I ride on the electric train from the town where my girlfriend works back to the city of Hsinchu where I live, a ride of 15 minutes. As the train pulled up to the platform, I spied a white man seated in one of the cars. I boarded that car, and sat nearly across from him, thinking, If he is the kind who wants to talk maybe we will talk; if not, I am not right in his line of vision. I am still avoidable.
He wore velcro sneakers, and his brown hair and mustache were run through with grey. He wore cheap grey slacks with no belt; his belly spilled onto his lap, though his physique was rather scrawny. He did not look at me. As the train rolled to a start he slightly turned his body away from me, finally turning completely toward the rear, resting his arm on the seat back and propping his head. He gazed out at the fields and blocky houses receding. Apparently there was little in his native land he wanted to remember, I thought. He probably lives in some town in Miaoli, speaks good Chinese or even Taiwanese, and spends his days teaching English and forgetting what it was life to go through high school in America those years ago. Such is how I imagine his life, anyhow.
But the fact that he not only avoided eye contact with me by turned his body away seemed to show a strong disinclination to see or talk to me – based solely on the fact that I come from where he comes from. So his reaction to me, goes my logic, is largely a reaction to the America of his own past. His displeasure of facing me is a reaction to me as a symbol of something, something I will never know. That thing I represent might be an experience of humiliation, or a political bad taste in the mouth, or a constant sense of marginality. Who knows.
Even if I am wrong on the surface, and he merely dislikes the presumption that white men should greet each other overseas, I believe that such a dislike (which I on some level share) still translates on some level into a discomfort with one’s past. Such a dislike is a critique of the idea that all (Americans, white men, foreigners) are brothers by mere fact of birth and shared experience. A person holding such a critical view will have sought to replace such assumptions with an anti-nationalist view of one’s own preferences in friends and lovers and residence make up one’s real native land – a land pieced together out of the bits and pieces of one’s own experience.
The way I feel about Americans coming overseas is a little like what I first felt in my summer working in Alaska way back in college. No one is here who doesn’t have a damn good reason, I thought then, looking at Crazy Larry, the Vietnam vet with the flag sewn on his jacket (try burning this one, asshole), or the crew of older women who drank around fires at night and played Janis Joplin’s “Freedom’s just another word for – nothin’ left to lose.” They played the song over and over again, as if it were an incantation rather than a pop song. Or there was the old guy I worked alongside gutting fish in Valdez, who believed all food was steeped in energies or vibes of good or bad types that could be discerned by the use of a pendulum. Everyone seemed to have a hole burning in his or her heart somewhere, except of course for people born there.
Maybe that was why I felt such a craving for Erin, the 16 or 17 year old checkout girl at the supermarket in Kenai. She was Mormon, it turned out, a religion I was at that moment violently wrestling myself out of, and she was the epitome of the mainstream pretty girl of the suburbs. I desired her normality. Or at least I desired her acknowledgment of me and my desire and my suffering. But I lacked the courage to approach her directly, to let her know any of this, fetishizing her from behind bland pleasantries while buying cookies and soap before heading back to my and Jen’s tent. She was coolly desireable and just pleasant enough, short brown curly hair, fair skinned and balanced. Which is to say, normal.
Everyone who took themselves to Alaska was up there for a reason, there were people looking for dignity, people looking for oblivion, and I was no exception. Was it a ritual expression of self-punishment for my inability to believe? Was it a cry for help from the very parents I had offended? Was it a masochistic need to push my tendencies to the limit, to precipitate a psychological crisis, a finger down the psychic throat to gag up some relief? Was it an escape attempt? After all these years, I still do not know. But that was only the first time I exiled myself to a far place and found myself, solitary and fascinated, eating in strange places, sleeping in strange places, seeing my life as though through a distorting fun-house mirror. I wrote lots of letters there, as if from a distance I could freely tell truths I was reluctant to tell otherwise.
I wrote more letters then, and more now from Taiwan, than I write e-mails while in the US. For the convenience of e-mail is what allows me to ignore it. It is like the New Yorker who never visits the Statue of Liberty because it is so supremely within reach, why even bother? I will go someday, he thinks. Perhaps self-exile has the effect on me of making relations inconvenient enough that I am forced to make effort – and this includes relations with myself. I find myself in Taiwan actively exploring my own past through writing, as well as writing letters to others and commentary on contemporary US politics. I see a therapist in Taipei in Chinese; this work of translating myself into another language is another way in which self exile forces a translation of the self, a self-estrangement, which motivates a fresh look. One has to look hard to make sure one is still the person one thought one was.
In Sara’s shared employee apartment, I have found a little colony of self-exiles, three people from Canada, more or less eloquent regarding their curious condition. Cheryl is understated, except for her bright blue eyes. She comes from a dairy farming town in Saskatchewan, a community of Mennonites. She is profoundly attached to her home and family, and she misses the vast natural stretches of Canada. Nor is she particularly interested in language or exploring Taiwanese food or culture. So there must be something pushing her to make her put up with oily stir fry, pollution, teaching kids (again, not her interest) and lingerie-clad betel nut babes. She is a mystery to me: neither deeply alienated from home nor deeply attracted to Taiwan, here she stays, plodding along day after day, seeking small adventures on the weekends. One time she did tell me her community was quite tight – warm, but stifling of individual space. She is adventurous in a quiet, matter of fact way, and sturdy. She has ridden rented scooters at hours at a stretch on the weekends. She is going home soon, but something tells me she will not be staying there.
