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.

Around and between each of the islands, in their shifting sands and breathing tides, between air and water, I grew like coral, many-faceted and porous. Each time I was torn away, my longing arms, withered and fragile, dissolved into the sea from which they came and spores remained, carrying a peculiar wisdom, adaptations that might or might not find another place in which to grow.

My ancestors, Hanseatic sea captains, passed on through their genes more than just a love of the sea. They needed to be polymaths and men of their word as well as flexible adventurers. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all born on real islands: my father and his mother on Double Island, in the estuary of the Han River flowing into the South China Sea; my mother and her family in London, on that larger island; and other antecedents on the tiny island of Heligoland, in the North Sea. The island of my birth was Honshu, in the Sea of Japan, and Yokohama, Peking, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Maputo, Durban, Mbabane, Detroit, Minneapolis, Wuhan, London and Brisbane became temporary islands in a life spread across oceans and hemispheres.

These islands persist in my memory as a litany of loss, a mantra for a nomad.

Yokohama, Nishi Noya Machi

AN EYEBROW, A curve of black arched over a sculpted lid, each tapered hair distinct, Tatsu-san's brow is my first memory. She was my amah, my Japanese 'mother', who fed, bathed and cared for me in my first three years. As I lay in her arms, I followed the line of her brow and the smooth folds of black hair draped round her head. That is the image I return to for comfort over and over again.

Yokohama in 1941 was a refuge for my parents, one German, one British, who married there despite official disapproval and family opprobrium. When we returned to China, to my German father's home in Peking, Tatsu-san stayed behind. Her loss set me adrift and I have searched for her from one home to another, from place to place, through eleven 'islands' on five continents. No home without her.

After that, I remember nothing for years. Despair had made me an amenable child. When I finally came back to life I was aware that the light and space around me were different, no longer moist and scented with flowers like the garden in Japan. Peking's air was dry and dusty, its sky a clear blue. Below it, I lived enclosed in courtyards, surrounded by walls, in the solid embrace of the motherland, the Middle Kingdom. No more butterflies and flowers. Only dragons.

Peking, JingShan DongShenJie

THE ENTRANCE TO our siheyuan – courtyard house – was guarded by a long dragon, rampant across a screen just inside the gate to dispel evil spirits because, as everyone knows, those spirits only travel in straight lines. In Peking a siheyuan's entrance gates always faced south: a north-facing gate might bring in not only evil spirits but bitter cold, Gobi dust storms and marauding Mongols.

Built for a Manchu prince, the house had been inhabited by dragons long before I arrived. Mysteriously able to change shape, their scaly bodies were embossed on glazed tiles, painted on walls, printed in books and woven into the fabric of cushions, clothes and carpets. On porcelain plates their colourful images peered up through my geow-tze; they floated above the house on paper kites, stared down from marble columns and, because the five-clawed dragon belonged to the Emperor, my dragon prowled along garden walls and rooftops on four-clawed feet.

Beyond that first courtyard, in the middle of the second, was my favourite place. A round fishpond enclosed by a low wall, over which I could lean, with my feet on the ground, to let my hands hang into the cool, deep other world. Playing there, watching ripples move across the surface, wondering at their changing shapes, took me far from loneliness and consoled my grief. Leaves floated on that skin between air and water and, in summer, the pond's reflected sky seduced me into thoughts of falling up downwards into where the languorous goldfish rolled out their silk.

Our siheyuan, enclosed by walls, was situated inside the walled Imperial City, which, in turn, lay inside the walls of the Tartar City and Peking's old city walls. Within all of these I lived, entirely contained, like the smallest Russian doll. My amah Meng told me the walls protected us from magical creatures that lurked everywhere, like the evil fox spirit in the western tower of the Forbidden City, but it seemed they couldn't protect us from the everyday violence of Japanese soldiers I'd seen kicking beggars and molesting servant women in corners of the surrounding hutongs (alleyways).

Meng always covered my eyes from the sight of severed Chinese heads stuck on poles, strategically placed at street corners to intimidate 'wrong-doers'. She hated the Japanese because they'd killed her son and dared to strut around our house in their black boots on 'inspection visits', pointing with fixed bayonets, ordering her to open doors and cupboards. When the Kempeitai – the Japanese military's secret police – arrived, every Chinese in our siheyuan had to line up with their papers, to be abused and often beaten if something was incorrect. Then, all faith in walls and dragons lost, I'd crawl under the bed in which my mother lay pretending to be ill, forbidding intruders.

