Where you become human, and where you choose to live


South Africa is the country of my birth, my childhood, my youth, and my early adulthood. Asia, and more specifically Taiwan, is where I have spent the rest of my life so far.

South Africa has given me language and all the other building blocks of identity – culture; association with the history of a particular group of people; initial preferences in food and drink; ideas about who and what I am and/or who or what I was supposed to be, and an assumption of what I was going to do as an adult, or an idea of the options considered reasonable and acceptable for an adult to do with his or her life. Taiwan gave me the confidence to look at other options, including a language I could master for daily use that I never thought I would ever learn in the first two decades of my life; aspects of culture that I could observe and experience first-hand and could consider incorporating into my own life; other types of dishes and methods of food preparation to the ones with which I grew up, and more freedom to pursue ideas about who and what I am, and to consider a wider spectrum of options that are reasonable and acceptable for an adult to do with his or her life.

Am I getting alienated from the country of my birth?

I’ve been living in Taiwan for over 20 years, and in Asia more than 22 years. Will people look at me and think for a moment that I am Asian? Not likely. Not even if I live in Taiwan or elsewhere in Asia for another 20 years. I do nourish myself with Taiwanese food on a daily basis. I don’t even think twice about taking off my shoes before I enter someone’s residence. I don’t mind if people stand close to me in the queue at the supermarket, and I follow the same custom by standing closer to other people than what most Westerners regard as acceptable given Western ideas about personal space. I still don’t understand most of what TV news readers rattle off in Chinese, but I can read enough Chinese to understand the subtitles. And I can tell a Taiwanese police officer my version of an incident in Chinese to such an extent that he understands that I am not the one that has to be arrested.

Will I be able to return to South Africa right now and without missing a beat converse with other citizens about South African affairs of the day? No. The cultural shock to be back in the country of my birth, of my youth and my early adulthood will also likely be worse than the shock I experienced when I arrived in Asia 23 years ago. The sense of personal safety one has in Taiwan will leave me vulnerable and paranoid in South Africa. The gap between rich and poor in South Africa is also dramatically different from Taiwan. The rich variety of languages and cultural practices in South Africa is something else I am no longer accustomed to. What I as a white South African am allowed to say to whom, and how I am supposed to say it, is another area where I will initially commit some errors. (In Taiwan, I’m not seen as a member of a previously privileged group, so I don’t have to be careful about how I talk to people to avoid offending someone.) [In case you don’t follow the link, I am referring to some white people who think white South Africans should speak differently to black South Africans than how they would usually speak to people, to ensure they avoid offending black people.]

I also find nowadays that I enjoy movies that play off in Northeast Asia, about Taiwanese or Japanese or Korean or Chinese people, in a way that may only be possible if you have personal experience with Taiwanese people, or Japanese or Korean or Chinese people and with the dominant cultures of these countries. And I realised again recently, especially after we saw parts of Taiwan that we had never seen before, that I was comfortable with the idea of spending the rest of my life on this mountainous island.

I was born in South Africa, and it was there that I received the building blocks for the person I still am almost five decades later. My parents and my two sisters and their families still live there. I still have a strong interest in South African history. And although I have definitely developed a preference for especially Taiwanese vegetable dishes that are healthier than the vegetables with butter and sugar and cream prepared in South African kitchens, I still plan to enjoy a healthy portion of pudding and other desserts when I visit my family again in a few months.

I am still a South African born and raised, but there is no doubt that Taiwan is the place I want to go back to whenever I go away for more than a few days. And it’s not just because my wife and life partner also calls this place home, or because our two cats know no other home than the one we have provided to them.