Personal Agenda: Postscript II

From: Letter to Parents



Yesterday was exactly 22 months from the day I arrived in Taiwan, which is important for the simple reason that I was in Korea for 22 months and three days. By next week I will be in Taiwan longer than I had been in Korea.

So the time goes by. I stand in my living room and scan my surroundings, and when I think of how this very room looked when I arrived here, I can’t help but think I’ve done all right so far. I see my computer. I see all the CDs and the books. I see the guitar I bought at the pawnshop for R60. I see my blue electric guitar, and the colour TV …

I don’t teach as many classes at the moment as last year. It was a senseless rush that never gave me proper time for what I really wanted to do. It may sound as if I don’t have my finger on the pulse of reality, but I know enough of the world to know that you must do what you deem fit and what you love, otherwise you grow old and you only played the game those who supposedly knew better than you had taught you. Dad always said I can’t just do what I want to do – that it’s not how the world works. I must admit that I don’t have much respect for how things work.

If you just live your life according to how things are supposed to work you’re exploited by those who don’t follow the rules. I’ve got a bit of insight into the workings of this world, and I have no time for people who want to boss it over me just because they have more money than me, and therefore – because this is how it works – I must do as they say. Anyway, the world doesn’t move forward because people always do the ‘sensible’ thing.

However, it should be stated categorically that I’m not completely naïve. I know all too well what happens to people who don’t take the money business seriously. I know all too well how the hierarchy of our society works. My noble politics will take me nowhere if I don’t have money to support it. Dozens of history books have given me a good idea of how people get to positions of power and how they stay there. And I have gained enough first-hand experience to know that people are tricked into believing certain things, so that those who are above them, can stay above them.

Enough politics. Suffice to say I am exploring other ways to make money. I don’t intend to be poor again. But I’m also not planning on serving other people’s agendas.

This stubborn independence comes at a price, of course. If I had followed a more conventional path, I would probably by now have had the conventional rewards of a house – for which I would have belonged to the bank for the rest of my life, a nice family car – for which I would have belonged to another bank for at least a decade, and a lovely woman with whom I could have shared my life.

Do I think about going back to South Africa at some point? I contemplate the possibility from time to time. I can think of many reasons why it would be good. The reality, however, is that I can earn R10,000 and even more per month in this country, with what is in fact a part-time job. In South Africa I’d have to work where, and for how long every day to get half of that?

Certainly there are possibilities that I have never considered. The problem is to discover these things. If one can spend a year in a place where you regularly exchange ideas with other people, you can surely start working on a few prospects. But how to go back, keep myself alive, not lose momentum with the projects I am working on, and find ways to make money that suit me and my personal agenda …”


Personal Agenda, Book One: Introduction

The Questions We Ask

Most people are searching for something. That it might take you years to lay a finger on it and say, “This!” usually does not make the search less frantic. Some people look for ways to make money, or ways to be liked. Others are looking for a place where, after a long journey, they can sit back and for the first time in their lives declare, “I have arrived.” Other people (or the same people looking for all aforementioned things) are searching for a person – someone with whom they can spend at least a portion of their life, and with whom they can search for other things, or the same things other people search for.

One universal aspect of all these searches is that questions are asked. A significant number of these questions relate to the person asking the questions – each person is driven by instinct to gather as much information as possible about him or herself, and for related reasons similar information about other people.

A few familiar questions: What do I look like? Am I pretty or ugly? Am I smart, or am I a bit of an idiot? Am I an “engineer” or a “lawyer” or an “artist”? Do I like pizza? How do I like my pizza? How do other people like their pizza? What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to be rich? How rich? Would it be okay if I don’t own the biggest house on the street? Do I want a car or a motorcycle? How should I wear my hair? Do I like the colour pink? What kind of music do I like? Do I believe in God? Is it good enough just to go to church every now and then? For which political party do I vote? Do I watch sports, and if so, who or what team do I support? Who are my friends? What kind of person do I like? Why do I like certain kinds of people? What types of people like me, and what are their reasons for liking me? What do I do in my spare time?

And these are just the questions that came to mind while I was changing CDs. I can add dozens more. And then you as the reader can look at the list and say, “Okay, but you’ve missed a few.”

Does everybody think about these things all the time? No. Some of these questions may require that we get comfortable for a while to consider possible answers, other things we just know. The important thing is, how we answer these questions determine how we perceive ourselves – on our own, in the privacy of our own spaces, and also when we’re around other people.

Many of us also find ourselves at one point or another in unfamiliar places where nobody knows us. This forces us to introduce ourselves to a crowd of strangers: “Hello, I’m (X). I like pop music. I would like to own a bookstore one day. I don’t like onions on my pizza, and I go to church once a month.”

The questions we ask ourselves, the ways we respond to them, how we introduce ourselves to strangers and how people react to us ultimately determine whether you hang out with other pizza eaters or not; whether you believe your soul is sorted the day you die; whether or not and with whom you may one day produce children; and how you spend your free time. Again, just a few examples.