The Forbidden City, ShenWuMen

THERE ARE BRIGHTER memories. Across the street in JingShan Park (Coal Hill), I'd run up the steep paths to the top, where Meng lifted me onto a flat plinth in one of the pavilions to watch the morning sun stream off the Forbidden City's gleaming roofs. Sometimes in winter snowflakes, glittering on their way down, floated through the light like the cinders of spent firecrackers. From up there I could see ShenWuMen, the north gate to the Forbidden City, its outer walls painted the colour of dried blood. It was the entrance to a world about which I had heard many stories, and had often begged my father to take me there.

During the Japanese occupation the old palace was sealed off and left to rot within its walls. No Chinese citizens were allowed inside, and the entrance gates were guarded day and night. Somehow, as a birthday surprise, my father got permission from a Japanese officer for Meng and I to enter (he was not allowed to accompany us). After that first visit the bored guards simply waved us through whenever we appeared, a Chinese amah with a small foreign child. Throughout that autumn we'd wander across to ShenWuMen to buy hot chestnuts roasted on the street in metal braziers by old men who'd pick out the cooked ones with wrinkled hands, wrap them in twists of newspaper and watch smiling as we ate. I liked standing on the bridge over the moat to eat them, dropping their skins into the water below to see the rats churn and dive. Then we'd continue through the first gate, across the paved plaza with weeds growing in every crevice, and through the echoing tunnel at the end of which we must Hai hai the guards.

Once through that last gate we were in the domain of the Turtle and the Phoenix, the two bronze sculptures that have guarded the miraculously surviving palace for five centuries, and there a quick game of 'stone, paper, scissors' decided our route through the labyrinth of empty courts and endless marble terraces. Along the way broken doors of old pavilions let light into rooms littered with the detritus of past lives: furniture, bits of gilded woodwork and mouldy carpets lay in heaps, covered in dust. Pigeons and swallows nested in the carved ceiling timbers and, fluttering their wings in alarm, would shatter my childish reverie of the Dowager Empress and little concubines with golden fingernails.

The one real person we ever saw there was an old eunuch. At first I thought he was a woman, his slight figure shuffling between courts in a gown, his long hair tied in a bun. As we got to know him Meng discovered he was always hungry, so we'd bring him gifts of food and he'd stroke my hair, calling it 'living gold'. He allowed us inside his two tiny rooms to look at the elaborate cages in which he kept his precious singing finches. Each little bamboo pavilion had bells tied onto it for the birds to play with and, when he put them out in summer, we'd hear their tinkling in the dusty air. Because they were his only family, he'd given his birds names and when he died, someone brought the cages to us with a note saying he wanted us to care for them. Without him the old palace grew empty, our walks shorter and shorter and finally the winter snow buried everything.

The following spring we frequented JingShan Park, with its many bird fanciers, always taking a few of his finches with us in their small 'walking cages'. Some of the old men there knew his birds, calling out their names. We all missed him. I missed his gentle hands, his soft voice and kindness. With few friends my own age, I spent most of my time with older people, like the lodger who lived in a pavilion at the back of our compound and our Chinese house staff, DaShiFu the cook and KaiMenDi the gatekeeper.

KaiMenDi lived in a room next to the siheyuan's huge red entry gate. His room had a small window, always clouded with dust and snowed over in winter, something he never noticed because he was blind. He recognised people by their voice and smell. Men smelt different to women, he told me, and because they ate different food country people smelt different to city people. Neighbours he knew immediately, not only by their voices but also by their footsteps. Street peddlers he identified miles away, imitating their cries as well as the sound their carts made. I'd try to trick him by wearing my mother's shoes or pushing a different bicycle to the gate. He'd pretend not to know who I was until the last minute, when he'd throw his arms around me, both of us laughing in glee. He was a gentle soul, devoted to my father.

