Pointlessness

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

School break is much shorter in Indonesia than in the United States. Technically, we only have the month of June and half of July off. But boredom sets on more quickly here. Locals seem to agree too, even without having the same standards of comparison as I have. I have been asked several times when I will be going back to work. "The middle of July," I say, "but who knows when classes will really start." They nod knowingly and invariably add, "Aduh, lama sekali" ("Wow, lots of time"), or something along those lines.

Still, I think my restlessness and that of the locals have different sources. Mine comes from a creeping, ever-present awareness of what I cannot help but consider to be the ultimate uselessness of my presence here. Theirs stems from the way they have been conditioned to spend and perceive time. I feel like I am just pointlessly taking up space in somebody else's country while simultaneously wasting my own countrymen's dollars. Locals probably just feel like we've all been sitting at home long enough and are ready to fall back into line and habit.

These two forms of restlessness could be similar if they were both rooted in anxiety about productivity. But I doubt that my Indonesian counterparts share that particular concern with me. In my mind, "work" is intimately connected with and validated by its results—by whatever one has to show for the time and energy invested in said "work." And a lack of results (or of tangible feedback to suggest that results are on the way) bothers me whether I like it or not—a bother that is only intensified by the very theory of being a volunteer whose ostensible purpose is to be useful. Many locals, including, say, the teachers at my school and a good number of other civil servants, think and behave differently. To them, "results" or "progress" are not really the point and haven't been for a long time. Day after day, they don their khaki uniforms and pin on their name tags as a way of announcing, "Here I am, doing what a good citizen is supposed to be doing, doing my part to keep the wheel of civilization turning." And if I momentarily and perhaps inexcusably ignore the incalculable amount of sweat that is wrung out of communities like these for the creature comforts of civilization in other, more smug parts of the world, then indeed, on any given day, it seems that not much has to be done by any one citizen to make the wheel turn here. That effort is spread thinly and evenly across time and the community and rarely ever reaches a fever pitch in any one pocket of society or another. And because there is no need to push very hard, there is no need to rest very long either.

Let me address head-on the tired but inevitable questions it must seem like I am dancing around: are these differences in attitude and thinking attributable to fundamental differences in culture? Is one (attitude, way of thinking, culture) better than the other?

The answers depend, of course, on who one asks, on how one interprets "better," and, most significantly, on the intentions of the asker. I sometimes ask these questions of myself. And sometimes I respond in the predictable, self-pitying way, falling hastily into the role of the well-meaning but frustrated volunteer who throws his hands up at local reticence and inefficiency and privately judges these as cultural shortcomings. Such episodes are frequent. But they are also short-lived. They end abruptly when I realize that I am merely venting my own minor inconveniences. They end when I remember that culture is arbitrary and progress relative. They end when I remind myself that the same, annoying phenomenon happens frequently enough in my own country and that both Indonesia and the United States are much too big and much too diverse for the aforementioned questions to have meaningfully generalizable answers. They end when I acknowledge that I am actually not very interested in having answers in the first place.

Meanwhile, my counterparts and I will continue to think differently. We will continue to work together, in starts and stops, wondering what to make of each other. The wheel will keep turning, slowly now, faster later, constantly and imperceptibly shedding baggage and rebuilding itself across the long arc of history. I will make my morning cup of coffee, teach one word, write another one, remember to take my malaria prophylaxis and smile.


The island of Semau takes twenty-five minutes to get to by one the wooden skiffs that depart several times each day form the port of Tenau on the west coast of the island of Timor. Three weekends ago, I accompanied the woman who is now my girlfriend on a short trip there. She was technically traveling for work, I technically for leisure, and both of us to see if we couldn't also find an excuse to move things along.

