No Man is Not an Island – written on the Isle of Man

To myself who have turned 27,

This is the first time going on a trip alone, albeit a short one. In Japanese, this is called hitoritabi (一人旅). And I’ve decided to do it across my birthday. 

John Donne wrote, ‘no man is an island’. People are connected to each other: ‘every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. We continue to share this view in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jürgen Habermas speaks of the principle of discourse and intersubjective morality, essentially pointing to the community aspect of human society. Feminism concerns the female community of solidarity, while Marxism stresses the significance of class struggle. Perhaps I’m more a postmodernist, but even the postmodernist concept of the plurality of truths underlines the community aspect – there’s no plurality without somebody else who thinks differently.

In our own familiar places – for me, Hong Kong and also Glasgow now – we are inevitably tied to people and institutions to whom/which we are inevitably connected: family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, neighbours, etc. There’s no way we can see ourselves as an island indeed.

But each of us is necessarily an island. However much tied to people around you, the only person who will walk the whole journey of life is yourself. People come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. Somebody uses the train analogy – people get on and off at different stations, they meet on the train, but nobody travels an identical journey. Our life, in other words, is a hitoritabi.

どれだけ旅しても、自分からだけ逃れられない。This is a line by Aragaki Yui from a recent commercial. It translates: however far you travel, the only thing from which you cannot run away is yourself.

It’s important to be a social being, but the most important lesson of life is coming to terms with oneself. Who am I, what do I want, and how am I going on this life journey when I’m all on my own, when I do not orient myself around others? Is it at all possible? Maybe not, but one has to try, at least to keep a distance from people in order to hear more clearly your own voice, if that voice exists at all (or in academic buzzwords, has an ontology of its own). Like writing a PhD thesis, finding or crafting your own voice which no one but yourself can completely understand, because no one treads an identical path.

Perhaps my hitoritabi, or may I say the realisation that life is a hitoritabi, actually began when I embarked on this PhD route, departing from people around physically, intellectually, emotionally. At this point of time, Glasgow has become familiar, and I’m getting away again, though just for a couple of days.

I’ve chosen the Isle of Man, an interesting choice in most people’s eyes. Even my BnB host (who happens to be a Cantonese and I didn’t know it beforehand!) asked why I would choose this place for travel, because it has nothing much to see. Well yeah, but I’m not trying to see something on the island. I want to see the island.

The Isle of Man has a very unique, and probably little-known history. It used to be part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Most of the other parts are now within the Scottish territory, but the Isle of Man remains a politically independent country, with its own three-leg national emblem (not even the museum has an answer to what this symbolises) that has nothing to do with the UK. Coming from Scotland, now calling for a second independent referendum, and Hong Kong, trying hard not to get assimilated as just one of the Chinese cities, I find this nation especially interesting. Obviously it is not isolated from its neighbouring (dis)United Kingdom, but it is happily on its own at the same time.

I guess an important lesson of life is to accept that each of us is an island. We are all islands on this globe dipping into the same water body, but after all, we are all on our own.

If no man is not an island, then try to be an island like the Isle of Man.

There’s no elaborate birthday celebration this year. No more surprise from students who happily use this as an excuse to have a lesson off. Away from friends who buy you stuff and hang around noisily. No family cake cutting. I used to be excited because I would be expecting and looking forward all these things around, but not this year. I have it all to myself this year, valuable time with the important person.

Maybe it’s also a sign of getting old too.

Author: Aaron Y.K. Chan

Aaron Chan is a Hongkonger who loves literature and his city. He is going to resume his career as a teacher of English Language and Literature in English in the coming school year. Perhaps teaching is his true calling after all.

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