The warmest place during Peking's long winters was near the coal stove in DaShiFu's kitchen and, if he wasn't too busy, I was allowed to sit there with some dough to make the small figures I'd seen at street markets appearing out of similar grimy lumps. I loved the rolling and pressing but my dough creatures stayed lumpy until, frustrated, I'd squish them up. Then he'd laugh, put some bean paste inside the lump, throw it in the oven and, while I was eating, tell me to imagine all the little figures that might have been. When he chopped and cooked he'd hum folksongs, beating time with the long metal poker and, if I asked for the big spoon, we'd rattle and bang together along the stovetop. DaShiFu, like his kitchen, was hot, greasy and noisy, the complete opposite of KaiMenDi, the quiet, careful gatekeeper who seemed always to be listening to something faint and distant.

After my sister's birth, my mother devoted herself to a regime of breastfeeding, constant bathing and exercise. So I retired to the sun-warmed wall near the back courtyard to play with my crickets. They had long sensitive antennae that twitched at certain vibrations and, watching them, I became aware of something softer than Chinese music, drifting over the garden wall. I peered over to see a man sitting in a wicker chair at a table covered in books, pieces of paper and an instrument with a large metal trumpet that leant over a revolving disc from which these sounds emerged. I went to ask my mother who he was, ignoring the flurry of attendants as I barged in, and she told me he was Herbert Tichy, an Austrian mountaineer, a friend of my father's who was writing a book about his adventures in Tibet, and I must not disturb him.

I thought I'd ask Papa about him but the next evening Tichy noticed me and called me over to his cluttered table. At first I was reluctant: his music machine screamed as if it contained tortured spirits and I thought perhaps he was a sorcerer but, instead of breathing fire at me, he stopped the machine, introduced himself and asked if I'd like some tea. Nobody had ever asked me to tea. Enjoying his attention, I dared to ask about the music and he showed me how the machine worked. Placing a needle carefully into the groove on the revolving black disc, he watched my amazement as a woman's voice began singing. An aria, he said, from one of his Franz Lehár operettas. Then came Italians and Russians roaring in anger or love, dancing swans and even a sorcerer's apprentice. I was enchanted.

Later in my life I learned that Tichy left Vienna aged twenty, taking off with his friend Max on a motorbike through Turkey, Afghanistan and Nepal to India, where they climbed the Himalayas and he became the first European to reach the summit of Kailash, later climbing many mountains. Papa had met him in the late 1930s in Mongolia, where Tichy was working as a geologist and writing his first book, Tibetan Adventure, in his tent by candlelight. When my parents went to Japan, they invited him to continue writing in the quiet of the little pavilion, acting as caretaker.

In that summer of 1945 he became my tutor. At his table, copying symbols from books and maps, he taught me how marks carried meaning and, letter by letter, the alphabet. Communications with Tichy were blissfully unburdened by parental agendas and learning was sheer pleasure. He knew how to listen, teaching me the give and take of conversation and, most importantly, that books contained other worlds into which I could escape. Grimm's fairy stories, the cartoon books of Max and Moritz, Russian legends and Chinese folktales all came alive in those years. Also never to be forgotten was the angel with eyes on its wings that hovered on the wall above his typewriter, speaking letters, carrying a message. Fra Angelico's Angel of the Annunciationin my child's eyes was an image of Tichy himself uttering the letters of our precious alphabet. When he left for Taiwan all was lost again, except the worlds to which he'd given me the keys.

DURING THE FINAL stages of China's Civil War, we huddled into our siheyuan with Kuomintang (nationalist) planes droning above us. The communists had no planes but plenty of artillery, thundering beyond the Western Hills. All roads north were blockaded and from the city walls clouds of crows could be seen settling onto corpses in the ditches. When the airport was closed, towards the end of 1948, Peking became a besieged city with few allowed to enter or leave. My mother complained bitterly when the small green carts carrying nightsoil out of the city were stopped, forcing thousands of Manchurian student refugees and the recently released KMT prisoners to shit on streets and on the Altar of Heaven's marble terraces. Food was almost unobtainable and, at the end of our rations, we waited for the inevitable arrival of the People's Liberation Army.

