Mistakes, insights, questions, new vocabulary, and advice


Two mistakes I made in 1998 [during my experimental return to South Africa]:

1. My preparations were insufficient.

2. I buckled in a moment of uncertainty thinking it would give me a little security and … accepted an offer for a job.

And an insight:

The reason why many ordinary working people in the industrialised “First World” is not rich is because they have “good jobs”, and they are satisfied with what they earn. Also, because their lifestyle grows as their income grows, or in many cases even exceeds their income.

What do you do …

* if you are two months behind on your mortgage payments,

* if the water and electricity bills are more than a month in arrears,

* if the kitchen shelves are empty,

* if your bank account is depleted,

* if your car has been repossessed, or will be repossessed by the bank any time in the next week or two,

* if half of your furniture has been repossessed, and

* if the children are getting quieter by the day?

What, at the end of the day, are really your options?

Today I learned some new words:

* atrium – the central court of an ancient Roman house

* niche – a suitable and satisfying role, job, or way of life; an opportunity in business; the conditions in which a species can live successfully

* ethereal – extremely delicate and light, and seeming to be too spiritual or perfect for this world

* translucent – allowing light to pass through but not transparent

and finally …

* colander – a metal or plastic bowl with many small holes in it, used to drain water from vegetables

And one last piece of advice:

Surround yourself with people. It’s much easier to break away from people for a few hours or a few days if you need to spend time on your own, than to try to get people together when you suddenly experience a need for companionship after long periods of isolation.


The new label (parts one to four)


The new label (i)


The new label (ii)

In terms of what I do for a living, the amount of money I earn, and my tertiary qualifications, I could be considered for Membership of the Middle Class. In terms of the socio-economic circumstances in which our family found ourselves during my childhood in the mid to late eighties, I am Poor White. In terms of my hang-ups and insecurities, I’m Poor White. If I go back to South Africa now and accept a position as a high school teacher, I’ll be just a notch above the working class; in other words, Petit Bourgeois. If I go back to South Africa and struggle from month to month but keep my creative independence, I would be Poor White.

The new label (iii)

Question: Do I want to be a “poor white”?

Answer: It’s not a matter of where I want to be; it’s a matter of where I am. And what am I going to answer anyway? “I want to be middle-class”?

Class consciousness is like political consciousness – linked to your personal experiences. With political uprisings there are always people who ask, “What’s the big deal?” In the same way there must be many of my contemporaries who will wonder what exactly I’m going on about.

If I had spent the first fourteen years of my life in a “poor white” neighbourhood in a “poor white” house with “poor white” food on the table, “poor white” clothes on my back, and “poor white” vacations in the backyard, I might have had more of a feeling that I belonged somewhere. (Would it have made my life better? Not necessarily. The matter is after all more complex than just having a sense of belonging.)

What a middle-class home, middle-class clothes, middle-class food, middle-class holidays, and an idea of what the future may hold gave me until I was fourteen years old, was first-hand knowledge of the so-called bourgeoisie, as well as friends who grew up in the world of the middle class. The main blessing, however, that an initial middle-class life gave me was a relatively easy path to higher education, which gave me knowledge and skills and even experience of the Greater World.

Do I want to go back to South Africa to look for a two-bedroom house in a poor white neighbourhood? No. Do I want to go back to South Africa and position myself amongst a group of Poor Whites and shout, “I am one of you!”? Fuck that. Even Vladimir Lenin said, “Less windy talk about ‘proletarian culture’, and let’s first rid ourselves of a serf mentality. We could do with some bourgeois culture for a start.” (In his last speeches and writings he apparently emphasised proper training and education. It is also true that he had a bit of a romantic idea of people being content working ten hours a day in a factory as long as their party was in power. Maybe he thought everything would work out fine. Or maybe he didn’t care for individual well-being. Would he have seen personal happiness and fulfilment as decadent, capitalist values?)

The new label (iv)/Failure and class consciousness

How and where you fit in the world is, like class and political consciousness, something most people only start thinking about when they find themselves on the wrong side of the line. (“What line?” many will ask again, and think to themselves, “Jeez, this guy has a lot of issues!”)

For years I believed that I belonged in the middle – in the eighties in South Africa as a child, I believed all whites were middle-class people, but later also in terms of dress, language, future prospects, tertiary qualifications, hobbies and interests, and friends. Yet, for years I struggled with the belief that I was a failure in this particular class – the socio-economic domain where I was supposed to succeed.

That I have been living in the Far East for the last several years has only made it possible to conceal this “failure” to a degree. It was, however, most painfully noticeable during the periods when I lived in South Africa after I had graduated from university. I got away in 1995 with the fact that I was still registered for a tertiary course – I wasn’t an unemployed poor white, I was a “graduate student”. But from the very beginning of ’96 my actual status in the Great Hierarchy became clear to anyone who cared to look.

During the six months I lived and worked in Johannesburg in 1998 it was also clear to everyone, and a great embarrassment to myself, that I was definitely not “making” it in the Middle Class. However you looked at it, I was a failure in the class in which I worked, in which I socialised, and in which I resided – the servant’s quarters where I lived rent-free was after all in a middle-class neighbourhood.

From the moment I arrived in Taiwan, I could once again camouflage this failure. Starting from January 2000, however, many other South Africans also came to Taiwan, who had either previously been successful in the Middle Class, or fully expected to be successful if and when they returned to South Africa. I once again found myself in social circles where I believed I had to disguise that I had been a middle-class failure in 1998, and would again be if I returned at any time during the last three-and-a-half years (since 2000).

About this hiding and pretending that I am something that I actually am not, I can solemnly make the following statement: No more. (Or like Roberto Duran muttered in 1980 in his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, “No más, no más.”)

I will climb on a roof and shout: “I am Poor White! I harbour no middle-class ambitions anymore! And I refuse to continue to pretend that I am a child of the middle class! My parents are artisans who constantly shuttle between the lower middle class and the class of Poor Whites! I am a writer, and Poor White! This, you hypocritical bastards, is the reality! This is my reality, and this has been my reality for twenty years!”

And while I’m on the roof, I would take the opportunity to also shout at the other Poor Whites: “Fuck you too with your serf mentality! I refuse to fall back into a poverty state of mind where I encamp with other poor fools and hurl mud at those who possess more than I do … who have a car and a nice house, and who can afford overseas holidays! Good for them! May they be happy! Which one of you doesn’t want these things for yourselves and for your children?! I’m not one of them, but I am also not one of you! I’m in a class of my own!”

And then the Poor Whites on the pavement will shout back: “Yeah, and you can also sod off with your fancy college degrees and your fancy Japanese camera …”


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.