Dale is an easy-going chap, looking dapper in a tie and vest, like Cheryl blond, a walking advertisement for the school. He ran a betting pool during the Stanley Cup series and sits watching bad movies on Cinemax after work. He owns two cell phones, seemingly to keep his several affairs from crossing lines or paths, and at night he will often step out without saying a word to the others watching TV. He likes to talk about the famous people he knew as a bartender in Montreal. He is an artist, more or less; he painted a mural of the Alamo at the Alamo Bar and Restaurant in Hsinchu. He speaks fair Chinese, makes 80,000 yuan a month, and walks briskly out of Hsinchu station some nights, looking dapper and focused, as if about to meet a woman. Unless there is something I do not know, Dale is one of the people for whom Taiwan is giving him a reasonably well-off life, not too taxing, fairly stimulating, with a bit of sex on the side.
Sally, a New Zealander, or American, depending on when one talks to her, is a wandering soul nearing 40. “I’m trying to get this published,” she said to me the first time I talked to her, “But I need an agent with contacts.” She handed me a manuscript of a Maori-English dictionary. “Actually I wrote something comparing Maori and Korean when I was in Korea,” she said, “I had a friend translate it.” I perused the article, knowing full well the two languages had nothing in common. When I had first arrived in Korea seven years ago the shock of the reserved, alien environment had me fantasizing about similarities between Korean and Indonesian (which I knew) – until I actually began learning Korean.
She is conscientious in lesson preparation, doing collages for the kids on the floor of the living room. She likes to tell people she has got the blood of 5 or 8 or 13 nations in her veins, and then she will say, “Lately I am feeling my French side more than the other parts.” There is a slight sense of distance in her pronouncements, as if she were listening with one ear to something a long ways off, or is it a wariness at a world that will not acknowledge her.
She married a Pakistani man who apparently got her to buy him a car, which he crashed. She is waiting for him to join her here in Taiwan, though she is none too sanguine about his finding a job. She has no home, no center: every place is a new center, and place of knowledge, from which to view the other places. She is waiting here, waiting. Waiting to be called elsewhere. However each of them made it here, and however exiled they may or may not feel, Taiwan was something that happened to them, as it did to me. All of us woke up at some point and found ourselves here. We see our Hollywood movies and walk out feeling more lost than ever, out into the hot night with scents of papaya and grilling squid. A clue to the mystery of self-exile is this: there is a sweetness inside the being lost.
Like Sally I was an exile far before coming to these shores. I remember clearly pushing shopping carts through the parking lot of Roberts Food Market, my head full of other places. It was a cold night, probably late spring. It was an almost ecstatic longing, a belief in the reality of other places better than heaven, places that didn’t need to wait for death. The night sky seemed bigger than just space above my head: a dome of fantasies that were not quite out of reach.
All people who put themselves abroad through some choice of their own, however hasty, or rational, share the objective condition of self-exile. But those who, like Sally, me, or the man on the train, for whom exile began socially or mentally before being made geographic, the condition of exile is a constituent need of the self. I don’t think this latter is Dale’s condition, though I could be wrong. I can well picture him striding purposeful and light-gaited off a Montreal city bus, light scent of cologne off his neck, head full of this rendezvous. He seems too satisfied with life to long for other places. Though certainly, a romantic indulgence in one place does not preclude wanting to sink oneself in the charms of another, as I well know. But he is untroubled, placid.
Exile for him is another flavor, not a permanent condition following him wherever he goes, not a distance within his manner, not a gap of illogic in otherwise understandable behavior or choices. But even for people like Dale, who go abroad lightly, out of something less than need, self-exile has unintended consequences. Perhaps without realizing it, the condition of exile opens up needs that did not exist before, vacancies that were not there before stepping on the plane. Exile changes people. Even if Dale is as well-adjusted as ever, perhaps he will not be able to go back to that Montreal rendezvous with exactly the same feeling of being there.
I believe the internet fosters for some a form of internal exile. They may never leave their hometown, but they need that elsewhereness of wires and modems and people never met face to face. They believe they have gone beyond faces, to souls.
The condition of self-exile begins with one’s relations with others. Those less able to satisfy themselves through the people around them are more likely to need the fantasy possibilities of people and places far away. Indulgence in the fantasy leaves one even less able to satisfy oneself through the people around one, simply because the taste of being divided is too sweet. One loves the play of memory, travelling back and forth in the mind between now/here and then/there. And the more places one goes, the more disorientingly sweet such play becomes. (PANIC IN TAIZHONG, cairo) Such is my condition: having lived in 5 countries in my 20’s, now at 34 I have returned to one of them. Taiwan now serves as a platform for dreaming, a springboard to India, Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, the Phillipines.
Taiwan is full of old men from China. In my student Eric’s family’s apartment I met one when I was invited to dinner after class last week. I had never seen such a big apartment: a full 2 floors, with plenty of unused space, as in America. Eric, a mediocre student, is going to San Francisco in July to enroll in the private Athenian School for high school. His Dad’s company has an office near there, so the employees can look in on him. I sat down and the Indonesian maid put the immaculately prepared Chinese dishes on the table. The old man nodded at me slowly, respectfully. He was fragile, but fragile in comfort and respect. He was fragile but showed refinement. The toilet upstairs had settings to warm the seat. I wondered who he had been: what section chief of what evacuated ministry, boarding ship in 48 or 49 not to see China again until the 90’s, as a rich returnee, a tourist. Even for rich men such an exile must make a strange dream of the past. Everything in one’s life is either before or after.
