The Warm Embrace of Isolation

Having spent decades in the muddy trenches of romantic relationships, I am ready to surrender, to raise the white flag and bow out before the onset of desperation. I’ve failed at love so utterly that I wonder if it is not my destiny to become one of those perennially tanned and childless expats who take exquisite care of themselves well into their sunset years, whose only surviving legacy is a stack of meticulously folded clothes and the remnants of a Hong Kong bank account.

If I paint a bleak picture it is because as I stand on the threshold of 51, having loved but a few, I find myself alone, by choice, in a city crowded with physical beauty. The reality is setting in after a dozen years that the art of courtship, as practiced in the East, will forever remain a mystery to me, a mystery wrapped in a glossy riddle and tied with an absurd pink bow.

At this juncture, a man in a similar boat might get a dog, to have and to hold till a vet puts it down. But not I, says the ageing expat; a pet would infringe on my freedom, the great upside of singledom (alongside not having to share stuff with someone who’s ultimately a stranger).

And so Shiva, spread your arms and welcome me to the Land of Solitude, for this is a place where I’m not required to take responsibility for another human being, where I can sit out the first and last dance without a scintilla of guilt.

*          *          *

It was in Korea, in the early 1990s, that I thought I found what I was seeking: women of simple beauty who didn’t wear safety pins in their noses and demand rollicking climaxes. They didn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of being petite and passive, but they did betray a curious interest in bookish Western fellows in khaki, and I bungled several opportunities for a normal life.

*          *          *

As a child, I’d stumbled upon a sheaf of erotic Japanese woodcuts hidden behind some less titillating titles in my father’s library, and this early introduction to the Asian aesthetic influenced certain choices in my adult life, despite a nagging sense that I might not secure a soul mate who understood the nuances of ‘knock knock’ jokes. The buxom blonde bombshell never held much appeal, whereas the slender, silky-soft Sirens of Seoul blew me away.  

In the end, they also blew me off.

America had not prepared me for the vagaries of love in the East, where practicality often trumps passion. A committed secular humanist with an allergy to the slightest whiff of tribalism, I never stood a chance in these homogenous precincts. Yet my heart would take several more beatings before that sad fact sunk in.

*          *          *

Off I flew to Shanghai, a smorgasbord for men (according to women), but also a place with a dizzying spread of agendas, intrigues and traps to navigate. Born in a land where “no” is an unambiguous rejection and not just a phrase deployed in some farcical passion ritual, I was unable to assimilate romantically. My attempts at seduction invariably failed, they said “no,” and I took them at their word. If it was a smorgasbord, the emotional tariff was confusingly high.

A few eventually said “yes,” and once I’d helped them achieve a level of English proficiency and they’d extracted from me all the knowledge and love that can be plucked from a greying self-centred poet with a year-round tan, we said “bye bye.”

Then, in Hong Kong, my hopes for true love were rekindled. It seemed I might share more in common with the educated, worldly women of the former British colony. Indeed, the fragrant harbour was filled with romantic potential. But the singles of Hong Kong, Western and local, wowed me only with their banality (which was easier to comprehend in English). 

In my self-imposed exile in the Land of Solitude, I find that I’m listening more and more to an inner voice telling me to “try Brazil.” But unless I can unhook myself from the drip of selfishness and accept that nothing and no one is perfect (least of all me), I’m afraid I’ll end up with a year-round tan and meticulously folded clothes, writing a spirited defence of isolation.

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