This brings me to the book you’re now staring at. This is the result of my own efforts – especially during the past four years on the island of Taiwan – to formulate a few questions and match them up with some corresponding answers.

Who I am in the context of the wider world is not of any great importance. I am indeed a phantom, who will never meet more than a few of the people who will read these words. (Just as well! If I had to wait until I was known to more than ten people before I would even think about starting this project, I would be sitting on my couch right now watching TV.)

To a considerable extent I am just an ordinary man. Some of the things I have experienced, other people have experienced as well and will still be experienced by many others. Problems I have had, and that I am still going to have, is similar to the problems that millions of people have to cope with every day. Many who will read these pages have also had other and perhaps more interesting experiences; or more, and more serious problems than I will ever have. There are also people who may never be as happy as I have been, or may still be in the future. Others may speak of exactly the opposite.

What binds us all is that we have to ask ourselves certain questions at one time or another. Questions to which answers must be found, even if it takes a lifetime.

(Sunday, 18 May 2003)


Personal Agenda: Postscript I

I made the noble claim at the beginning that this collection of material [1999 to 2003] is dedicated to a few special people. For the record I should add that I also compiled this book for myself – some administrative matters had to be completed before I could move to any other place on this planet. For years I threatened to gather all the pieces I wrote, and all the pieces I started but never finished, in one folder. Essays I wrote on the computer had to be printed out, e-mails I wrote had to be downloaded from the Hotmail server, and I wanted to type a few thoughts scribbled in notebooks and journals.

This project is at an elementary level good office administration – to check off items on a things-to-do list. But it has also become of existential importance for me to throw something on the table and say, “Behold – this is one of the things I did with my time.”

I also suspected that I may, in the broader picture that such a project presents of your life, discover old insights I have forgotten, or ideas that may derail existing plans.

At the end I succeeded to some extent in all of the above objectives.

The process of reading and processing material even delivered some other, unexpected fruits. I didn’t expect to see a golden thread weaving through four years of musings and ramblings, but I do see more reasons than ever why it was necessary to come to Taiwan, and why it was necessary to get stuck here for so long.

What do you do when you are done with a project like this? You can start by cleaning your apartment … pulling a broom across the porch for the first time in months … taking a stroll through a supermarket … but then what? Naturally you start working on another project, or you get back to the project that had been put on hold without warning several months ago.

Whatever I do next, I hope it will be possible to move away from these self-centred Matters of the Heart – at least when I write something. Questions shall certainly still hang in the air, and I will still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night muttering a provisional answer in the direction of the ceiling. But there are indeed other topics that can keep me busy: the health benefits of Asian food, the reasons why you should drink at least a few cups of green tea every day, and my theory of why Taiwanese people are such poor drivers.

If I am lucky, I will only occasionally wonder if all these alternative themes take me closer to a place I’ve always wanted to be.

May 2003


Taiwan: A brief overview

SUNDAY, 11 MAY 2003

All the material in this book (with the exception of a few paragraphs) date from the Taiwan period of my life. It is important to mention that this book is not about Taiwan; that certain themes saw further development in this environment, and others emerged, is indeed important. A few pages on this specific environment would therefore not be inappropriate.


Taiwan is approximately 160 kilometres from Mainland China. It lies on the western edge of the so-called “Ring of Fire” – a path around the Pacific Ocean that terrorises populations with earthquakes and volcanoes. No surprise then that Taiwan is mountainous, with some of the highest peaks in Northeast Asia.

A subtropical location means Taiwan enjoys long, hot, and humid summers and short, cool winters. Summers are characterised by heavy monsoon rains, with every now and then a typhoon that storms in from the Philippines or from out in the Pacific Ocean.

As could be expected of a subtropical island, greenery abounds. Apparently, there are also bears and several different types of deer to be seen in the mountainous areas, and if the writer could make it past the neighbourhood convenience store over the weekends, he would surely confirm this.


According to the Lonely Planet, humans have called Taiwan home for more than 10,000 years. The first inhabitants, who shared a genetic heritage with people in the neighbouring Philippines, migrated from other islands in the area. By the time the first Chinese people arrived, two aboriginal groups co-existed on the island – tribes who lived on the plains, with other tribes mostly keeping to the mountains.

From the fifteenth century onward, Chinese immigrants arrived in larger numbers. Because most of them hailed from the Fujian Province in China, the mother tongue of most Taiwanese people today sounds similar to the Fujian dialect of Chinese (although Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan).