Anchored halfway across the narrow strait between the two islands is a Chinese fishing boat—the Fu Yuan Yu 831, abandoned since its interdiction in late 2017 and now covered in rust and seagrowth. Since returning from the trip, I have done some research and learned that illegal boats like these are quite common throughout Indonesian waters, risking similar fates for a chance at a lucrative catch. At the time of its seizure by Indonesian authorities, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was reportedly carrying 35 tons of fish, including hundreds of protected tiger sharks. I saw a picture of the carcasses online, piled high with their bellies slashed open and entrails oozing out. The image itself didn't hit me especially hard, but the mere thought of the smell that must have smacked the photographer square in the face made me sick to my stomach. Apparently, Indonesia's minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, had previously and famously ordered all confiscated foreign vessels to be blown up or burnt. In 2016, 23 were accordingly disposed of by the Indonesian navy before the practice was retired in favor of a slower, more inauspicious sinking. I don't know if Mr. Susi himself had ever set foot in the dank cargo hold of such a vessel. But if so, then I can imagine at least one reason why he gave that splashy order—maybe he felt that only fire could get rid of the stink.

I also learned during my research that the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was caught carrying the flags of six different nations—an attempt at evading fishing regulators and other maritime watchdogs. This strikes me as a particularly futile and laughable move, seeing as there are enormous Chinese characters, along with the words "Fu Zhou," emblazoned on the stern of the boat. I don't see how flying, say, a Vietnamese flag could fool anyone about its origin. Maybe I just don't know enough about how the fishing and maritime worlds work. Maybe these ships are built, named, and slathered in paint by the Chinese before they get shipped off to and piloted by crews in other countries. Maybe there is something to the flag trick. But it clearly wasn't enough to keep the Fu Yuan Yu 831 and plenty of other illicit craft from meeting their watery ends.

I knew none of this backstory, though, passing by a shipwreck-to-be in a little fishing boat on a fine morning in mid-June. The water was calm and blue. A light breeze was blowing and my girl was wearing sandals and squinting and struggling keep her long hair out of her face. At the time, seeing the ship still above water, decrepit and grimy, gave me a creepy sensation—as of something obviously outcast, disreputable, even cursed, slowly but surely poisoning otherwise clean and innocent environs. The crew of the skiff didn't just steer clear of it either. We pulled up so close that one of them had to flip the port-side bumper tires overboard to prevent scraping—so close that I could have grabbed onto and climbed up a rope dangling over the side of the ship's hull—and spent several minutes just idling there in the shade and staring up.

The rest of the weekend was nothing but time-effacing purity: small villages, Sunday service, beehives and honey, coconuts, the shy tenderness of newfound companionship, coral, campfires, sunburns and sand and seawater up the nose. In the meantime, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 sank, and quickly too. After more than a year and a half of mouldering in the strait, it began to rapidly take on water this past month. And by the time we passed it again at dusk on Sunday, this time from a distance and without stopping, the water level had crept a good ten feet up the side of the hull so that the the telling Chinese characters were at last beneath the surface—at last hidden permanently from view.


Last week I had my first-ever sparring match. It was a trainwreck. The technique I had been practicing for the preceding few months went up in smoke and within a round, I was completely out of control. I couldn't figure out how to deliver a clean combination against my taller opponent. Nor could I muster up the energy and presence of mind to defend or counterattack effectively. Instead, I spend most of the three rounds frozen inside of the "danger zone"—the range where he can reach you with his longer arm but you can't reach him—and ate many withering punches to the face and body. In the days immediately following the fight, with the exception of my ears and the bridge of my nose, my head felt surprisingly pain-free. The left side of my torso and upper abdominals hurt significantly more and for at least 48 hours, coughing, lying down, and sitting up were slow-going ordeals.

Everything I ever heard about getting hit in the body now strikes me as true in the way that only personal experience can make it so. I believed it all before. But now I know it. Knockouts resulting from clean shots to the chin are brilliant but never guaranteed. Pounding away at a man's liver and guts, on the other hand, will slowly but surely crumble him.

