Credible identity in a new community


In 2000, I didn’t just want to be “Brand” who could play guitar or piano – I wanted to be “Brand the Musician”. Critically low self-esteem fuelled a desperate attempt to develop an aspect of a social identity that would have made me feel good about myself.

Unfortunately, my ambitions were hopelessly unrealistic. I wanted to play guitar like John Williams (the classical guitarist, not the composer) in a few months, and play piano at least with both hands within the same period. Inevitable failure plunged me into the most wretched frame of mind I had experienced up until that point in Taiwan. (My work situation added fuel to the fire. I taught most of my classes at an elementary school where half the 7-year-olds ignored me during the class, a quarter paid attention half of the time, and the other quarter could barely wait for me to go outside after the class so they could throw dirt at me.)

The musician issue was of course not about the guitar or the piano; it was about how I saw myself, how my social identity and status were marked in the community, and how I had wanted it to be.

To what community am I referring? In 2000, a flood of other South Africans arrived in Kaohsiung almost overnight. I was again, out of the blue, confronted with the question of who I was – not only in a broad existential sense but among people of my own age, from my own country, who spoke my language.

My love for music, and the esteem and respect that I had always had for people who could play musical instruments infused me with the idea from the middle of that year that the label of “Musician” was by far the most ideal for my needs. A single track on the Pearl Jam album, No Code did not help prevent this fatal view. I was so mesmerised by it that within a week of buying the album I went out to get myself an electric guitar.

* * *

If I never went to Korea, and therefore never came to Taiwan … if I had stayed in Pretoria from April 1996 onwards (hopefully not for longer than three months in my sister’s living room), I would have been compelled to define my identity as an adult in the more familiar habitat of my own country, among people of my own culture, who spoke my language. It would probably have included factors like my undesirable socio-economic status, and I might have taken other measures to feel better about myself.

What happened, however, was that I ended up in the double alienation of Korea – as Westerner in a city of 800,000 Koreans, and the only South African and Afrikaans-speaking person in the foreign community. My process of identity formation once again entered a period of shock – like the socio-economic shock of being downgraded from “middle class” to “poor white” in 1985.

Would I have become a “different person” if I had gotten a job in Pretoria in June 1996? Of course, but I also believe that the core of a person’s personality is to a great extent fixed and merely responds to different environmental factors. “Korea Brand” was the result of 22 months in that country and the double alienation it had entailed. “Pretoria Brand” never developed beyond the initial three months.

Would “Pretoria Brand” still have become a “writer”? It’s possible. The creative aspect of my identity had after all already started developing by 1994 in Stellenbosch, and it was connected to previous times when the potential for this building block of identity had also manifested itself.

What is important here is credible identity. I was never a credible “Brand the Musician”. I knew this, and tried desperately to develop credibility in a ridiculously short period.

Is “Brand the Writer” a credible identity? Yes, and not because I think my text it worthy of being published or read. What is important – and I have mentioned this a few times before, is that I write, that I write quite often, and that I have written enough by now to have credibility in my own eyes as a writer.

* * *

I was confronted in Korea with an environment where, unlike 1995 and early ‘96, I had to identify myself to a large group of my contemporaries. I was unsure how to do it. I was unsure who “Brand Smit” was, and what it meant to be “Brand Smit”. I searched for clues, answers … and where does one seek for clues and answers other than the ground where your umbilical cord is buried, so to speak?

In my case, I identified middle-class suburbia as ground zero. What stared me in the face, however, was the failure – personally and that of my family – to fit in and be accepted by the place that had to yield clues about who and what I was. The view of myself as a descendant of a source that had always threatened to abort me made me see the source in an extremely negative light, to put it mildly.

The most ideal alternative to middle-class suburbia in developing my identity could have been the Christian religion. One would almost like to say that my whole identity crisis could have been decided then and there. Problem was, since 1993, I no longer viewed the Church, as I had known and respected it from childhood, as a credible institution. The close relationship between the Afrikaner middle class and the branch of the Christian religion with which I was most familiar further alienated me from both.

To summarise:

1. I was confronted in Korea with the need to identify myself to dozens of my contemporaries; many more people, and on a more personal level than in 1995 and early ‘96.

2. I was looking for answers and clues in the place where my roots lie. I had identified this place as middle-class suburbia. I was aware of the fact that this place (environment and society, in the broad sense of the word) did not want to accept my and my family’s roots – or at least, could not accept our roots according to qualifications that any community certainly has a right to expect potential members to meet. What is relevant here is not so much the standards that middle-class suburbia sets regarding financial status, but that this particular environment, with its particular culture, values and ideas, could not serve me as a credible source of identity.