What was the civil war to him? What was the White Terror of February 28th to him? What were the long years of martial law and the collective vows to retake the mainland? And what is this confusing present, with public morality melting in the heat of TV and internet and yellow journalism, out there outside this spacious apartment? And how did I get here?
I have seen other old men living in “army villages,” humble enclaves of the city, still going to work everyday as gatemen at the university or watchmen at apartment complexes, watching middle class parents usher their middle class kids out into the mini van. My neighbor for a while in one of those “villages” tucked away behind a night market was a small, thin man with a fragile dignity and a Taiwanese wife. His hair was combed neatly when he rode off to work on his old motorcycle. No one in that house was not at one another. A daughter or daughter in law bought a little dog, and that lit people up. If I head laughing and barking I knew someone was tossing the little dog in the air like a baby, or scampering around, provoking it. And the others were watching too, smiles broken from molds of care – all smiling at that little dog. That little enclave was seeing history change around it. The island province they helped save from Communism was rehabilitating 2-28 as a day to memorialize the bandits and hooligans killed, not the soldiers who had kept order. Taiwanese was being used on TV talk shows and even news broadcasts.
On one of the walls outside the neighborhood facing the street, someone had spray painted a defiant message, Long Live the Republic of China, or Never to Taiwan Independence.
At my girlfriend’s apartment complex, the three watchmen are old Chinese men. One is gloomy and thin. He did not get much protein when he was little. He gets no pleasure out of serving the rich. Another with white hair and crewcut sees me and shouts, “OK!” or “Yes!Yes!” or “Thankyooo!” In him I see an 18 year old soldier in a chaotic bivouac somewhere shouting “OK!” to an American advisor stepping out of a jeep.
Then there is Mister Zhang. He swept up the floors at Jordan’s Language School when I worked there 4 years ago. Striding in there amidst all the young women at desks with Hello Kitty trinkets on their cell phones, he was a man, and dignified. He was Zhang Bei Bei, Uncle Zhang. As Uncle Zhang, the older man about the house (the bosses were Jennifer and Christina, unmarried women approaching middle age), he would go around to the teacher’s housing to check on things. The first time I saw him was a Saturday morning a few days after moving in to my very odd room. It was three rooms with a living room and kitchen that felt distinctly like a garage: it had been an open walled courtyard. The owners had simply popped a tin and fiberglass roof atop the wall, leaving a gap of about a foot or so. There was not much light, but there was plenty of heat to make up for it.
Mr. Zhang appeared to do some sweeping. When I came out of my room he was conversing animatedly with my roommate Brian. The amazing thing was, Brian spoke no more than 2 words of Chinese. They were gesticulating, nodding, and shaking their heads. Mr. Zhang was speaking, “Does the water get hot?” in Chinese, and Brian was saying “Yes?” or “Maybe,” looking for clues in Mr. Zhang’s face. Seeing Mr. Zhang’s attention fixed on the gas heater, Brian gave a clear thumbs up. “Ah, so its OK then,” said Mr. Zhang satisfiedly.
Mr. Zhang enjoyed being around us. We were odd enough to allow his drollery to show through, and we was droll: the straight man in my absurd debates, the affectionate man in his undiminished conversations with Brian. The five or six English words he knew became outsized tokens of something beyond their bare function. They assumed a ceremonial weight in our conversations. Good will; droll good will. But such a description lacks the pregnant climax of a minute or 2 of conversation based solely on facial contortions and mime, suddenly broken by an earnest “beeyooodiful!” from Mr. Zhang. “Beautiful,” Brian and I both reply, laughing. In such good humor Brian and I began deliberately exaggerating our stories. Brian, for example, would come out at 9 am to see Mr. Zhang talking to me and brandish his bottle of Coke, say, “Beautiful!” and take a long breakfast swig. Mr. Zhang’s face would twist in disdainful repulsion, and a low, sonorous “No nono!” would escape his lips.
With me the communication was clearer but no less hilarious. Somehow one day we got talking about dogs – perhaps the no-neck dog next door looked hot to me. In no time we were vigorously debating the pros and cons of shaving dogs in the summer.
“The dog is hot, look at the poor thing,” I would say.
“Its not right,” he would say, “One should not shave dogs.”
“I’ll shave that dog next door to prove it,” I would say.
“He’ll just feel worse.”
“How can you say that?”
“If you shave the dog’s hair, it will just get itchy when it grows back.”
“When I shave, it feels great!”
“But you are not a dog.”
The funniest thing about Mr. Zhang was that he rarely cracked a smile. He would scrunch up his face in mock disgust and exclaim, “Its just not moral!” another debate we engaged in was the ethics of squashing cockroaches. All life should be respected, he argued, even that of a disgusting bug. What do you do when you see one in your bathroom? I asked. I squash it, he said. But I should not, he continued. I should let it eat at the breakfast table with me.
