Brand Smit and a salaried position


I don’t think I can stay in Taiwan another year. It’s not that I’m suddenly tired of the place. It’s not that I don’t know I can go on vacation next month, come back, quit the kindergarten job, focus on my Chinese and my teaching material for six months, and get another apartment. It’s not that I don’t know I can go on holiday next February for two months and come back and get another job.

What is at stake is blood: My family. My parents are not getting any younger. My youngest sister, with whom I’ve always had a close relationship, has been married a few years, and I have only visited her and my brother-in-law once. My older sister lives in England. I would also like to visit her, but that I haven’t been able to do it yet is at least not something I feel guilty about because she, like me, left our home country.

Another thing: The news recently broke that my older sister is pregnant with her first child. My younger sister can also get pregnant any time. Where does this leave me? The “uncle” who lives in the Far East, who comes to visit perhaps once a year? And when my older sister and her new family visit South Africa, chances are that I’d be sitting on the other side of the planet. It’s not good enough.

One thing that has been confirmed more than a few times the last few years in my observation of Taiwanese people and their culture is how important family is. I see grandfathers walking down the street in the late afternoon who know they will see their grandchildren again that evening, like every evening. I see parents who pick up their own children and their nephews and nieces from the same kindergarten. This – this is the life I want! A life of community, where I can visit my parents regularly, and where I can barbecue on the weekends with my sister and her husband. And if they have children, to see how they immediately recognise me, rushing over to tell me a story like a child only does to someone who’s not a stranger. And who knows, if things work out that way, then I’ll also see how my own children someday behave in the same way with my sister and my brother-in-law. Then there’s my older sister and her husband. Okay, England is a bit far for a weekly barbecue, but it’s still a hell of a lot closer dan the Farthest East!

A question popped out of my mouth like a flag attached to a spring the moment these thoughts registered as a new development: How am I going to do it?

Like different ingredients always coalesce at a particular moment to produce something great, I was reading a George Orwell book titled, Coming Up for Air. The protagonist goes on for the first hundred pages or so about England in the twenties and having a job that gives you just enough money so that the children never know you are never going to have a lot of money, with the wife always complaining about settling accounts, and so on. I thought by myself, half dreaming: “Hmm … a job, hey?”

To hold what can more or less qualify as a permanent job in South Africa is usually for me nothing more than a somewhat amusing theoretical possibility. I will now and then have a fleeting daydream about it. But it is also something that I fear because of my problem with authority figures, and because I’m deathly afraid of wasting my days in a perpetual struggle to accumulate enough money. And if it’s not an office job, then any of a thousand other jobs where you have to say, “Yes Boss” and “It’s true, I badly messed up. I promise I will never do it again.” And then you go home at night not wanting to talk to anyone or wanting to scream at everyone.

Why would George Orwell of all people make the idea of a job sound so pleasant to me? His main character believes in similar things as I recite to myself every day as a personal dogma. Maybe it wasn’t the idea of a stable job in the first place, but the idea of people around you, a wife and children, and places you know. And maybe it was also because I closely associate the concept of a permanent position – so central to a life of middle-class semi-security – to all the things I’ve been yearning for these last several years.

This connection between what I fear and what I desire has been holding me captive in an undesirable situation. I want the good things that you usually get if you have a so-called job, without actually going so far as to deny my own beliefs and attempting to obtain a permanent position – or at least something that looks like a regular job on paper.

Is that not why I am sitting alone in my apartment in the Farthest East for the thousandth Saturday night, while my family is laying out the meat for tonight’s barbecue on another continent? Because it has become doctrine that Brand Smit would never be able to endure a salaried position.