The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.
“I saw my first dead body on November 9, 2013. He was five. He was lying in the rubble of a demolished church that had entombed eight of its faithful in Tacloban City, the ville-martyr of this impoverished region in the Philippines where a violent typhoon had hit only a day before.”
If you live in a foreign country for any length of time, it’s inevitable that some of its customs and culture will rub off, whatever you do to try and avoid it. On the other hand, however well you “adjust” to the new culture, you will never be part of it.
One of Asia’s foremost historians on the Chinese diaspora, Wang Gungwu now tells his own history in Home is not Here, an account of Wang’s younger days up until his university studies, spanning three countries across Asia.
If there is a place and time in China that appeals to English readers more others, it’s pre-1949 Shanghai. The Paris of the East, Queen of the Orient, and the City that Never Sleeps are just a few of its monikers from the 1920s until late 1940s. Because 70 to 80 years has passed since then, fewer and fewer people are around to share stories from that era.
When we had finished tea, we went down to the beach. My host untied an outrigger canoe and pushed it out into the shallows. I rolled up my trousers and followed him, my backpack on my back. I tossed the backpack into the boat and climbed in. Soon we were out in the bay, the sea floor falling rapidly away beneath us, the water sparkling and clear. We paddled away from the land, and then he turned the boat to the north, following the line of the coast. It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be out on the water.
Rao Pingru and Mao Meitang married in Nanchang in 1948, when China was still dominated by rhythms and rituals lingering from imperial days. They stayed married through the Mao years, despite being separated for over two decades; in 1958, Pingru, was sent off for “Reeducation Through Labor”. His crime? He’d once served in the Kuomintang army. Their marriage ended in 2008, with Meitang’s death from kidney failure.