Mr. Zhang’s health declined. His knee swelled up, and he did not come around anymore. One day before I left he invited us to have some lunch. We were late, and he seemed out of sorts. Sitting in the restaurant we did not have the spark, the humor. It was as if meeting outside our living room reminded us that we were not what we thought we were: that we really were two young white men of privilege, and one old Chinese man. He urged us to drink, but it was formulaic. My stomach wasn’t right. I just sipped. Brian and I had originally wanted to pay but seeing that he was acting as host, this poor old man, we just nibbled at the dumplings and pretended not to be hungry. My can of beer was nearly full when we left, and that was the last time I saw him. If there is one way to kill the atmosphere when being treated by a Chinese person, it is to nibble at one’s food. I don’t know how Mr. Zhang felt about being in exile. He had a stiff upper lip about things. In our place he could stop being the dignified old soldier, or at least he could be it to humorous effect. But outside, it did not seem to work. Outside, too many social roles were getting their wires crossed.
This morning I had watermelon with some Mormon missionaries in Zhunan. They were getting ready for an appointment but told me to come on up to their place. When I got off at the seventh floor I was not sure which door was theirs – until I saw a familiar print of General Mormon, Schwarzenegger-like, standing above his muscular dark-skinned troops as they marched forward to oblivion. On either side of the door were two red strips, with black calligraphy, like those placed by Chinese people at New Year’s, but instead of traditional sayings, the two depicted a quotation from one of the recent prophets, translated into Chinese. At first I was puzzled, reading the first side. “No success can.” Then I realized it continued up the other side: “Make up for failure int he home.” I am not sure whether men leaving home for two years as missionaries counts as a success in the home or something else. I used to see this kind of flawed logic as hypocrisy: we will talk all day about family, but our actions show our real loyalty is to the church above all else. Now I am willing to see it as a structural contradiction that is not perceived from the inside.
The doorbell was hidden under “failure in the home.” I had to lean on it for a while until the chirping inside (from the “bird bell”) grew deafening and a young white man in a tie opened the door and let me into a college dorm room with holy trappings.
The three Americans, the ones in voluntary exile, were all distracted, shaking my hand, asking a few questions about how many characters I knew, and scurrying off to comb their hair or look for their socks. I finally sat down on one of the bunk beds, and the one Taiwanese elder shook my hand and engaged me in undistracted conversation. He came from Tainan, he said, and we talked about their well-known foods. The floor was a mess of exercise weights and shoes. A refrigerator stood in the very middle. The walls were bare. A thick necked elder from Utah put a plate of water melon on the single backless chair. Eventually Ramsey, the smiling elder from Rochester, came out from the bathroom, shook my hand, and sat down. They would have to go down in a minute to meet someone, he said, but I could join them.
“I can’t speak English,” said Chen to me, smiling.
“That is not true,” said Ramsey in Chinese. “What was the one we just taught you?”
“Bring ---“ he said and stopped.
“Bring it on!” grinned Ramsey. “What else? Lock and Load!”
Chen smiled. “Lock and Load!” Ramsey ran off to answer the phone. I leaned closer to Chen to ask what their politics were. They don’t talk much about politics, he said.
“Do they like Bush?” I asked.
“Some people ask, but they just say they don’t read the papers,” he said.
“Do you know why that phrase ‘bring it on’ got famous?” I asked, and he said No. I explained Bush’s statement of easy bravado from the last year, daring the Iraqis to kill more soldiers. A lot of leftists criticized him for that, I said. Just then the elders came back in the room, and we were going willy-nilly downstairs to look for the “investigators” – their term for people who want to learn about the church. Ramsey, Chen and I finally had a half way decent conversation because their investigator never called. We munched watermelon and I brought out my sweet bananas and crunchy peaches. Chen said a prayer before we ate, and it was odd to hear the formulaic invocations translated; to hear myself called “Dixiong Harmon” (Brother Harmon).
Ramsey was preoccupied with inadequacy praising my Chinese again and again. I have studied on and off for 7 years, for God’s sake, I wanted to say. He seemed uneasy just letting himself go in English, and would frequently break into Chinese when he could. I asked him if they could go outside Zhunan on their off days and he recited a complex bureaucratic formula of maybes and zones of authority. In short, no – unless one got permission from the vice president of the entire mission, a well-off old white man and his devoted wife, no doubt. I gushed anyhow about the wonderful refreshment of swimming at DaLi and hiking the CaoLing old trail over the mountains. Then we discussed the numbers of Chinese-speaking missions in the US. Ramsey seemed so driven to be successful, here outside the home, that his exile was just a fuzzy sense of odd disconnect. He seemed less happy than uneasy – but the uneasiness was overshadowed by the sense of mission.
Chen, on the other hand, seemed less burdened: he was an internal exile, less harsh. “I never went to the US for training,” he said, “Just one day.” But he seemed less concerned about his second class status, or about being placed with three whites as a live-in Chinese mentor-tutor, than about the benefits of being a missionary. “I was so tired at first,” he said, “But now I feel stronger, even getting up so early.” Ramsey, even under his weighty mission, could not restrain expressing intellectual pleasure. When he found I could speak Indonesian – I had passed three domestic workers chatting on the way over – he said, “One of our members is Indonesian, and it sounded so cool! They call the Book of Mormon ‘Kitab Mormon.’” I said that Kitab had come from Arabic.
