Exile [1]

SUNDAY, 20 JUNE 1999

I first went into self-imposed exile on my 25th birthday. In February of that year, I got a job in South Korea. After months of uncertainty and anticipation I finally departed on a Cathay Pacific flight on 29 June 1996 to Hong Kong, and then on to Seoul. I had no clue what I was heading into. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to teach Korean children English. I didn’t know for whom I was going to work or where I was going to sleep the first night. I had no idea what Korea looked like, what cultural differences I would encounter, or what the city looked like where I was supposed to live and work for the next who-knows how many months. All I knew was that I needed to get away – from what I would only later properly formulate. And in retrospect, this desire to get away outweighed any fears of the unknown.

Twenty-two months later I again packed my things, ambled through the narrow alleys of my neighbourhood one last time, and the next morning I was on my way back to South Africa. I still didn’t know exactly how I was going to earn a living on my own terms, but I was full of ideas about what I wanted to do with my life.

It didn’t take me long to realise that the reality back in South Africa was not going to have mercy on me just because I had spent almost two years in my own form of exile. Six weeks after arriving, I was in Johannesburg – to take up a part-time administrative position at an environmental magazine of a good friend of mine.

A week before I left for Johannesburg, I received a call from another friend who also lived in Johannesburg. She told me that she had bought a house, that the house had a spare room, and if I were looking for a place to stay, it would work out well for her too if I wanted to rent the room for about three months.

So I had a roof over my head, and an office job. And a salary that wouldn’t even cover my primary financial obligations. But I was back home. Back in South Africa.

One of the things I wanted to get away from in my first exile was my student loans. I was supposed to start repaying the loans from the university and the bank in January 1996. By June ’96 my creditors had no record of what I was doing or where I was. I had disappeared between the proverbial cracks. The moment the plane started gaining altitude above Kempton Park on 29 June that year, I gently pumped the air, and sat back. I felt like a convict who had escaped from prison and was on his way to a place where the authorities wouldn’t find him. Or like a political activist who had given the security forces the slip and was on his way to safety in a foreign country from where he would continue the struggle.

Within three days after returning in May 1998 I was at Standard Bank, and I experienced first-hand that exile does not necessarily solve any problems. Sooner or later you must return and fight the good fight where it matters. When I arrived in Johannesburg at the end of June, I thus had the unpleasant duty of handing over every month R2,000 of the precious cash I had saved in Korea to the very creditors I had mocked from the skies above Johannesburg two years previously.

By the end of September ’98, I knew I was in trouble. My savings were depleted, and I was still just earning about R1,500 per month at the magazine.

But for the moment there was relief. My friend from the magazine had secured a home loan, and the office moved to his new home in Auckland Park at the end of September. There was a small room in the backyard I could occupy for free until I found something else. I decided to stay in Johannesburg at least until the end of the year.

Early in October, another piece of luck: My boss/friend decided there was enough work to keep me busy for eight hours every day, and therefore I could earn an additional R1,000 per month.

* * *

The sense of impending crisis did not subside. I knew my friend wanted to renovate the garden shed early in the new year, and then rent it out. And I knew I would get nowhere if I continued answering the phone at a small company for R2,500 per month; not to mention the fact that I had no money for a new place or for a car. Thoughts of exile started taking shape again.

To be honest, I had already started preparing for a second exile in early July, in the house of my friend in Norwood. I was still only working part-time, so I had enough time to sit in her living room every day and contemplate how miserable my life was. I thought again about why I had returned to my own country, and I couldn’t fault the motives: I wanted to belong somewhere, and I wanted to commit myself to something, or someone.

The double motif of Belonging and Commitment had struck me in weeks of great clarity somewhere between January and March 1998, when I was still in Chonju. I remember I went to have a burger and chips at the Atom Plaza near the train station, and while I was waiting for my food (or was it just after I had left?), these two words flashed in front of me as clear as neon signs: Belonging & Commitment. (I also remember how I sat down on the steps of a convenience store in one of the narrow alleys to smoke a cigarette.)

Between January and April ’98 my plans took shape that would lead to the lifting of my first self-imposed exile. “Belonging and commitment,” I whispered to myself all the way back to South Africa.

By July, however, I started wondering what I had missed in my months of clarity. Something was definitely not right. I was living in someone else’s house, a borrowed bicycle was my only means of transportation, and my income was no match for the onslaught of my financial obligations.

For the record, I should mention that I had also started playing around with the idea of power months earlier. The question, “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” could be asked with political significance in mind, in economic terms, and even in personal relationships. For the sake of argument, I defined power as the ability to make choices and act on those choices. I, so I decided early in July, had virtually no power. In my case it had to do with one thing, and one thing only. Because I had no money, my choices on everything from work to where I stayed to what I ate, were limited.

I was on the edge of despair.

Power and powerlessness became my obsessions over the next few months. By November, the perception of helplessness was unbearable. It started affecting my personality. I was painfully aware of my limited options, and the inability to act on options that I did want to exercise. I decided that there was only one way out: renewed self-imposed exile.

Within the larger economic realities of South Africa was my reality that I did not have many formal career options; groceries had become a luxury – by the end of October I even had to start rolling my own cigarettes with cheap tobacco; I couldn’t afford a proper place to live; and I often thought of the warning from one attorney that if I didn’t fulfil my agreement with the creditors, I would be persona non grata for the next thirty years.

I started gathering information on a program that recruited English teachers for schools in Japan. The program would only need people again from the next July, and the emergency was pulling tighter around my throat by the day.

That was my situation when I checked my email at the office one day in late October. I had just expected a routine update when I opened the mail from a friend of mine whom I had met in Korea. He returned to South Africa a year before me, but after struggling for a few months in Cape Town sold all his possessions for a plane ticket and went back to Asia – this time Taiwan. He was full of praise for the island nation, and even offered to lend me money for a plane ticket, if I were interested. I politely declined his offer, but within a week I contacted him and asked if it was still standing. I gave myself another week or three to consider my options, and by the end of November I let him know he could send the money – my seat on the plane was reserved.

* * *

Exile it would be again, after an unsuccessful attempt to “belong and commit” in the land of my birth. I spent three weeks over December and the first week of January with my parents in KwaZulu-Natal, and once again packed my backpack with clothes, books, music, and a few other items for a new period of being-away. A week in Johannesburg followed, and then on 16 January 1999 I departed – without much emotion.

It was strange, this absence of emotion. Unlike in June ’96 when I was almost overcome with joy when the plane lifted off the ground, I didn’t feel much this time. It was just the way it was. North-East Asia, an almost surreal world where within a week I would have my own apartment, within two weeks a scooter, and where I would sometimes earn more than R100 per hour to play games with children in an effort to teach them a few English words.

* * *

It’s 3:30 in the morning of 20 June 1999. I’m sitting alone in a three-bedroom apartment, typing this essay on my computer. Behind me images are flashing on the TV. I’ve got a phone, a VCR, a CD player, and a few CDs I bought here, and in Hong Kong when I was there for a long weekend in April. I have new bedding, and new clothes. I even have a new pair of shoes. And a few weeks ago, I bought myself a watch for about R500. Exile is not too bad this time in practical terms.

But the other day I wondered, would I prefer a good life in a foreign country with these little luxuries, or a life in my own country, without many of the luxuries and the security of a good income I now enjoy, but where I would feel I belong and where I can commit myself to something or someone?