3. The most ideal alternative could have been the Christian religion, but from 1993 onwards I no longer regarded it as a credible source of identity for me because of my increasing lack of belief in the Traditions of the Established Church.

4. Conclusion? I was in trouble. I had to dig deeper for clues and ideas about who and what I was, who and what I wanted to be, and in what environment I wanted to be this person.

* * *

In 2000 I was confronted again, this time in Taiwan, with people to whom I had to identify myself after once again functioning for a year in relatively obscure anonymity – where the most basic information about my person was good enough.

As I have already mentioned, being a “Musician” was in my opinion the most ideal pre-packaged and pre-approved identity I could think of in my uncertainty and anxiety about my own value, but one for which I could not build up sufficient credibility in the short time I needed to.

It would thus appear that participation and membership in a new community – where you’d have to identify yourself in full colour and detail – may lead to increased introspection and renewed definition of identity or the development of new aspects of identity if you are not satisfied with who you are in that community.

It also follows that the identity, or aspects of identity, that you would try to develop would correspond with what is highly regarded by the community of which you want to be a member.

The alternative to acceptance and membership in a community is obscure anonymity – where it is not necessary for who and what you are to be accepted by other people in your community, as long as you keep yourself busy on your own, and you cause no trouble.


What went wrong, and when?

“What went wrong?” was a question often on my mind as I worked through the Korea material. For most of my adult life I have had a problem with certain things, and at times it has threatened to get me down. What exactly was the problem in Korea?

I believe that the problem had to do with identity, and specifically the role that environment plays in its development.

The environment in which my identity had been nicely developing until I was about fourteen years old changed dramatically within the space of a few weeks. From that time on – my early teens – I was constantly confronted by failure, for the simple reason that the measure of success was always money, manifested in the clothes you wore, what you could afford and what not, where you and your family lived, and your status in the community. This was compounded by Unpaid Debt, and the fact that goods such as furniture and a few boxes of childhood toys that were stored in a garage could be carted away by people who had the right to take it because of the unsettled debt.

I had to absorb all this new information in my process of developing identity. No surprise that shortly after my life had entered this period I increasingly started defining my identity within the framework of fundamentalist religion.

My early twenties arrived in a socio-economic environment that had not improved much since my teenage years. Due to various reasons, fundamentalist religion had also begun to lose its lustre as a determinant of identity for me. And all of this at a time when I had to raise my hand and say, “Here’s another young adult man. Where should I stand?”

By the time I started eating kimchi and sticky rice for breakfast in Korea, I had acquired a lot of knowledge, understood little, clearly knew “something” was wrong with “something”, and I still couldn’t quite work out where my place on the parade ground was. What exactly was wrong and what should be my struggle would take another few years to express in the proper vocabulary.


The problem is … city planning!


The fact that I have made my peace with middle-class suburbia does not mean that I don’t have a problem with the layout of many suburbs.

The average suburb spreads out over several hectares of land. Each house is on a plot which is often cordoned off from the next with wires, walls or sharp poles. Neighbours may be familiar with each other, but regular interaction between fifty or more people of a particular area is not common. Little space is usually reserved for public use.

As an example of a better layout, I can point to the neighbourhood where I currently reside in Taiwan. It isn’t in or near the business district, and can probably qualify according to Taiwanese standards as a suburb. My immediate neighbourhood comprises ten lanes with four-storey apartment buildings – about eight apartment buildings in a row on each side of the lane, with a small alley at the back of the building. On the other side of the road is an area with small houses with very little yard space, if any.

The central point of the area is the park at what can be described as the entrance to my neighbourhood. The park has a basketball court where young men test their skills in the evenings and on weekends; next to this is a tennis court where older men and women and sometimes younger people play tennis throughout the day. Stretching south of this area is a tree-lined park with tables and benches where people of all ages regularly sit and talk, where old men play cards, where grandparents relax with their grandchildren, and where people go for a walk in the late afternoon and early evening.

At the entrance to the park are a few stalls selling snacks and drinks from morning to late at night. There is also a sizeable general store right across from the park. Further down the street is a bustling market in the mornings and some evenings, and by the roadside a variety of small shops, restaurants, bicycle repair shops, and so on.

It is certainly not a wealthy neighbourhood. I get the idea that it is mostly old people, taxi drivers and office workers who live here; nobody at first glance looks as if they can afford any extravagance. However, there is a strong manifestation of community, of people who are comfortable spending time with friends, acquaintances and strangers in public.

