A THIRD-GENERATION Asia-born waiguoren – foreigner – I lived until I was eight in Peking, and remember my father wondering aloud whether we were European enough to live anywhere else and, in the same breath, whether we were Chinese enough to remain. That question was brought to a head on a freezing January day in 1949, when victorious communist forces entered the city. Sitting on my father’s shoulders to watch history unfold, sharing the last of our peanuts, I was mesmerised by the sea of soldiers. After more than a decade of Japanese occupation and civil war this was a chance for peace, Papa said. He wanted to stay in the beloved country of his birth but my mother, whose five years in China were overshadowed by war, wanted desperately to leave, afraid of what was to come. We left; he stayed.
Since then my life, one of constant geographical and cultural change interspersed with temporary islands of stability, can be seen as an archipelago. Each island lost in war, revolution or ruin, provoked feelings of intense helplessness and unresolved grief. I lived with a pervading anxiety, forced to let go of people and places I still loved and longed for. Much later, reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I was struck by ‘not ’til we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves,’ and realised that those lost islands, my homes, my little worlds, did not matter. In the end it was the surrounding, connecting spaces which formed my continuum, my living inner world.
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