jumping off

“i wonder what my life would have been like, A-Te,” said K, “if i had jumped off the boat in new york.
who knows? if i had been an american, i might have been father to an A-Te!”

K was on the boats in the 1970s. His monthly salary on the boats was a large salary by taiwanese standards of the time–around 350 US dollars–but the ethnic chinese people who met them at the harbor needed labor for restaurants and other businesses and were willing to pay more. although jumping off the boats could mean a few years of hiding and no possibility to change jobs, a few of K’s crew mates decided to jump ship in new york. K was about to jump ship himself, but when he was going to the place where he would meet the people who would hide them away, he realized that he hadn’t brought any clothes. he had also left most of his money on the boat

maybe it was a freudian slip. K had other chances to jump ship, but decided not to think about it again. his mother had just had a stroke, and his brother a fatal motorcycle accident. it was best to go home. still, he sometimes thinks about what might have happened if he had become an american. he would have, almost certainly, contracted a false marriage for a few years in order to obtain a green card; but after that, what would his life have been like? who knows, he says. he might have had a son who looks a bit like me

we might consider these stories of nearly jumping ship a genre of far oceaning narratives. although some of them, like the latina girlfriend story, are erotic narratives, many of them have economic or political narratives. some men are said to have jumped ship in polynesia because they felt affinity with the people; others, as in the case of boats pulling into the united states or spain, because it would be possible to earn a reasonably good income. the difficulty of understanding these narratives from ‘atolan, of course, is that the tellers are always those who decided not to jump ship. we cannot know for certain the motives or experience of those who decided to jump. still, the nearly jumping ship narrative has several features through which the storyteller can demonstrate his worldliness, ability, and ethics

for the most part, the drama in the nearly jumping ship narrative concerns the decision not to jump ship. it might be, as in K’s story, a self-deprecatory narrative of forgetting money or clothes: i had decided to jump, but i was too forgetful. yet, this forgetfulness can be reinterpreted as a sign of the teller’s inability to leave behind his family in ‘atolan indefinitely. something deeper than conscious economic rationality kept him from jumping ship. and so, whether the teller had actively decided to try his luck at living as an undocumented immigrant or not, this ideation could not be realized: his tie to family or the land would pull him back from this fateful choice. thus, the narrative’s staging of the failure to jump ship as forgetfulness grounds the decision not to jump ship in affect–a felt tie to his home and mother in ‘atolan

what the stories never leave in doubt is whether the man would have succeeded. jumping ship narratives nearly always recount having the social and cultural capital to make it in the united states or elsewhere: the man had contacts with men who had previously jumped ship, knew restaurant or other business owners who would hire him, and could speak at least rudimentary english. with a green card and a few years of work, the man would have made it in the country where he left the boat. moreover, the shipping and fishing companies knew he could build a life there. if not, why would they have tried to convince the crew not to jump? if one were to calculate the economic risks and benefits, one would almost be foolish not to jump ship

nearly jumping ship narratives may thus make fun of the teller’s confusion or forgetfulness, yet they ground that forgetfulness not in a lack of intelligence or ability, but in a kind of tie to ‘atolan that was powerful enough to disrupt rational calculation. upon reflection, the man would know that he decided not to jump ship because he would feel as if he had wronged his mother. but it is precisely because the decision not to jump ship was deeper than a conscious decision that it grounds the man as an ethical subject. in other words, there was something in his ethical makeup that would make it impossible for him to act in a way that might have caused more pain to his mother or in a way in which he would place his own interests ahead of that of his family. thus, the nearly jumping ship narrative is a context in which the teller performs an ethical position

i wonder whether how these nearly jumping ship stories might be compared across cases: how does the narrative differ when it is an erotic narrative versus a narrative of jumping ship for economic reasons? and how do these narratives make claims on an indigenous subject position that differs from that of elites residing in taipei?

also, what is in the particular bid to me as a listener here (“i could have been father to an A-Te”)?

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