“How about teaching us some Indonesian,” he said. But pleasure did not last long. Some men came with furniture for their place and I left. Ramsey shook my hand and said he hoped I could make it to church in Hsinchu. He has only been here five months or so, I thought walking away. He has got a bit of the blues, packed into that apartment and told to spread the word. He will be back as a “civilian” to enjoy the forbidden pleasures of the east coast, but by the time his 2 years are up he will have his sense of mission honed to a sharp point, surgically implanted in his personality. He will have plenty of praise for the Lord when he returns home and stands in the pulpit at his Welcome Home, a new man. But really that moment will be the climax of his exile, the moment the exile was aiming for. It will take him months for the condition of exile to seep out of him: for the cycles of ecstasy and gloom of self-discipline and self-punishment to loosen their grip on him: for the joys of being separate to dissipate. It will take months for him to enjoy being alone, to let himself be alone with a woman, to let himself be like other people.
When I returned to Hsinchu and sat writing on the train platform, I heard a loud American voice and looked up. Among the people streaming onto the platform was a young woman. “Just because you (. . ..) doesn’t mean you have to have SEX!!” she was exclaiming with some delight. She sat down near me and I head snatches of her conversation. “If you can do one in every Asian country, you are (. . ..)” Then, “He’s Australian? That’s so funny.” Her train came, northbound, and she was gone, voice slowly disappearing. Exile for her heightened the novelty of sex: national boundaries came into the mix, horny Australians turned up unexpectedly. Being in Taiwan on a crowded train platform meant she could let herself talk out loud about sex.
A few minutes later a thin, grey-bearded white man appeared, shaking his wet hands, and sat down next to me. He carried a plastic bag full of newspapers and a leather satchel, and fixed me with a long look. I nodded; he smiled. He removed a book wrapped in a small plastic bag, laid it on the bench, and stood up to read an announcement on thew wall. I looked down and saw it was a French novel by someone named Vincenot. He sat back down, leaned over looking at my notebook, and said, “Funny how they get the translations on the signs.” I knew the one he meant: “Please keep staff horizontal while crossing the tracks.” It referred to people carrying bamboo poles and the like, so as not to touch the electrical lines over head.
“Of course, we would sure make a mess of it if we made our signs in Chinese,” he said and I agreed. He was Australian, and had been in Taiwan 23 years without marrying or otherwise settling down. “I’ll make it to China or Korea someday, I keep meaning to,” he said. I asked him why he kept up such a hectic schedule, running hundred mile commutes from Taoyuan to Houlong and back every day. “That’s right, the extra all gets spent on the commute!” he said. His grin showed emaciated gums just holding up his remaining lines of teeth, with silver and gold here and there. He stood up and I shook his hand. “Harvey’s my name,” he said, hitching up his pants.
“Don’t work so hard!” I said; he grinned and was gone, thin as a wraith days and nights spent running from one classroom to the next.
That afternoon after my nap I groggily awoke, dressed, and raced by bike over to my high school student’s house. The Vietnamese maid let me in and pointed upstairs. “Big brother,” she said in Chinese. I found Eric turning off the computer in his dad’s study. “Little sister! I need the study room,” he shouted next door. We went in the study. “Pepsi,” I said, pointing at the can on the table, “This is bad.” As I began teaching Eric the lyrics to “We will rock you,” there was a knock at the door, and the maid was there with a plate of lychees, a glass of water, and a soft smile. As I took the plate I asked her, “What is this in Vietnamese?” she looked confused, and I repeated the question. “Oh,” she said, thinking a moment, “Ayai.”
“And this?” I said, pointing at the water.
“Nuk,” she said more readily. And suddenly she was pointing excitedly at the notebook, the pen, the table, saying them all in their marvelously strange new sounds. She stood there grinning as I mimicked the words, so truly odd. Then she was a maid again, closing the door. “Ayai,” I said to Eric smiling, “How odd.” He nodded vaguely. No doubt that was the first time the Vietnamese tongue had ever sounded in that house. Her voluntary exile is more complete than mine, living her days in that family, no lazy mornings or leaving her room at 1 pm, no e-mails back home, and most of all no Taiwanese clamoring for lessons in her language. She can never straighten her back and throw off the subtle dispositions of servitude, even just for a few minutes, at least as long as her employers are around. She silently pours her own thoughts and needs into the fissures left over between the needs of others, like tea into a cup not seen by others.
Self-exile is a demand of Asia’s rising bourgeoisie. A mark of status is to hardly be able to stand that which is routine, familiar, old hat. I can feel the restlessness in the air of the city. I feel it in the occurrence of fads, or “fevers” as they are known. Recently food is curry this, curry that. I hear five or six yeasr ago was the fever par excellence: Portuguese Egg Tarts, a Macanese specialty, jolted the island out of its sleepy lethargy. Apparently shops opened just to sell them, popping up every 50 meters like mushrooms after a rain. The media was full of them. There was a money-making craze – and suddenly people had had enough. Boom. And bust.
The sheer madness of a desire that had not existed before – and disappeared just as fast – is unsettling. It is unsettling as much as it reveals unsettledness. That the surface of society is so easily riled implies a riling of deeper currents – or perhaps nothing deeper at all, no history at all, nothing whatsoever to ballast people, no familial rule or ritual, no martial law, no patriarchal head of state – a pure present untroubled by dreams of truth or real reality. But such a lightness or weightlessness is oppressive. The attention, when it becomes unstructured by ritual (whether religious, or tribal, or political), becomes unbearably fidgety and fickle. The psyche feels its own amorphous weight rather than the transcendent weight of the gods. And at that point – after tradition has fled, after political authority has lost its religious power, after the coercive collectivity has disappeared – time and space become burdens of blankness, and the search for anything new attains paramount urgency. Egg tarts will serve as well as anything else.
