Personal Agenda, Book Three: Introduction

A few pages ago I solemnly said GOODBYE. Now I’m sitting here behind my computer, wiping the sweat from my brow in salute to the reader who has made it this far.

The first part of this final INTRODUCTION starts with a piece that I wrote as people were filing into drinking establishments for New Year’s parties (2003/2004). In the second part I refer to a few dreams that have gotten stuck in my memory over the years. The last part is taken up by administration for the third part of this literary project.

I. What I planned for this year/What I plan for this year

It is Wednesday, 31 December 2003, 25 minutes past 11 at night. There are 35 minutes left of this year. Because it has become a habit to write something at this hour, because it is usually a good idea, and because I’m not in the mood to pay a fortune to get drunk with a bunch of strangers, I am sitting where I’ve spent most of my time this year: behind my computer, writing.

As the title [of this part of the “Introduction”] indicates, I decided not to write about trains, women, teaching English, or the fact that you can buy cheap alcohol at the 7-Eleven on New Year’s Eve. This piece will cover plans.

There were plans at the end of last year, and there were plans at the beginning of this year. There were plans in May, and there were plans in July. There were also plans in August, September, October, November, and December. And then, as befits a New Year’s Eve, there are plans tonight.

My plan at the beginning of this year was to lift my exile and return to South Africa at the end of February [2003]. That was what I now call a “liberal plan”. I didn’t have enough money, and I didn’t really know what I would do in South Africa. I did like the “revolutionary” nature of it, though. Because the plan was a bit crazy, it set off a reaction I now call the “conservative response”. I (once again) thought, “Actually this place isn’t so bad,” and that staying in Taiwan until the end of 2003 would probably have a positive effect on my financial well-being and professional development.

By May, I had come up with the idea that I was never going to make enough money here in Taiwan, or with English teaching. “I need to do business!” I cried out. And went off on a coughing fit brought on by five years in a windowless apartment.

By June I was fed up. I propelled myself forward on the ink fumes from my notebook in which I furiously offered up notes and poems as compensations for all that wasn’t good in my life.

By July, I was determined that I was going to lift my exile in February 2004, and to haul a caravan into my family’s backyard in Bronkhorstspruit or Middelburg. Information was collected, pledges made, and dry twigs solemnly broken off from a tree in the garden – and planted in a vase back in Taiwan to remind myself of my promise just in case I forgot.

The tree on a farm outside Middelburg

August brought the brilliant plan to quit my job at the pre-school and make all the money I needed with “Business!” End of September saw me in a new apartment, finally, after nearly five years in Number Fifteen.

All the free time I saw stretched out in front of me every day eventually made one thing clear: I am, in the first and final place, a writer. The project entitled “Personal Agenda” was my main project from February onwards. It remained my main project throughout the year. It was also what I kept myself busy with in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings when I was actually supposed to do “Business!”

I did finally start working on a few ideas that could be classified as commercial projects and continued working on a few others I had placed on ice earlier. After some months I actually completed one project. My Chinese also benefited from more time I had at my disposal. I have generally felt happier over the past few months, as I was in the first half of 2001, when I also spent most of my time in my apartment, hard at work on my own projects.

It is Wednesday, 31 December 2003. It is two minutes to midnight. Two minutes before a new year. Two minutes left of a good year …

* * *

It’s Thursday, 1 January 2004. It is one minute after midnight. It’s the beginning of a new year. Fireworks rattle like machine guns in the distance. Water is dripping from my toilet. The computer’s fan is making a noise, and my fingers are dancing epileptically across the keyboard. Welcome to a new unit of time in our lives.

Wednesday, 7 January 2004

Here are my plans and intentions for the next three years:


That being said, I would love to lift my exile as I have always hoped it would happen – by transporting my possessions and my person back to the place from where I departed on 16 January 1999. How things will work out, is how they will work out. We make plans, and then there’s reality. But we must continue making plans, otherwise we might just end up waiting day and night for a bus that may only arrive in fifty years. We don’t determine everything that happens to us, but until things do happen, we need to keep ourselves busy productively. This way we can also influence what will happen to us, and maybe even when.

II. Three dreams

I was very young, maybe five or six. I dreamed my parents and my sister (my youngest sister wasn’t born yet) and I were driving in our station wagon through some city. It was evening. We had become aware of someone following us. Later we were in an apartment. Everyone but I was asleep. The people that had followed us tried to break into the apartment. I was the only one who could hold them back, but all I had to protect myself and everyone else in the apartment was a box of matches.

As a teenager I used to have a specific type of dream. I would be in danger. I knew someone could help me … if I could just give a good shout. The problem was, I could never produce any sound.

The third dream is still conjured up by my subconscious from time to time with different backstories. I’ll be among a large group of people – say at an outdoor wedding, and then I start walking off on my own. After a while, my steps would become longer. Eventually my steps would become stretched to the point where I would float in the air for a few seconds. I would be so chuffed with this ability that I’d purposely stretch my steps as far as I can. It usually doesn’t take long before my feet no longer touch the ground.

III. Administration

The introduction of the final part of this literary project is shorter and more modest than the introductions to BOOKS ONE and TWO. The content is also organised differently.

February yielded a plan. Chapter One follows the development of this plan over the course of just more than a week. Chapter Two contains a few notes from January and February. February was not only the battlefield of a plan, it also brought a new, temporary order to power. Chapter Three contains the official history of this Commercial Dictatorship. I also arrived at a certain insight during the first week of the new regime. Its development can be viewed in Chapter Four.


Friday, 2 July 2004


And the answer is …


I don’t feel like packing in a mad rush. I don’t want to throw away stuff that has so far been important enough for me to keep. I don’t want to arrive in Bronkhorstspruit and not have my own place and be forced to make coffee every morning in my sister and brother-in-law’s kitchen. I’m not in the mood for arguments about why I didn’t bring enough money from Taiwan to rent a cheap apartment.

On the other hand, I don’t feel like staying here any longer, getting extra classes, and dropping them again after three months – or even to start the classes with the intention of quitting after so many months. (I hate lying or creating the impression that I might do something I know I’m not going to do, like implying I’ll stay at a school at least an entire semester.) I am also not keen on doing the medical – which I know doesn’t weigh up in terms of unpleasantness compared to any of the other things I don’t have an appetite for at the moment.

I’m tired of calling myself a coward. I’m also tired of fiery speeches to nobody other than my own reflection in the bathroom mirror. I am angry – at whom I don’t know – that this type of matter isn’t easier.

I wish I had a team of writers, and a whole tank full of thinkers. I wish, as I’m sitting here behind my computer on a Sunday evening, that I could hear people discussing things in the living room, with the occasional muted laughter, teaspoons jingling in cups of tea and cigarettes being lit on the balcony. Then someone would walk into my office with a sheet of paper in her hand and tell me that a new scenario had been worked out. Or a new plan. Or a new strategy to ensure that the most recent plan would go smoothly.

I hate that I have to do everything alone. Where are all the big mouths who always have so much to say, but who always had someone to help them get a project going? A husband who helped a wife as she was starting a small business from home. Or a wife who kept urging her husband on with a warm plate of food or a gentle message in the neck when the husband wanted to give up. Where’s my partner? Where’s my home-cooked meal? Where’s my neck massage? Where’s my cup of tea? I’m only human, for god’s sake! How the hell am I supposed to do all of it on my own?

* * *

Several hours later. I went to buy dinner in town (rice with meat and vegetables that were cold by the time I got home), tea from the most beautiful woman in town, and a newspaper at a 7-Eleven. I convinced myself there was some or other angle to this whole situation I’m not seeing.

I was thinking of something on my way back, but then I was jolted from my thought process by a teenager with well-groomed hair gliding past me on his bike. I imagined he was feeling good about the fact that he had slipped past me so casually – especially since he had such a good head of hair, and seemingly much more marrow in his younger bones.

Thoughts about the immediate future forgotten for the moment, I adjusted my gears – gently, lest he heard I was planning a comeback. While my bag of rice and vegetables and my bag with the cup of tea were swinging to the one side, I casually muttered something to the other side, and sailed past him. He audibly adjusted his gears, and just as we were rushing into my neighbourhood with the unpainted concrete apartment blocks, he tried to pass me again.

This time I wasn’t going to fall for his childish game, though, and turned in between Blocks 5 and 6.

“Did I come up with something?” I asked myself as I saddled off and slung the food over my shoulder. I replied that I was busy thinking of something, but then got distracted.

“By what?” I asked in a different tone as I made my way upstairs, meaning to pretend like I’m arguing with someone from my think tank.

“By something that motivated me to adjust my gears, and as it turned out, that ended in me getting home a little earlier.”

* * *

I know enough about advertising and marketing to realise something is wrong with the approach to my situation I’ve been following the past week or so. If I – the one who wants to go home – were a consumer, and the plan the product I was supposed to buy, the marketing is hopelessly wrong. I believe I should be willing to give up my life here for the joy of being closer to my family and being in my own country. My idealism dictates that this ought to be sufficient. It makes sense, does it not? My parents and my sisters’ company over a plate of barbecue or a bowl of pudding would make me “feel I belong somewhere”.

And if you have written hundreds of pages on the subject of “going home” you become aware of your credibility suffering damage because you are spending yet another Sunday night in Taiwan nibbling cold rice while you’re supposed to be frenetically throwing excess baggage out of the window.

* * *

To go away from here will have a negative effect on my mind. The pros and cons of my life in Taiwan have been articulated ad nauseum, but it should again be noted that certain positive aspects of my life here should not be ignored or underestimated.

I live alone in a three-bedroom apartment (for the sake of argument this is a positive). I don’t need my own motorised transport. If I want to go downtown, I ride my bicycle to the train station and take the train. If I want to go somewhere else that can’t be reached within thirty minutes on my bike, or that isn’t within walking distance of a station, I take a taxi (and smile apologetically at all the people who swing their fists at us). At night, I sit until what time writing, or playing card games on my computer. I regularly buy video CDs at three for R20 [$3.00] and watch them on my second-hand Toshiba colour TV. I remind myself every now and then that Hong Kong is just an hour’s flight away (the border with the rest of China is about an hour’s journey by train from Hong Kong), and Tokyo about three hours.

If I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and I’m in the mood for cereal but my milk has gone sour, or if I feel like a packet of crisps or a salad, or a box of dumplings, I walk three minutes to the nearest 7-Eleven. And most of the time I don’t have to look over my shoulder for someone with a knife or a club jumping out from behind a bush.

(I could go on.) If I want to go to the movies on a Saturday night, I ride my bike to the theatre, see what movies are showing, go to McDonald’s for an apple pie and a vanilla milkshake, leave my bike there and take a short cut through the dark alleys back to the theatre. Or I first have a cup of creamy coffee at the place around the corner. I don’t need a car to get to the movies, and there is no need for someone to come and me pick up.

When I go on a date, it is not only perfectly acceptable to be car-less, it’s also not a problem. Once again, I pedal into town, leave the bike against a wall, meet the woman at a restaurant or at the movie theatre and enjoy the rest of the night without having to worry about my car.

I am aware of the lack of 24-hour cafes in the South African towns where I want to unpack. If there are such places, I’d probably need a car to get there. If I can go there on foot, it means I probably live in a part of town where you have to look over your shoulder. The need for motorised transport also does not end with going to a shop at three o’clock in the morning.

I don’t want to sound cynical but meeting the love of my life in South Africa is also not high on my list of expectations. It may even happen that I later decide to go away once again from my family and my country.

Nevertheless, despite the things I will miss about Taiwan, and despite the fact that I know I’m not on the way to a sweet earthly paradise in my own country, every fibre of my body and each volt of electricity in my soul are drawn in only one direction.

But why, considering this strong desire, and knowing that it is feasible to fly to the country of my origin in full glory on the 4th of March, am I not packing or making arrangements?

If I launch my so-called “revolution” on Thursday, 4 March, I’ll be staring a first month or two in the face that would compare very poorly with the life to which I have become accustomed here. I will probably have to spend the first few weeks in my younger sister’s spare room or at my parents’. I would be forced to kick my feet under other people’s tables until I eventually find my own footing again.

Unlike the last few years my visits would not be as a guest who came back to show his face again and whose wallet ensured that a pecan pie or a bottle of red wine showed up every second or third day on the kitchen table. It would be as the brother who has returned from afar who has to be assisted for a while until he’s back on his feet.

Can I construct an idealistic argument that would make me feel better? Yes, I can. But one that would truly mean something five weeks from now?

Is this just about me, or are even loved ones going to be just human and after six weeks start whispering that “the guy really could have come back with a little more money”?

It is possible to make all the calls and pack all the boxes that will ensure that a March repatriation will be the last chapter of this writing project. But would it not, if I can maintain confidence in myself and ignore the credibility crisis, be more prudent to approach the issue a little better? (Although it seems almost provocative to say I can do with another three or four months, and “There’s no need to rush things.”)

Is shaky confidence in myself, and a credibility crisis sufficient reasons to pack up a life of five years within less than four weeks, and to go and exhibit my arrogant person on a new landscape with more faith than business acumen, if I can do it better in three or four months’ time?

Repatriation, or then the Lifting of My Exile is a product. This past week, I tried to sell it to myself at a ridiculously low price, with sentimental music in the background and threats of losing confidence in myself. But if I don’t approach it in the right way, and consider all the possible side effects, I’m going to drag my feet longer with the take-down of a single wall hanging than is currently the case with the process of renewing my visa.

The product is one that I need. It’s the pill I need to swallow to continue with my life. But to expect that I shouldn’t be at least a little nervous about leaving without much ceremony a place – and a life – that has helped form my identity and personality for the last five years, is to reduce me to the caricature that I’m so keen to sketch of myself.

This is unfortunately how it is, and these are my last words on this particular matter.

It’s Monday, 9 February 2004 at two minutes to one in the morning. I have to go to bed, otherwise I won’t make it to that medical examination tomorrow. How long can I, after all, endure this manic ping pong in my head?


(My) Revolutions and (my) credibility


What do I need, and what do I need to do for the March Revolution? I need to tell the three schools where I work that I am fucking off at the end of the month. I have to pack between twenty and thirty boxes and arrange for their shipment. I have to pay and cancel my phone bill. I have to confirm and pay my airline ticket. I need to call my sister and tell her I have problems she won’t understand. Then I have to withdraw all the money from my bank account and send most of it to my account in South Africa. Lastly, I have to greet my friends, write one or two final Taiwan pieces, and on the designated day storm the airport with my tired and battered troops.


This current incarnation of The Plan is obvious wild. It’s irresponsible, somewhat impulsive, with uncertain short, medium, and long-term consequences. But sometimes one needs something of this nature to normalise things that have gotten out of hand, or to take care of significant matters that have been delayed too long already.

* * *

I am currently experiencing something I’ve last experienced in 2000 when I imagined myself to be a musician: a credibility crisis. This time however, it is not about reality that is inconsistent with ambition; my identity as a writer is firmly entrenched behind enough finished text. The current crisis has been caused by too many plans formulated over the years and announced prematurely, and too much material written on the subject. If I don’t do something big now, it will make me appear to myself and to family and friends as someone who talks a lot, but whose guts completely abandon him when he has to act.

Some of my best friends become sceptical when I once again press on about my so-called plans, and why I believe an extraordinary life is within everyone’s reach in our own country. Even my family doesn’t get excited anymore when I recite dates and plans as if they’re serious business.

However, it is I myself who don’t know if I should believe myself when I say something like “Friday, June 4th” [the alternate date for March 4th]. This is dangerous. It is crucial that you believe yourself when you say something. How else can you expect others to take you seriously?


What, in all honesty, are the benefits of 4 JUNE? I will have more time to pack my boxes. […] And if friends and family have any patience left with me and my ever-changing plans, I will certainly have more time to convince them of the wisdom of my planned withdrawal from this part of the world.

However, there is a risk attached to 4 JUNE, just as there are risks attached to 4 MARCH. With the former I will definitely need to get a few extra classes to avoid seeing my existing capital dwindle to dust. If I do not improve my income over the next four months, and I fail to find a different way to accumulate more capital … then I won’t have much of a choice at the end of May other than setting ablaze all the material I have written the past few days. And as my most hated season begins in Taiwan – monsoon rains, drenching sweat, humidity – I’ll have to take on a lot more classes just to keep myself alive, with repatriation and trips to relatives in other countries not even a vague possibility.

Whatever I decide in the next few hours, one thing is certain: The price for the lifting of my exile has never been lower.


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.


About friends, and other personal reasons

Background to the texts “Advice about staying or coming back,” “Slave to the word” and “About friends and other personal reasons”: A good friend of mine who was also living in Kaohsiung at the time mentioned via email during her vacation in Cape Town that she felt like staying in South Africa. I suspected that this was only emotion speaking, but I nevertheless took the opportunity to say certain things.




Maybe you haven’t even read the last letter, but to entertain myself, and to clear up uncertainties in the one before that, I decided there was room for a Third Letter.


You mentioned in your email that friends are an important motivation in your possible decision to come back. What I want to say here and now is that friends are not a sustainable motivation.


We enter this world alone, and most of the time we go out alone. People – family, friends, spouses, lovers – are part of our lives, for short or long periods of the journey. We all know we need other people. We also know that we have to be good to each other while we share each other’s lives, partly because it says something of our own nature, and also because we have to carry both the pain and the fellowship with us on our journey.

So it is with us who know each other here. We used to be strangers, but with the passage of time we began to need each other to remain standing for however long we decided to get stuck here.

But – this is not our country, and none of us has immigrated here formally. We must at some stage go our own directions, even if some of us stay here a bit longer than others.

My personal reasons for staying here have expired, although I’m still grateful for those who have kept me standing for the time I’ve been here. If I don’t get on that flight on Thursday, 4 March, it will be to give myself a better chance to visit my sister in England, and to be able to mail more than five boxes of books home.

However, as I mentioned yesterday, I no longer have any illusions about cabinets and tables and exercise bikes that have to be taken along for the journey forward. This is the new state of affairs – for financial reasons, and because the conventional sequence is to, at least temporarily, establish yourself first, and then to start collecting furniture. The simple fact is I’ve never been able to admit that what I’ve been doing for the past five years have, for all practical purposes, amounted to me having established myself here.

The price for the lifting of my self-imposed exile was exceptionally high until now, partly because I might have wanted, subconsciously, to get clarity about who and what I was before I continued my life in my own country. These questions have been resolved.

The price for repatriation is now lower than ever before. If I still choose not to pay the price now, it will mean that I attach a higher value to staying here, right? What value could I conceivably still attach to staying in Taiwan? Even more so if I lecture my best friends on why they should leave their own colourful walls behind for an undefined future in the Land of Family and Barbecue in the Backyard.

My own beliefs on the subject of “voluntary exile” in a foreign country, and the reasons why it is sometimes necessary have been well formulated by now and documented in dozens of pieces of text. Little remains to be said … on this subject.

A question does force itself on me: Can we, even though we are the best of friends, ever really understand why one person is so desperate to leave, and the other so convinced of the need to return?