On the day the PLA arrived my mother refused to leave the house, so Papa decided to take his oldest child to witness that historic event in the freezing January cold. Everyone in our siheyuan had already rushed out to the streets, even KaiMenDi, so our unguarded gate was carefully closed behind us and we walked east to Hatamen, where we stood with thousands of others waiting quietly. I sat on his shoulders while Papa chatted with neighbours, sharing our last peanuts. From the other side of the city walls came tinny sounds of a makeshift band of whistle and erhu players, mostly students and farmers singing peasant songs.

Suddenly Lin Biao's Eighth Route Army started flowing past, and from my perch I looked into a sea of cloth hats and young, smiling faces carrying guns. Songs came and went through the rows of soldiers, some of whom shouted slogans. Through my legs I felt my father's heart drumming but no shot was fired, no violence occurred, and when we got home Papa reported: 'Those victorious soldiers entering a capital city were amazingly disciplined. People were cheering and...' My mother interrupted to announce that she was leaving as soon as possible.

Days of slamming doors followed. My father, who supported the Chinese Communist Party and had even been accused of smuggling weapons to them, wanted to see how things would unfold but she was adamant, insisting her children's future was at stake. So, on 3 February – after the military parade, complete with tanks and heavy artillery – my mother prevailed and we left next morning in the early cold for Peking's Central Station. With my mother and sister in a rickshaw, we walked quietly through silences that opened and closed like gates behind us. Only the clattering of broken icicles and the muffled sounds of the Bell and Drum towers announced our passing.

I was afraid, mostly of my mother's fear but also of the grey figures shuffling along beside us, crowding in to squeeze through the gate.

Inside a roaring sea of people confronted us, wild with desperation, waving pieces of paper claiming priority, screaming red-faced children crushed in their arms. I smelt sweat and something burning. Holding onto Papa, I pressed my cheek into his bony, unshaven face. His parting words vaporised in the freezing air, mingled with hissing clouds of steam, and everything blurred. In my last glimpse, as I was pulled into the train, he'd vanished.

Swaying towards Shanghai, lulled by the murmur of voices, I fell into sleep only to be woken by mother, already on the floor, dragging me down into a pile of people. Machine gun bullets ripped through the carriage exploding everywhere and, looking sideways, I saw holes open like flowers in the panelling. Then the endless gap in time between their appearance and the bursts of sound made me wonder if I was dreaming.

Shanghai, March 1949

THE PORT CITY was another dream, one of constant moving, packing and unpacking, as we drifted through vacant rooms of abandoned houses, awake at all hours, sleeping on floors in makeshift beds, eating only sporadically. Other refugees, both Chinese and foreign, spoke of 'unknown eventualities' and seemed afraid of what might happen if they were left behind. Most of their days were spent standing in queues, hoping for food and shelter but, most importantly, for a piece of paper that would allow entry somewhere else, anywhere else. But I wanted to be left behind, back home with my father.

His Majesty's British Consulate in Shanghai took months to reissue my mother's long-expired passport, carefully hidden under the floor in Peking during the years of Japanese occupation. In order for us to travel together to Canada she needed my sister and I appended, which was difficult because officially children were always given their father's nationality. The endorsement was eventually added, noting that we were 'not British subjects'.

Hong Kong Island, Shek O

IN MAY 1949, we finally entered Hong Kong but I remember nothing until we boarded the SS General Gordon of the American President Lines. 'Sailing to San Francisco via Yokohama and Honolulu' was written in large chalk letters on a blackboard. It was all unimaginable. Slowly we pulled away from the quay and a steward gave out rolls of paper streamers to throw down to friends below. Out over the railing mine uncurled for someone to catch. Even though I had no friend there I felt the loose end of my streamer caught and, as the ship moved further away, it became taut, quivering. Desperate not to lose the connection I ran along the railing, ducking under the people leaning over it, and continued all the way to the stern. Long after the ship was out of Causeway Bay, long after the connection was lost, I sat holding my trailing streamer. It was my father I had lost. I wept and wept, tasting the salt of my tears – and now, writing this more than fifty years later, I taste the salt again.

