Factor X kicks in

[Briefly, the background to this piece: By September 2003, I was seriously considering leaving Taiwan for a large town in Gauteng, called Bronkhorstspruit.]


Bronkhorstspruit is … a shit place, everybody knows that. But it is also the place where my youngest sister and her husband decided to establish themselves. The town has about fifteen funeral parlours, twenty “Eazy Credit” joints, a Wimpy Bar, and a stationery store that sells a few books. There is no music store. There’s no 7-Eleven that is open 24 hours a day. There’s no lively scene in the centre of town every weeknight at ten o’clock when people come out to enjoy a late supper at temporary pavement restaurants. There’s no coffee shop that stays open until after midnight. There is a huge temple and educational centre built by a Buddhist order from Taiwan. And in a neighbourhood about twenty minutes from town on foot, lives my beloved youngest sister.

Can you justify giving up everything that is familiar to you – or that has become familiar to you over the past five years of your life – just because you miss your family?


What is everything about at this point? What is the whole story of Taiwan, Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa, and the Far East about? What is the idea of “business”, and writing, and barbecue and dessert at “home” about?

It’s about being as happy as you can be. And it’s about regret, especially in my case not regretting later that I didn’t spend more time with my family. It’s about not just following a tedious script like a second-rate actor. It’s about being who you are (if you have finally sorted that out), rather than just being the by-product of all the measures that you implement to survive and to suppress your fear of the day when the gods strike you out of the blue with a bolt of lightning. (Or, realistically speaking, to express your real personality as much as possible after putting all the necessary measures in place. Everyone is afraid of lightning at the end of the day, aren’t we?)

Why am I writing this piece on this Monday at seven minutes past two in the morning? Because I’m moving to an apartment in Benevolent Light New Village in the Mountain of the Phoenix. Is it a bad place? No. Is it a bad neighbourhood? No. Is it a laborious irritation to scrape grease deposits off the kitchen walls with a potato peeler? Yes. Am I wasting valuable time having to suddenly pack rather than to work on my projects? Yes. But I console myself with the thought that I had to buy some boxes anyways to start packing; that I had to leave the dark dump I’ve been calling my home for the past almost five years at some point.

Why does my new apartment inspire me to write this particular text? Because I was reminded of the fact that my life in this country doesn’t follow a script; I write the story as I live. To name but one example, I most assuredly did not know two weeks ago that in two weeks’ time I would be sitting on all fours on top of a marble slab with a pair of surgical rubber gloves on, scraping off clots of grease with a potato peeler. (Sorry, I just had to mention that again.)

But this little insight, and the photographic potential of the view from my new kitchen is not what is really important (or it’s just part of the larger story). What really bothers me is the fear of what lies ahead for me when I no longer hope for the day I return to the land of my birth. I think I’m afraid my life in South Africa will become … ordinary, caught between the fear that someone will break into my apartment while I’m out shopping for garlic sauce or biltong, and the fear that I would suddenly wake up one morning and I’ll be thirty years older.


“Anxiety” is for me more than just a psychological term. As long as I run around and struggle for a better tomorrow, as long as I faithfully make notes on THE PROCESS, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. Then I feel as if I am on my way. I think I fear the day I’m supposed to declare that I have arrived, and someone jumps from behind a bush and shouts: “Surprise! In the end you did follow the script! You (also) win the prize!”

Then again, maybe the prize is happiness. Maybe the prize is that you feel you belong somewhere, and your life has meaning because it has meaning to people who are important to you. Maybe the prize is that you feel you can go ahead with your creative work, because you did arrive, but it’s still important that you say what you want to say.

Or am I just afraid that, despite the wide availability of garlic sauce to enjoy over your barbecue, I will still get bored with Bronkhorstspruit?


Am I trying to run away from what I already know? That we are highly developed animals that must try our best with our fantastic, yet limited capabilities to serve Good rather than Bad, and to carry forward the flame of Polite Civilisation until our time is up and we must pass the torch to the next generation.

I need to stop dancing in circles.

[Later on Monday, 15 September 2003]

I’m worried that I would feel my purpose has been served and I that I am rewarded with a “normal life”.

Why is my current life to some extent still okay, even if I want to get away from it? Because I am still fighting for a better life. But what happens when you reach that point of which you dream? Or do you keep moving the point further away?

What if someone were to tell me that life is never “normal”, and that a “normal life” is a dream beyond most people’s reach? “Everybody is constantly struggling for something better,” the person would say, “even though their lives on the face of it, to observers like you, might appear normal and ordinary.”

