In your life as a writer you build up certain treasures – unfortunately none of them translatable into cash in the bank.
Let me tell you a little story about that.
Around 1980 I was a young lieutenant in the South African Defense Force. I was in the language directorate, where we worked to translate documents and other materials out of Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, and so on.
I was delegated to learn the Chinese language, which didn’t work out, because you don’t just learn Chinese in a couple of weeks. As my teenage granddaughters say: “Duh!” I can for the life of me not understand how two-year-old Chinese children can speak the language fluently – they must be geniuses.
I did make the acquaintance of a Chinese instructor, who invited my wife and me to dinner. He was fresh out of Taiwan, and lived with his wife on the top floor the rather run-down building that housed the Chinese school.
The only way up was up a flight of fire stairs on the outside of the building, and I ended up sort of pushing a very pregnant Mrs. Venter to get her up there.
Once inside, the Chinese couple overwhelmed us with their genuine hospitality. They must have read up on what officers in the S.A. Army drink – neat Bells or White Horse Scotch at room temperature – but they got the quantities wrong: they pressed tall water glasses, filled to the brim with whiskey, into our hands. Let’s just say the trip down the fire stairs was even more hazardous than the one up.
We noticed that the furniture was, to be honest, ratty, and the carpet worn. We ate the delightful dinner out of plastic bowls. But the walls were lined with books, and there was a silk banner with poetry in calligraphic Chinese script. Our host explained that the poem was worth more than anything else they owned.
I came away deeply impressed with their values. They didn’t give a damn for material things. They treasured their books and their silk poem above all else. I found that admirable.
I wish we could all be a little more like that.