Man at a station


A man at a train station asks the clerk behind the counter how far a certain amount of money would take him. I am sitting behind my computer, a day before I have to undergo compulsory medical tests as the first step to stay in Taiwan and I ask: How far can NT$50,000 take me?

I am desperate to go away. I am also desperate to go back to South Africa, as the ideal destination of the first action, but not necessarily the only possibility.

What are my options? What do I need to do?

I need to ferry back to South Africa about twenty boxes of ornaments and other items. I need a few thousand to give myself a reasonable chance of survival in the first few months in South Africa. I have made promises about visiting my sister and her first-born in England, and my good friend from long ago in the Netherlands.


Another option is to move to another city in Taiwan. That will get rid of the furniture; I can send at least half of the boxes to South Africa, and I can earn enough money after six months from the new position to ship the rest. I will first go back to South Africa, and then show my face in Europe for two or three weeks.

I can also get a six-month contract in China. That will also get rid of the furniture. I can send all my boxes to South Africa, teach English and study Chinese for six months, and work on material with a slightly different flavour than what I’ve been whiling my time away with the past five years. (“No exile essays?” you might ask. No. The protracted process of lifting my exile will, however, be a strong possibility.)

What would you have done? It’s a great pity that there’s no one whose advice in this area I respect enough to ask for it. Why this is so I can only speculate. Maybe it’s got to do with my peculiar situation, with all my previous uncertainties about life; where I come from; where I’m going; two years in Korea and then the lifting of that stay-away action; eight months of poverty in South Africa; the shock of enough money in the first few months in Taiwan to pay cash for a computer, and books, and music, and new clothes and an expensive watch; the security of a three-bedroom apartment that I only had to share with a few insects; mechanised transport which meant that I wasn’t dependent on anyone else to go to the movies; money to go to the movies …

It’s natural for the body to strive for a state of tensionlessness. I left Korea to ease emotional stress. I knew I had to do it, not because someone had offered it to me as a piece of advice, but because possibly after breakfast, before lunch, in a movie, or behind the controls of a video game I despondently thought, “I feel like going home … as soon as possible.”

The moment this idea took hold of me, my brain came up with specific plans and actions that had to be taken. The organism did not imagine servant’s quarters with pink walls and sponges for a bed, or a boring part-time job in an office in Johannesburg. The organism did not know how it was going to feel to pedal seven kilometres to office every day on a borrowed bicycle. The organism did not know he was going to be broke within a few months. All he knew was that the anxiety alert was flickering “Red! Red! Red!”

My anxiety alert is flickering red. It’s the easiest thing in the world to go piss in a paper cup tomorrow at the hospital, to get another stamp in my passport in two weeks that will allow me another few months to gently caress my unpacked ornaments and wall hangings as if they were photos of loved ones. Will it relieve my stress? I have twelve hours to make up my mind about that.

I almost wish this whole going back theme was just a literary ploy to make up for not wanting to write short stories. I wish there was someone who could advise me.

My time is almost up. It’s Wednesday, 4 February. I have to decide what I’m going to do. If I decide to stay … then that’s how it is.

I also solemnly pledge that the words “exile”, “boxes”, “ticket” and “plans” will not be used in any pieces that will be written between now and when I pack all my boxes, buy my plane ticket, and with half-baked plans finally end my exile. I don’t quite know what I’ll do, but I’m sure I’ll think of something to write about (the “Fauna and flora” idea fell through, the “Trip to the beach” took place but failed to inspire any writing, and how much more can I say on “Place and identity”?)

Verily, verily, I say to myself, I’m standing at a station. Forward or backward, left or right, jump over the rail or run away. Beijing, Middelburg, London, Amsterdam, Bronkhorstspruit, or Mountain of the Vulture Town. I know nothing.