Most of the bout is a blur in my mind. I hardly remember anything that happened during the three rounds and I think this is probably due to the nervous, frantic state of mind I was in beforehand. One moment does stick out relatively clearly, however. It was the moment at which it actually dawned on me that I was underprepared and very much struggling—when any remaining illusions I might have harbored about my readiness to "apply" what I'd "learned" and box with a semblance of legitimacy dissolved before my eyes. Hours after the bout and out for some celebratory (or perhaps compensatory) drinks with friends, I described that moment as one in which I felt suddenly overcome by a feeling of "pointlessness." I am still not sure if this is the right description. It's not as if I forgot what my purpose was inside of the ring. Nor was it the simple agony and desperation you feel at the tail end of a workout that brings you to the very edge of your capacity and forces you to look over the edge into the abyss. I've had those and the sparring didn't get me there—at least not fitness and conditioning-wise.

I guess what getting punched and struggling to return fire in a calm, efficient manner does to your mind and body is a little different. Well before it actually puts you down and out, it intimidates you and infects you with fear. It suffocates you with a feeling of unpredictable, looming danger that mere fatigue never produces by itself. Other sports involve human opponents, physical contact, psychological warfare and intimidation too. But in those sports, the specter of live resistance gets filtered through the "game" itself—through balls and hoops and nets and chalk lines and and protective gear and the sense of having an objective besides the literal felling of your adversary. This creates, in turn, a sense of safety and distance.

Put it this way. If I am getting beaten in a sport that isn't boxing, it usually only means that I am not as far along as my opponent in achieving a common goal that exists outside of us both. And in an attempt to regain my footing, I can try to focus on this goal and everything else that isn't the other human being trying to beat me. Boxers are also buffered and protected by the rules and regulations of "sport," the most obvious of which is the wearing of gloves for the express purpose of minimizing damage. But still, if I am losing a boxing match, then I am quite literally being beaten with my opponent's fists, which, gloved though they may be, are still meant to cause me physical pain. In the meantime, there is nothing for me to focus on except this threat in front of me—the very person who, even if he is not trying to put me directly to sleep, is trying to hurt me enough so that I cannot hurt him back. Indeed, a boxer's skill is largely measured by his ability to "ignore" this violence and this hurt to whatever extent possible and treat the purposeful, human threat in front of him as mere, mechanical stimulus—to respond equally mechanically and efficiently (thus the art of counterpunching). But an inexperienced fighter will clam up instinctively when he realizes what is actually happening to him and thereby turn into a human punching bag. (Actually, this happens to experienced, skillful boxers too. Less frequently, perhaps. But a fight is still a fight and it is only a matter of time before somebody succumbs).

Therein lies the pointlessness—in the juxtaposition between activity and passivity, in the inescapability of a storm, in the ridiculous impossibility of taking shelter from it. The boxer on the offensive is indeed a kind of storm. Escaping him is a lot like trying to escape a tornado that is already upon you. And like a tornado, he does not have to or know how to stop, allow for a change of possession, get back on rule- or protocol-mandated defense, or give the other side any kind of fair chance at scoring or even breathing. It is in his best interest to simply ramp up the onslaught while his paralyzed opponent descends further within himself, experiencing all the feelings of helplessness and futility that punching bags probably would if they could feel.


In 2019, the best part of dating somebody who doesn't share your native language is the way that this nullifies all the unspoken intimations of text-speak—all the nonsense about punctuation and timing and tone that usually feeds overthinking. When a language barrier forces you to talk and be talked to like a five year-old, you remember all over again that most what you and your partner have to say to each other isn't that complicated after all.


Today I watched a video on Youtube of eleven established writers giving advice to young writers. One of them said that writing simply has to be the "most important thing in your life," ahead of "money," "friendships," and "all other pleasures in life." Ahead of those three particular things, I can understand. But I guess I am still in trouble, because in coming up with my daily routine last week, I very deliberately decided that I would always do my chores before sitting down to write in the morning, out of the simple conviction that nothing will ever be more important than household routine.

I am adamant about this. But that writer seemed adamant too. It may be that in fifty years I will look back and realize that I gave up a writing life for a clean floor and a made bed.


You'll only receive email when Riley Yuan publishes a new post

More from Riley Yuan