My Middle-Class Misadventure
Sometimes, the oldest ideas are the most easily misunderstood. Take the word ‘holiday’, for instance – it’s been in the English language since at least the Twelfth Century, when it sounded more German than anything else, but most people don’t really understand what it means. Originally denoting a ‘holy’ day in the Christian calendar that allowed no labour, it later slid towards describing any day, or group of days, in which work was suspended. The term implies movement only in the somewhat abstract sense of escaping the obligation to toil, usually for someone else.
Yet increasingly over the course of the last century the notion that a holiday is necessarily a physical journey has crept into the language. It’s a middle class thing. Where once the bourgeoisie boasted mainly self-employed entrepreneurs with little time for rest, it’s now stuffed full of salaried professionals and other white-collar workers with the same ‘leave’ entitlements as their distant labouring cousins. But they’ve got more money and many are dual income couples – the prefect recipe for a little time in the sun, or the cold, or wherever else they might want to be.
So taking a holiday has slid lazily into meaning time spent anywhere else but here, with the authenticity of the period measured by the distance travelled, the fun others presume you’ll have and the almost miraculous refreshment you’ll feel from having been and returned. Because there is always an endpoint – holidays are only valuable in hindsight, recalled again at work as the years roll by.
But what of those people who resist the urge to travel while on holiday, those who can’t afford it or simply have better things to do? You would think the language is flexible enough to encompass the choice. But you’d be wrong.
I spent a great deal of time explaining to clients last week that, yes, I was going on holiday for two glorious weeks but, no, I wouldn’t be leaving Hong Kong. The retort, disturbingly enough, was that if I only intended to stay at home, perhaps I could do some work for them. For Hong Kongers, even expatriates who speak no other language than English, ‘holiday’ is a synonym for ‘escape’, and if you don’t escape, you must toil.
There’s a sort of false consciousness in that scenario, an unwillingness to consider consequences that should really be obvious. On one level, Roland Barthes once castigated the middle classes for allowing themselves to be caught in the establishment myth of the vocation, which is all the better exemplified when it over-rides the vacation. Writers, in particular, become unwitting pawns, easily manipulated to work at their calling and thus bolster the status quo of ceaseless productivity.
The writer on holiday – or the writer-editor in my case – is always, necessarily, a myth.
On another level much of the problem lies in the language itself, as a Semiotician like Barthes would surely have appreciated. The notion that one takes ‘leave’ every year implies (and in fact is) an exception to the workaday norm. In Australia, where I began my working life, I encountered the attitude in embryonic form, as ‘holidays’ – became ‘leave entitlement’ sometime as the 1980s blurred into the 1990s. The first term implies a right to rest, the second implies the granting of a favour by a beneficent employer.
And so the treadmill turns.
But it was only when I arrived in Hong Kong in 2002 that I realised just how far this notion of ‘leave’ as a replacement for ‘holiday’ could be pushed. Here, work really is worth, and by implication a holiday – or even the return home at the end of the day – is a brief interval. The Cantonese for “I will go in to the office” roughly translates into English as “I will come back to the office”, with the literally enriching workplace as the epicentre of life.
So any form of leave, and the holiday most of all, is an aberration. For two weeks I’ll be breaking the unwritten rules of work, and even more so because I’ll have failed to travel. But right now I’m human again – standing outside the edifice of career and commerce, productivity and purpose. I’m just a blogger on holiday, and it feels so very good.