranteed that, if she ended up not working for them, I would personally make sure that they get back the NT$40,000 they had already spent on her.

The blonde woman packed her bags, and a few minutes later we left.

Back in Fengshan I phoned my friend O., the only other South African I knew at that point in Taiwan, and informed him of the growing number of compatriots in our town. Fifteen minutes later he was standing in my living room, and while still shaking hands, he almost surpassed my own heroism by agreeing to lend her the NT$40,000 and to help her find a new job.

The blonde woman was on the verge of shedding tears of joy. Two heroes! In one day!

On Sunday we made a few calls, and I criss-crossed the city with her on the back of my scooter to organise an alternative position for her. By nightfall, we had made some appointments with schools that she would visit on Monday. We also paid O. a visit. He collected the promised amount of cash from his drawer and handed it over.

Monday lunchtime I took the woman to W. to inform her that we had managed to find some other work for my compatriot, and, as I understand it, for her to hand W. and her partners the forty thousand. W.’s husband, who doesn’t speak a word of English, listened carefully to what we were saying, and to W. as she translated. When he reckoned we had finished talking, he got up from his chair and started screaming at us with a fury I had not known he possessed.

I turned pale, and the woman turned pale, and in the few moments of silence that followed the eruption I tried my best to work out what we had done wrong. W. explained it was not what they had expected of me. Because they had asked me to go along, I was supposed to be on their side. And they had done so much for me, and they were my friends, and I don’t even know the woman, and how could I have betrayed them like that.

As I came to understand it, I was supposed to use the Sunday to persuade the woman that W. and her partners were good people, and that working for them would be the right thing to do. And Mr S., W.’s husband, was angry at me because I had given my support to the wrong side.

The situation took an even worse turn. I was informed that I couldn’t expect any more assistance from them in my application to renew my work permit and residence visa. That they would go even further and would obstruct my application in any way they could.

I wanted to tell them if it were about the money, the woman could repay them on the spot. But she herself said nothing. Only later did she inform me she was “keeping her options open”. (Her plan seemed to have been to borrow NT$40,000 from a school where she hoped to get a job and then return the money to O.)

The next few days were stressful. I had to replace certain documents, and the only people who could help me were the very people I had alienated – W. and her husband, the screaming Mr S. refused to provide any assistance, as per their threat.

The blonde woman had since moved in with O., as she was of the opinion that the atmosphere in my apartment had become “negative”. Both O. and I had by then become aware that she had a bit of an esoteric outlook on life. She regularly studied the alignment of the stars, unpacked her Tarot cards on her bed to see how the situation would work out, and often sat on her pillow to try to make contact with the Silence That Reveals The Truth. The atmosphere in my apartment was therefore more than the expected result of a tense situation; it was negative in ways an ordinary mortal would not understand.

By the following week, I had had enough. I called her and told her that she had to hand over the forty thousand to W. and her husband, so I could replace the documents I needed. She casually responded that she had no intention of giving them the money before they gave her the return ticket they had bought for her in South Africa.

I explained that I had helped her to get out of a bad situation, and the least she could do for me was to resolve her business with them. She replied that she was not going to harm herself because of me, and that she had in fact not asked for my assistance. And to illustrate that she was done talking, she hung up before I could continue debating the point with her.

By the end of that week, O. flew to South Africa for a holiday, hoping of course that the woman would find a job in the meantime so he could get his money back.

Less than a week later she was also on a plane back to South Africa – with a ticket she had bought with the forty thousand.

He later told me she had gotten in contact with him in Cape Town. She gave him a cheque for the money she had borrowed from him, and immediately asked whether she could borrow the money again so she could go back to Taiwan. He kindly refused the request.

I have only heard from her once since her escape. In a bizarre, cryptic email she expressed her surprise about how things had worked out.

* * *

The episode reminded me of a few things. You meet someone in need. Your first instinct is to help the person. Noble, right? Complicated as the situation is, it causes trouble for you with other people. Three days later your nerves are shot. You decide to take steps to improve your own situation, and the person you tried to help sticks her finger in your eye. She’s surprised that you expect anything from her. And to rub salt in the wound, she reminds you that it was after all your choice to get involved. And then she hangs up on you.

All you can do is to sit on your chair and flick though fifty TV channels looking for something else to think about.

So it came that I found myself on my own meditation cushion, ready to be filled with Insight That Is Revealed To One Who Pities Himself. Legs crossed, hands in my hair, I wondered: Why am I on my own?

It is certainly true that to a large extent we are responsible for our own situations. Was it not, after all, my choice to get involved in the blonde woman’s predicament? The conclusion should then be that I am responsible for my own isolation, my own loneliness.

Like everyone else I meet new people every now and then. But it is as if a higher power only causes people to come into my life who cannot or do not bring comfort to this seemingly eternal fate. And this higher power knows with what I was confronted again this week: my own vulnerability – how weak and helpless I truly am.

I have managed to work out a few things in my life. If I have to make preliminary conclusions, the bigger picture is not exactly rosy. It seems as though the divine judge of my father and mother’s religion is not really involved in the world he created (according to legend). Is it everyone for themselves, then? On this point there is also no clarity.

So here I sit, trapped in a paradox: on the face of it no justice, but don’t dare do what you want, because “Karma’s gonna get you.” And if it’s not karma, then some or other form of justice to even out the scales.

I am tired of this puzzle where none of the pieces fit. For years now I’ve been sitting with a hammer under my table. Because no matter what I do, the pieces just won’t fit like puzzles are supposed to. And I tell people my ambitious effort to make sense of everything on my own is making good progress. I cut my pieces carefully, and my puzzle is not as big as it was when I believed like a child, but it’s coming on. And this time it is my puzzle.

But every time I return to the table with my puzzle, the pieces have pushed themselves apart! That’s when I bring out the hammer. Because if it isn’t these pieces in this way, then how? For god only knows I can’t do without a puzzle! I must make sense of the world outside my window. But I’m tired of rhetoric and argument! I’m tired of theology and philosophy, and fancy explanations!

Just give me a little comfort, for once! Like the waitress in the diner on the Roger Waters CD who asks if the guy wants coffee, and who then apologises because she woke him up, or talked too loud.

I’m working on plans that could possibly give me an okay life two or three years from now. That speaks of hope, doesn’t it?

Or are things like they’ve always been? You get older, you learn more about life, maybe in a few years’ time you can buy something you don’t even know about now, and life goes on. And it’s never as good as you constantly tell yourself. And yet, we continue rowing like fools until a wave smashes us against the coast, or until we float to the middle of a vast ocean.

Perhaps Nero had the right idea. Instead of trying to save Rome, he played the violin. Maybe we need to dance more, and make more music. Maybe we should spend even more time thinking about things. Maybe we should keep meditating until we imagine an entire table filled with a puzzle where all the pieces fit. “What a nice, colourful picture that is!” we’ll eventually mutter. A bottle-blonde answer to the drabness of our reality.

I finally fell asleep on my meditation cushion, and dreamed of a blonde woman standing on the street corner selling second-hand violins. And I dreamed I borrowed money from “Honest” Jimmy, bought myself one of the violins, and played a tune to W. and her husband while O. chased them down the street with burning plane tickets in his hand.