A craving for egg tarts distracts the attention outwards, away from the blankness of the individual no longer imprinted by social will and social rules. In that way, the blankness of space is broken. At the same time, one is doing the same as everyone else: a new synchronicity emerges based not on god’s birthdays cosmic events, or political rituals, but on simultaneous movements of individuals. These movements are no less mysterious than the gods. A wind suddenly blows up, a desire no one could have predicted – for egg tarts – and just as suddenly dies down. In that way, the blank weight of time gains variety, form, change. Egg tarts become a landmark in the boring succession of days very like one another. Egg tarts provide us with history.
Like dynastic histories, such fads look all the same from a distance. But close-up, they each feel special. Focused on the desired object, people feel for a moment the pull of something truly and undeniably new. This newness changes the dull monotony of capitalistic time and space. Under industrial capitalism, time and space become homogeneous, structured everywhere by the same abstract laws of rationality and private ownership. Space and time, cleared of the social features that made particular places sacred to particular groups or particular days special to certain communities, become unbearably featureless. Space, cleared and secularized so that all of nature can be owned and developed for profit, becomes barren. Time, cleared and secularized so that regular business can be conducted and wages paid, becomes barren: the horizon of time stretches out flat in every direction utterly rationalized.
In such a desolate landscape, people will do anything to exile themselves. People will sniff glue. People will immerse themselves in sexual fetishism. And worst of all, people will dream. People will dream of being elsewhere. If they do not have the money or the visa to go elsewhere, the best way to exile oneself is through indulgence in objects that tell stories of other places and times. (examples) And if everyone around you is indulging in the same object, so much the better: you are not alone. We can all eat egg tarts, and then overeat egg tarts until we have had enough, until their newness (in time) and their elsewhereness, their Macauness (in space) is exhausted and used up.
It is no accident that the collapse of the late 20th century patriarchal super-figures of left and right like Ceaucescu, Chang Kai Shek, Mao, and Honecker, is followed immediately by a frenzied private consumption of objects. The collective ritual of the state had become so barren and formulaic that even the uneasy self-exile of capitalism became preferable. Even as I write, the Chinese state’s religious authority – a religion of rationality and patriarchy – is eaten out from within. It has already failed on the level of religious ideology, and only exists on the level of pure force. Its authority is nominally (and grudgingly) tolerated only as long as it allows individuals to alienate themselves from their intolerable surroundings through sex, the internet, or consumption of foreign objects. Through these means, individuals reconstitute community through groupings as ephemeral as chat rooms and one night stands and as enduring as cult-like subcultures. The most depressing aspects of socialism are grafted onto the most depressing aspects of capitalism.
Only last week I read a newspaper article reporting that the conservative Iranian elite has coalesced around the imperative to follow the Chinese model. By keeping democracy in check – by retaining and exclusive hold on coercive power – and by allowing limited individual “freedoms” (a freedom closer to compulsiveness – shopping), they hope to become the “Japan of the Middle East.” One must reflect on this development: the Iranian religious elite has admitted its own ideological defeat. What this signifies is that even the most potent modern conjurings of collective political religion – in Maoism and in Islamic Revolution – are no match for the compulsive self-exile (“freedom”) of capitalism. Both forces could not maintain their vitality much beyond 20 years. Democracy is relatively unimportant, next to individual indulgence, as one can conclude from observing the formulaic, easily bought nature of political power in the US, in contrast to the untouchable importance of the “American Lifestyle,” which Andrew Card (?) so correctly labelled as “blessed.”
He unwittingly expressed the sacred importance of self-exile through material indulgence. This, and not elections, is the American dream. This, and not Jesus, is the American religion. It is linked to democracy in only a very limited sense: let me have enough space to indulge my illusions and perm my hair, and I will let you, the Iranian elite, keep issuing your fatwas in my name. Let me buy as many egg tarts as I please and I will let you, Taiwanese oligarchy, run things under the guise of two parties. There is a division of labor that is eminently practical: leave the compulsive dreaming to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and leave the oligarchic rituals of freedom to the Enron-Washington axis. Across the world this basic division of labor obtains: generals or their friends rule the legislature and its democratic ritual while Hollywood and its domestic culture industry counterpart are in charge of the social ritual of fads and mass dreams.
he egg tart craze occurred in Taiwan not long before the pivotal 2000 election which for the first time since the 1920’s saw Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalists lose an election. There will be no fads like that one again, since that moment can only come once. And there will be no elections like that one. The dream of real change did not come true; self-distraction and elections are made routine.
I am talking about self-exile in two different ways. The first is a particular disposition of person, a wandering soul who can never feel so at home that he does not dream of some other place a bit more like utopia over the next hill. These people are not coincidentally highly skilled in dropping their old identities and trying on new ones. The second kind of self-exile is more common; it is the objective factor shared by all people who have removed themselves far from their native milieu. A dispositional wanderlust may have nothing to do with the move so much as political factors (Uncle Zhang) or economic factors (the Canadian college grad trend). However, such moves, though originally based on a solely rational calculus, may slowly change the person, subtly tinting their psyche to the point that a shift in disposition – or at least a new restlessness – is effected. The shift in disposition stems from a feeling of being split between two places. The feeling is not all unpleasurable, especially to those so inclined.