Still – I would ask, for what do they struggle? For financial security? That’s not good enough for me. The struggle for financial security is to me just a way to give a greater struggle a better chance of success.

Perhaps my opponent in this debate would then give a sly smile before he played his trump card. “You know what man,” he would say, “you’re just grumpy because you don’t have someone to brighten your day a little bit.”

In such a case I won’t have much of a choice with my counterargument: Is this the best we can do? Fifty thousand years of evolution since our ancestors huddled together in caves and bludgeoned each other to death with mammoth bones, and that’s the best answer that we can come up with? You just need a little love?

The question is simple: Am I on the right track with my current plans? Or is my face in the right direction, but my feet not quite on the right path? (Do I still reckon there is only one path that goes in that direction?)

I recently did some research on ways to make money without having to work for someone else. I concluded that even I might be able to be successful with a few ideas. Now, maybe it was all that scratching off grease in the new kitchen, or the fact that I was going to have an apartment with proper windows for the first time in nearly five years in Taiwan. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have thought about it at one point or another. However, earlier tonight it struck me as I pedalled through the dark streets on my creaking bicycle, that I have never been in a position where I could say I knew how I could make money in South Africa, which is important considering that I have always regarded money as the main reason I couldn’t go back. I’ve never been in the position where I could ask myself whether this is truly what I wanted to do without any reservation; if I were truly ready to plant my feet in a piece of South Africa full of fresh cement; if barbecue and Sunday lunches with my family would truly be a panacea for all my ills.

These thoughts are the reason I’m writing this particular piece on this Tuesday morning, 32 minutes after midnight, rather than packing the dozens of pieces of junk I’ve accumulated over the years that I exhibit as “ornaments” in my living room.

[Tuesday, 16 September 2003, almost one o’clock in the afternoon]

As I was riding back last night from my new apartment, I asked myself an administrative question: Do I really want to stay in Taiwan? I was mildly surprised at my immediate answer: No.

A short distance down the street, past the general store where the beautiful woman hits the till, past a few old gents sitting outside someone’s miserable home drinking rice wine, past the deserted morning market area that smells of rotten tofu, comes the follow-up question: Do I want to go back to South Africa? The tentative answer: Yes, but …

Beyond the military base with the overgrown wall I first thought was a castle, into the last stretch of road before you’re back in a part of town where fruit sellers are still open shortly before midnight, and where lonely men chant songs about lost love in cheap KTV parlours, I repeated the answer: “Yes, but?”

“But,” I said out loud under the leopard skin mask covering my mouth, “two weeks after I had found an apartment in Bronkhorstspruit, after I had unpacked my books and hung sheets over the windows, I want to go to Mainland China. For three months.”

Back at home I was annoyed because it seemed as if I had come up with a new plan. I got comfortable behind my computer and wrote the previous page (including the fact that I’ve never been in a position where I could say I know how I could make money in South Africa).

Just as I was considering the merits of last night’s final paragraph, my phone rang. When I saw it was an international call, I realised it must be my friend L. I knew why he was calling. Fifteen minutes later I chucked the last drops of gin from the little airline bottle down my throat, lit up a cigarillo, and repeated the words to myself: “Born at eight minutes past three … a little blue in the face, but doing well … four kilograms.”

I felt happy for my friend, his wife, their families, and especially for the little guy who finally saw daylight. I thought by myself the timing was interesting. Suddenly the whole idea of being a grown-up and having your own children, and the huge financial and moral responsibilities thereof were no longer just an issue that could fill up a piece of writing. It happened to my best friend! And I had no choice but to mumble through the cigar smoke, “It’s fucking profound.”

The few drops of gin weren’t really enough to celebrate the great news, so I jumped on my bike and raced to the 7-Eleven to buy a half-jack Jim Beam – which they no longer had in stock. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting with a can of Qing Dao and another cigarillo at my dressing table. Good thoughts about my friend and their firstborn led to renewed speculation about my own life.

I wondered again if I had come up with a new plan with the three-months-in-China remark. Meaning to spoil my fun, I wondered what I would do after the three months.

I was hoping that I would say I would go back to South Africa then, to plant my knees – rather than just my feet – in some fresh cement. But I realised that I was still not sure about “what then”.

That’s when I lost it and whispered menacingly in the direction of my reflection in the mirror: “Your life is a wheel! It’s going to continue turning and turning and turning! Round and round and round!”

My life is a wheel. And it will keep turning until I throw a spanner in the spokes. Or until someone else does it for me …