And this is how I see the East. I have seen its secret places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my eyes. And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark. A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night—the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.
—Joseph Conrad, Youth
Diodorus Siculus tells the story of a god, broken and scattered abroad. What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?
—Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise XXXI, 108
And it’s possible to lose something infinite from a past we never possessed: Orientalist, racist, and elitist as Joseph Conrad so obviously is, when I read that description of the fabled East, where I currently reside, in name if not in fact, I felt that the circumstances of my birth had deprived me of something that was far more wonderful than it ever could be today. Here in Busan just outside my window a man has been struggling to master his car alarm for the last thirty minutes, an event as regular, every month, as the waxing and waning of the moon; my first impression of this place, that of a dark, sooty, rainy heap of filth and cement, had me thinking of fleeing home with my tail tucked between my legs, pining for the comparative olfactory paradise of a sewage treatment plant; my first impression of the East, when I visited Bali several years ago, was a little more picturesque: green palm leaves blowing in the wind above a garage where a man was soaking down a gleaming bicycle so bright, so shiny, and so metallic it seemed to be coated in silver. But these places cannot compare to the skewed idealizations of Joseph Conrad; because I cannot see the world through his eyes and because I cannot relive his memories I have lost something infinite.