I recall feeling it strongly while sitting on the dock at Kalianget ferry terminal weeks before I was to leave Indonesia to return to the US. I felt a poignant, pleasurable pain in the feeling of being suspended in the air between two places that would never come together: I felt myself slowly tearing myself out of Indonesia’s soil, the intimate soil of everyday details: the sweat at 9 am, the bakso and noodle soup, sweat rolling down my face, the rocking painted boats, vibrations of the wood bench under my rear, the squalling silent farmers by the roadside in purple and black plaid sarongs and the bright orange glow of their cigarette ash. I felt myself being tugged back toward America, inexorably pulled. I was pulled in half, stretched slowly across the ocean thin as a spider’s thread. And the thread of my body hummed with signals – memories from the two sides zipping past one another. Everything burned brighter in those weeks.
The third way I have talked about the condition of self-exile is as a fundamental attribute of all people living under the sway of developed capitalist economies, characterized by a superficial “democracy” managed by an oligarchy, a collapse of militaristic, communalistic or corporatist groupthink, and a consumer culture fantasy world. People may be more or less deeply addicted to the patterns of self-exile, but everyone without exception is imprinted. One basic sign of this addiction to self-exile through self-objectification is the need of people from such countries to spend significant amounts of time alone. Such people are claustrophobic if not granted their solitary breathing room. Their social skin has grown fragile due to this isolation. They do not enjoy the rough friction of an entangling web of relations.
My Iranian classmate Shahla showed me the vast gulf between the thin-skinned, withdrawn people like me, and the aggressive, contact-craving people like her from countries only incompletely under capitalist-democratic regimes. This difference in temperament is only partly individual – the rest is national-cultural. Shahla is boisterous where we are watchful and careful. She is brave, too, at least from our perspective. She assailed the chair of our department directly over his lilly-livered defence of an assistance professor under attack from the Right over comments made at an anti-war rally. Every time I met her she was wilting under some deadline or other, complaining about her poor health – but neither condition stopped her from engaging us all in conversation or vociferous debate. She seemed undiscriminating in who she talked to, though that again was only from our perspective. Shahla lacked the self-alienation of heavily marketized countries – though she expressed in full the condition of objective self-exile, in living abroad. I am not sure as to how much she chose her exile and how much it was thrust on her: held in prisons under both the Shah’s and the Islamic regime for 9 years, she made her way to the US. I do not get the feeling that she needed exile as part of her disposition. As a leftist activist, she was deeply engaged in struggles at home.
my life in an Islamic boarding school in rural Indonesia also opened up for me this basic point of distinction between the self alienated with our “personal space” and the non-self-alienated. I needed my room. It was my survival space. But the boys attending the boarding school lived 8 or 10 to a room. They slept piled against or atop each other, like a heap of puppies. I had never seen anything like it: unrestrained physical contact that was not labelled perverted, sexual, or gay. This was not to imply that there was no sexual activity. There was. But the fear of it did not become a tool to keep people away from each other. Equally amazing to me was the complete absence of fights in my whole two years there. In retrospect, it is clear to me that the aggressiveness of my male classmates in middle school was due, not to a primal aggressive nature, but paradoxically to the national system of isolation – capitalist self-exile. Isolation breeds intense insecurity, instability, loneliness, frustration. Contact with people under these conditions produces an unbearable friction – for the social skin is so tender that the “gentle” boys of Madura, on the other hand, were not without personal aggression. But it was subsumed and expressed within the tight-knit social organism. It was a normal part of life, like sexuality. They had not yet been turned into points of anxiety and desire to be exploited by advertisers for profit. The social skin of these mellow kids was, counterintuitively, tough as rhinocerous hide. Hence they were not pathological. In the future that will slowly change, as Indonesia is more fully “globalized” into the American orbit. Iran will likely go the same way.
Yesterday I began teaching an 18 year old named Johnny, in his Dad’s office. His Dad sells doors. The place is full of doors opening this way and that. Johnny is as grounded and weighty as a 40 year old man, stepping slowly but surely in his choice of words. “I want to get successful slowly,” he says, “I want to get very good in one thing before becoming a CEO.” Johnny’s face is smooth and handsome as a young god’s, and as wise. When he was in high school he used to play computer games all night – Lineage, a Korean product. Video games play on the obsession with mastery through technical skill, and keep people from the uncertain world of human relations. He began having seizures. Now his mom makes him rest after 30 minutes on the computer. He cannot drive or swim.
“My dream is to make 100 million and buy a small island in Indonesia,” he said slowly, “In there I can live alone. The air and the water are clean. I can be alike an animal, and be very healthy. . . People dream of what they do not have. My dream is health. No computer. I will not have a telephone.” I am startled by the starkness of the dream. Can an 18 year old have such a stark dream? Johnny wants exile from the connections of capitalist economy, the pollution of capitalist industry – but also from the still-existing human entanglements and obligation of Chinese culture, which still flourishes and shifts under capitalism. “If I do not repay that friend’s present, he maybe says I am a bad man,” he says explaining the pressure of one’s web of friends. There on his little island he is free of all dangers, all pressures.