That night in our small cabin my mother promised that when we reached Yokohama she'd take me to our house at Nishi Noya Mashi. In drenching rain she hired a taxi to chauffeur us through the reconstructed city she hardly recognised. American flags flew at every other street corner and, looking confused, she abruptly asked the Japanese driver to stop and let us out. As he drove off he yelled in a broad American accent that she was looking for ghosts. Admitting we were lost she continued walking and I followed along empty streets until she stood beside an open field of rubble. There was nothing there except an enormous crater: no house, no garden, no streets and no one to tell what had happened. I watched her sodden hair drip onto her raincoat and held her hand. On the bus back to South Pier, passing the massive Lou Gehrig Stadium and the Eighth Army HQ, she was the one who wept.

After our long clouded days at sea, Honolulu's glittering sunshine and loud American voices hit me, bringing back from memory the yelling US marines who arrived in China driving their Jeeps onto the beach in Beidahe to throw Hershey bars and chewing gum at us. Weeks later, in October of 1945, they returned to take away a Chinese friend who they suspected of being a communist. He never came back. In my child's mind a simultaneous memory of loathing, fear and delight remained – a parallax gap that was repeated throughout my life.

Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

IN CANADA I went to school for the first time in my life. The uniform we wore 'to make us all the same' did nothing of the kind. I knew none of the codes of behaviour or the games played there. When I said I was from China the kids laughed and asked me why I didn't have 'slitty eyes'. To them all Chinese and Japanese were 'chinks' – they didn't know the difference, which in Peking could have meant life or death.

After less than a year we flew back across the Pacific to Hong Kong, to be reunited with Papa. What led to our sudden departure I didn't know, but there I was, suspended over the Aleutians in a metal cocoon, awaiting rebirth like the silkworms I nursed through Peking winters. In my excitement I ran up and down the aisle until my mother grabbed me, to sit cheek against the vibrating window, listening to the storm in the void, afraid to sleep in case I fell, unknowing, into the deep black, never to see my father again.

When the door of the plane opened at Kai Tak airport, gusts of heat and humidity rushed in with China's familiar, odorous air. One by one the smells welcomed me as I stepped down into the haze of the runway: stagnant drain water, rotting vegetables, rancid grease, all blissful, returning me to my lost childhood. Not only the odours but also the noise was gratifyingly Chinese: arguments were raucous, children shrieked, women chattered and clattered on heels. At first I stood paralysed, like a spellbound child released after years under some witch's curse, and then, with all my senses alert, I found my father, gaunt and almost unrecognisable, standing alone to one side of the crowd. As soon as I saw him I knew something had happened.

In those first weeks I realised he was 'here but not here', as if he had returned incompletely. He stood at windows, walked along pavements, patted dogs, but he wasn't really there. Even his smile seemed empty. A nursery rhyme haunted me: As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. I wish, I wish he'd go away.

Yes, I wished that man would go away, and I wanted my father back. Papa's absent presence was excruciating. Betrayed, angry and confused, I kept asking my mother questions like 'Why doesn't Papa come out with us, or play with us or ride a bicycle or sing songs anymore?' To which she replied that I was being silly, that he just preferred to be quiet. I began to doubt myself. My little sister was lucky, I thought, trundling around in her ignorance.

Continuing to behave as if my father was unchanged, my mother carried her lunchtime gin and tonic like a talisman through the afternoons and evenings. She must have found out what had happened to him in Peking and realised the damage that had been inflicted. I only learned about all that, the torture, years after he died. It was my aunt, with whom I lived after his death, who described his 'interrogation' by Communist Party thugs. 'They thought a foreign businessman might know where the Bank of China's "missing assets" were, the gold bars Chiang Kai-shek had taken to Taiwan. During that year he stayed behind he was incarcerated in solitary, pistol-whipped on alternate days until they realised he had nothing to offer and released him into the custody of a Chinese friend who managed to smuggle him to Hong Kong.'

So my father was returned, fragmented, with brain damage from which he would never recover. In his last years before he died of a cerebral haemorrhage he was never bitter, speaking of China as his country, only regretting the friends he had lost. Before we finally left Asia, he taught me about waves. Going out beyond my depth in Hong Kong's Shek O bay was scary but facing a roaring wall of water was terrifying, so, holding my hand, Papa told me to shut my eyes, take a big breath, duck down and let the wave roll over.

Let it go, he said, just let it go, because underneath it is different. It was. It was safe and quiet, reminding me of my pond. A place in and beyond turmoil.

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