Exile 5?

“You play out your happiness on a piano that is not infinite.” (from The Legend of 1900)


(It’s been three months since my last essay.)

It is not always easy to sit still, think for a while, and then destroy the freshness of a blank piece of paper in an attempt to summarise where, at a particular time, your life is at. Until recently, to escape the effort such a Wider View required, I would have turned on the TV that couldn’t pick up a signal anymore and played Super Mario until the end of frustration. Then I bought my fourth Pearl Jam album. Three days later I bought myself an electric guitar. And a few weeks after that a keyboard. A recorder and two harmonicas followed over the next few months. Now when my conscience calls for a renewed climb to the hill above my life – to see which way the wind blows, to be able to say, “Okay, that’s where I stand,” I look the other way, grab a guitar, and try some new chords. The time has, however, come.

It is the eighth of December. There are three weeks to go before Christmas, and then another few weeks before the winter holidays. More than two months have already passed since I was supposed to have had a complete physical, mental and spiritual breakdown, according to a forecast I had made early September. I’m doing okay, despite the fact that there is still no one with whom I could share the good things of life.

But … EXILE! The past few weeks have been very informative as far as this theme goes. For the sake of clarification, it can be mentioned that the idea’s origin – in my particular case – lies in Korea, when I said I was in economic exile, away from the pressures of conventional middle-class life in the Republic of My Birth. I also said that I would lift my exile when I am sufficiently empowered to live on my own terms in South Africa. I finally returned after two years, not because I had been sufficiently empowered but because I was dying of loneliness. I had a few ideas about what I wanted to do – hardly watertight, but like the movie said on the plane on the way back, a good idea today is better than no idea yesterday (or something like that).

Almost two years have passed since I came to Taiwan, and, as the title of this piece indicates, these are not the first words I have written on the topic of exile. I usually try not take seriously Sunday Blues-inspired ideas about the lifting of my exile if they don’t hold up until at least Monday night, but in the past few weeks the blues-inspired ideas have reached a certain maturity (I am after all writing this essay on a Friday).


A few months ago I started propagating the belief that the life we as expat teachers lead in Taiwan is conducive to us deceiving ourselves. What do I mean? As a foreign English teacher in Taiwan you can make good money without having to work yourself to death. You stay in a spacious apartment; you have a few luxuries that make your life comfortable; you can afford to treat yourself to things like Japanese sunglasses and American trainers; and you live an exotic life in the Far East (exotic compared to the life with which I grew up anyway in a sort of middle-class suburban area). But none of these things make you happy when that primordial need to belong somewhere is not fulfilled. So you think you’re okay until you wake up one Sunday morning with a hangover of yet another Saturday night you spent on your own (to spend the evening with other foreigners is about the same as giving candy to a hungry child). By Sunday night you once again realise that you have made yourself very comfortable in a place where you don’t really belong. To make yourself feel better you drive to the nearest music shop to buy more CDs, just to hear Bob Dylan preaching to you that you shouldn’t confuse paradise with that “home across the road” [from “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”].

This brought me to the point where I wanted to throw a new belief into the wind: that I would never feel I belong here – with the exception if I marry a Taiwanese woman, which would make the place personal to such an extent that it could compete with the land of my birth.

In the absence of any meaningful relationship with a woman from this country it was inevitable that I would return to some old questions: What exactly am I doing here? Am I going to stay here for the rest of my life? If not, will I return to South Africa? If some good reasons may be found why I should go back, then when? The main question that then comes to mind is exactly what I will do when I get back.

It may have value to remind myself (and perhaps the reader) of the reasons I decided in November 1998, despite what I had said in May of that year, to pack my things again and head back East. I enjoyed being with my own people, seeing my family every few weeks, and going out with women with whom I could carry on a proper conversation. Why was I willing to give these things up again? I was living in the servant’s quarters of a friend’s backyard; all my furniture was made of discarded planks; my mattress consisted of two pieces of sponge I had cello-taped together; I didn’t have a car; I was earning R2,600 per month of which I had to pay R2,000 to cover my student debt, and I was working in an administrative capacity at the company of the aforementioned friend who was so kind to allow me to live rent-free on his property. There were certainly other options, but my ambitions and my personal politics were such that returning to Asia seemed to be the only real solution.

What I have done here in the past two years, was much, much more than I thought I would do. The original idea was to make money, and to pay off my debt. At some point I was supposed to return to South Africa, buy a house, and sit on the porch flipping off passers-by. I wanted to be free and independent.

It didn’t take me long before I realised that I had to qualify these goals. To be free and independent, so I reckoned, could also imply that no one really mattered to me: No wife, no children, no obligations or responsibilities.

A clearer formulation looked like this: to have the freedom to choose what I want to do and keep myself mainly busy with that activity; to be independent of bosses and businesses and institutions that want to dictate how I should look, what I should say and how I should spend much of my day – just because I rely on the money they channel to my bank account at the end of each month.

Seeing that I’m not quite in a position to start flipping people off, it can be said with relative certainty that I am currently trapped between my ambitious goals and my actual situation.

Two solutions exist for this dilemma. One is a well-known fantasy: the countless millions you can call your own when you win the British Lottery. The other solution is to seek tools with which you can actively bring about independence of your economic masters. In my case it boils down to a great extent to possessing a good computer.

To have in your possession all the tools you need and to make regular use of it does, of course, not necessarily pay the rent at the end of the month. Initial capital is essential. It is for this reason that I continue to leave my apartment every day to provide a service for which there is a need in this place, namely English lessons offered by an actual speaker of the language (which amounts in most cases to a different skin colour, and sometimes different coloured eyes than all the local English teachers who are sometimes more capable of offering the same service).

One thing is important to mention in this review of my noble struggle for independence – I don’t intend anymore to accumulate enough money to buy a house and spend the rest of my days playing tunes to pedestrians walking by. The idea is to rather use these tools I have gathered to earn a regular income. This process of making Creative Works my income-generating business has already begun.


[In the rest of the piece I tried to explain the principles of using your creativity to generate an income. I got bogged down in long sentences that didn’t quite say what I wanted to say, and the process came to an abrupt halt in the middle of one of these sentences. The idea and the argument behind it do, however, continue in other writings.]