No one is immune from the pleasure of exile, even those relatively unalienated from their environments. One need not be a gloomy grad student to enjoy it. For at its root, self-exile is play. Self-exile is play, hard-core play, play turned serious. To understand this, we only need to turn to the exquisite pleasure of speaking foreign words, a novelty which is a remnant of childhood pleasure in imitating the sounds of adults. The point is clearer if we look at people who are otherwise not in exile: living in their home countries, not predisposed to daydreaming and wandering, and not under the sway of marketing techniques and its stern view of the self as an acquisitive, competitive, even brutal self.
A-Hong takes inordinate glee in speaking English sentences. He works part time at a rice-box lunch place I often eat at. One day a couple of weeks ago as I sat digesting, watching TV, and chatting with the employees, A-Hong began bugging me to teach him English. I thought, looking at him, Is he kidding? He is skinny and unprepossessing, not educated of speech or bearing, totally outside the bourgeoisie for which English is a must. I equivocated, saying it was pricey. But maybe I would drop the price to 400. He eagerly accepted, to my dismay, and I kept stalling, eyes on the soap opera in the corner. Why in hell does he want to learn English? I thought. My skepticism arises from my long experience with the global English teaching industry, which defines English knowledge as a commodity to be bought by people wanting to belong to the global bourgeoisie. A-Hong would never be an engineer in Santa Clara, nor a tourist in Spain. It was so illogical, in the global order.
And yet play is illogical, irrational. It is superfluous, unnecessary. Play sets apart a movie like “The Triplets of Belleville,” with its hilarious details unrelated to plot, or a Chaplin movie with its indulgence in ridiculous scenes (without caring for narrative overmuch), from typical Hollywood fare like Harry Potter movies, in which nothing is presented that does not fit somewhere into the machine-like, hyper-efficient plot. Everything fits so neatly and rationally together that the talk of magic is unconvincing: magic in such movies is nothing more than science not yet known to the general public, technology under a cloak of invisibility.
I did not need A-Hongs’ scant money. But as we sat there watching the stern-faced people on the soap opera, “Taiwanese Hurricane,” ripping each other verbally, I thought maybe we could make a more valuable exchange. “OK,” I said, “If you will teach me half hour of Taiwanese, I will drop the price more and teach you once a week.”
“So, 300?” he asked.
“200,” I said. Food for a day. The first day I was skeptical. But he was dogged.
“What’s your name?” I asked. He looked blankly at me. I cued him in Chinese.
“My nae is A-Hong.”
“Name is,” I said, pressing my lips together. Today, the second class, held right there on the tables where people were eating an hour before, I taught him 5 verbs. He scrawled out each sentence hastily on little pieces of paper from a notepad, sounding out the words and writing an approximation in the Taiwanese syllabary. When he wrote I saw his fingers were scarred and the nails fragmented. Each new sentence type brought another, and the papers piled up. I taught him Do you like sports, movies, cars. He immediately added Do you like cherries, lychees, pineapple, and he was excited, saying, “Do you want lychees?” Then he would burst out in Chinese, “I’m saying it! This is so fun!”
“Yes, I do,” I answered him, and taught him how to ask How many.
“When all these foreigners come to my stand I never know what to say,” he said, “Now, all I have to say is, ‘Do you like lychees?’” I was dubious about the number of foreigners buying fruit from A-Hong, but he insisted it was quite a lot. He left delighted, and returned a few minutes later with a big bag of fruit. “This is for export,” he said, taking out a pineapple, “For Japan! Taiwanese cannot buy this. It has a little bruise, but. . .” and he took out two plums, a big bunch of bananas, and a coconut. It was too much. When I left I pulled off half the bananas and left them next to the full-time worker sleeping in back on a piece of cardboard. His head rested on a pack of napkins.
(BOYS in pakamban??)
Play is of course an important aspect of the appeal of capitalist consumer culture. The play between fantasy and reality of golden-age cinema could not have occurred without the globalizing capitalist system. The appeal of fashion trends rests on the desire of the de-socialized individual to try on new identities. Capitalist play, however, is a play hollowed out from within: a play compulsive, unable to stop, a play driven by the will to possess, a play puritanized by the stern drive to own something. Early cultural products of capitalism still retain some of the playful spirit of a system not yet fully formed, letting loose individual energies. One need only look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially at the extended musical and comic sequences, to see that joy in play for play’s sake – not as a cog in a mechanistic, efficient plot – still existed. For comparison with now, one need only turn on Saturday morning cartoons to see that cartoons now are as sterile and formulaic as can be. The theme is power, power, and more power, and the essential sameness of evil and good in seeking power. The exercise of power means nothing more and nothing less than bumping off evil. Nothing more joyless and adult could be imagined as fare for kids. What we see is the spirit of later nationalist capitalism – a spirit of weary discipline, stripped of pleasurable creativity, rising day after day to fight “evil.”
It is the compulsiveness of the search for freshness engendered by (and aggravated by) capitalism which inhabits two of the three kinds of self-exile discussed here: the ordinary self-exile of all people living under consumer capitalism, and the “dispositional” self-exile of the more deeply restless. The urge to conformity which capitalism induces in society – such as was played out in the suburbs of Columbine High School – helps produce and deepen the sense of alienation in people like Sally or Micheal, people on the margins. This way capitalism is a rather indirect but key factor in their self-exile. The compulsive, often pleasurable day dreaming of the shopping mall and internet are directly related to consumer culture.