In the year 1517 the Portuguese took a look around and called the place Ilha Formosa, which translates as “Beautiful Island.” (It was the Chinese who gave Taiwan her current name: Bay of Terraces.) The Dutch dropped anchor in 1624, and they enjoyed some good bear and deer hunting until a Ming loyalist called Zheng Chenggong chased them away in 1661. Because the Qing dynasty had been filling the throne in Beijing at the time, they took charge of the island in 1682. For the next two hundred years large scale immigration took place of the people whose language is similar to that of modern-day Taiwanese.[1]

The next big event in Taiwanese history occurred in 1895. Taiwan was one of the prizes that landed in the lap of the Japanese emperor after a victorious war against China. As part of the growing Japanese empire for the next half century, Taiwan saw a complete overhaul of its infrastructure and industry. By the time Japan lost the Second World War, affairs in China had changed to such a degree that Taiwan’s history was on the verge of another dramatic transformation.

The moment the Japanese pulled out of China, the civil war between the communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s government entered its last, and bloodiest phase. At the start of 1949, Chiang realised his days in the motherland have been counted. He decided to gather on a fleet of ships the cultural treasures of the National Palace Museum, all the money he could lay his hands on in China’s national bank, about a million and a half supporters and 600,000 Nationalist soldiers, and retreat from all the fighting to the lovely island of Taiwan. The idea was to retake the Motherland “within two years” with well-rested troops – and of course to return the treasures to their original home in Beijing.

In the end, Chiang and all his troops grew old in Taiwan. Chiang died in Taipei in 1975 at the age of 87, and as most people know the communists still own the throne in China.


Chiang arrived in 1949 not only armed with troops, supporters, money, and Ming vases, he also had the foresight to bring along the flag, title, and necessary politicians to give him the right to continue calling himself the Chief of the Motherland. He landed on these shores as the president of the Republic of China, and by the time he breathed his last, he was still the president of the Republic of China.

Until the seventies most of the non-communist world agreed with Chiang that his government in Taiwan was the rightful rulers of all of China. Things started to change in that decade, though, and today only a handful of states still recognise the claims of the Taipei government.

After the United Nations kicked the representative from Taiwan out in 1971, most countries followed suit by closing their embassies in subsequent years – only to continue doing business as usual shortly afterwards as so-called “trade offices”.

What is Taiwan then if not the physical address of the government of China? From 1949 onwards Taiwan had for all practical purposes been governed as separate from Mainland China – even though any Taiwanese would have been thrown in jail if they had suggested anything of the kind until the late 1980s. From the day the top honchos in Taipei received the memo they were no longer regarded as the political masters of China – with Taiwan as one of her provinces – they’ve struggled with a political identity crisis. They nevertheless still had a job to do – to act as a responsible government for the 25 million people in Taiwan.

Why not just change the name to the Republic of Taiwan? To ask this question is to pinch a nerve. Some Taiwanese believe that the island should at some point reunite with the motherland. Others argue that Taiwan should be recognised for what she is and has been for the past fifty years: a sovereign state. And in this strange political situation the last group of people that want to see an official name change for Taiwan is the communist government in Beijing. They believe the moment Taiwan gets a name that accurately reflects the reality is the moment Taiwan declares her independence from the motherland. And then all hell will break loose.

This, then, is the geography, history, and unusual political state of the country in which I have found myself the past four years.

[1] Mandarin is the Beijing dialect of Chinese. Although Chinese consists of numerous dialects, the Beijing dialect serves as the official language of China, Taiwan, and as one of three official languages of Singapore.


What lies beneath the skin


I sometimes look at people, friends of mine to be more specific, and a certain image forces itself on me. The image is one of children – let’s say seven-year-olds – who are playing house, pretending to be adults.

It’s like when you scratch something to see what lies beneath the surface. In the case of these good people I call my friends, I scratch them and under the skin the children are then revealed.

It is important to mention that these people are in no way inclined to childish behaviour. On the contrary, they are worthy adults in terms of their relationship, the things they are interested in, their household, and their financial responsibilities.

Still, I can’t escape the idea that they are just trying to emulate their parents. An example of this emulation is when such a child-adult buys their first home, and proudly shows it to their parents: “Look Dad, look Ma! I bought a house!” And then Mom and Dad proudly clap their hands and say, “Will you look at that! Johnny (or Sally) bought a house!”

I usually feel a little guilty when I think such cynical things about my friends, especially after I had just thanked them for the coffee they offered me as hospitable adults. I thought the other day, if I get such interesting insights when I “scratch” other people, what will I discover if I start scratching my own skin?

Without much delay I came up with an answer: an old geezer with a week-old stubble, in his pyjamas in front of a mute TV rubbing his head while he argues with himself.

Not quite satisfied with this critical self-understanding, I went a step further – I scratched the old man. What then appeared was a little closer to the heart: a child, no more than five years old, late afternoon, standing at a farm gate wondering where all the people went, why they left him alone, and whether they were mad at him because he had been sleeping on the living room floor. And why does that jackal sound so close?


“Chimps can codify their cultural behaviour – how to hunt, how to groom oneself and others – and pass that knowledge along to their young.”

~ From a TV program

* * *

“All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.”

~ Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794) on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (quoted from A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester)