The criteria for survival (are getting tougher by the day)


The criteria for survival are getting tougher by the day. As usual, the perception of my person is one of the biggest problem areas – but not necessarily how others see me; I judge myself. If I find myself too light, I wear it like a billboard around my neck. I’ll be a walking morale and self-esteem crisis ready to explode in an innocent bystander’s face.

Take my friend L. as an example. When I returned to South Africa from Korea five years ago, he was sharing a house with a group of working twenty-somethings in Johannesburg. At that time he was the publishing editor of a magazine that he largely started on his own (other people had also made a contribution, but it was mainly his idea, and his responsibility).

This was the situation when I joined the company as a glorified secretary in July of that year. By October L. had purchased a house in a nice part of the city. The office also moved to his new residence. Since it was slightly too far for me to reach by bicycle every day, I accepted his invitation to make the servant’s quarters in the backyard my temporary abode.

Slightly more than a year later, L. was on the point of entering the next phase of his life – marriage. By then I had already been back in North East Asia for eleven months. I had an entire three-bedroom apartment to myself. I was working full time, and I was earning enough money to live reasonably well. (Vague assumptions about exactly what I was doing suited me, because that meant I didn’t have to explain to anyone that I made money teaching the alphabet to toddlers while clapping my hands.)

It’s almost four years later. My friend has sold his magazine to a large company, which also offered him a position that he “couldn’t refuse”. He and his wife now live in a larger, more luxurious home, and as I mentioned in the previous piece, they had recently become parents of a baby boy. According to the community’s criteria, my friend is successful in all respects – he is a homeowner, he’s a married man, he’s a father, and he has a job that requires a great deal of him but the monetary rewards make it worth it.

I, on the other hand, still rent the same apartment from a friend of one of my employers (although only until the end of this month). I am again commuting by bicycle because I don’t want to replace the scooter that is dripping oil on my front porch (and because the cycling is better for my health anyway). I still teach English. I am also working on a few projects that will hopefully generate a long-term income one day. And I write. And study Chinese. As long as I stay here in Taiwan I can visit my friend once a year, go to an Italian restaurant in his car, and even afford to pay the bill of R200 or so.

But where will I stand if I go back to South Africa? Gone are the days that I could rent a room from a friend from university. Gone are the days when I could sleep on a piece of sponge in a shed in a friend’s backyard. Gone are the days when it was good enough for me to work in an administrative capacity in an office. Also over are the days when it was okay to tell my pal I’ll go and have a drink with him as long as he can give me a lift – and possibly pay for my drink as well. It is therefore obvious that the criteria for survival – at least for myself – are tightening by the day.

Should we all compare our lives with those of old friends to judge how well we’re doing? That’s not my intention. But I do subscribe to certain criteria for a good life, and I am aware of how, at this stage of my life, I would have fared in a world similar to the one in which my friends in South Africa are living out their existences.

My identity as a writer who lives alone in a windowless apartment somewhere in the Far East, who has learned to speak Chinese, and who has learned how to ask a few questions about life is firmly rooted in the reality in which I have found myself the past five years. The vision of myself as an entrepreneur who hopes to make money in South Africa “next year” while I dust off my Chinese books from time to time to see if I still understand some of it is rooted in faith. I don’t know if it will work out. I might fail. And if I fail, I feel miserable.

I can certainly say that I don’t have to compare myself with anybody. I can say that I don’t have to be a homeowner after six months or a year. I can say that I don’t have to be married within a year or eighteen months. And I might add that I don’t have to work according to anyone’s schedule. My life, after all, is not a series of scenes from an already written script.

The problem is that I have some ideas of what success looks like. In the world of the conventional middle class success looks like my friend L.’s life. With regard to the world of the free-thinking, solitary writer, my current life meets the much more modest criteria.

But is it enough?

Sometimes I feel like fleeing – to Mainland China. To pack my bag full of books and a few pieces of clothing, and let the rest of my belongings store dust in my apartment. I’d live in Beijing for three months and go on photo trips every day. I would study Chinese in parks and in tea shops, and practice it in small eateries in narrow back streets, and at onetime forbidden palaces.

I sometimes want to forget about Bronkhorstspruit, business, the meaning of life, getting married and having children, success before you reach 35, place in the world, and myself on the edge of the socio-economic middle class. I want to grow my beard and work on a project titled, “Lotus flowers of Red China”.

And I want to stop writing pieces like “The criteria for survival are getting tougher by the day”.

I also want to stop trying. Because no matter how hard we work on something, things don’t always work the way they should. And sometimes we miss the point, because we try too hard to figure it out.