I would very much like to return to my own country, but it is unfortunate that I would have to leave this type of neighbourhood for – if I am lucky – a suburb where you can probably not even go to a convenience store without a car, and if you can still reach the local 7-Eleven by foot, you can most likely not walk to the nearest bank or post office. And it is indeed unfortunate that I will probably not end up in a neighbourhood with a park filled with activity and life for at least twelve hours every day of the week.

The street where I live – Chi Hui Xin Cun, Fengshan, Taiwan
Lane between a park and a row of houses – Fengshan, Taiwan
Houses in Ci Hui Xin Cun – Fengshan, Taiwan
More houses in Ci Hui Xin Cun – Fengshan, Taiwan
Park near the houses – a few blocks from my apartment – Fengshan, Taiwan
Park closer to my apartment – Fengshan, Taiwan
Basketball in the park – Fengshan, Taiwan
Entrance to the park one block from my apartment – Fengshan, Taiwan


Korea: Greenhouse for my grievances?


As I read through the 1996-1998 material, I got the strong impression that Korea had been an incubator for my grievances, and for my insecurities and fears. I was somewhat surprised when I saw how much poison I had spat in that time over “suburbia” – things like “the bane of suburbia”, “I hate suburbia now more than ever” and “culture and art die in suburbia” (just to name a few of my favourites).

What exactly was my problem with life in a middle-class suburb? The architecture of the place isn’t comparable to old European cities, but my goodness, what do you expect? The average suburban garden is also not Kirstenbosch, but the average suburban citizen is not Cecil John Rhodes! And what is a barbeque on a Saturday night, Christmas meals, birthday parties, rugby on TV, and late afternoon walks with the dog if not culture? And “art dies in suburbia”? Give me a break!

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to stand up for myself. Suburbia was to me about more than just the architecture of three-bedroom houses – or any other version of a suburban house, or the number of flowers in the front yard or dog droppings in the backyard. It was a symbol of a broader phenomenon in society, where people constantly peer over the proverbial fence to see what how the neighbours are doing, in what clothes they’re walking around, what model car they’re driving, and how often and to where they go on vacation. Status in this community is like a devil that forces people to do things they never thought they could devote an entire life to. How are success and failure measured in the middle class? Money and professional status. A man beats his wife? That’s terrible, but it would be much worse if he were a financial failure as well. The Johnson children are doing well in school? That’s nice, but did you hear that the father is changing jobs again? A man or woman who doesn’t know how to spell morality, but “did you see they’re driving a new BMW?”

Of course, it made a difference that my own family had tasted dust on the wrong side of the line. Of course you’d have some difficulty with grievances when you get up off the ground. I could nevertheless not fail to confront myself with the question of whether “they” were right, or whether “something” was wrong with the “whole thing”.

How do I feel today about the socio-cultural phenomenon that is middle-class suburbia?

I have mentioned at some point that I no longer have a problem with the idea of a pleasant three-bedroom house, a nice garden, a lawn mower, two dogs and a car (and I know the middle class is about more than just that). I can take this position because in recent years I have taken the concept of middle-class suburbia that had so haunted me in Korea, pulled it apart, and examined exactly what had bothered me so much about the place, and what aspects are actually quite innocent – like the poor dog, and the lawn mower. I finally realised that it is not about the house or the garden or the neighbours, but about what you do to afford life in the middle class.


It’s still life, and still worthy of your commitment


On Saturday, 14 March 1998, I wrote: “I’m afraid to commit to anything where success is not guaranteed. To tell the truth, I am unwilling to commit to anything where failure is even a vague possibility.”

How do I feel about that now?

I have so far spent five years in Taiwan as an English teacher in a city that does not rank as one of the top locations in the world. (I am talking about Fengshan, not the larger area of Kaohsiung, which is the fourth largest container port in the world.)

I would probably not have considered such a life worthy of my commitment on 14 March 1998, and if perhaps such a life, certainly not in this place. Yet, I can categorically state that despite the price one pays and the imperfection of it, it has definitely been worth the time. Or, like a character remarks in the movie Breakfast for Champions, “It’s all life.”

The alternative is to get older year by year, never committing yourself to anything, all the while waiting for the elusive “perfect” project, or “ideal” life. And what will happen? You will realise too late you’ve gotten old, you mean nothing to no one, and you have done nothing with your life.

Get busy with anything remotely to your liking. It is a million times better than to allow your life to expire while you wait for “something better”.